Rome and Christians
Last night I enjoyed the final instalment of “Ultimate Rome: Empire without Limit,” written and presented by Professor Mary Beard (Cambridge), which aired here in the UK last night on BBC2. You can see more about this episode and the full series here.
In this final episode, which dealt with the final phase of the Roman Empire, she did a good job of explaining how what we label “religion” was fully part of the fabric of social and political life, all areas, and how the many (and many kinds) of deities of the time functioned in the life-world of people. She also indicated how Roman-era Judaism differed in the rejection of worship of the many deities, but how Romans accommodated this as essentially part of the ethnic peculiarity of the Jewish people.
Then, however, she rightly noted that the early Christians presented a different problem. They too were expected to demur from worship of the gods in favour of the one deity of biblical tradition. But they had no ethnic basis or justification for doing so. The trans-ethnic nature of early Christianity, and the more aggressive spread of it too, made it much more of a perceived threat, as it came to the notice of the Roman-era cultural/political elite. I discuss this and other related matters in my forthcoming book: Destroyer of the gods: Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World (Baylor University Press, September 2016). For more information see here.
Of course, in a 60-minute TV programme for a general audience you can’t go far into the complexities of history. I thought she again did a fine job, however, given the limits of the medium. But she also triggered a couple of further observations.
First, it isn’t entirely correct to say that we have scant information about what the “pagan” Romans thought about early Christians. She didn’t mention the correspondence between Pliny (the “Younger”) and Emperor Trajan, which most historians regard as crucial. There are also comments by Emperor Marcus Aurelius, Galen (the famous physician of the day), and much of a full-scale critique of Christianity by the pagan sophisticate Celsus. I discuss all this evidence in a chapter in my book. Opinions varied from outright disdain (Marcus Aurelius) to curiosity and guarded admiration of Christian behaviour (Galen), to a determined effort to refute Christianity (Celsus), to efforts to force social and religious conformity (e.g., Pliny). And the key thing that caused the most worry was the Christian refusal to worship the gods.
Second, as Professor Beard showed examples of the libelli (certificates vouching that you had sacrificed to the Roman gods) required by Emperor Decius (249-50 CE), she noted that we don’t know first-hand why Decius did this. True. But it’s really interesting that no previous emperor (or any other government official) ever thought it needed to have people present written proof of sacrificing. Indeed, I’m not aware that there was ever any necessity to require people to sacrifice to the gods. If all Decius wanted was to promote reverence for the traditional gods, surely that wouldn’t have required legislation. After all, reverence for the gods was central to the social life of people, as it had been for centuries. So, something of novel significance was reflected in Decius’ action of issuing his edict.
As I note in my book, Pliny’s report about his handling of those accused of being Christians (in Pontus and Bithynia, ca. 110-12 CE) seems to reflect judicial innovations not previously attested. He required those accused to reverence images of the gods and the emperor, and to curse Christ. If they did so, he let them go. If they refused, he executed them. This curious and novel judicial procedure, in short, seems to have been developed specifically to deal with Christians. It was Pliny’s own idea (he says), but Trajan’s letter in response affirms it as valid.
So, by the very early years of the second century, Christianity was having an effect on Roman judicial procedure, at least under Pliny (and perhaps in other jurisdictions, though only locally enforced). In Decius’ edict issued about 140 years later, we may have indication of legislative effects of Christians upon the Empire. It’s an intriguing possibility.
In any case, Professor Beard’s latest series on the Roman Empire (as were her earlier ones) is very much worth your attention. The good old BBC comes through again!
(For more on Decius’ decree, see J. B. Rives, “The Decree of Decius and the Religion of Empire,” Journal of Roman Studies 89 (1999): 135-54.)