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In a multitude of ways this force was benevolent. There were many countries, and, in consequence, many wars. With the reforms which might be hoped for from the excellent statesmen who were at the head of affairs, the aims of humanity seemed to be attained. We have already shown how that species of golden age of the Liberals, that government of the wisest and most honest men was hard,—worse, in a sense, than that of Nero and Domitian. Cold, correct, moderate statesmen, knowing only the law, applying it even with indulgence, could not fail to be persecutors; for the law was a persecutor; it did not permit what the Church of Jesus regarded as of the very essence of its divine institution.

Everything proves, in fact, that Trajan was the first systematic persecutor of Christianity. The proceedings against the Christians, without being very frequent, 242took place many times under his reign. His political principles, his zeal for the official religion, his aversion for everything that resembled a secret society, involved him in it. He was equally urged forward by public opinion. Outbreaks against the Christians were not rare. The government, whilst satisfying its own suspicions, acquired by its severities against the calumniated sect a varnish of popularity. The riots and the persecutions which followed them, were altogether local in character. There was not under Trajan what under Decius and Diocletian was called a general persecution, but the condition of the Church was unstable and unequal. It was dependent upon caprices, and such caprices as came from the crowd were usually more to be feared than those of the agents of authority. Amongst the agents of authority themselves, the most enlightened—Tacitus, for example, and Suetonius—nourished the most deeply-rooted prejudices against “the new superstition.” Tacitus regards it as the first duty of a good statesman to stifle at the same time both Judaism and Christianity, “melancholy offshoots of the same stalk.”

That becomes manifest in a very sensible manner when one of the most honest, the most upright, the most educated, the most liberal men of the time found himself brought by his duties into the presence of the problem which was coming to the front, and was beginning to embarrass the best minds. Pliny was named in the year 111 Imperial Legate Extraordinary in the provinces of Bithynia and Pontus, that is to say, in all the north of Asia Minor. This country had until then been governed by annual pro-consuls, senators drawn by lot, who had administered it with the greatest negligence. In some respects liberty had gained thereby. Shut off from high political questions, these administrators of a day occupied themselves less than they might have done with the future of the Empire. The public treasury had fallen into a 243state of extreme dilapidation; finances and the public works of the province were in a pitiable state; but whilst they were occupied in amusing or enriching themselves, these governors bad left the country to follow its own instincts at will. Disorder, as often happens, had profited by liberty.

The official religion had to sustain it only the support which it received from the Empire: abandoned to itself by those indifferent prefects, it had fallen altogether into disrepute. In certain districts, the temples were in ruins. The professional and religious associations, the heteries, which were so strongly to the taste of Asia Minor, had been infinitely developed; Christianity, profiting by the facilities offered by the officials charged with its suppression, gained in all districts. We have seen that Asia and Galatia were the places where in all the world the new religion had found the greatest favour. Thence it had made surprising progress towards the Black Sea. Manners were altogether changed. Meats offered to idols, which were one of the sources of the provision of the markets, could not be sold. The firm knot of faithful might not be very numerous, but around it sympathetic crowds were grouped, half initiated, inconstant, capable of hiding their faith at the appearance of danger, but at bottom not detaching themselves from it. There were in those corporate conversions fashionable enthusiasms, gusts of wind which from time to time carried to the Church, and took away from it, waves of unstable populations, but the courage of the leaders was superior to all trials; their hatred of idolatry led them to brave everything to maintain the point of honour of the faith which they had embraced.

Pliny, a perfectly honest man and scrupulous executor of the Imperial orders, was soon at work to bring back to the provinces which had been entrusted to him both order and law. Experience was wanting 244to him; he was rather an amiable man of letters than an able administrator; in almost all matters of business he was in the habit of consulting directly with the Emperor. Trajan answered him, letter for letter, and that precious correspondence has been preserved to us. Upon the daily orders of the Emperor everything was watched over, reformed; he required authorisations for the smallest matters. A formal edict suppressed the heteries; the most inoffensive corporations were dissolved. It was the custom in Bithynia to celebrate certain family events and local festivities by great assemblies in which a thousand persons might be gathered. They were suppressed. Liberty, which in most cases slips into the world in a surreptitious fashion only, was reduced to almost nothing.

It was inevitable that the Christian Churches should be attacked by a meticulous policy which saw everywhere the spectre of the heteries, and disquieted itself over a society of five hundred workmen instituted by authority to act as firemen. Pliny often met on his path innocent sectaries, the danger of whom he did not readily see. In the different stages of his career as an advocate and magistrate he had never been concerned in any proceedings against the Christians. Denunciations now multiplied daily; arrests must follow. The Imperial Legate, following the summary procedure of the justice of the time, made some examples; he decided to send to Rome those who were Roman citizens; he put two deaconesses to the torture. All that he discovered appeared to him childish. He wished to shut his eyes, but the laws of the Empire were absolute; the informations passed all measure; he found himself in the way to put the entire country under arrest.

It was at Amisus, on the border of the Black Sea, in the autumn of the year 112, that this difficulty became a dominant care for him. It is probable that 245the last incidents which disturbed him had taken place at Amastris, a city which in the second century was the centre of Christianity in Pontus. Pliny, according to custom, wrote of it to the Emperor:

I consider it my duty, sire, to refer to you all matters on which I have doubts. Who can direct my hesitations or instruct my ignorance better than you? I have never taken part in any proceedings against the Christians, hence I know not whether I ought to punish or to hunt them out, nor how far I ought to go. For example, I do not know if I ought to make any distinction of age, or if in such a matter there ought to be no difference between youth and ripe age; if I must pardon upon repentance, or if he who has become altogether a Christian ought to profit by ceasing to be one; if it is the name itself apart from all crime that should be punished, or the crimes which are inseparable from the name. In the meantime, the course which I have adopted with regard to all those who have been brought before me as Christians, has been to inquire first if they are Christians; those who have avowed themselves to be such, I have interrogated a second time; a third time threatening them with punishment; those who have persisted, I have sent to death; one point in effect beyond all doubt for me being that, whether the fact admitted be criminal or not, that inflexible obstinacy and persistency deserved to be punished. There are some other unhappy persons attacked with the same madness, who, in view of their rank as Roman citizens, I have directed to be sent to Rome. Then in the course of the process the crime as generally happens, branching out widely, many species of it are presented. An anonymous libel has been deposited containing many names. Those who have denied that they either were or had been Christians, I have thought it right to release, when after me they have invoked the gods, when they have offered incense and wine to your image, with which I have supplemented the statues of the divinities, and when, moreover, they have cursed Christus, all which things I am assured they could not be forced to do if they were Christians. Others named by the informer have said that they were Christians, and immediately have denied that they were, avowing that they had been, but asserting that they had ceased to be, some for three years, some for still longer, others for as many as twenty years. All these also have paid honour to your image, and to the statues of the gods, and have cursed Christ. Now these affirm that all their offence or all their error was confined to meeting habitually on fixed days before sunrise to sing together alternately (? antiphonically) a hymn to Christus as God, and to swear not to such 246and such certain crimes, but not to commit thefts, highway robbery, adultery, not fail to keep sworn faith, not to refuse to restore a pledge; that that done they used to retire, then to meet together again to take a meal, but an ordinary and perfectly innocent meal; that even that had ceased, since by your orders I had forbidden the hateries. That made it necessary in my eyes to proceed to discover the truth by the torture of two servants, of those whom they call deaconesses. I found nothing but an evil, unmeasured superstition. So, suspending the inquiry, I resolved to consult you. The business has appeared to me to require that I should do so, especially because of the number of those who are in peril. A great number of persons in effect, of every age, of every condition, of both sexes, are called to justice or will be; it is not only in the cities, but in the towns and in the rural districts that the contagion of this superstition has spread. I think that it may yet be stopped and remedied. Already it is reported that the temples which were almost abandoned, have begun to be frequented once more, that the solemn festivals which had long been interrupted, have recommenced, and that the flesh of victims (“meats offered to idols”) is again exposed, though the buyers have been few. From which it may readily be believed how great a number of men may be reclaimed if a place of repentance be left open.

Trajan answered:

Thou hast followed the path thou should’st have taken, my dear Secundus, in examining the cases of those who have been brought before thy tribunal as Christians. In such a matter it is impossible to devise a fixed rule for all cases. They should not be sought out. If they are denounced and are convicted, they must be punished in such a way, however, that he who denies that he is a Christian, and who proves his words by his acts,—that is to say, by addressing his supplications to our gods, shall obtain pardon as a reward for his repentance, whatever may have been the suspicions which weigh upon him for the past. As for anonymous denunciations, we most not take account of the species of accusation which is brought, for this concerns a detestable example which is no longer of our time.

No more misunderstandings! To be a Christian, is to be in disagreement with the law, is to merit death From Trajan’s time Christianity is a crime against the State. Some tolerant Emperors of the third century will alone consent to shut their eyes and allow men to be Christians if they chose. A good 247administration, according to the most benevolent ideas of the Emperors, ought not to try to find too many criminals; it does not encourage informers, but it encourages apostacy by pardoning renegades. To teach, to advise, to reward the most immoral acts, that which most lowers a man in his own eyes, appears wholly natural. Here is the error into which one of the best governments that ever existed has allowed itself to be drawn, because it has touched matters of conscience, and has preserved the old principle of the State religion, a principle which was natural enough in the small cities of antiquity, which were only an extension of the family, but dangerous in a great Empire composed of parts having neither the same history nor the same moral needs.

It is equally evident from these invaluable documents that Christians were not persecuted as Jews, as has been the case under Domitian. They are persecuted as Christians. There is no longer any confusion in the judicial world, though in the world outside it still existed. Judaism was not a crime: it had even outside its days of revolt, its guarantees, and privileges. Strange thing! Judaism, which revolted thrice against the Empire with a nameless fury, was never officially persecuted; the evil treatment which the Jews endured are, like those of the Rayahs in Mahometan countries, the consequence of a subordinate position, not a legal punishment; very rarely, in the second and third century, because he will not sacrifice to idols or to the image of the Emperor. More than once even we find the Jews protected by the administration against the Christians. On the contrary, Christianity, which was never in revolt, was in reality outside the law. Judaism had, if it may be so expressed, its Concordat with the Empire; Christianity had none. The Roman policy felt that Christianity was the white ant which was eating away the heart of antique society. Judaism did not 248aspire to penetrate the Empire; it dreamed of its supernatural overthrow; in its hours of insanity it took arms, killed everyone, struck blindly, then, like a raving madman, allowed itself to be chained after its paroxysm, whilst Christianity continued its work slowly, gently. Humble and modest in appearance, it had a boundless ambition; between it and the Empire the struggle was to the death.

Trajan’s answer to Pliny was not a law; but it supposed laws and fixed the interpretation of them. The temperaments indicated by the wise Emperor should have been of small consequence. It was too easy to find pretexts, for the ill-will with which Christians were regarded to find itself hampered. A signed denunciation relating to an ostensible act was all that was necessary. Now the attitude of a Christian in passing before temples, his questions in the markets as to the origin of the meats he found there; his absence from public festivals, pointed him out at once. Thus local persecutions never ceased. It was less the Emperors than the Pro-Consuls who persecuted. All depended upon the good or the ill-will of the governors, and the good-will was rare. The time had gone by when the Roman aristocracy would receive these exotic novelties with a sort of benevolent curiosity. It had now but a cold disdain for the follies it declined out of pure moderation and pity for human weaknesses to suppress at a moment’s notice. The people, on the other hand, showed themselves fanatical enough. He who never sacrificed, or who, in passing before a sacred edifice. did not waft it a kiss of adoration, went in danger of his life.

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