Pliny the Younger was born GaiusCaecilius Cilo in 61 AD in Novum Comum (Como). His mother, Plinia Marcella, was the sister of Pliny the Elder. He was a lawyer, author, and magistrate. Pliny’s uncle, Pliny the Elder, helped raise and educate him. He revered his uncle, who at this time was extremely famous, and provides sketches of how his uncle worked on the Naturalis Historia. Both were witnesses to the eruption of Vesuvius on August 24, 79 AD, during which the former died. Pliny the Elder made Pliny his adopted son and heir under his will and that is when GaiusCaecilius Cilo changed his name to Gaius Plinius Caecilius Secundus.
After being first tutored at home, Pliny went to Rome for further education. There he was taught rhetoric by Quintilian, a great teacher and author, and Nicetes Sacerdos of Smyrna. Although born an equestrian, he achieved entry into the upper class by being elected Quaestor in his late twenties. Pliny was active in the Roman legal system. He was a well-known prosecutor and defender at the trials of a series of provincial governors, including two governors of Bithynia-Pontus. He was a friend of the historian Tacitus and employed the biographer Suetonius on his staff.
Why is Pliny important? He wrote hundreds of letters, many of which still survive, that are of great historical value for the time period. Pliny served as a governor of Bithynia-Pontus under Emperor Trajan and his letters to Trajan provide a record of the relationship between the imperial office and provincial governors.
As governor of Bithynia-Pontus, Pliny wrote Trajan around 112 AD asking how to deal with Christians. In that letter, which is the earliest official Roman document dealing with Christians, Pliny detailed an account of how he conducted trials of suspected Christians, who appeared before him as a result of anonymous accusations. He sought guidance on how they should be treated. Neither Pliny nor Trajan mention any crime that Christians had committed; Trajan’s response makes it clear that being a “Christian” was sufficient for judicial action.
Pliny wrote in Epistulae X.96:
The method I have observed towards those who have been denounced to me as Christians is this: I interrogated them whether they were Christians; if they confessed it I repeated the question twice again, adding the threat of capital punishment; if they still persevered, I ordered them to be executed. For whatever the nature of their creed might be, I could at least feel no doubt that contumacy and inflexible obstinacy deserved chastisement. 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.
Pliny then details the practices of Christians:
They were accustomed to meet on a fixed day before dawn and sing responsively a hymn to Christ as to a god, and bound themselves to a solemn oath, not to any wicked deeds, but never to commit any fraud, theft, adultery, never to falsify their word, not to deny a trust when they should be called upon to deliver it up. When this was over, it was their custom to depart and to assemble again to partake of a meal—but ordinary and innocent food.
If the accused denied that they had ever been a Christian, then they had to pray, offer incense, and wine to images of Trajan and the gods, and curse Christ, which Pliny says true Christians are unable to do. They were then discharged. Accused who were at one point Christians but had quit the religion also followed the aforementioned procedure and were let go.
What crime(s) Christians had committed? Some scholars have argued that there may have been “secret crimes”, such as atheism, cannibalistic feasts, and incest. The cannibalistic feasts and incest charges were based on misunderstanding of the Eucharistic act and Christians being “brothers and sisters”, even after marriage. However, the charge of atheism may have been the failure to worship the state gods. Pliny may also have viewed their obstinacy (contumacia) of Christians as a threat to Roman rule and order and considered Christian gatherings as a potential starting point for sedition.
This letter, again the earliest Roman government document on the subject of Christ and Christianity, demonstrates that Christianity was pervasive enough in Bithynia-Pontus in 112 AD to cause the governor to act. Pliny’s actions show that there was not active persecution, but that Christians were subject to judicial action only when denounced. Finally, this letter serves to document early Christian practices.
In the last part of this article, I will draw over-all conclusions concerning the historicity of Jesus.