ROMAN VIEWS OF THE EARLY CHRISTIANS
A TYPICAL ROMAN MISCONCEPTION OF THE EARLY CHRISTIANS: THE STATEMENT OF M. F. OCTAVIUS
Many Romans misunderstood the beliefs and rituals of early Christians, believing them to be anti-social, lustful, depraved, superstitious and even cannibals. The Roman official Ocatvius' view is typical of these anti-Christian views. The charge of ritual cannibalism was probably based on confused accounts of the Christian Eucharist.
"And now, as wickeder things advance more fruitfully, and abandoned manners creep on day by day, those abominable shrines of an impious assembly are maturing themselves throughout the whole world. Assuredly this confederacy ought to be rooted out and execrated. They know one another by secret marks and insignia, and they love one another almost before they know one another; everywhere also there is mingled among them a certain religion of lust, and they call one another promiscuously brothers and sisters, that even a not unusual debauchery may by the intervention of that sacred name become incestuous: it is thus that their vain and senseless superstition glories in crimes.
Nor, concerning these things, would intelligent report speak of things so great and various, and requiring to be prefaced by an apology, unless truth were at the bottom of it. I hear that they adore the head of an ass, that basest of creatures, consecrated by I know not what silly persuasion, a worthy and appropriate religion for such manners. Some say that they worship the genitals of their pontiff and priest, and adore the nature, as it were, of their common parent. I know not whether these things are false; certainly suspicion is applicable to secret and nocturnal rites; and he who explains their ceremonies by reference to a man punished by extreme suffering for his wickedness, and to the deadly wood of the cross, appropriates fitting altars for reprobate and wicked men, that they may worship what they deserve.
Now the story about the initiation of young novices is as much to be detested as it is well known. An infant covered over with meal, that it may deceive the unwary, is placed before him who is to be stained with their rites: this infant is slain by the young pupil, who has been urged on as if to harmless blows on the surface of the meal, with dark and secret wounds. Thirstily - O horror! they lick up its blood; eagerly they divide its limbs. By this victim they are pledged together; with this consciousness of wickedness they are covenanted to mutual silence.
EMPEROR TRAJAN & PLINY THE YOUNGER:
"What Should We Do About These Christians?"
By the reign of Trajan, the earliest persecution of the Christians had already happened under Nero. As Christianity spread throughout the Roman Empire, many Romans increasingly saw it as a threat to public order and morality, viewing it as a cult. The Roman government was usually tolerant of the many different religions practiced across the empire, but also began to see Christianity as a threat. This was mainly due to the monotheism of Christianity, which like Judaism, denies the existence of other gods. By Trajan's time, the cult of the deified Roman Emperor was also well established, and Roman citizens were periodically required to pay homage to him at local temples. This act was seen as a political duty more than a religious one. Jews, with a long established tradition of monotheism and a closed religious community which was not evangelical, was given a "pass" by the Roman government. Jews who refused to worship the Emperor were not seen as disloyal. But when the dynamic and controversial new faith Christianity rejected the Emperor cult, Christians were perceived as political enemies of Rome itself.
About 112 AD Trajan appointed Pliny the Younger, a distinguished Senator, to be governor of the troubled province of Bithyia. In a series of letters, Pliny consulted the on a number of policy issues, including the question of how to deal with the Christians.
Pliny and Trajan: Correspondence, c. 112 CE
Pliny to Trajan: "It is my custom, Sire, to refer to you in all cases where I am in doubt, for who can better clear up difficulties and inform me? I have never been present at any legal examination of the Christians, and I do not know, therefore, what are the usual penalties passed upon them, or the limits of those penalties, or how searching an inquiry should be made. I have hesitated a great deal in considering whether any distinctions should be drawn according to the ages of the accused; whether the weak should be punished as severely as the more robust, or whether the man who has once been a Christian gained anything by recanting? Again, whether the name of being a Christian, even though otherwise innocent of crime, should be punished, or only the crimes that gather around it?
In the meantime, this is the plan that I have adopted in the case of those Christians who have been brought before me. I ask them whether they are Christians, if they say 'Yes,' then I repeat the question the second time, and also a third - warning them of the penalties involved; and if they persist, I order them away to prison. For I do not doubt that - be their admitted crime what it may - their pertinacity and inflexible obstinacy surely ought to be punished.
There were others who showed similar mad folly, whom I reserved to be sent to Rome, as they were Roman citizens. Later, as is commonly the case, the mere fact of my entertaining the question led to a multiplying of accusations and a variety of cases were brought before me. An anonymous pamphlet was issued, containing a number of names of alleged Christians. Those who denied that they were or had been Christians and called upon the gods with the usual formula, reciting the words after me, and those who offered incense and wine before your image - which I had ordered to be brought forward for this purpose, along with the regular statues of the gods - all such I considered acquitted - especially as they cursed the name of Christ, which it is said true Christians cannot be induced to do.
Still others there were, whose names were supplied by an informer. These first said they were Christians, then denied it, insisting they had been, 'but were so no longer;' some of them having 'recanted many years ago,' and more than one 'full twenty years back.' These all worshiped your image and the god's statues and cursed the name of Christ.
But they declared their guilt or error was simply this - on a fixed day they used to meet before dawn and recite a hymn among themselves to Christ, as though he were a god. So far from binding themselves by oath to commit any crime, they swore to keep from theft, robbery, adultery, breach of faith, and not to deny any trust money deposited with them when called upon to deliver it. This ceremony over, they used to depart and meet again to take food - but it was of no special character, and entirely harmless. They also had ceased from this practice after the edict I issued - by which, in accord with your orders, I forbade all secret societies.
I then thought it the more needful to get at the facts behind their statements. Therefore I placed two women, called 'deaconesses,' under torture, but I found only a debased superstition carried to great lengths, so I postponed my examination, and immediately consulted you. This seems a matter worthy of your prompt consideration, especially as so many people are endangered. Many of all ages and both sexes are put in peril of their lives by their accusers; and the process will go on, for the contagion of this superstition has spread not merely through the free towns, but into the villages and farms. Still I think it can be halted and things set right. Beyond any doubt, the temples - which were nigh deserted - are beginning again to be thronged with worshipers; the sacred rites, which long have lapsed, are now being renewed, and the food for the sacrificial victims is again finding a sale - though up to recently it had almost no market. So one can safely infer how vast numbers could be reclaimed, if only there were a chance given for repentance."
Trajan to Pliny: "You have adopted the right course, my dear Pliny, in examining the cases of those cited before you as Christians; for no hard and fast rule can be laid down covering such a wide question. The Christians are not to be hunted out. If brought before you, and the offense is proved, they are to be punished, but with this reservation - if any one denies he is a Christian, and makes it clear he is not, by offering prayer to our gods, then he is to be pardoned on his recantation, no matter how suspicious his past. As for anonymous pamphlets, they are to be discarded absolutely, whatever crime they may charge, for they are not only a precedent of a very bad type, but they do not accord with the spirit of our age."