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ROME AND EARLY CHRISTIANITY:
PERCEPTION AND PREJUDICE
A THESIS PRESENTED TO THE GRADUATE SCHOOL OF THE UNIVERSITY OF
FLORIDA IN PARTIAL FULFILLMENT OF THE REQUIREMENTS FOR THE
DEGREE OF MASTER OF ARTS
UNIVERSTIY OF FLORIDA
I would like to thank the professors of my committee, Dr. Victoria Pagan-
Wolpert, Dr. Timothy Johnson, and Dr. Gareth Schmeling for their guidance and
correction throughout the writing of this paper. I would also like to thank my parents for
the instruction, both mentally and spiritually, received throughout my life.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
A C K N O W L E D G E M E N T S .......................................................................................... ii
ABSTRACT ................................................... iv
1 IN TR O D U C T IO N ...................................................................... ......... 1
2 BACCHANALIAN CONSPIRACY: 186 B.C.E. .............................................. 8
3 JEWISH EXPULSION FROM ROME: 19 C.E. .................................... 15
4 ROMAN SENTIMENT TOWARDS CHRISTIANITY............... ............. 21
5 TACITUS AND THE FIRES OF ROME: 64 C.E. ......................................... 26
6 PLINY AND THE BITHYNIAN CHRISTIANS: 110-112 C.E. .................... 35
7 SUMMARY AND CONCLUSION ...................................................... 41
W O RK S CITED ................. .... .............................. .. ................................ .. ...... .......... 45
BIO GRAPH ICAL SK ETCH .................................................. ........................... 48
Abstract of Thesis Presented to the Graduate School of the University of Florida in
Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for the Degree of Master of Arts
ROME AND EARLY CHRISTIANITY:
PERCEPTION AND PREJUDICE
Chair: Victoria Pagan-Wolpert
Major Department: Classics
The study of the Christian persecutions continues to be of great interest to
scholars in a variety of fields. Reconciling the seemingly innocuous teachings of this
religion with the intolerance with which it was met in certain regions and eras of the
Roman Empire has proven to be a difficult task for historians, theologians and classicists
alike. Such a study naturally enhances our understanding of the religious atmosphere of
the Roman Empire, the writings of the early Church Fathers, the attitudes and policies of
the later Roman emperors towards Christianity, and its final accession to the status of the
state religion of Rome during the reign of Constantine. But the implications of this study
extend further than the history of the early church and the Roman Empire. Much of the
history of the western world, from art and science to politics, in peace and in times of
war, has been impacted in some way by Christianity, which countless theologians and
philosophers, revolutionists and martyrs, kings and commoners have claimed as
their own through the ages. How differently would the records have been written had
Christianity been eliminated in its infancy?
In this study, Roman authors will serve as primary witnesses to pertinent events.
The early chapters will deal with other instances of suppressions of the Bacchants of 186
B.C.E. and the Jews under Tiberius as a means to understand the policy and procedure
taken by Rome when managing foreign religious groups. The fourth chapter is devoted to
the general attitudes prevalent among classes throughout the Empire towards Christianity.
The final two chapters examine Tacitus' account of the great fires of Rome and Pliny's
letter to Trajan, the former to identify the precedent of Roman persecution of Christians,
the latter to investigate more fully the legal procedure by which they were prosecuted.
In the thirty years following the death of Jesus Christ, very little substantial
evidence remains about the interaction between the foremost leaders and citizens of the
Roman Empire and Christianity. Relatively little was known about the emerging sect at
Rome and at other parts of the Empire outside of Palestine and Asia Minor. Even though
major Christian figures such as the Apostles Paul and most likely Peter1 made their way
to the capital city, their effect upon the ruling elite or even the vast majority of the Roman
world's population was minimal within these years.2 The main stream of resistance to
Christianity during these three decades, which Ste Croix (1963.6-7) identifies as the first
phase, came from the Jewish communities in Palestine and those places visited by Paul
on his missionary journeys. While Roman officials were at times called upon to mediate
between the two groups, the role of these magistrates was simply to decide the case of a
single man.3 The recorded history of the years 33-64 C.E. leaves evidence of specific trials
and rulings by lesser officials. But they were not attempting to decide the action to be
taken by the entire Roman Empire concerning the whole of Christendom at that time. The
persecutions primarily conducted under the emperors Decius, Valerian, and Diocletion
1 That Peter was at Rome is supported by I Peter 5:13. I Clement 5 remarks about the martyrdom of both
Apostles. Eusabeius E.H. 2.25 states that Paul was beheaded, and Peter crucified, under the Neronian
2 However, at Rome there is evidence of an early arrival of Christianity. The religion may have come to the
attention of the Roman authorities as early as 47 C.E., depending on the interpretation of Suetonius Claud.
25.4. See n. 9.
3 For two of the more notable instances of Roman intervention during the early years of Christianity, see
Paul's trial before Gallio inActs 18.12 and his hearings before Festus, Felix and Agrippa inActs 23-25.
certainly present a great deal of information about the effect of the Roman policy towards
the Christians. During the reigns of these emperors (scattered throughout the years 249-
305 C.E.), systematic and empire-wide persecutions of Christians occurred (de Ste. Croix
1963.7). By the third century the precedent for this policy had been well established.
How did matters reach such an extreme point?
The great fires in 64 C.E. offer the first significant and well-documented incident
of Roman-Christian interaction. Nero's accusation of arson against the Christians sparked
the generally antipathetic view that led to action against them. The events of this year
have been identified as the catalyst that began the outright persecution of Christians by
Roman magistrates throughout the Empire (Ramsay 1904.241-243). This reaction was by
no means the only response that Rome made towards foreign religions or cults.4 In
accordance with their polytheistic system of religion, the Roman people, with or without
the sanction of their government, embraced and assimilated the gods and goddesses of
many conquered people.5 Although this phase of persecution was characterized by
sporadic and local persecutions (de Ste. Croix 1963.7), one questions why such a policy
was adopted in certain areas of the Empire at all. Starting with this most basic question,
this investigation seeks to shed light upon the somewhat obscure Christian persecution
during this phase by examining the motives and origins of Roman sentiment, policy and
legal action towards Christianity, during the years 64 C.E.-112 C.E. as evidenced in
4 The term "cult," as a translation of superstitio, would most likely have fit the Roman perception of
Christianity just as it would the Bacchic "Cult" of 186 B.C.E. To most modem readers, the former would be
classified as an established religion. Superstitio as applied to both will be discussed in later chapters. See
Jansen (1979) for a detailed study of the term.
5 The Greek pantheon; the cults of Bacchus, Magna Mater, and Isis; Judaism, and Christianity could all be
listed to a greater or lesser extent among these foreign cults or religions adopted by certain groups within
the society at Rome.
The causes of the Christian persecutions have been explored from nearly every
angle. Investigation into the religious aspect has produced specific studies on
Christianity's classification as a superstitio and the charge of atheism levied against it. 6
These studies were naturally forced to encounter the legal process by which Christians
were condemned, an angle that has received its own treatment in a variety of articles.7
Furthermore, examinations of pertinent social and political matters have been thoroughly
conducted. 8 Inevitably, overlap occurs since the Roman system of governance during the
early Empire did not separate between religious and secular matters. While these studies
that have been conducted from particular vantage points certainly advance our
understanding of certain aspects of the causes for persecution, we must also realize that to
understand this phenomenon, we must acknowledge that the political, social, religious
and legal factors involved are inextricably interwoven.
The evidence of Roman interaction with early Christian is scanty. Suetonius
(Claudius 25.4) refers to a certain Chrestus as he relates the Jewish expulsion from Rome
in the middle of the first century C.E. To understand Chrestus as Jesus Christ is tempting;
but the interpretation of this passage remains under a great deal of scrutiny.9 Even if one
accepts this interpretation, the brevity of Suetonius' remark provides little information.
6 On superstitio see Janssen (1979). For discussions of atheism see Schoedel (1942); Walsh (1991).
SSee Barnes (1968); Crake (1965); Keresztes (1964).
8 On social issues of early Christianity see Rayner (1942). For general articles on the Christian persecutions
see Frend (1959); Last (1937); de Ste. Croix (1963); Sherwin-White (1964).
9 See Slingerland (1989.305-322); Hurley (2001.176-177) for discussion of dating the Jewish expulsion
under Claudius. If the date 41 C.E. is accepted to match Dio 60.6.6-7, it is difficult to account for such an
early arrival of and commotion caused by Christianity at Rome. Ramsey (1904.231) assumes a date of
expulsion c. 52 c.E. and that Chrestus should in fact be interpreted as Jesus Christ. Acts 18.2 supports the
later dating. St. Paul's letter to the Romans, written c. 57 C.E., bears witness to the establishment of the
Christian community at Rome no latter than the early fifties.
The extant records are silent about Christianity and Rome during the next two
centuries. The famous fires of Rome in 64 C.E. end this silence and are recorded in a pair
of accounts. Suetonius (Nero 38) relates these events, though he makes no mention of
Christianity in connection with the affair. Tacitus (Annals 15.44) provides the only
account that associates Nero, the Christians, and the fires. By necessity, then, and because
of the nature of this study, more time will be devoted to the latter account. Yet Suetonius'
remarks earlier in the biography (Nerol6.2) about the Christiani will be useful in
supplementing our understanding of the prejudices against Christianity among the Roman
Tacitus was readily prepared to point out the flaws in the Julio-Claudian emperors
and the general corruption of absolute power upon men who obtain it. Yet he shows no
partiality for the Christians either. As we shall see, the historian peppers his description
of this community with abusive and derogatory terms. In that he favors no one, it seems
that he should present a fairly impartial account. In that he disfavors both, we must be
careful not to place too much confidence in historical accuracy of the excesses and crimes
that he associates with either party.
Other difficulties arise when interpreting the text of Tacitus. He was removed
from the event by nearly half a century. Whether Tacitus' interpretation of events, and
any prejudice that may be found therein, reflects views current during the action of the
event, or those at the time of authorship will dictate to a large extent our understanding of
historical facts. For those attempting to reconstruct and disentangle what actually
occurred, the distance of time between event and authorship presents less trouble than the
overall aim of his work. Tacitus did not take up his pen to outline Roman-Christian
relations in 64 C.E. The scanty information about the Roman view of Christianity and the
reason for Nero's accusation comes merely as a sidelight amidst his account of the reign
of Nero (Wilken 1984.48-49). Yet these asides have value. Although Rutledge (1998)
deals only with the first two books of the Annals, he shows the intricate relationship
between the author and his audience at this stage in Roman historical writing. He
establishes the general Roman habit of understanding historical writing as a commentary
upon contemporary people and events. Therefore, in all that he writes, Tacitus must be
aware that his words can be interpreted by his audience as subversive to the current
regime. If he wished to take a critical view of Trajan's reign, he must veil his words in
subtlety and ambiguity. Tacitus must be aware of the general sentiment of his audience.
To a certain extent, his audience dictated his viewpoint for certain historical events.
While there is not a direct correlation between the great fires with an event at the time of
his writing, his asides must reflect the general view of Christianity during the early first
century, at least among his audience of privileged males of senatorial and equestrian
Although Tacitus certainly could claim membership in the aristocratic and ruling
circles of Rome, his account of the fires offers little insight into the legal process by
which the Christians suffered persecution. For this we must turn to Pliny's letter (Epistula
96) and Traj an's response (Epistula 97). Both were written while the former held office
as governor of Bithynia during the years 110-112 C.E. In contrast to the retrospective
Annals, these letters are a contemporary description. Pliny's specific intent in writing to
the emperor was to inquire about the legal action to be taken against the Christians; his
writing about Roman-Christians relations was not simply an aside. However, a different
10 Rutledge (1998.141) reasonably assumes this audience.
obstacle must be overcome when interpreting Traj an's replies to Pliny, namely,
authenticity. Sherwin-White (1962.115), following up the work done by Henneman,
identified in many of Traj an's responses short phrases which were repeated throughout
many of his letters to the governor, which he terms "administrative jargon." Both
scholars recognize the repetition of words and uniformity of style in a number of Traj an's
rescripts as "the trait of a secretary set to draft his principal's replies" (1962.115). The
more trivial the matter, the more generic the emperor's responses became. Sherwin-
White goes even further in his attempt to reveal other instances in Trajan's replies where
his tongue, if not his hand, is evident. In this he is very successful, as he provides ample
proof to ensure that the emperor himself dealt with the matter of Epistula 96. He cites
parallel uses of phrases in other writings of Trajan, terms of praise and blame that hardly
could come from the mind of a secretary to consular legate, and the general underlying
principles that affected the decisions of the emperor as occurrences where Trajan's own
opinions are evident (1962.115-116). Epistula 97 meets all these criteria. Furthermore,
"when an unusual decision is made, when precedent is not followed, or a new one is set,
it is likely that Trajan himself settled the issue with the characteristic independence of
mind" (1962.117). Pliny's persecution of the Christians in Bithynia was not setting a
precedent. He knew that this was the prescribed method of dealing with those who
confessed Christianus sum. Instead, he was asking for a decision about the methods by
which they were to be tried, the charges to be brought against them, and whether pardon
should be given on the basis of age or apostasy. As all of this evidence suggests, Trajan's
"reply" to Pliny's inquiry about the Christians was in fact Traj an's reply.
Since the extant Roman authors on this subject are few, a study into other
instances of intolerance shown by the Roman government will serve as a profitable
supplement to this study." One of the difficulties in understanding Rome's dealings with
religions that the Roman government considered a threat to the well-being of the state is
distinguishing between prejudices prevalent in Roman society about these religious
groups and the legal grounds by which they were suppressed. In many cases, that the
Romans held derogatory feelings towards a religion or cult did not provide sufficient
legal proof that such a group should be oppressed. Furthermore, questioning the grounds
for persecution in other cases will establish the general rules by which a religion or cult
was deemed unacceptable by Rome. Because tolerance was not granted or withdrawn on
strictly theological grounds, it will be beneficial to examine general characteristics that
were perceived as threatening to the Roman government or met with resistance by the
Roman people. This is in no way an attempt to compare theological qualities, rituals, or
beliefs. Instead, a comparison will be made, and similarities will be drawn, in the
attitudes and reaction Rome had towards these various religions or cults.
1 de Ste. Croix (1963.27) criticizes such an approach to the study of the Christian's persecutions, as he
concludes that the monotheistic quality of Christianity, which he believes to be the primary cause of the
persecutions, had never been encountered by Rome in their previous decisions of religious tolerance or
intolerance. Yet, Last (1937.84-92) revealed many similarities between the Christian situation and that of
other rejected religions. Sherwin-White (1964.24) finds value and supports Last's study: "The evidence of
the three officials, Pliny, Tacitus and Suetonius, confirms that in its first dealings with the Christians, the
Roman government and the individual governors behaved exactly as it did towards other
'superstitions.' How else could they behave when the Christian cult first came to their attention?"
BACCHANLIAN CONSPIRACY: 186 B.C.E
The Bacchanalian conspiracy enlightens the discussion of the Roman
governments attitude and reaction towards certain foreign cults in two ways. First, it was
one of the first instances of censure and intolerance placed upon a specific religious
group by the government, and as such provided a precedent to be followed in later ages.
Furthermore, in connection with the purpose of this paper, this episode reveals most
clearly the underlying principles upon which foreign religious groups were viewed with
favor or disfavor.
A pair of sources conveys the details of the conspiracy. Livy's account in book 39
contains the bulk of the events as they occurred. The inscription of the senatus consultum
de Bacchanalibus (ILS 18) gives further proof of the government's reaction to the
The roots of the Bacchanalian affair extend some three decades back in history to
the final years of the second Punic War. Toynbee (1965.ch. 12) first introduced this
interpretation of these events and much of the following reconstruction closely follows
his proposal. The years surrounding the turn of the second century B.C.E. were filled with
political unrest. Hannibal's march through the Pyrenees in 218 B.C.E. into the Italian
countryside threatened the security of the Roman people. The effect of such a war in such
close proximity to Rome herself could not have failed to produce a feeling of unease
upon the population. In such desperate situations, a heightened sense of religion grew
among the people. According to their polytheistic system of religion, the Roman
populace looked to some sort of offense that might have been caused against a god in an
unknown way. The Roman perception of religion considered devotion to the gods an
imperative not simply because the gods looked with favor upon the morally upright, but
because an offended god, one that had not received its proper due in sacrifice and honor,
might see fit to spread any sort of evil throughout the society to which the offenders
belonged. The gods were not very particular in imposing suffering only upon those who
had offended them. This devotion, then, attempted to do nothing more than assuage the
anger of the gods and avert hardship. The great danger posed by Hannibal and his army
was considered to have sprung from the anger of an insulted god. In response to this, the
Roman government, which had by this time taken control of many of the religious rites
and festivals, consulted the Sibylline Books to find out whom they had neglected. It was
divined that the black stone of Magna Mater should be conveyed to Rome (Livy 29.11).
This action in part could have been nothing more than the government's design to
pacify those seeking a deeper religious experience in Rome.1 Indeed, the year 216 B.C.E.
saw a pair of vestal virgins buried alive for relinquishing their vow of chastity. Livy
(22.55) records unruly women pouring out into the streets in their lamentation over the
destruction at Cannae. Pairs of Gallic and Greek men and women were buried alive in the
Forum Boarium. This barbaric action was unquestionably fueled by the frenzied political
atmosphere and desperation for release from present difficulties among the masses.
The victory over Carthage in 201 B.C.E. may have dissolved some of this religious
fanaticism. Yet wars with Philip V of Macedon, Antiochus the Great, and the Aetolians
forced the Roman people to continue to endure hardships for the next decade, although
1 Polybius 6.56.6-14, writing during the same century, though he praises its piety, describes Roman religion
as a manipulation of the superstitious lower classes by the governing elite. See Beard, North, Price
the action of battle was further removed. Through these years, the Roman people, filled
with a heightened religious sensitivity, searched for the cause of these distressing times
by constantly consulting the Sibylline Books as they yearned to repay an offended god or
At the tail end of these more than two decades of turmoil, the Bacchanalian
conspiracy took place. While the government sanctioned the introduction of Magna
Mater into the Roman world, it made sure that the goddess and her rituals were highly
regulated. Magna Mater was embraced by the most noble and virtuous of Romans.2 The
cult of Bacchus, on the other hand, entered Italy inconspicuously and without government
sanction. Livy records that a low born Greek entered Etruria and made public the Bacchic
ritual, which at first appealed only to a few, but soon took hold of a great number. The
ritual soon appeared at Rome and was brought to the attention of the authorities by the
slave girl Hispala. The historical accuracy of this portion of Livy's account has been
subject to criticism (Nilsson 1975.15). Yet many of the seven charges against the
Bacchants, which are inserted into the mouth of the slave girl by Livy and which
Toynbee (1965.395-396) lists, show the Roman attitude, at least that of contemporaries of
Livy, towards certain foreign cults. The ritual orgies, night time and secretive gatherings,
violence with which initiates and those who refused initiation were treated, fanatical
prophesying and eccentric ceremony were characteristic of the barbaric tendencies of
some foreign religious groups that were despised by the educated classes at Rome.
But if morality or lack thereof had little to do with a human's relation to the gods
and the right ceremony was all that mattered, why should this type of ritual performed
under the guise of offering that which was suitable and appeasing to Bacchus be
2 Livy 29.10 relates that Scipio was among the ardent supporters of conveying Magna Mater to Rome.
offensive? The answer surfaces upon the discovery of what party deemed it offensive.
The religious leaders took no part in the legal affairs nor does Livy recount any action of
theirs in the prosecution that followed.3 Instead, it was the Senate and the consuls who
took up the leading role. It soon becomes clear that this matter had little or no relation to
Roman religion at all. This was a matter of state. "We may no doubt see in this evidence
of the extent to which by this time the ius divinum had become subordinate to the ius
civil" (Bailey 1932.179). Note how the affair is described not as a religious matter but as
a coniuratio, the same term that Sallust fixed to Catiline's treacherous acts against the
state. This is not to say that morality was not an issue. Bailey (1932.179-180) is fully
aware of this: "it would be nearer the truth to say that the Bacchic movement was
regarded primarily as an offense against morals, and what had religion to say about
morals? They were the care of the state."
But on what grounds did this offend the state? The answer is discovered when the
mind-set not of the general public of Rome but of the ruling class is exposed. In order to
keep a firm grasp upon the reigns of power, the establishment adhered to a strict and
conservative agenda. This unsanctioned religion, with its eccentric ritual, was seen as a
rebellion against the mos maiorum (Fowler 1911.347). It was a religion that appealed
primarily to the lower classes (Gruen 1990.58). Livy does relate that a few nobles had
succumbed to the Bacchic cult, but he does so in order to highlight the extent to which it
had spread into the Roman world. Although Roman gravitas was highly prized among
the elite, among the lower classes an animal nature lurked (Bailey 1932.180-181). This
characteristic was all too eager to find an escape and craved for a situation in which it
3 Contrast this with Livy 26.27 in which a vestal virgin was beaten to death by orders of the Pontifex
Maximus for letting the fire in the temple of Vesta to go out. See Toynbee (1965.380nl 1).
could express itself. The years following the Second Punic Wars presented themselves as
such an occasion.
The stuprum that the male initiates were forced to undergo caused the government
even more anxiety. This act was viewed as a violation of the male citizen and his right to
carry out his civic duties (Pagan 2004.58-59). This defilement of the integrity of the male
body threatened his status as citizen. Livy (39.15.14) brings out this point especially in
relation to a man's ability in military service.
After the coniuratio was exposed and the Senate had decided upon its course of
action, the consul Postumius immediately addressed the assembly. In an attempt to calm
them, he did not appeal to the mos maiorum or to any ius civil in denouncing the
Bacchants. Instead, he claimed that the numen of the gods had been contaminated (Livy
39.16.6-7). For those who feared that Bacchus might be slighted because of this action by
the state he assures them: hac uos religion innumerabilia decretapontificum, senatus
consult, haruspicum denique response liberant (39.16.8). Postumius knew that in
appealing to the religious aspects, he could more convincingly convey the threat to the
population. That he made a specific point to guarantee no deity would be offended offers
evidence that such a concern was prevalent among the common masses. While the state
gave precedent to the moral standing of its citizens, the people were troubled with gods
and offenses. In an ironic twist, morality and the gods of Rome had little to do with each
The Senate took radical measures against the cult. In the first place, the consuls
were given power, as is evident in the senatus consultum de Bacchanalibus, to stamp out
all participants. Gruen (1990.40-41) describes this as the first notable instance of Rome's
use of the quaesitio extra ordinem, a procedure in which the consuls in accordance with
the special authority given them by the Senate were to inquire into the matter and
prosecute those whom they deemed were at fault without trial or approval by Senate or
Assembly.4 By bestowing such unbridled power upon these magistrates, Rome
established a precedent in dealing with intolerable religious groups.
Such an inquiry resulted in the appearance of informants. Seven thousand men
and women convicted of having participated in the Bacchic ritual were put to death (even
more are reported to have evaded execution). That so great a number were convicted
shows how deeply this coniuratio had taken root in Roman society or at the very least the
great amount of vigor with which the consuls took up their order to eliminate those
involved. This enthusiasm, alongside the penalty of execution for those who had been
convicted of the crimes associated with the ritual, proves that the government considered
it a very real and dangerous threat to the well-being of the state.
Yet, as is clear from the inscription concerning the senatus consultum de
Bacchanalibus and from Livy 39.19, the ritual, though somewhat modified and strictly
controlled, was allowed to continue. Those who were bound by their conscience and felt
that thepax deorum would be threatened should they refuse to honor Bacchus with their
ritual were allowed to continue with their ceremony. The Senate's decree read that no
more than five persons, a maximum of two men and three women, were allowed to gather
at such a meeting; no magister nor male sacerdos was to preside over the ritual; no
common purse was to be held; and finally, and most importantly, all such gatherings were
4 Evans (1988.115) and Toynbee (1965.397) also note the use of the quaesitio extra ordinem but do not
point out the precedent which it set. Gruen (1990.41-42) notes instances of quaesitio extraordinaria before
the Bacchanalia, but claims that the power bestowed upon the consuls, praetors, or other official in these
cases was restricted.
to be ratified by the Senate when at least 100 senators were present. Previously this had
been the major difference between the worship of Magna Mater and that of Bacchus. The
former, upon its arrival, had immediate government approval while the latter did not.
This aspect should not be underestimated. The government certainly felt itself obligated
to curb the moral excesses of its subjects, especially when the civic and military duties of
its citizens were threatened. By rejecting the Bacchic cult, the Roman government also
reasserted its power.
The greater underlying danger threatened the Roman government in that it was
loosing a portion of its power over a society that was a source of its wealth and power. A
secretive society, which displayed barbaric ritual and disinterest in the affairs and
opinions of the state, threatened to undermine the government's authority over those
whom it ruled. The trend that effected the subjugation of the ius divinum under the ius
civil had been at work for centuries. As such, the government authorities took full
control over this apparently religious affair. Any attempt, therefore, to separate the
religious aspects of this affair from the political quickly proves futile. The Bacchanalian
conspiracy threatened the Roman state because it threatened to unravel the religious ties
that bound the society together. There was no choice but to check such regression in the
mind of the governing class. Therefore, among the state officials, the term coniuratio was
applied, for this term would more fully convey the threat to the officials of the upper
class. When this threat was to be conveyed to the common Roman, as in Postumius'
address, it was spoken of as a threat to the numen of the gods. Among the masses, the
threat of offending the gods was a greater concern than political matters.
JEWISH EXPULSION FROM ROME: 19 C.E.
To outline the complete historical relationship, political and otherwise, between
the Jews and Romans is beyond the scope of this paper. However, the way in which the
Romans viewed the Jews during the early Empire, and especially the way in which the
Roman government dealt with them, directly affects the relationship between Christianity
and Rome.1 In connection with the thesis of this paper, it seems most beneficial to
investigate the interactions between the two groups under the emperor Tiberius. In 19
C.E., he expelled the Jews from the city of Rome.2 The circumstances surrounding the
expulsion and general attitude towards the Jewish people find close resemblance later in
the affairs of the Christians. The time of these events also corresponds well with the birth
of Christianity and will give a good base for understanding Roman-Christian relations.
Before Tiberius' reign, Rome had attracted a large community of Jewish people, a
number of whom had been taken by Pompey after his Eastern campaign as slaves. This
community developed across the Tiber River. By the time Julius Caesar had obtained sole
power, the numbers of this community were already sufficient to warrant special
attention. Since Caesar recognized the political threat posed by groups meeting under the
pretence (or for the actual purpose of) religious matters, he subsequently outlawed such
1 This is naturally the case as Christianity sprung from Judaism and was not differentiated from it,
especially in the Roman mind, during its early years. See Sulpicius Severus Chron. 2.30.6.
2 Tacitus Ann. 2.85.4-5; Suetonius Tib. 36.1; Josephus Ant. 18.63; Dio 57.18.5.
gatherings within the city itself.3 Interestingly, he exempted the Jews from this
prohibition. It is clear that the Jewish people, at Rome and abroad, were also exempt from
military service and were allowed to collect a common treasury and forward their
templetax to Jerusalem. The reason for such favor can only be guessed at (Beard, North,
Price 1998.322 n4), but such a precedent was evidently followed throughout the empire
at Caesar's time (Josephus Antiquities 14.213-216) and in subsequent times.4
In 19 C.E., this seemingly cordial relationship experienced was suspended. In the
accounts where the punishment is mentioned, it is agreed that Jews were expelled from
the city. However, the various historians differ upon the cause. Dio Cassius, Suetonius
and possibly Tacitus imply that the Jews, in their fervent proselytizing, had converted a
number of pagans. The numbers themselves might have then led to suspicion or fear of
political unrest in the emperor's mind and instigated the course of action that he took.
Josephus's account, on the other hand, relates that religious concerns rather than
political served as the underlying cause of expulsion. He reports that a certain Jew, an
exile from the Law (that of the Jews), through deception swindled Fulvia a prominent
Roman lady. This Fulvia, the wife of Saturnius who was friend to Tiberius, had become a
Jewish proselyte and was urged to send gifts to Jerusalem. She gathered her "purple and
gold" and gave it to the exiled Jew, who then used the wealth for his own purposes. Upon
hearing about this from his wife, Saturnius in turn related the story to Tiberius. Especially
outraged that this crime had been perpetrated against such an important Roman woman,
3 See Suetonius Div. Iul.42; Josephus Ant. 14.213-216.
4 Philo Emb. 155-158 reveals that Octavian followed this precedent.
Tiberius demanded the expulsion of all the Jews from the city. Four thousand of these
were ordered to perform military service in Sardinia.5
Can the account of Josephus be reconciled to the others? It is difficult to
understand why such a severe punishment upon all the Jews of Rome should be produced
by the misdeeds of a few from the Jewish community.6 The Isis episode, which Josephus
narrates immediately before the Jewish expulsion, depicts Tiberius as an exact and fair
judge in these religious matters. Tiberius' purpose was not to destroy all adherents to this
cult. Although he exacted extreme punishment upon those specifically involved (Ida and
the priests with crucifixion and Mundus with banishment) and ordered the temple of Isis
to be razed and her statue cast into the Tiber, the majority of the Isis-worshipers suffered
no physical harm. The larger community of Isis-worshipers certainly would have
mourned the loss of their place of worship. But their loss of a temple seems trivial
compared to Josephus' assertion that 4,000 Jews were expelled for the crimes of a few.
When Tiberius' reaction to the two scandals is compared, no evidence suggests that he
would have exerted his powers more fervently against the Jews.
This is not to say that Josephus' account lacks credibility. The Fulvia incident
may well have occurred and may even have played some role in the expulsion. But it can
hardly be seen as the single, driving factor that led to such an extreme punishment. All
accounts mention the Jewish work of proselytizing. Though it is only a sidelight to the
story, Josephus' Fulvia was in fact one of these converts (Rutgers 1998.102). Dio and
Suetonius associate this work of conversion directly with the expulsion. On the one hand,
Josephus' exceptionally specific account cannot suitably explain the measures taken
5 This military service is also attested to in Suetonius' and Tacitus' accounts.
6 See Rutgers (1998.100); Moering (1959.302).
against the Jews. On the other hand, Dio's and Suetonius' accusation of Jewish
proselytizing is vague. This gives no specifics at all about the actual cause of expulsion or
the legal process by which the Jews were sentenced.
There is little doubt that the actual transmission of this event has been garbled in
the various accounts (Radin 1915.309). Short and obscure references in Seneca the
Younger and Philo seem to shed light on this matter. Seneca, as he wrote of his
childhood, recalls a point at which he refused to eat meat because of his philosophical
beliefs. Yet his father urged him to return to his regular regiment: Inprimum Tiberii
Caesarisprincipatum iuventae tempus inciderat: alienigenatum sacra movebantur et
inter argument superstitionis ponebatur quorundamanimalium abstinentia (Seneca ad
Lucilius 108.22). Certainly the religion of the Jews fell under the category of those that
abstained from the meat of certain animals. The Roman government was apparently
aware of these practices at the time of Tiberius. Certainly this was the case by the time
Juvenal and Tacitus wrote. It is plausible to understand the term superstitio as a reference
to the Jewish religion in this context, although the term may incorporate others that
abstained from certain foods. This term will be explored in further detail in relation to the
Christians. But here, by using such a term, Seneca shows a certain uneasy feeling towards
the Jews. The people themselves were viewed as a separate, almost anti-social group.
They were seen to abstain not only from certain foods, but also from contact with the rest
of the world.' In the Roman mind, they practiced absurd rituals (circumcision, Sabbath
worship, and food laws chiefly), which offered fodder for Juvenal's Satires.8 And yet
they did not constitute a political or moral threat to the state; nothing could be done
SSee Dio 37.16-17; Tacitus Ann. 5.5.
8 See especially Juvenal Sat. 2.6.150-160 and 5.14.96-106.
against them unless a specific instance presented itself for such action. Neither that they
were fervent in their goal of converting Romans, nor that their religion was classified as a
superstitio presented sufficient grounds to persecute them (Rutgers 1998.108).
We then turn to Philo, whose description of Sejanus as an official who desired to
eradicate the Jewish people during Tiberius' reign reveals a likely cause for the expulsion
of the Jews.9 The undercurrent of anti-Jewish sentiment, one that Sejanus evidently held
most fervently, was, as noted, powerful among the Roman people. Leon's reconstruction
(1960.19) is very plausible: "It is not unlikely that Sejanus, taking advantage of the
activity of the Jews in gaining proselytes at a time when the empire was trying to
strengthen the traditional religion of Rome, and profiting by the scandalous Fulvia
episode, persuaded Tiberius to expel from Rome those Jews who could be so treated
under the Roman law."
Philo (Embassy 160-1) is quick to assert that after the death of Sejanus, Tiberius
made sure that only those who were guilty, a few persons, should be punished. He even
ordered the procurators around the empire not to disturb their established customs. It is
clear that Tiberius, who elsewhere shows himself to be judicious and fair, was not out to
destroy the Jews. He wished only for peace among and control over the masses. For the
most part, the Jewish people in the early part of the 1st century C.E. proved no threat to the
Roman government and as such were allowed to continue in their way of life. The special
privileges gained at the end of the Republic were repeatedly reaffirmed. Philo proves that
Tiberius upheld this precedent. Caligula may be an exception to this rule by erecting a
statue in the temple of Jerusalem and in his dealing with the envoys from Alexandria.
Yet, even though another round of Jewish expulsion occurred under the rule of
9 See Philo adFlac. 1; Emb. 159-161.
Claudius,10 his letter issued to the Greeks and Jews concerning their continued
squabbling at Alexandria shows equal amount of leniency and upholds the precedent that
had been set towards the Jewish people.
Peace and stability in general were the leading factors in determining Roman
policy towards the majority of foreign religions. In dealing with the Jews, specific ad hoc
measures were employed to avert civil unrest. For this reason, there was no definite
policy of tolerance or intolerance (Rutgers 1998.111-114). They were allowed to
continue with their customs so long as peace could be maintained. The later expulsion of
Jews under Claudius, according to Suetonius (Claudius 25.4), resulted from their constant
rioting. Therefore, measures had to be taken to resolve this. There is no evidence that
such events occurred during Tiberius' reign. Perhaps the cause of the expulsion under
Tiberius, at least in legal terms, is so difficult to uncover because one did not exist. Some,
even many, Romans were suspicious of the Jewish people. These suspicions heightened
as the size of the Jewish community increased, especially when Romans were being
converted away from the religion patris. Though proselytizing may have served as a cause
of alarm among the Roman officials, the Fulvia episode, in which a clear accusation
could be made, was first needed before legal steps could be taken.
10 Dio 60.6.6; Suetonius Claud.. 25.4; Acts 18.2. There may have been two expulsions of the Jews that
occurred under Claudius. See n.9.
ROMAN SENTIMENT TOWARDS CHRISTIANITY
The value of investigating Roman prejudices held against the Christian
community in the first and second century C.E. is twofold. First, though discrimination on
the level of the common Roman would not be termed a persecution, it is hard to imagine
that such attitudes did not at times grow into small-scale actions against the Christians.
Second, the prejudices of the common people bear upon the legal issues, if for no other
reason than to more deeply understand the ready acceptance of Christianity's guilt in later
legal matters. In what follows, the uneducated Roman would have accepted the more
groundless accusations as fact, but particular magistrates, the more adamant supporters of
the Roman religion, and Roman historians motivated by popular opinion against the
Christians might also have considered or depicted Christianity in the same way.1
Naturally, instances in which a threat to the safety and peace of the Empire led to feelings
of animosity would have played a more prevalent part in the mindset of the governing
class towards Christianity. Yet, it is true that the perception of Christianity among the
common people also had an impact upon the governing class. In every case where the
common people, because of their negative views of Christianity, wished to rid society of
them and thereby threatened the peace of a particular region, the governors naturally, in
1 Especially thefl~jle, i, associated with the Christian gatherings.
their charge to maintain order,2 would have to consider whether or not it would be more
beneficial for the peace to submit to these demands.3
During its early years, Christianity would have been confronted with any negative
views that had been associated with Judaism.4 The Jewish expulsions from Rome under
Tiberius and Claudius would naturally have portrayed the Christians as a group of mali
homines. The Jewish rituals, which were deemed at the very least peculiar, but more
probably offensive,5 to the Roman people, have already been noted. Just as the Jewish
efforts in attempting to convert Roman citizens led to fear among the Roman rulers, so
also Roman converts to Christianity may have had the same effect.
Once the separation between the two religions became somewhat clearer,
Suetonius, Tacitus, and Pliny applied the term superstitio to the Christian "cult."
Suetonius 16.2 remarks that the Christians were a genus hominum superstitionis novae ac
maleficae. Tacitus 15.44 adds the adjective exitiabilis to their superstitio. Pliny twice
employs the term. In the first instance he adds the adjectivepravem (96.8). Later (96.9)
he writes that the superstitionis istius contagio6 had made its way through the countryside
as well as the urban areas. These authors did not use this term, especially with adjectives
that modify it, to represent the silly and harmless meaning that the English "superstition"
2 For the main charge of a governor to maintain peace see Ulpian in Dig. 47.2.9, 10 and Saturnius in Dig.
3 Pontius Pilate's submission to the growing threat of civic unrest made by the crowd immediately comes to
mind. Gallio, on the other hand, refused to hear the charges brought against Paul. Even as Sosthenes was
beaten in front of the court, Gallio showed no concern for the matter or the threat of riot.
4 See n. 16 on the Roman lack of distinction between the two.
5 See Tacitus His. 5.4-5 and Juvenal Sat. 14.96-106. Common among Roman diatribes against Judaism are
their abstinence from pork, circumcision, Sabbath worship and temple tax. Both authors confirm the
Roman perception of Judaism as purposefully aloof from society.
6 Pliny's description of Christianity as a contagio closely resembles the description of the Bacchic cult in
Livy 39.9: Huius mali labes ex Etruria Romam ueluti contagione morbi penetrauit.
conveys (Jansen 1979.134). Closely associated with this term would be atheism. The
Roman world was still a highly religious society, and the term superstitio conveyed a
very grave meaning. By applying such a term to Christianity, these authors implied that
such a religion threatened thepax deorum. Such an implication was a very serious
offense to the Roman people.
But where Judaism had, as de Ste. Croix (1963.25) put it, a "licensed atheism"
because of the antiquity of their religion, the Christians were viewed as an upstart
religion, one that had split from the traditions of their forefathers. In the first place, this
offended the conservative nature of the ruling class. As already noted, the provincial
governors were most interested in keeping peace. The Roman government knew that in
tolerating and supporting the established religions in the various provinces they would
most expediently achieve their goals. When Roman citizens were persuaded away from
the religion of their forefathers by an unsanctioned cult, as in the Bacchanalian
conspiracy, the Roman government interfered to reaffirm the religious ties that
strengthened Roman society. When Christianity arrived at Rome, the threat of conversion
among her citizens was to be extinguished. But even in the provinces, where Christianity,
seen as a departure from Judaism, had enflamed civil unrest among the Jewish
community, there existed sufficient reason to suppress the upstart religion for the sake of
Furthermore, the appeal of Christianity seemed to the governing class to be
primarily among the poor and uneducated classes (Goodenough 1931.37). After all, most
of the foremost leaders in the Christian community had originally left their work as
fishermen to follow a man who later would be sentenced to crucifixion by a Roman
prefect.' The theological ideas that these common men were spreading were also
completely adverse to the majority of the Roman idea of religion. As noted in discussing
the Bacchanalian controversy, the Romans did not assume that morality was the mark of
a pious and god-fearing person. Whereas the Roman pantheon was willing to assimilate
the gods of other peoples, at least in certain instances, monotheistic exclusiveness marked
Christianity as a separatist and arrogant religion. The difference in the perception of the
purpose of religion between the Romans and Christians may have worked to divide the
two groups. Religious differences entail highly emotional feelings, which cut to the core
of a person's identity, and may have opened the door at a most basic level to prejudice.
It is certain that the Christians were viewed as an anti-social sect. Their nighttime
or early morning gatherings were suspect.8 Their desire for martyrdom was
incomprehensible to the Roman mind.9 Their aversion of interest from the things of this
world, as they set their eyes and hopes upon that of the world to come, was interpreted in
some circles at least as very strange, and at most subversive to the governing power. The
flagitia that Tacitus and Pliny associate with Christianity, which may have been identical
to those refuted by the Christian Apologists, are vague.10 "But here it is enough to notice
that the people whom Tacitus asserts to have been guilty of flagitia in the first century
were widely supposed to have been guilty in the second" (Last 1937.9). The educated and
7See Minucius Felix Oct. 9.
8 For a short study on the Christian nighttime gatherings, see Cabaniss (1957).
9 TertullianAd Scapulam 5 describes the exasperation of Arrius Antonius, governor of Asia in 188 C.E., at
the willingness of the Christians to be executed: "Wretched people, if you want to die, you have cliffs or
ropes." See de Ste. Croix (1963.21-24) on the impact of voluntary martyrdom upon the Christian
10 See Eusabeus Hist. Eccles. 4.7.11; 5.1.14, 26; JustinlApol. 26; IIApol. 12; TertullianApol. 6.11-7.2.
rational Roman mind scoffed at their belief as a religion of the irrational rabble. Yet,
Christianity was perceived by Rome as a real threat to the safety of the Empire.
TACITUS AND THE FIRES OF ROME: 64 C.E.
Having established that prejudices against the Christians were prevalent among
various classes and groups in the Roman Empire during the first and second centuries, we
are left with the task of tracing the progress from prejudice to legal action against them.
While the general Roman perception of Christianity as a supersitio and one that promoted
atheism and apostasy from the established Roman religion certainly energized the Roman
spirit against this cult, we must question whether such accusations could have stood in a
Roman courtroom. At work is a subtle transformation from insubstantial prejudice to
active persecution by legal means.
The actual cause of the fire of 64 naturally influences the interpretation of the
legal process by which the Christians were accused and convicted by Nero or his
magistrates. By describing the devastation caused by the five days of burning (Ann. 38-
39) followed by a second wave during which stages hominum minor; delubra deum et
porticus amoenitati decatae latius procidere (Ann. 40), Tacitus succeeded in arousing
pity among his readers for the mined lives of the people of Rome. With his extensive and
detailed description of suffering, the historian hoped that the reader's pity would turn to
outrage if it could be implied that an egotistic emperor had ordered the fires. In writing
about the reigns of the Julio-Claudian emperors, Tacitus wished to show corruption of
absolute power, even when such a view of the events seems strained. After describing
Nero's positive steps in rebuilding the city, Tacitus concludes the chapter: erant tamen
qui crederent veterem illam formam salubritani magis conduxisse, quoniam angustiae
itinerum et altitude tectorum non perinde solis vapore perrumperentur: at nunc patulam
latitudinem et nulla umbra defensam graviore aestu ardescere. Tacitus' use of innuendo
to sway the emotions of the reader has been well established.1 With the phrase erant
tamen qui Tacitus seems to have removed his own opinion from the text. Since the
responsibility of the words, which are nothing more than rumor, rests with the witnesses
from whom Tacitus obtained his information, Tacitus has the freedom to include them,
especially when they support a negative interpretation of Nero's action.
Tacitus repeatedly implied that Nero was guilty of ordering the fires. He wished
his readers to be so bombarded with the rumor that soon they would take it to be fact.2
But Tacitus could not bring himself to the straightforward accusation against Nero. He
knew that Nero's association with the fires was nothing more than a rumor
(Develin.1883.90). For this reason, nowhere does he state in certain terms that Nero in
fact had committed the crimes. Removed by half a century, Tacitus' own recollection of
the events, which occurred during his childhood, would not have been sufficient to assert
Nero's guilt. Instead, Tacitus situates his words in ambiguity. Phrases scattered
throughout prove this: sequitur clades, forte an dolo principis incertum (38); videbatur
Nero condendae urbis novae et cognomento suo appellandae gloriam quaerere (40); and
quin iussum incendium crederetur (44). Twice he uses the term rumor (39 and 44) when
relating Nero's supposed guilt. Whatever amount of devotion he had to his craft as
historian deterred him from relating what was historically uncertain as the truth. Ryberg
(1942.384) is aware of this, and notes, in discussing Tacitus' style and penchant for
presenting "sometimes diametrically opposed estimates," that "they are resources
1 See Develin (1983); Whitehead (1979); Ryberg (1942).
2 See Whitehead (1979.492); Ryberg (1942.399-400).
employed by Tacitus the artist to produce an impression for which Tacitus the historian is
not willing to take the responsibility."
Clayton (1947.82) rightly observes that Tacitus' prejudice against Nero was
almost equaled by that against the Christians. That Tacitus also held such prejudices has
already been noted. By assigning too much of the blame upon Nero, Tacitus would have
depicted the Christians in too positive a light. He certainly believed that the Christians
should be punished, if not for incendiarism, then for their general hatred towards
mankind (Annals 44). With much care and attention, he emphasized the rumor of Nero's
guilt, while leaving the possibility open that the Christians really deserved the
punishment they suffered. Therefore, it is impossible to assert that the Christians had any
real connection to the fires just as it is impossible to definitely conclude that Nero did in
fact order them. That a group of fanatical Christians interpreted the fires as a precursor to
the Day of Judgment and actively encouraged them remains an improvable theory.3
What then can be said of the actual cause of the fires? Tacitus wanted the reader
to believe that Nero was the cause, but was hindered from explicitly stating this. We must
be wary to place trust in this accusation, if only implied, because of Tacitus' prejudice
against the emperor (Wilken 1984.48-49). It should be noted that the account in
Suetonius Nero 38 in no way links either the Christians or Nero to the fires, though he
does mention the unrelated persecution of Christians among the positive actions of the
emperor (Nero 16.2). In effect, no real conclusion can be drawn about the cause of the
fire. It may well have been an accident, or the rumors, in spite of Tacitus' prejudice, may
have been true. More importantly, the rumor had circulated that Nero was in fact guilty.
3 Hulsen (1909.47) concludes that this may have been the case, although, in the end, he believes the fire to
have occurred by accident.
Whether it was true or not makes little difference. That the emperor felt a need to redeem
his tarnished image among the Roman people is more important to the present study.
Finally, then, we enter the dreaded 44th chapter. This short paragraph has attracted
a substantial amount of criticism. The interpretation of two lines in particular largely
affects our understanding of the accusation against and the legal means by which the
Christians suffered. The first of these reads: ergo abolendo rumore Nero subdidit reos et
quaesitissimis poenis adfecit quos per flagitia invisos vulgus Chrestianos appelabat.
What is exactly meant by per flagitia? Here again is proof of the fine line that Tacitus
was trying to walk in accusing neither Nero nor the Christians so that both might equally
bear the full brunt of outrage of Tacitus' audience. If this line were read with some other
verb besides subdidit, it would seem that the Christians were responsible for the fires.
Arson would be considered among these flagitia. The rumor about Nero would not be
true. But if this were the case, why then did Nero need to "forge/invent a guilty party?"4
Furthermore, the sentence, as constructed by Tacitus, does not lead the reader
directly to the interpretation that Nero created a guilty party because of their
incendiarism. Instead, the common people were calling them invisos Christianos because
of their crimes. Theseflagitia had already been attached to the Christians before the fire
had occurred, unless we are to understand that the Roman people for the first time
recognized the Christian community only after Nero had made the accusation of arson
against them. While it is true that the separation of Judaism and Christianity in the
Roman mind was taking place in the years surrounding this event, it is impossible to
believe that Nero would have picked an unknown group to be his scapegoat. In his
4 Develin (1983.91): "The fact that Nero wanted to stop the rumor creates an impression of its possible
validity and 'subdidit' has that sly connotation."
attempt to shift the popular opinion held against him onto another party, he obviously
needed to pick a group that was already known for their crimes and would readily be
accepted as guilty once the accusation had been made against them (Last 1937.89). He
did not choose the Christians because they were arsonists, but because he knew that
popular opinion would readily accept that this group was capable of committing arson.
The Christians must already have obtained a reputation of being troublemakers before the
We have already observed that in times of crisis, the general tenor of the Roman
populace turned into a state of religious frenzy. As in the Bacchanalian conspiracy and
the years surrounding the second Punic War, the Romans of 64 C.E., after the fires had
been extinguished, immediately turned to the Sibylline books for answers. In these
difficult times, a mob mentality took hold. Nero used this to his advantage. Fearing the
rumor, Nero set out, not to find those who actually started the fire, but ones who could
possibly be blamed for the disturbance of the pax deorum.5 The Roman people did not
understand any of the blessings and hardships of human existence as merely accidental.
Instead, everything, good or bad, occurred as a response from the gods to Roman
people's proper or improper rituals carried out towards them. In this respect, this affair
shows similarity to the Bacchanalian Conspiracy, though separated by some two
centuries. The Romans of 64 C.E., as they consulted the Sibylline books and offered
5 Last (1937.82-83) categorizes this as a "tribal persecution" in which "a group attacks certain of its
members because their practice or their profession is thought to be of a kind which has alienated, or may
alienate, the favour of those supernatural powers on whose goodwill the group conceives its safety to
depend." Though Last believes this may not have driven the Roman government to action, it seems
plausible that Nero played upon this belief among the superstitious lower classes to free himself from the
rumor that he had started the fire. This argument follows closely de Ste. Croix (1936.24). He identifies the
violation of the pax deorum by the existence of the Christian community with their exclusive monotheism,
which to the Roman mind would be tantamount to atheism. For a contrary opinion, see Barnes (1968.34)
and Walsh (1991.260).
supplicatum to Vulcan, Ceres, and Proserpine, proved that their understanding of
religious matters had changed little over the past two centuries.
Shortly thereafter in the text, second more challenging line is encountered:
igiturprimum correpti quifatebantur deinde indicio eorum multitude ingens; haud
proinde in crimine incendii quam odio human generis convict sunt.6 Did the first
Christians who were seized confess to Christianity or to arson? Following Gibbon's
translation, by adding strong punctuation after ingens, the meaning conveyed by this line
is that all (both quifatebantur and the later ingens multitude) Christians who were
apprehended were convicted not for arson, but for their hatred of mankind. Nero seized
upon the religious fervor of the masses, and portrayed the Christians, not as the ones who
physically started the fires, but as ones who had brought the wrath of the gods upon the
Roman people. Based on this, and on the conclusions previously drawn, both the first and
the second group of captured Christians must simply have confessed Christianity.7 While
the official charge against them at first may have been merely being Christians (de Ste.
Croix 1963.8n. 11), it is also possible that, in the frenzied state of the Roman population,
Nero's prosecutors were able to show that the Christians were responsible for the fires
6 Getty (1966.289) supports the reading coniuncti instead of convict, which is better attested in the MSS.
However convict fits the sense of the phrase and has generally been accepted, especially after Gibbon
(Mueller [2005.338]) supported it with the translation: "The confession of those who were seized
discovered a great multitude of their accomplices, and they were all convicted, not so much for the crime of
setting fire to the city as for their hatred of humankind."
SGetty (1966.286-287) points out that nowhere in Tacitus does the verbfatari stand alone to mean:
"confess a faith." He also suggests that the indicative shows the validity of the accusation (as opposed to
the subjunctive "affingeretur" of the Libo Drusus affair inAnn. 2.27.1). de Ste. Croix (1963.nl 1),
disregarding the mood, simply understands the imperfect tense as proof that the Christians were confessing
Christianity, not fire-starting. Getty (1966.286) agrees that the "tense makes arson absurd." Seemingly,
Getty (1966.292) disregards this statement as he concludes with a difficult and somewhat forced
explanation: "The trial of the Christians was for arson, to which they confessed, whether or not as a result
of torture, but their punishment was to be explained rather by the general invidia with which they were
regarded." Ramsay (1904.238) finds it impossible to believe that the Christians admitted to incendiarism.
He questions that if this had been the case, why then did the rumor of Nero's guilt not diminish once the
Christians had pleaded guilty.
indirectly.8 Whether a final verdict of guilt stemmed primarily from this charge, or
whether underlying prejudices played a far greater role, is difficult to assert. It is
impossible to read so far into the scanty amount of extant evidence so as to understand
the inner workings of the Roman magistrates' minds. It seems most likely, however, that
the strategy of the prosecutors in the courtroom,9 at least in the first batch of Christians
who were seized, was first to prove guilt of Christianity because of their offense to the
gods, then to put the simple question to the defendant: Christianus es?
The charge of the indirect association of the Christians with the fires may seem
extremely foreign to the modern reader's perception of law. First, we must remember the
Roman mindset in times of distress. Secondly, the Roman religion was under the care of
the government. When Roman citizens relinquished the religion of their fathers, this
action might have been construed as disloyalty to the state. The Roman religion was in
effect an arm of the government to ensure the moral fortitude of its citizens and worked
to bind the society together, thereby ensuring that the state itself would abide and the
prominent figures in government would continue to prosper. When communities
throughout the provinces of the Empire continued to practice the religions of their fathers
in their native region, Rome did not interfere. Watson (1998.58) offers three possible
responses to foreign religion by the Roman government: acceptance and assimilation,
rejection, or "a third approach, to ignore the foreign worship, (which) could be
8 That is, because they had offended the gods. The accusation of the Christian's threat to the pax deorum
here promoted is an amalgamation of the offenses offered by the scholars Mommsen (national apostasy),
Ramsay and Hardy (general nuisance of Christianity), and most directly Dieu (indirect cause of public
disturbance) as they are summarized by Sherwin-White (1952.203).
9 Here it is assumed that there was no imperial edict to the effect that all Christians were to be eliminated.
Individual delatores, at the encouragement or in the employment of the emperor, would have been
responsible for bringing the charges against the Christians before the magistrates who then, by the process
of coercitio inherent in their imperium, sentenced the Christians accordingly. This process will be further
discussed in relation to Pliny.
maintained for a period if the times were peaceable, the worship apparently innocuous,
and its adherents few." Since the principle responsibility of the city magistrates and
provincial governors was to keep order, interference among otherwise peaceful religious
communities, especially outside Rome, would pointlessly lead to unrest. When a charge
of this nature was brought against a religious group, the magistrate was forced to weigh
not only the validity of the accusation, but also the effect it would have upon the stability
of the masses. At Rome a more definitive line would be drawn between acceptable and
intolerable religions than in the provinces. The Roman people of 64 C.E. were clamoring
for a guilty party, and not wishing to offend the volatile Nero, these city magistrates
would have been eager to assert some other party's guilt. In such a context, it is not
difficult to assume that a weak charge might be upheld. Furthermore and closely related,
it is very plausible that Nero himself actively participated in making sure that the
Christians were convicted. Finally, these judges had no fear of repercussion in finding the
Christian minority guilty. The magistrate's acceptance of this charge may have been a
measure taken to quiet the masses (Ramsay 1904.241). At the same time, it may have
been an attempt to make sure that Nero was placated.
Once this initial stage had been completed, a greater number of Christians were
seized on the information of a few. At this point, the weak charge of indirect
incendiarism was dropped, and a still weaker one was established. Once the rumor went
out that the Christians were somehow connected with the fires, though evidently met with
skepticism, the majority of the Roman people saw in this an opportunity to rid themselves
of that pesky, evildoing sect that had infiltrated their society. Ramsey (1904.234-235)
correctly interprets this second stage of convictions: "The trials and punishments of the
Christians continue even after all pretence of connection with the fire had been
abandoned. The safety of the people, it was argued, required that these enemies of society
should be severely dealt with." Perhaps Nero himself understood that the majority of the
Romans were not buying his scapegoat routine, but he continued to press for some other
means by which to shift public attention away from himself. Therefore, he adopted, or
had his prosecutors adopt, the vague charge of their hatred of mankind.10 Schoedel
(1973.31 ln.20) offers a variety of instances in support of the theory that the Romans
considered the atheism of the Jews and Christians, which threatened the pax deorum,
indistinguishable from their hatred of mankind. Odium generis human was then nothing
more than a broadening of the earlier accusation.
In the fires, Nero saw an opportunity to rebuild the city and claim glory. 1 His
purposely slow reaction to them was interpreted by the people of Rome as proof that
Nero had ordered them. Feeling the pressure of the rumors, Nero played upon the
religiously charged masses to shift the blame. Investigations were made and those who
confessed Christianity, which implied that they had incurred the wrath of the gods, were
punished. Seeing that the rumor of his guilt was not fading away, Nero broadened the
accusation to keep attention upon the Christians. The Roman people, with their prejudice
toward Christianity, first willingly accepted this accusation, but later realized that the
Christians were executed in such a way in order to satisfy Nero's appetite for torture.
10 See Getty (1966.290-291) for the alternate interpretation of human generis as a subjective rather than
11 Except for the conjecture that the fires were an accident, this reconstruction follows closely that of de
Ste. Croix (1963.8).
PLINY AND THE BITHYNIAN CHRISTIANS: 110-112 C.E.
Pliny's correspondence with the emperor Trajan contains sufficient amount of
information to complement our understanding of the early stages of the Christian
persecution, especially in legal areas. Because of the brevity of these letters, a summary
of their content will be short, yet useful.
Pliny first expresses his ignorance in dealing with the Christians who were
brought before him. Since he had not been present at such trials, he was unsure about the
penalty which Christians should suffer, whether age or apostasy should be considered in
relation to their sentencing, and whether the name itself, or the crimes associated with the
name, was to be the charge (10.96.1-2). He then describes the methods that he had
adopted in dealing with the Christians. Three times he asked them whether they were
Christians, threatening punishment with the third question. Romans who confessed
Christianity were sent to Rome for trial. Both Romans and provincials who denied
Christianity, invoked the Roman gods, offered prayers to the image of the emperor, and
cursed Christ, were set free (10.96.3-4a). Then, as he expounds upon his question about
the accusation to be made against the Christians, he claims to have found neither that they
were gathering for subversive reasons nor that their ritual involved any immoral
behavior. As he questioned the two deaconesses, he found no specific crimes, except for
their obstinacy in repeatedly affirming their belief in a perverse superstitio (10.96.4b-8).
Pliny's letter concludes with remarks about the extent to which Christianity had grown,
and his hopes that the affair, if properly curbed, might produce some benefit (10.96.9-10).
Trajan's response was short and to the point (10.97.1-2). He instructed Pliny to
continue to deal with the Christian situation in Bithynia in the same manner. He warned
that these Christians were not to be sought out and that the libellus was not to be allowed
in Pliny's court. Yet, by replying that Pliny has done what he ought, even when Pliny has
stated that noflagitia existed, Trajan clearly accepts that Christians were to be prosecuted
for the name. Such a reply was very judicious from a Roman standpoint. Again, the
primary duty of the provincial governors was to maintain peace. An uprising of the pagan
masses against the Christians presented a grave threat should the governor refuse to
punish those who were brought before him. Popular sentiment, as already noted, played a
large part in the Christian persecutions. But by not specifically seeking them out, Pliny
incurred the least amount of backlash from the smaller Christian community. Pliny,
although devoted to the Roman religion,1 would have been pleased to cooperate with
such advice. He had no personal agenda against these Christians, although he thought that
their religion might have a corrupting influence upon Roman society.2 In effect, the
course of action that these two men settled upon was to risk the minimal threat of
disturbance from the smaller Christian community so that the majority of the provincial
populace would remain peaceful. It also had the positive effect of portraying the
governmental authorities, the leaders of the Roman people in both secular and religious
areas, as willing to stand firm with its people in defending their ancient religion.
Attempts to understand the legal issues in Pliny have produced complex and
vastly differing interpretations. Keretzes (1964.204) claimed: "there is today an almost
1 Pliny's religious nature becomes evident by his closing remarks about the once desolate temples being
2 That Pliny wished, not to eliminate the Christians, but to rehabilitate them is proved by his final words in
10.96: Ex quo facile est opinari, quae turba hominum emendari possit, si sitpaenitentiae locus.
general agreement that the Christians, under normal circumstances, were not tried on the
basis of either the ius coercitionis or the general criminal law, but on the basis of a
special law introduced during Nero's rule." Yet in the following year, Crake (1965.61)
observed: "It also seems now to be clear that the normal procedure in dealing with
Christians was by exercise of the power of coercitio." As to the procedure of the trials
that were carried out against the Christians in Pliny's court, I can do no better than to
reiterate a few points made by Sherwin-White (1952). The theory of a general edict,
though plausible during Nero's reign, falls apart in the context of Pliny's letters. If such a
document had existed, why would Pliny have filled his letter with so many various
questions about the procedure? If it were the case that the new governor was somehow
not acquainted with the edict, why did Trajan fail to mention it in his rescript? Perhaps
one might argue that the edict was known to the governor, but was so vague as to leave
out some rather major points. Yet, this theory still fails to account for the complete failure
of either Pliny or Traj an to mention it. If an edict of intolerance towards Christianity were
so well-known that both the governor and the emperor could write about it without
mentioning it, it is difficult to understand how such a famous piece of legislation could
have gone half a century without addressing Pliny's questions. Furthermore, the emperors
Nero or Domitian3 would not have considered the Christians of the second half of the
first century C.E. so important as to devote so much attention to them. This presents the
greatest difficulty in assuming that Nero published an edict against the Christians
following the fires. Finally, "all scholars seem to be agreed that either de iure or defacto
the churches enjoyed effective property rights before the Decian troubles, save in
3 The adherents of the "general edict" theory fix the date of such an edict to the reign of one of these
moments of active persecution" (Sherwin-White 1952.201). If an edict of persecution
were established, it would have had effect upon all the provinces. Governors would have
been compelled to carry out orders to eliminate Christianity throughout the Roman
Empire. Yet Christian communities in Asia Minor, Palestine, and North Africa continued
to exist even during the years immediately following the fires. The sporadic nature of the
persecutions from 64-250 C.E. proves incompatible with this theory.4
To disprove the theory that the Christians who suffered during the second phase
of persecutions were punished for specific crimes takes much less effort. Any early
Christians who were guilty of crime would be dealt with just as any other common
criminal of the day under the public laws. Unless we are to believe that no magistrate
conducted an inquiry into the actual way of life of the early Christians until the time of
Pliny, and that these magistrates simply assumed crimes of a few to be prevalent among
the Christian majority, this theory fails to relate how any more widespread persecution
ever came into existence. Furthermore, Tacitus' remark that the Christians were punished
not so much for their involvement in the fires, but rather for their hatred of mankind and
Pliny's investigation that found the crimes associated with the name of Christianity
baseless stand in complete objection to this theory. To assert that the accusation against
the Christians in Pliny's court was their refusal to offer prayers to the image of the
emperor would be to miss the point. While Goodenough (1931.36) correctly identifies the
Roman's perception of the Christian's refusal to "drop a pinch of incense" before the
statue of an emperor as unpatriotic, this refusal only fueled public animosity against the
Christians, it was not the accusation brought against them in Pliny's court. The charge
4 One of the major points brought up in favor of the "general edict" is Tertullian's institutum Neronum. For
the proper understanding of this phrase, see Sherwin-White (1952.208-209).
was simply being a Christian.5 Pliny established the emperor test as a way of confirming
an individual's apostasy from the cult.
The coercitio theory,6 already mentioned before, seems most probable. As is
evident, at least after Trajan's reply, Pliny did not seek out the Christians. Instead, the
Christians were brought to him by individual delatores. The legal jurisdiction with
which Pliny presided over these trials was that of the cognitio process. This right was
inherent to the position of proconsul as a part of his imperium. As Sherwin-White
(1952.208) notes, the power of life and death over all non-Romans was also inherent in
the governor's imperium. With this power too, governors had a very wide range of power
in deciding which trials they would allow to be heard and in reaching judgments on
issues which were not dealt with by the codified laws (ordo iudiciorum publicorum) to
which all governors were subject. As de Ste. Croix (1963.11) points out: "Large areas of
Roman criminal and public law, however, were by contrast very unsatisfactory, and one
of the worst blemishes was precisely cognitio extra ordinem, the procedure by which the
large deficiencies of the quaestio system (the ordo uidiciorum publicorum, regulating the
punishment of what may be called 'statutory crimes'), which at least was subject to fairly
strict rules, were supplemented by direct governmental intervention." The only checks to
this power were specific imperial mandate or edicta, or the fear that once their
governorship had ended, accusations of judicial malpractice would be brought against
them. Since it has been proven most unlikely that such an edict about the Christians
5 Crake (1965.67-68) concludes: "By failing to answer Pliny's question, but telling him to carry on as he
had been doing, the rescript could be taken to imply that nomen ipsum was the proper charge." Yet I fail to
see how it could have been taken otherwise. See Sherwin-White (1966.710).
6 The following description of the judicial process by which the Christians were tried is largely indebted to
the work of Sherwin-White (1952) and de Ste. Croix (1963).
7 On the role of the delatores in relation to Christianity see Rutledge (2001.72-73, 75, 77).
existed, Pliny had no restraints, nor any guideline, for his judgments. He most likely
knew of the Neronian persecution, and evidently knew that Christians had been brought
to trial before, but he was never present at one of these. For this reason he wrote to
Trajan. As opposed to the "general edict" theory, this explanation corresponds well with
the sporadic nature of the persecutions during this phase. For it was within the governor's
prerogative to pursue the Christians as much or as little as he thought fit. The greater the
threat of civil unrest should he refuse to hear cases against Christians, the more likely a
governor would have been to pursue the Christians as the cause of disturbance. Pliny was
under a great deal of pressure to act against the Christians. He writes: Mox ipso tractatu,
utfieri solet, diffundente se crimine plures species inciderunt (10.96.4). Once it became
known that Pliny was hearing such cases, a larger number and greater variety of cases
were brought against the Christians. Yet his policies would last only as long as he held
his term of office. Upon arrival, the next governor could take up the same position as his
predecessor, or he could forge a different approach to the issue, provided that imperial
decree, or in Pliny's case imperial rescript, did not bind him to a certain course of action.
In contrast with theflagitia theory, this theory allows for a more widespread punishment
to be placed upon Christians, at least within a particular province. Individual prosecutors
would not have to attach crimes to the individual Christians whom they brought to trial.
Instead, delatores were permitted to prosecute and governors to punish Christians simply
for being Christians. This theory is wholly consistent with the policy which Pliny had
already been employing, and in which manner Traj an's rescript encouraged him to
SUMMARY AND CONCLUSION
The Bacchanalian conspiracy established Rome's course of action in refusing to
tolerate a foreign cult. This jurisdiction of the Roman government over both political and
religious affairs became all the more cemented during the Empire as the emperor
assumed the title pontifex maximus.1 But even at the turn of the 2nd century B.C.E., the
government's control over both is evident. It was not the case in 186 B.C.E., nor was it in
64 or 112 C.E., that the Roman government set aside its political power to deal with these
religious affairs on strictly religious grounds. Instead, Roman religion was a vital aspect
of the government's ability to fuse together a tight-knit, morally upright society, which
would be most effective for its purposes both in war and at peace. Upon the advent of a
foreign god or cult, Rome had to weigh the effects upon the solidarity and moral fortitude
of its citizenry. When the threat seemed sufficient to eliminate cult, it is no surprise that
the government termed the affair a coniuratio. For in destroying the religious ties that
bound Roman to Roman, the cult hindered the agenda of those in power.
Furthermore, the Bacchanalian conspiracy inaugurated a long list of foreign cults
that Rome, for various reasons, checked, expelled, or in some way repressed. Chaldeans
and astrologers, Jews, Druids, Isis-worshipers, and Christians during the next two
centuries all experienced Rome's intolerance in one form or another. By the time of the
arrival of Christianity, it is safe to assume that skepticism, at least among the Roman
1 Pliny 10.68 calls upon Trajan as pontifex maximus, a title that Roman emperors had assumed from
Augustus onwards, to decide the rights of family members to move burial sites of their relatives.
governing class, about such cults would have been prevalent. In time, after the succession
of these suppressions wore on, stock prejudices evolved. Those held against the
Christians, against which the Christian apologists wrote, are strikingly similar to the
secretive gatherings and nocturnal orgies of the Bacchants.
Rome's relation to Judaism had an even closer connection to her later interaction
with Christianity. The anti-social appearance, notoriety as trouble-making sects, and
proselytizing of both religions stimulated prejudice, fear, and ultimately suppression by
Roman authorities. Where Judaism had earned marginal respect because of its antiquity,
Christianity was more despised for deserting the traditions of its forefathers.
The most basic principal upon which the government based its decision for
tolerance or intolerance was the threat these imposed upon the peace and stability of the
Roman world, which indirectly threatened the prosperity of the ruling classes. In the first
place, these religions and cults undermined Rome's authority over her citizens. Secondly,
prejudices that arose among the masses, especially in provincial areas of the Empire, to a
certain extent dictated the Roman government's action. Finally, the political and religious
affairs of the Empire cannot be separated from one another. The manipulation of religious
affairs to secure the political agenda of an emperor, at the same time pontifex maximus,
was a natural result of this process. Roman religion was certainly not dead in the first
century C.E. Superstitiones were a grave threat to the pax deorum, especially among the
more religiously prone lower classes.2 Nero used this to his advantage in accusing the
Christians of odium generis humans. By Pliny's time, prosecuting Christians for their
2 Last (1937.83): "This 'tribal' motive (in which a society persecutes a group within it because they have
offended the gods upon whom the society as a whole depends for its safety) may not have actuated the
Roman government, or indeed any persons of enlightenment, during the first three centuries A.D.; but of its
potency among some of the classes opposed to the early church there can be no question."
nomen was an established practice, although it was sporadically enforced due to the
nature of the delatores process.
Finally, persecution has been applied to the actions of Rome against early
Christianity throughout this paper. Yet there have been critics who argue that the term is
inappropriate. 3 Bacchic ritual was expelled from Italy because of theflagitia that
occurred during their gatherings. For this reason no one considers Rome's reaction to the
Bacchants as persecution. Yet, in the aftermath of the fires, Tacitus explicitly states that
the Christians were not accused of incendiarism. Pliny found no crimes in their assembly.
If we are to understand events only from the Roman perspective, then a case could be
made that since religious matters were inherently political, and since the favor or disfavor
of the gods directly affected Rome's prosperity, the suppression of Christianity, whose
very existence had incurred the wrath of the gods in the form of the fires, was considered
only a survival tactic and a method of punishing crime in the Roman mind.4 But by this
reasoning, that is, by asking the oppressors what they think of their actions, it becomes
very difficult to apply persecution to any suppression of religion. Last (1937.89) is
correct in quoting Macullay's phrase: "there never was a religious persecution in which
some odious crime was not, justly or unjustly, said to be obviously deducible from the
doctrines of the persecuted party." The applicability of the term revolves upon the
perception of the action as just or unjust. To the modern reader Rome's actions were
unjust, especially since the division between church and state has been sharply
3 Getty (1966.292) opposes the use of the term in relation to the Neronian persecution: "So it was with
Nero's indictment of the Christians, and Hugh Last, for example, was correct in refusing to regard it as a
persecution. In holding that they were punished because 'of the fla,, ',, which made them invisi to the
vulgus,' he, in effect, was justifying odio human generis as the real incentive for their punishment."
4 Last (1937.89-90) concludes that Christians were perceived as having committed arson, and in this Rome
is justified in suppressing (not persecuting) them.
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Karl Valleskey was born in Detroit, MI, on March 11, 1981. He moved to
Houston, TX, with his family in 1982. He attended high school at Luther Preparatory
School in Watertown, WI. In 1999 he moved to New Ulm, MN, and graduated from
Martin Luther College with a Bachelor of Arts in 2003. He will receive a Master of Arts
in classical philology from the University of Florida in 2006.