How Rome saw the Christians
How did Christianity appear to the men and women of the Roman Empire? How did it look to the outsider before it became the established religion of western Europe and Byzantium? Because of the close proximity of the Christians, how did the non-Christians feel about the Christians? What kind of opposition was shown toward Christianity? A precise time when Christians were recognized as a separate group from Jews cannot be determined. The Apocalypse makes a clear distinction between the Christians and the Jews (Rev. 2:9, 3:9). By the time of Tacitus and Suetonius in the early second century, Roman writers drew the distinction. Whether the distinction was made during the reign of Nero cannot be located.
By the time of Pliny in 112, Roman officials as a distinct group of people considered Christians, separate from Jewish communities. Most likely by the last decade of the first century, when John writes, city-dwellers in Asia who were neither Christians nor Jewish knew that there was a difference between those who went to synagogue and those who gathered in house churches. Distinctions probably arose at different times among different groups. Jewish Christians could probably still claim whatever Jewish rights they had, so long as Jews did not challenge the claim of Jewish Christians to “membership” in the synagogue. House churches and other Christian associations could not claim special Jewish privileges. The Jewish synagogues and other associations in Asian cities opposed on the social level the Christian theological claim that Christianity was the true Jewish community.
Pliny’s letters reflect a fundamental suspicion of Christianity. The state did not seek out Christians, but Roman official and local citizens seem to agree that Christianity was a troublesome affiliation that deserved punishment (Ep. 10.97). Christians were placed along with the Bacchants and Druids as antisocial and a danger to the social integrity of the empire. Activity that was specifically Christian was suspect to the local citizens. Considered foreign, secretive and exclusive, it was superstition that affected urban order and tradition that was supported by traditional, customary, public, and inclusive religious piety. Obvious conflict between Christians and non-Christians that required official, legal action was rare. In most areas of the Roman Empire, Christians lived quietly and peaceably with their neighbors without disturbing their affairs. Most early Christian literature associated with Asia, Bithynia and Pontus supports this ideal living peacefully in the Roman social order.
The Apocalypse presents a minority report on how Christians relate to the larger Roman society. John is advocating attitudes and styles of life not in agreement with how must Christians were living in the cities of the province of Asia.
The story of early Christian history has been told almost wholly on the basis of Christian sources. The Gospels of the New Testament, the letters of the apostle Paul, the writing of Ignatius of Antioch, Clement of Rome, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Tertillian, Origen. These and similar works have provided us with our primary body of information about early Christianity. Most of the early apologists were brought up as pagans and only converted to Christianity later in life.
New documents have been found at Nag Hammadi in Egypt which have expanded the collection of sources. There are Gnostic writings that were produced by Christians but have been labeled deviant and heretical.
However, there is another body of material that does not come from Christians. They are the observation of pagan observers of Christianity, both Roman and Greek writers. Some are offhand comments in works dealing with other topics, others are frontal attacks on Christianity. All provide a unique perspective on the emerging church.
What is their value? The observations of pagans are valuable in the earliest period in Christian history because those who commented on the new movement had little prior knowledge on which to base their views.
The first mention of the Christian movement by a Roman writer was Pliny, the governor in the province of Bithynia (modern Turkey), at the beginning of the second century. He called Christianity a “superstition.”
Later in the second century, Celsus, a Greek philosopher, wrote that Jesus was a magician and sorcerer. He wrote “True Doctrine” against Christianity in about 180 A.D. Everything we know of Celsus’s book comes from Origen, a Christian theologian and apologist from Alexandria. Origen wrote a massive defense of Christianity against Celsus, “Contra Celsum,” seventy years later. That words needed refutation seventy years after it was written is an indication of how seriously Christians took its arguments. Origen cited Celsus at length and verbatim.
Two other major components of Christianity in the ancient world who wrote exclusively to Christianity was Porphyry, a Neoplatonic philosopher living in the third century, and Julian, a Roman emperor who reigned in the fourth century. These works too can be reconstructed through books of Christian apologists who sought to refute them.
There are a number of authors from whom is less information but who do help to fill out the picture of the Christians as the Romans saw them. They are Pliny, Galen, the physician-philosopher who cam to know Christians in Rome in the middle of the second century, and Lucian, the satirist who poked fun at the Christians, as he did everything else in his world.
Most of the comments of outsiders on Christianity have come down in fragmentary form. They appear as casual and perfunctory observations in letters or essays or histories dealing with some other topic. Some derive from books attacking Christianity that were destroyed. Yet the number of fragments that survive is considerable, and they offer a vivid and uncommon portrait of Christianity.
How to evaluate these statements about Jesus and Christianity? Question, do they tells us something about the kind of religion Christianity was during this period? Do these statements reflect simple prejudice or slander? What do comments of this sort mean in the world in which Christianity was first making its way?
It is possible to analyze these statements with some confidence to reconstruct what was thought about Christianity, how it compared to other religious cults and the more traditional forms of religion, what Christians believed and how they lives, and why Christianity should be resisted.
The perceptions of outsiders tell something significant about the character of the Christian movement, and that without the views of those who made up the world in which Christianity grew to maturity, what Christianity is and was will not be properly understood. In the social world, the perception of others is an essential part of the reality people inhabit.
We have a distorted view of the history of the early Christianity. The historian of the Roman Empire, who trained and perspective could view Christianity within the larger historical picture, has seldom bothered to look closely at the Christian sources.
The student of Christianity must become familiar with the pagan sources. This disjunction between Roman history and Christian history is also reflected in the ancient documents. For almost a century Christianity went unnoticed by most men and women in the Roman Empire. When the Christian movement first appeared, there was little common ground of understanding between Christians and non-Christians. The earliest Christian writings present the life of Jesus and the beginning of the church as the turning point in history, whereas non-Christians see the Christian community as a tiny, peculiar, antisocial, irreligious sect, drawing its adherents from the lower strata of society.
In the section on Palestine in the elder Pliny’s Natural History, a book written approximately a generation after the death of Jesus, he does not mention Jesus or the beginnings of Christianity. By the that time many of the books of the New Testament had already been written. The first mention of the Christian in a Roman writer does not occur until eighty years after the beginning of Christianity.
One must bring the world of ancient Rome into closer conjunction with that of early Christianity. Pagan thoughts about religion and philosophy and the society in which they lived, while at the same time shedding light on early Christianity.
Pliny the Younger
Shortly after Pliny’s arrival in the city of Bithynia, a group of local citizens approached him to complain about Christians living in the vicinity. Possibly local merchants, butchers and others engaged in the slaughter and sale of sacrificial meat, brought this charge.
Business was poor because people were not making sacrifices. No doubt trouble arose between Christians and others in the city. In most areas of the Roman Empire Christians lived quietly and peaceably among their neighbors, conducting their affairs without disturbance. The letter of 1 Peter, however, written late in the first century to Christians living in Pontus and Bithynia, as well as other places in Asia Minor, does mention that people “speak against [Christians] as wrongdoers,” 1 Peter 2:12.
Pliny was not unfamiliar with Christianity, but there is no mention of Christians in any of his other letters, and his knowledge of the new movement must have been slight and largely second-hand. On previous occasions Roman officials had to deal with troublesome foreign religious groups, such as the Druids, the Bacchae and the Jews.
Livy, the Roman historian, whose writings Pliny knew, recounts a particularly well-known case early in the second century B.C., when the Roman senate suppressed the spread of Bacchic rituals in Italy. It’s nocturnal rites transplanted from Greece to Etruria in Italy, shocked the sober Roman sensibilities. Livy stated the secret ritual included “pleasure of wine and feasts” and ecstatic dancing in the forest outside the city. His writings influenced later Roman attitudes toward foreign religious groups. Some things reported by Livy, such as the mingling of males and females, the abandonment of modesty, the indiscriminate defilement of women, appear in reports about the Christians.
Against the Bacchae, Roman officials took a firm line, banning them from Rome and Italy. When Pliny was informed of the presence of the Christian group in Bithynia, it is possible that he saw similarities between the Christians and the Bacchae. He knew they met for a secret ritual and he must of wondered what went on in those gatherings. He may also have heard other rumors about the new religion.
He indicated that he expected to find evidence that Christians were guilty of “crimes.” But he did not specify what those crimes were. No long after Pliny, Christians were accused of clandestine rites involving promiscuous intercourse and ritual meals in which human flesh was eaten, so-called Thystean banquets and Oedipean unions. Thystes, who seduced his brother’s wife, was invited to a banquet in which his sons were served up to him. But they is no what of knowing what stories were circulating.
In his letter to Trajan a statement that Christians only “took food of an ordinary, harmless kind” suggests that he may have heard rumors of sinister activities in Christian gatherings.
Charges of immorality and licentiousness were often brought against deviant individuals or groups. Later accounts of Christian wantonness are often quite specific and the accusations often follow a common pattern. A number of Christian writers mention bizarre rites practiced by certain libertine groups, for example, the Gnostic sect known as the Carpocratians.
Pliny found a “superstition,” a foreign cult. As a result Pliny was unsure how to deal with the problem. He referred the matter to Trajan. But he did not wait to a reply before acting. His behavior appears impulsive and out of character, and suggests that he received intense pressure from local magistrates and that the situation required immediate action. Perhaps Pliny knew more than he let on and he was confident of the legal ground for his action. After hearing the charges, he summoned the Christians, old and young alike, families and persons who were openly associated with the Christian movement.
There is no hint the Christians had anything to do with Jews or that they came from Jewish background. It is likely that some were converted Jews. But Pliny treated the Christians as an independent sect. The majority of the group no doubt came from humble backgrounds, freedmen and slaves, working people, and artisans.
The Romans sometimes followed a trial procedure known as “cognitio extra ordinem.” It did not require several judges and lawyers or a jury, but was simple and more efficient. It required that the party appear before the governor and that he hear the evidence and adjudicate the matter on his own authority.
Pliny first asked each person if he were a Christian while at the same time warning him that if he answered yes he would be executed. After asking him the first time he put the same question a second time, and then a third time. When he had received a definite yes from some members of the group, he sent them off to be executed.
In his letter to Trajan, he had requested whether the “mere name of Christians… is punishable, even if innocent of crime, or rather the crimes associated with the name” is cause for punishment. But he proceeded on the assumption that Christians were culpable, that is guilty for the sake of the name alone. His action was confirmed by Trajan, and on this basis he acted.
Pliny wrote “Whatever the nature of their admission, I am convinced that their stubbornness and unshakable obstinacy ought not to go unpunished.” Among those brought before Pliny some held Roman citizenship. His imperium as provincial governor did not allow him to convict Roman citizens and summarily send them away to be executed. He put these few in prison, added their names to a list of other citizens already in jail, and prepared to have them sent to Rome for trial. What happened to them we do not know.
Soon afterward the matter of the Christians came up again. Pliny was not surprised, “Now that I have begun to deal with this problem, as so often happens, the charges are becoming more widespread and increasing in variety.”
His comments imply Christians in the city were unpopular with the local citizenry. The Christians probably kept to themselves. They were scornful of the traditional worship and gods. They made coverts chiefly among the lower classes, rejecting efforts to discuss their religion with educated people. They asks others “only to believe, do not ask questions.” They were suspected of committing unspecified “crimes.”
Despite the attitudes there is little evidence of persecution of Christians, and the instances of persecution are sporadic and confined to particular locales.
New charges were in the form of an anonymous pamphlet containing the names of a number of supposed Christians. The list included the names of some people who denied they were Christians. Others at first admitted that they were Christians and later denied it, claiming that they had once belonged to the sect but had left it two or more years before. No doubt Christians would have called these people “apostates” because they had rejected their earlier faith.
In this early period of Christianity, not everyone who became a Christian remained a Christian for the rest of his or her life. Some initially joined the Christian sect because they found the figure Jesus attractive, others because they were persuaded of the superiority of the Christian way of life by the behavior of a friend, others because they had married Christians. This was an age when religious distinctions were often blurred, people change allegiances often and sometimes belonged to more than one religious group in the course of a lifetime. There was much movement in and out of religious associations and across organizational lines. When Christianity did not meet some people’s expectations, they lost interest.
Trajan supported Pliny’ action, while insisting, as Pliny had, that the Christians be treated fairly, and not made to suffer from calumny or slander. (Ep. 10.97)
Once Pliny had resolved the matter to his satisfaction, he went about his business as before, without making any mention of Christianity again. Sometime during the next year he died without having the chance to return to Rome, 113 A.D.
Christianity as a Burial Society, Political Club, or Church
By the early part of the second century, when Pliny was living in Asia Minor, Christian groups could be found in perhaps forty or fifty cities within the Roman Empire. Most groups were quite small, some numbering several dozen people, others as many as several hundred.
The total number of Christians within the empire was probably less than 50,000, an infinitesimal number in a society comprising 60,000,000. The Jews, by contrast, were a significant minority numbering 4 to 5 million.
Most of the inhabitants of the Roman Empire had never heard of Christianity, and very few had any firsthand contract with Christians. Even among the educated little was known about the Christian movement. Early in the second century, Greek and Roman authors began to take notice of the new movement.In the social world, the attitudes of others, and the roles assigned by society to individuals or groups, define and shape identity. When speaking of a tiny minority this is even more the case. Pliny in his letter to Trajan, used two terms to characterize the Christians, “superstition” (superstitio) and “political club” (hetaeria).
“Superstitio” appears in two other contemporary writers, Tacitus and Suetonius, referring to Christianity. Hence Pliny’s observations offer a clue to how he perceived the Christians, and give inkling of how the society at large viewed them.
It was in the second century in which the Christian movement was beginning to emerge into public view.
By the time Pliny came into contact with the Christians, most Christians had adopted the term “ecclesia,” translated as “church,” to refer to themselves. They used the term to describe their conventicles, that is an assembly or meeting (a secret meeting not sanctioned by law), whether the local gathering in a particular city or town or the network of Christians scattered throughout the Mediterranean world. A Christian bishop in Rome, began his letter to Corinth as follows, “The church (ecclesia) of God which sojourns in Rome to the church of God which sojourns in Corinth,” 1 Clem. 1:1, cp. Acts 9:31.
The Romans did not use the term ecclesia to refer to the new movement. They simply called it “Christian.” This term ‘Christianus’ which became the characteristic name for the followers of Jesus, was first used by outsiders, Acts 11:26. Pliny calls them Christiani after their founder, just as the followers of Pythagoras were called Pythagoreans, the followers of Epicurus, Epicureans, the worshippers of Dionysus, Dionysiacs. If Pliny had used the term ecclesia he would have been puzzled because in common usage in Greek and Latin ecclesia referred to the political assembly of the people of a city, as contrasted with the smaller group of elected officials who comprised the council, ‘boule.’ In a letter to Trajan a few weeks after the affair with the Christians, Pliny refers to the vote of the “local boule and ecclesia,” Ep. 10:11. A passage from Colossians would have been inexplicable to him, Col. 1:24.
Pliny also uses ‘hetaeria’ to identify the Christian group. It is usually rendered as “political club” or “association.” It was used of Pliny in a letter to Trajan to refer to a firemen’s association in Nicomedia. ‘Hetaeriae” had the potential of becoming political and thereby of disturbing the life of a city. Because such groups promoted factionalism in the cities and sometimes bred social or political unrest, Roman officials discourage their formation. Most groups were not political, as Trajan recognized.
Associations had existed in the Roman world since the third century B.C. In the Greek world, especially from the third century on, the city, ‘polis,’ lost its importance as the primary focus of identity for citizens, clubs and associations began to spread. Some organized around trades and occupations, some explicitly religious, and others simply groups of people who cam together for fun and fellowship. There were associations of woolworkers, weavers, bankers of Delos, bakers, fishermen, beekeepers, greengrocers, Aigyptioi (Egyptians), Salaminioi, and many others. All combined religious worship and social intercourse, and they sometimes offered commercial advantages and education. Almost all of these societies were local and drawn from people living in a specific city. They were not international, a group of associations bound together in an organization extending across the Mediterranean world. At most they included people from within a specific island or province. They were generally small, with an average membership under fifty. Few had memberships of several hundred. Religion played an important role in the life of the associations.
In the first centuries A.D., the bulk of members were drawn not from the upper classes, but from the craftsmen and artisans, merchants and shopkeepers, some of whom were freedmen, or slaves, or who because of birth and education did not have the means to enter the world of the upper classes.
Associations can be divided into three main types: (1) professional corporations, as a guild of shipowners, fruit merchants, or plasterers; (2) funerary societies whose chief purpose was to provide burial expenses for deceased members and to insure that each member received a decent burial, and (3) religious societies composed of the worshipers of a particular deity, such as the devotees of Bacchus or Isis. The activities of an association were seldom limited to one of these functions. All types included some form of religious worship. Jupiter, Optimus Maximus was the favorite of ironworkers, butchers, perfumers; Minerva, of fullers and hemp makers; Hercules, of carpenters, clothiers and bakers.
Associations provided insurance against burial expenses. Moreover they held meetings that were occasions for eating and drinking, conversation, recreation. These provided relief from the daily routine of work. Friends and associates could supply mutual support. It was an opportunity for recognition and honor, whereby an ordinary man could feel a sense of worth. The society gave people an opportunity for religious worship in a setting that was supportive, personal and familiar. The associations enriched the lives of men and women by providing a social unit more inclusive than the family yet smaller than the city.
One of the chief points of Celsus’ book against Christianity is that Christians formed “associations contrary to the laws,” Cels. 1:1. Instead of joining in which public religious rites of the cities, like other associations, they refused to have anything to do with others and carried on their affairs in the fashion of an “obscure and secret association,” Cels. 8:17. Celsus attempted to present the Christian society as illegal and disruptive of the well-being of the city.
Christianity appeared to outside observers as an association devoted to the worship of Christ or as a burial society did not imply that such associations were illegal.
Like other associations, the Christian society met regularly for a common meal. It had its own ritual of initiation, rules, and standards for members. When the group came together, the members heard speeches and celebrated a religious rite involving offerings of wine, prayers, and hymns. Certain members of the group were elected to serve as officers and administrators of the association’s affairs. It also had a common chest from the contributions of members, looked out for the needs of its members, provided for a decent burial, and in some cities had it own burial grounds. The Christian communities writes the Roman social historian Jean Gagé, “offered at first glance an astonishing resemblance to a type of fraternal association, namely the funerary or burial society.
Besides Pliny, other pagan observers in the second century used the language of associations to identify Christianity. Lucian, a satirist who wrote humorous essays and dialogues about life in the Roman world in the second century, poked fun at the gullibility of the Christians. He described the head of the associations of Christians who worship “the man who was crucified in Palestine,” Peregrinus 11, as ‘thiasarches.’
Tertullian, who self-consciously presented Christianity as a collegium (association) in his Apologeticum (Apology), a work designed to defend and explain Christianity to outsiders and to win converts to the new movement. His point is that Christianity is not an illegal association. He responses to the charge that Christianity was politically divisive. He uses the language of the association as a vehicle to present a portrait of the Christian movement to outsiders. He argues that Christianity is an association devoted not to political maneuvering or clandestine activities but to inculcating moral principles in its members and training people to live virtuously. He describes the “business of the Christian club (factio).” “We are an association (corpus) bound together by our religious profession, by the unity of our way of life and the bond of our common hope… We meet together as an assembly and as a society… We pray for the emperors… We gather together to read our sacred writing… With the holy words we nourish our faith… After the gathering is over the Christians go out as though they had come from ‘a school of virtue.’” He concludes that when they gather together it “should not be called a political club but a council,” Apol. 39. His language would be intelligible to anyone in the Greco-Roman world whether one was acquainted with Christianity or not. Tertullian, an apologist writing a tract in defense of Christianity, singles out a common social designation of the sect in the Roman world to present his faith to outsiders. He provides additional evidence that when the Christian movement began to appear to public view in the second century it was perceived by outsiders as a religious association or burial society, whose founder was Jesus and which resembled other societies that could be found in the cities of the Roman world.
The Piety of the Persecutors
After Pliny had passed judgment on the second group of Christians brought before him, he decided to interrogate two Christian slavewomen. They told him that when Christians assembled they shared a common meal, sang hymns, prayed, and exhorted one another to live God-pleasing lives. He turned up new information and reported it to Trajan. He wrote a “depraved superstition carried to extravagant lengths.” “Superstition” (superstitio) would be less significant were it not that two other Roman writers living at the same time also employed it to refer to the Christians.
Tacitus in his Annales, a history of the Roman Empire in the first century A.D., a close friend of Pliny, mentions the Christians in his account of the burning of Rome under Nero. He was not interested in the new movement. Christianity is not a part of his history. He was not interested in informing his readers about the new religion, as he did in length of the Jews in another work, the Histories (5:1–13). He wished to make a point about the extent of Nero’s vanity and magnitude of his vices, and to display the crimes he committed against the Roman people. The Annales were written five at most ten ears of Pliny’s encounter with the Christians in Bithynia. He writes “Their originator, Christ, had been executed in Tiberius’t reign by the governor of Judaea, Pontius Pilatus. But in spite of this temporary setback the deadly superstition [supertitio] had broken out afresh, not only in Judaea (where the mischief had started) but even in Rome. All degraded and shameful practices collect and flourish in the capital.” He makes it clear that they are executed not for their “incediarism,” but because of their “antisocial tendencies” (literally, “hatred of mankind”) and the savagery of Nero. “It was felt that they were being sacrificed to one man’s brutality rather than to the public interest,” Annals 15:44.
Suetonius, another friend and correspondent of Pliny, also mentioned Christians in passing in his book on the lives of the Roman emperors. In a passage referring to the execution of Christians under Nero, Suetonius wrote, “Punishment was inflicted on the Christians, a class of men given to a new and mischievous superstition,” Nero 16. Three Roman writers who mention Christianity at the beginning of the second century agree in calling the new movement a superstitio.
Roman Religion and Christian Prejudice
Superstitio referred to beliefs and practices that were foreign and strange to the Romans. It designated the kinds of practices and beliefs associated with the cults that had penetrated the Roman world from surrounding lands. The religion of the Celts in the British Isles, the practices of Germanic tribes in northern Europe, the customs of the Egyptians, all seemed superstitious to the Romans.
Jews were placed in the same class religiously. In 19 A.D., the Roman senate ordered 4,000 exslaves “tainted with the superstition of the Egyptians and the Jews” to be transported to Sardinia to quell the brigandage and thievery rampant on the island. Jews could be found in most of the larger cities of the empire and a large Jewish community dwelt in the city of Rome itself. Over the course of the generations Romans had occasion to observe Jewish practices at first hand. Juvenal wrote “Some whose lot it was to have Sabbath-fearing fathers worship nothing but clouds and the numen of the heavens, and think it as great a crime to eat port, from which their parents abstained, as human flesh. They get themselves circumcised, and look down on Roman law, preferring instead to learn and honor and fear the Jewish commandments, whatever was handed down by Moses in that arcane tone of his—never to show the way to any but fellow believers (if they as where to get some water, find out if they’re foreskinless). But their fathers were the culprits’ they made every seventh day taboo for all life’s business, dedicated to idleness” (Satire 14).
Plutarch, a Greek writer living at the beginning of the second century, also ridiculed the fanaticism of Jews who refused to fight because an attack took place on the Sabbath (De superst. 169c).
Tacitus’s Histories, his account of the years from the Roman civil war in 69 A.D. to the reign of Domitian at the end of the century, includes a fuller account of the Jews. “Among the Jews all things are profane that we hold sacred; on the other hand, they regard as permissible what seems to us immoral.” He finds Jewish practices offensive. But he recognized that the religion of the Jews could not be easily be compared to that of other peoples. To Tacitus, the Jewish cult was “perverse and degraded,” Hist. 5:5, and Jews were to be thought to be “a people prone to superstition and the enemy of true religion,” Hist. 5:13.
Jewish religion was foreign and non-Roman. It was contrary to the customs of other peoples. It deviated from the norms familiar to people in the Roman world. The Jews did not fit into Greco-Roman society. They lived as a people apart, and their religious practices had vulgar origins.
Roman religion is thought to have been cold and lifeless, lacking in emotive appeal. Nevertheless, the Romans “were able to feel emotionally excited about the traditional stories of the gods, even when, with the rational side of their minds, they would dismiss them as fictions. If we are to understand the history of the first century B.C. or the first century A.D., we must try to get under the skin of the Romans, see how their religion worked and appreciate how they thought about it,” Ogilvie, “The Romans and Their Gods,” New York, 1969.
Wilken, Robert L., The Christians as the Romans Saw Them. London: Yale University Press, 1984.
Penguin Classics. Tacitus, The Histories. London: Penguin Books, 1957.
Penguin Classics. Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars. London: Penguin Books, 1995.
Thompson, Leonard L., The Book of Revelation, Apocalypse and Empire. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.