Letters from Pliny and Trajan, 112 CE

Prof’s Notes

Pliny the Younger was a Roman aristocrat and administrator during the reign of the Roman Emperor Trajan (r. 98-117 CE). When Pliny wrote the letter you’ll read below he was serving as the governor of Bythinia and Pontus, a region of the Roman empire located in modern-day Turkey.

During his term as governor in the 110s CE, Pliny adjudicated a number of cases involving accusations against Christians. However, he was a bit uncertain about whether or how to prosecute members of this relatively new religion. (Christianity only begins to take shape in the 50s/60s CE.) His letter deals with particularities – How many times should a person be questioned and given an opportunity to recant? Should old and young men, or men and women, be prosecuted the same way? Should he accept anonymous accusations?

Pliny’s uncertainty and Trajan’s reply give us a window into the complexities of the Romans’ attitudes toward Christian. While persecution could be widespread (as was the case for Clement in Alexandria), the two brief letters here seems to imply more of a live-and-let-live approach.

Pliny’s Letter to Trajan & Trajan’s Reply

Pliny’s Letter

It is my practice, my lord, to refer to you all matters concerning which I am in doubt. For who can better give guidance to my hesitation or inform my ignorance? I have never participated in trials of Christians. I therefore do not know what offenses it is the practice to punish or investigate, and to what extent. And I have been not a little hesitant as to whether there should be any distinction on account of age or no difference between the very young and the more mature; whether pardon is to be granted for repentance, or, if a man has once been a Christian, it does him no good to have ceased to be one; whether the name itself, even without offenses, or only the offenses associated with the name are to be punished.

Meanwhile, in the case of those who were denounced to me as Christians, I have observed the following procedure: I interrogated these as to whether they were Christians; those who confessed I interrogated a second and a third time, threatening them with punishment; those who persisted I ordered executed. For I had no doubt that, whatever the nature of their creed, stubbornness and inflexible obstinacy surely deserve to be punished. There were others possessed of the same folly; but because they were Roman citizens, I signed an order for them to be transferred to Rome.

Soon accusations spread, as usually happens, because of the proceedings going on, and several incidents occurred. An anonymous document was published containing the names of many persons. Those who denied that they were or had been Christians, when they invoked the gods in words dictated by me, offered prayer with incense and wine to your image, which I had ordered to be brought for this purpose together with statues of the gods, and moreover cursed Christ–none of which those who are really Christians, it is said, can be forced to do–these I thought should be discharged. Others named by the informer declared that they were Christians, but then denied it, asserting that they had been but had ceased to be, some three years before, others many years, some as much as twenty-five years. They all worshipped your image and the statues of the gods, and cursed Christ.

They asserted, however, that the sum and substance of their fault or error had been that they were accustomed to meet on a fixed day before dawn and sing responsively a hymn to Christ as to a god, and to bind themselves by oath, not to some crime, but not to commit fraud, theft, or adultery, not falsify their trust, nor to refuse to return a trust when called upon to do so. When this was over, it was their custom to depart and to assemble again to partake of food–but ordinary and innocent food. Even this, they affirmed, they had ceased to do after my edict by which, in accordance with your instructions, I had forbidden political associations. Accordingly, I judged it all the more necessary to find out what the truth was by torturing two female slaves who were called deaconesses. But I discovered nothing else but depraved, excessive superstition.

I therefore postponed the investigation and hastened to consult you. For the matter seemed to me to warrant consulting you, especially because of the number involved. For many persons of every age, every rank, and also of both sexes are and will be endangered. For the contagion of this superstition has spread not only to the cities but also to the villages and farms. But it seems possible to check and cure it. It is certainly quite clear that the temples, which had been almost deserted, have begun to be frequented, that the established religious rites, long neglected, are being resumed, and that from everywhere sacrificial animals are coming, for which until now very few purchasers could be found. Hence it is easy to imagine what a multitude of people can be reformed if an opportunity for repentance is afforded.

Trajan’s Reply

You observed proper procedure, my dear Pliny, in sifting the cases of those who had been denounced to you as Christians. For it is not possible to lay down any general rule to serve as a kind of fixed standard. They are not to be sought out; if they are denounced and proved guilty, they are to be punished, with this reservation, that whoever denies that he is a Christian and really proves it–that is, by worshiping our gods–even though he was under suspicion in the past, shall obtain pardon through repentance. But anonymously posted accusations ought to have no place in any prosecution. For this is both a dangerous kind of precedent and out of keeping with the spirit of our age.


  1. The Romans didn’t have a standard policy about what to do with Christians. The treatment of Christians and other religious minorities often depended on who the emperor or regional governor was in a given time and place. Do keep in mind that Pliny was writing roughly 100 years before Clement in a different part of the empire. (Pliny was writing from the province of Bithynia-Pontus; Clement was in Alexandria, Egypt)

  2. The Romans practiced a two-tiered system of legal protections. Everyone living in the Roman empire owed taxes, could sue or be prosecuted in court, and could be subject to punishment. Roman citizens, though, differed from other Roman subjects. They had a number of privileges under Roman law, but the most important one for this letter is that citizens could not be condemned to death without a trial by jury.

  3. From Augustus forward, the Roman emperor was worshipped as a god. This meant that Roman subjects were expected to offer wine and incense to an image of the emperor on a regular basis. Refusing to do so was treason because a person was essentially saying they wished the emperor ill and did not recognize his power and authority. Pliny writes here that when Christians prayed to the Roman gods and offered wine/incense to a statue of the emperor, he let them go. Their offerings proved to him that they were loyal to the Empire.

  4. Pliny finds it noteworthy that Christians were not involved in any crimes and only ate ordinary food because many of the rumors about Christians in this era accused them of orgies, cannibalism, and rebellion. We’ll talk more about this in class.

  5. Note the language here. Pliny is trying Christians because he is afraid of political threats, not purely religious ones.

  6. Deacons/Deaconesses were local church administrators and leaders. They were in charge of organizing, hosting, and leading meetings of Christians. We have good evidence from the Christian bible and other sources that women were often the hosts/leaders for local churches. Based on Pliny’s account, it appears class was also a non-issue – the deaconesses were slave women.