Below are translations of our earliest, non-Christian references to Christianity in the Roman Empire, all from the second century C.E. Explanatory comments follow each passage.
1. Suetonius, The Lives of the Caesars
Suetonius was a well-known and highly educated writer of the early second century. Some time in the first decades of that century, he wrote a series of biographies of the first dozen emperors of the Roman Empire (beginning with Julius Caesar). Christianity is mentioned in two of these lives: those of the emperors Claudius (who reigned from 41-54 CE) and Nero (who reigned from 54-68 CE). In both contexts, Suetonius is discussing civil uprising in the city of Rome in which Christians are implicated (the relevant passages are highlighted).
"The Life of the Divine Claudius" ch. 25
... [Claudius] prohibited persons of foreign origin from falsely assuming Roman names, especially family names. Those who falsely assumed Roman citizenship he beheaded on the Esquiline Hill. The provinces of Achaia and Macedonia, which Tiberius had transferred to his own guardianship, he handed over to the Senate. The Lycians, on account of their deadly conflicts among themselves, he stripped of freedom; but he restored it to the Rhodians, because they repented of their earlier transgressions. To the Trojans--as ancestors of the Roman race--he granted a permanent remission of taxes, and a letter was recited translated into Greek from the Senate and the Roman people to King Seleucus, promising friendship and alliance, as long as they preserved their kinsmen the Trojans immune from all burden. He expelled the Jews from the city of Rome, who had been continually raising disturbances at the goading of Chrestus. He allowed the German ambassadors to sit in the public shows, moved by their simplicity and faithfulness; for, when they were seated among the common folk, and they observed the Parthian and Armenians sitting in the senatorial seats, they right away crossed over into that section, proclaiming that they were in no way inferior in their virtue or their conduct. The religious ceremonies of the Druids in Gaul, of such monstrousness and only forbidden among the citizens under Augustus, he abolished entirely; yet, to the contrary, he attempted to have the Eleusinian Mysteries moved to Rome from Attica...
Comments: This passage from the Life of
Claudius deals with various measures the emperor took to ensure the ethnic
and cultural integrity of the city of Rome. Therefore, he forbids noncitizens
from taking the nomina (official given names and family names) of "real"
Romans, and likewise changes policy in various eastern provincial holdings
(Lycia, Rhodes, Asia Minor) to uphold Roman pride and to stamp out unusual or
irreligious practices (thus, the suppression of Druids in France). The reference
to an expulsion of Jews from the city of Rome is intriguing, as there is no
other specific evidence for this event outside of Suetonius. The "goading of
Chrestus" is taken by most scholars to refer to some unrest caused by followers
of Christ: either "Jews who follow Chrestus" = Christians; or some Jews are
upset by followers of Jesus. The name Chrestus was a common slave's name
in ancient Rome (meaning something like "Handy" in Greek); that Suetonius has
mistaken the unusual Greek word Christus (meaning "anointed one") for the
more common slave name Chrestus
may indicate something about the social status of his agitating
followers. Others, however, have argued that this passage has nothing
to do with Christianity but that modern scholars are overeagerly
interpreting the passage.
"The Life of the Divine Nero" ch. 16
Under him, many offenses were severely put down, and no fewer new ones established: a limit to luxurious spending; public feasts restricted to food distribution; forbidden was any cooked food in the taverns, except for legumes and vegetables, even though previously every sort of little side dish was offered forth. The Christians were subjected to tortures--a breed of humans of a new and cursed superstition. The past-times of charioteers were forbidden, for whom longstanding freedom in their wanderings all about had established (they said) the right to trip up and rob people for sport. The gangs of stage actors with their followers were likewise expelled.
Comments: This passage from the Life of Nero deals with some of Nero's stranger and stricter laws. The mention of Christians being tortured may be a reference to the scapegoating of Christians in the Great Fire of Rome (see the excerpt from Tacitus below). Here the torture of Christians is presented as one of several measures designed to restore order to the city of Rome. This is one of the earliest references to Christianity as a supersitio--a "superstition," or strange and excessive religion.
2. Correspondence of Pliny the Younger and Emperor Trajan
Pliny (known as "the Younger" to distinguish him from a famous uncle, known as Pliny the Elder) was a career politician from Rome who served as governor of the province of Bithynia-Pontus (in what is now northern Turkey) from 110-112 CE (he apparently died there). He left ten books of his private and public letters, including an entire book of letters between himself and the Emperor Trajan (who reigned from 98-117 CE). Here are letters 96 and 97 from that collection, dealing with the problem of Christians.
Gaius Plinius (Pliny the Younger) to the Emperor Trajan:
1. It is my custom, Lord, to refer to you all matters concerning which there is some doubt. Indeed, who might better guide my hesitation and inform my ignorance? I have never been present at the judicial examinations of the Christians: therefore I do not know how and to what extent it is customary for them to be investigated or punished. 2. I have hesitated more than a little bit as to whether there should be some distinction as to age or whether to distinguish between those who are young from the more solidly entrenched; whether pardon is to be granted for penitence, or if for that one who was ever a Christian it is of no use for him to desist; if the very name itself, if there are no accompanying crimes, or crimes associated with the name should be punished.
Meanwhile, as for those who were denounced to me as being Christians, I have followed this procedure. 3. I questioned them as to whether they were Christians. Those who confessed twice I questioned yet a third time, threatening torture; those who insisted I ordered to be led off [i.e., to death]. For I did not doubt that, whatever it was that they were confessing, stubbornness and inflexible obstinacy ought to be punished. 4. There were others, similar in their madness; but, because they were Roman citizens, I signed off on an order for them to be remanded to the City.
Soon, in that same proceeding--as usually happens--as the accusation of crime spread wider, several incidents occurred. 5. A small, anonymous book was produced that contained many names. Those who denied that they were or ever had been Christians, following my lead they called upon the gods and upon your image (which I had commanded to be brought forward for this reason along with the images of the gods), they prayed with incense and with wine and, in addition, they cursed Christ (it is said that none of those who are really Christians can be compelled to do this); these I decided should be set free. 6. Others named by the informant said that they were Christians, but now they renounced it; or that they had once been, but had ceased before--some three years before, some even more years before, not a few as many as twenty years before. And all of these both venerated your image and the images of the gods and cursed Christ.
7. Yet they affirmed that this was the sum total of their crime and their error: that they were accustomed on a certain day to meet before daylight, and to take turns reciting a song to Christ, as if to a god, and to bind themselves in a sacred oath (sacramentum)--not in any criminal act, but that they would not commit theft or robbery or adultery, and that they would not break faith, and that they would not deny a deposit when it was called due. When these were finished, it was their custom to separate and come together again to share a meal, entirely common and harmless; but this too they brought to an end after I posted my edict, by which--according to your orders--I prohibited the existence of clubs. 8. From this I considered it all the more necessary to determine the facts, and so I interrogated two female slaves--who were called “ministers”--through the use of torture. But I discovered nothing other than depraved and excessive superstition.
9. Therefore, when the judicial proceeding was dismissed, I hurried to consult with you. This matter seems to me worthy of consultation, especially on account of the number of defendants. For many persons, of every age and of every social status, of both sexes even, are drawn and will continue to be drawn into this danger. For the disease of this superstition has spread not only in the cities, but in villages and in the countryside; it seems possible that it can be halted and corrected. 10. Certainly it is sufficiently clear that the temples, once laying empty, have begun to be frequented, and sacred rites long forgotten are sought again, and that sacrificial offerings come from all over, although until recently sponsors for them were very difficult to find. From this it is easy to estimate how great a crowd of people might be reformed if space is provided for penitence.
Trajan to Pliny:
1. You followed appropriate procedure, my good Pliny, in examining closely the cases of those who had been denounced to you as Christians. For it is not possible to establish a general rule which would have a certain fixed form. 2. They should not be sought out eagerly; but if they are denounced and ruled against, they should be punished, yet with the restriction that, whoever denies that he is a Christian and makes manifest demonstration of this fact (that is, through supplication of our gods) although formerly he was held in suspicion, he shall acquire pardon through penitence. But the anonymous posting of a book [containing accusations] should have no place in a criminal case, for this is both the worst of examples and not in the spirit of our times.
Comments: It is clear from Pliny's letters that Christianity is--for some reason--illegal in his province at this time, although he does not say why (and doesn't even know why). The reference to "oaths" and "feasts" may refer to rumors of evil oaths and cannibalistic feasts that we know circulated elsewhere about Christians. The main problem, however, seems to be the suspicion that any secret meeting of people might potentially be against the interests of the Empire: Pliny mentions that he outlawed private meetings of "clubs" by order of the Emperor, probably because they were politically suspicious. There is also concern about "informers"; most criminal and civil punishments were instituted by people informing on their neighbors and enemies (there were no regular police officers), and this is how the Christians were brought to trial. The use of religious "proof"--offering sacrifices to the gods and the emperor, and cursing Jesus--would become standard means of identifying Christians. The social diversity of Christians, and descriptions of their worship practices, are also noteworthy.
3. Tacitus, "Annals" book 15 ch. 44
Tacitus was a somewhat grumpy and pessimistic intellectual and historian who eventually became a career politician. He wrote several works critical of the emperors of the first century CE. His Annals were written in the first or second decade of the second century (before 120 CE), and include a long reference to Christians in the context of his criticisms of the Emperor Nero. A great fire swept through the city of Rome in 64 and many suspected that Nero himself set the fire so he could rebuild sections of the city (this seems to be Tacitus's view). Tacitus explains that the Christians provided a convenient scapegoat for the emperor to avoid suspicion.
But no human effort, nor lavish gifts of the emperor or placations of the gods, turned away the suspicion of those who believed that the fire was ordered. Therefore, so that the rumor would be abolished, Nero falsely ascribed criminal blame and applied the most extraordinary punishments on a certain vulgar crowd called "Christians," hated for their wrongdoings. The eponymous founder of this group was a certain Christus, who was during the reign of Tiberius inflicted with punishment by a procurator, Pontius Pilate; this destructive superstition, held in check for a while, erupted again, not only in Judea (the origin of this evil) but through the city [of Rome] itself, where all frightful and shameful things come together and are celebrated. So first they were arrested who confessed, then, when they turned informant, an enormous throng was found guilty--not necessarily just for the crime of arson, as for hatred of the human race. And mockery was piled on those who were dying, as they were covered with animals hides and died from the mangling of dogs; or they were nailed up to crosses and set on fire, and were used as night lamps when the day ended. Nero offered up his own gardens for this spectacle, and set up circus games, mingling with the common people in a charioteer’s outfit and moving around the race-track. From this, even in response to deserved criminals and the latest warning examples a certain pity arose, insofar as it was not for the public good but for one person’s savagery that they were being consumed.
Comments: Tacitus, like Suetonius and Pliny, finds the Christians to be distasteful and antisocial, and even believes that they probably deserved to be executed--although not for the crime of arson, but rather for their "hatred of humanity." He is fairly well-informed about the origins of the movement in Judea, following a person executed under Pontius Pilate, but believes their presence in Rome is due to the fact that all manner of wickedness and depravity eventually end up in the capital city.
Translations by Andrew S. Jacobs for RLST 92 at Scripps College for classroom use only. Please do not reproduce without acknowledgment.
Return to home page