Trajan and the Emergence of Christianity
1. The Happiest Epoch for Humanity in Roman History.
This is the title of an essay that has brought the admiration for Trajan, Antoninus, and Marcus Aurelius from the previous century to the present, and presents itself to us as an explanatory guide upon entering a memorable period of Roman history.
The turning point that came with the transition of power to Nerva and his immediate successors made a deep impression on contemporaries. Suetonius, who still oversaw the reigns of Nerva and Trajan and lived for a long time at the court of Hadrian, laid down his stylus at the end of his biography of Domitian, and since then his Twelve Caesars stand as a group of their own kind compared to all subsequent emperors. The gap between the Julians and Flavians is filled by the merit that Vespasian earned for himself, just like Julius the Dictator and Augustus did, by quelling the civil wars to preserve the commonwealth. And just as Julius sharpened his sword in Gaul to subdue his rivals and obtain the sinews of war, Vespasian stepped in with the laurels of his victory over the Jewish god and with the gold that the cities of Judaea and the treasury of the entire Jewish community of the Roman Empire provided him in the Temple of Zion, amidst the claimants to Nero’s legacy. The Julian house established hereditary succession for its members against an envious Senate, and Vespasian frightened the assembled fathers with the threat that if his sons were not accepted, then the commonwealth might as well collapse.
The Julians and Flavians came onto the scene as allies of the divinity. Caesar had not yet had the time to thoroughly explore the story of his descent from Aeneas and his mother Venus in his military campaign; Augustus, however, had the leisure to weave the national legend, which Virgil had to spin into a world book with moaning and groaning, into the destiny of his house, in conjunction with Livia. Vespasian obtained the magic of the Orient, which the unfortunate court poet had to derive for the Julian family from the marriage bed of Venus and Anchises on Mount Ida, with his own hand from Judaea, along with the prophet who vouched for his heavenly consecration. Augustus had written poetry in the ornate chambers of the Palatine, but Vespasian did so among the palm trees of the Jordan land and under the soldiers’ tents, where the defector Josephus helped him to prove himself as the Chosen One of the oracle who was to assume world domination from Judaea by holding a trial against the rebels of Jerusalem.
Finally, both houses also have a prince in whom pride in the divine mission of the family and its familiarity with heaven rose to the belief in their own divinity. The Julians had Caligula, the Flavians had Domitian.
After the Flavian dynasty, there were five reigns of prose, work, and simple rectitude. Gibbon introduces the second chapter of his work on “The Internal Prosperity in the Age of the Antonines” with similar observations to those presented by the deceased Kiel professor Dietrich Herrmann Hegewisch in the aforementioned treatise of 1812. The English historian praises the solidity that the building of Roman power had maintained through the wisdom of the centuries, the bond of laws that kept the provinces together under Trajan and the Antonines, the peaceful enjoyment granted to them by wise governance concerning the religion of their forefathers, and the equality that they enjoyed in terms of civic honors and privileges, with reasonable differentiation in relation to the conquered.
The second century was undoubtedly a period of prosperity and comfortable living for the Roman world until the death of Marcus Aurelius. However, a party whose local associations had spread a network throughout the empire from the Euphrates to Spain during the century, establishing leading centers in Rome and Alexandria, Antioch, Carthage, and Lyon, remained untouched by this pleasure and was not moved to abandon the pessimism they inherited from Heraclitus and Plato, the Cynics, and the School of Stoics. Neither the mildness of Trajan nor the gentleness of the pious Antoninus could soothe their irritated mood toward the world state. During the time admired for the philosophical tranquility of Marcus Aurelius, they completed the picture of the downfall that the world was to experience in the blaze of a heavenly sulfur shower and a general bloodbath.
Thus, there were needs and sentiments for which the splendor and prosperity of the century had no appeal, and in describing this era, one must keep in mind the division of the empire into the growing group of dissatisfied innovators and the mass of admirers and enjoyers.
At the center of the contented stood the Senate. Just under the last Flavian, it had experienced the precariousness of its position and had silently bowed under the despotism of a ruler who wanted to be a god. With Nerva began the long line of emperors who renounced divine worship, which continued until Marcus Aurelius. The Julian line, in whose veins flowed divine blood, had died out, and in Domitian, the family that brought the consecration of the heavens from the East was exterminated. The next emperors were only private individuals among their peers and had to earn the consecration, which lay in the hands of the Senate after their death, through achievements and accommodating behavior towards the corporation, which still considered itself the supreme carrier of imperial legislation.
In this sense, Pliny praises Trajan in his eulogy (Panegyr. cap. 2), that the Senate no longer needs to flatter him as they did Domitian, as a higher being who “is now already a god.” He is not a tyrant but a citizen, not a master but a father, and stands even higher because he considers himself one of us and as a ruler, does not forget that he is also human.
It happened by chance that Nerva, who was acceptable to the Senate as a benevolent old man after the fall of Domitian, came from a family that had emigrated to Crete (Aurel. Victor, Casares, cap. 12: Cretensi) and was again represented in Rome. It was by chance that Trajan, whom Nerva called to his side as Caesar in his need, came from a Spanish colony. Hadrian, whom Trajan adopted, was also a Spaniard from his family, and it was not less coincidental that the Antonine house, which gained the paternity of Hadrian through the beauty and virtues of his character, came from the Gallic colony of Nimes. But this apparent coincidence – (coincidence especially in the first friendly greeting of a foreigner in the person of Nerva by the Senate) hit the mark and proved itself in the adoptions that determined the succession, starting with Trajan’s.
The “Epitome” preserved under the name of Aurelius Victor (cap. 11) highlights the significance of Nerva’s ascension to the throne over Domitian, stating “until then, the children of Rome or Italy had possessed the imperial rule, now foreigners – evidence that the growth of Rome was dependent on the bravery of foreigners.” The thoroughness with which the emperors had cleared out the old families would have made it impossible to always elevate children of Rome or Italy to the throne. Additionally, the arrival of a foreigner, especially one who was proud of their foreign heritage, had the advantage that all groups and individuals in the Senate willingly submitted to them, since they did not particularly offend any individual pretension. Despite the bloodletting the Senate had undergone after the civil wars, the corporate spirit of the assembly remained unchanged in the replacement members who had taken the place of the previous families, but the rivalry to which every individual believed themselves entitled as equal peers disappeared when they saw that all equals submitted to the newcomer.
As it happened by chance that a Cretan ascended to the throne in Nerva, it also happened by chance that the first foreigner called his successor to his side through adoption due to an unexpected emergency, and the custom followed since then, of securing the succession through adoption, contributed greatly to the preservation of internal peace in the empire. The imperial philosopher, who allowed the size of his inheritance to make his son Commodus a useful person, gave up the empire to confusion, in which it fell again to private individuals and foreigners whose own fate or chance paved the way to power. Septimius, the African, opened the procession, and his wife, the Syrian, was the means by which her compatriot and relative Heliogabalus subjected the empire to his eastern god.
Just as the Senate had initiated the peaceful pause of the following eight decades by voluntarily submitting to a prince before whom envy and personal claims were silent, the foreigners who had obtained the power of Augustus sought to make their rule a permanent balance with the representatives of Roman legislation through accommodation, affability, and pliable behavior. The memory of the previous war between the emperors and the Senate dictated, as the first principle of this balance, the concession of the emperor never to interfere in the judgment of the high corporation over its members. The oath by which Nerva, Trajan, and Hadrian confirmed this concession (Dio Cass. 68, 2, 5. 69, 2) was the Magna Carta on which the constitutional government of an eighty-four-year period was based.
Beside the Senate, there was another lucky group – the people of the capital city. Since the days of Augustus, they had forgotten about politics and enjoyed the luxuries that flowed into the city, formerly a co-ruler with the Senate, from the concentration of the riches and interests of the empire. For the deposed sovereign, the provinces worked and provided him with bread and support for his helpless or orphaned children. The taxes of the provinces provided the means for the magnificent buildings, baths, and halls of Rome. The people strolled and celebrated in the marble galleries of Trajan’s Forum, before which even centuries later Constantius stood still, overwhelmed by the splendor and gigantic idea, during his entrance into Rome (Ammian. Marcell, 14, 10). Greek artists strained their genius to satisfy the artistic sense of the emperors and the curiosity of the city dwellers with sculptures. Rome’s elites, in their numerous political leisure hours, were occupied with the poetic chisel and took care of entertaining the public with poems, epigrams, and even lascivious games. Trajan and Marcus Aurelius plunged into military adventures and brought some life and seriousness to the monotonous and fundamentally still insecure relationship with the Senate, while providing entertainment and excitement for the masses with triumphal processions. While the fleets, grain, industrial products of the provinces, and the treasures of India flowed into the Tiber, foreign faces and costumes appeared in the streets of the capital, and the embassies of friendly and subject nations bore witness to the power of the empire. The freedom enjoyed by foreign cults allowed adventurous cults to be presented to the city dwellers in parades and processions. The onlookers whom Ovid invited to visit the synagogues in the Jewish quarter and to see foreign beauties were probably not extinct during this imperial era. Finally, Greece sent the apostles of its philosophical schools more eagerly than ever to the world city, and the loiterers of these schools could enjoy themselves in the halls with their discussions or be entertained by their sermons on the streets.
Thus, during the time of Trajan and Antoninus, Rome was an encyclopedic picture book that depicted the entire world of that time and opened itself up to the idle citizen of the imperial city in dazzling haste.
Meanwhile, the provinces were at work. Britain was filling up with cities, traversed by highways, and came to life through trade and internal commerce. Gaul, which had only provided a weak force for Vindex, in Nero’s final year, and was not enthusiastic about the idea of Batavian Civilis to create a Rhine alliance with the Germans, was determined to become Roman, to see its children in the Senate and consular positions, and to compete with Roman literati and rhetoricians. Carthage revived as a center of Greek-Roman rhetoric. Alexandria, emporium of Indian trade and a major industrial city, vied with Athens, which had remained in the tradition of its schools of thought, for the prize, continued the works of Philo, and became the workshop in the time of Hadrian where the combination of Greek wisdom with Judaism and Egyptian mysticism created Christian gnosis. Finally, Asia Minor, whose interior had not yet been successfully Hellenized by the Greeks, had been filled with Greek city-states by the successors of Alexander, but the Romans showed themselves to be masters of administration, providing trade and transportation with roads and security. Along with the flowering of industry, Greek science also found its nurturing in the cultural cities of this province.
Spartianus mentions in his biography of Septimius Severus (chap. 3) one of the omens that prophesied his imperial rule, a vision in which he, serving as a praetor in Spain during the time of Marcus Aurelius, saw the Roman Empire with its capital from the summit of a high mountain and heard a concert of the provinces with singing and accompaniment of lutes and flutes.
This ambitious visionary was tempted by the splendor and vitality of the surface; but as he would later experience on the imperial throne himself, discord and deep discontent worked under that surface, undermining the entire structure.
The Senate could not let go of the memory of its former power and in many dark moments acknowledged that the kindness and condescension of the emperor was only a show in formalities. Trajan’s willingness to participate in the Senate’s customs could hardly conceal a certain coolness that, in the practice of tradition, only sought to accommodate itself to it as promptly as possible. The energetic rulers of this period also tried, as soon and as long as possible, to avoid the formalities of the capital. Trajan and Marcus Aurelius went to war; Hadrian traveled, studied, and cajoled the provinces. Antoninus, who did not leave Rome during his reign, is an exception, with his angelic calm and cheerfulness that never left him in the service of formality. The later Church called such spirits of devotion and blissful smiles the Seraphic.
The emperors of this period gained the acclaim of the Praetorian Guard upon their ascension to the throne without making themselves prisoners of their guard through flattering application, continuing the policy of the Flavians. Trajan even allowed himself, relying on an army he had raised himself, to lower the gift to the Praetorians to half the usual price and was able to come out victorious in a bloody conflict with the leaders and troops who had insulted his father’s majesty. Dio Cassius relates of him (68, 16) that when he handed the new prefect his sword, he unsheathed it and held it out to him saying, “Take this sword and use it for me if I govern well, against me if poorly!” Pliny alludes to this event when he exclaims in his Panegyricus (chap. 67), “Does this not seem to be his thought day and night: if necessary for the common good, even the hand of the prefect (of the Praetorian Guard) can be turned against me?” However, even from the cold-bloodedness of this risk, one can deduce that blase attitude which dares to cope with a power so daringly authorized and provoked for any eventuality.
Neither the “humane” relationship with the Senate praised by Pliny nor the heroic confidence towards the Praetorian Guard could replace the lack of a universally recognized legal title for the emperor. The almighty stood in a void. Everyone felt his necessity, but there was no legal expression for it. His person was an accident, and whether he was good or bad was also accidental. To assert and establish himself, he had to live in a constant tension of his will and inventiveness and stretch his mind almost to infinity. A realm that encompassed the world had to testify to him, filled with his inspirations and creations. He touched the brink of divinity madness at every moment.
Let’s pay attention to how the emperors were reminded of the limits of their power, when the most powerful among them sought to make the infinity of the empire a reality, and we will also see the worm that was active at the edge of the whole. Trajan, who wanted to push the eastern border to infinity, exhausted himself and his army in Parthia, and left his successor with the task of settling for the Euphrates as the border. Marcus Aurelius blunted his sword on the belt of peoples that gathered against the empire along the Danube, and his successor had no choice but to buy peace with these pushers.
However, more dangerous was the work of the worm that undermined the empire from within. There was a considerable number of layers that worked beneath the surface and wanted to break through the shiny surface and rise up.
The slaves, half a million in the capital alone, had nothing in the happiest period that had dawned with Nerva and Trajan for humanity. The “Seculum,” the century that the emperors considered their glory and Pliny glorified, was not there for them. As for the freedmen, they were proud of their right to be human, and personal independence, not citizenship, was their ideal.
Tacitus still counted the clients of this “appendage of the great houses” as “good” and conservative elements in his overview of the social classes of Rome after Nero’s fall (Hist. 1, 4). Through their connection to the high family corporations, they had a kind of civic support. However, they had long since lost the frugality and loyalty of the earlier retinue of nobility, and Martial expressed the current attitude of this class in his farewell epigram as a tired client and congratulator who has to pay his respects to his patron early in the morning, when he expressed his only wish (Epig. 10, 74) to be able to sleep in again, that is, to belong to himself.
However, after Nero and Domitian had cleared out the great families, the former clients dispersed among the mass that lived without a connection to a public interest and relied on their own strength for their well-being. This class, which owed nothing to the existing order, provided the self-sufficient and autonomous individuals, the thinkers and innovators, who were brought together by the need for a new connection to each other. From this class emerged the proselytes of the immigrant religious customs. They, the unattached, were the right material for new religious experiments, as a religious message that promised freedom and human rights could also count on the slaves.
We have just learned at the end of the Flavian era the circle of people who were dissatisfied with the order and welfare of the Vespasianic era and only longed to feel blissful in communion with their own souls. Dio Chrysostom, who also felt threatened by Domitian’s bloody intervention against Flavius Clemens but saved himself by fleeing, writes of him that he “was praised by many, almost by all, as blessed for what he died for”. So, it was a matter of great spiritual importance to him for which he suffered.
A few years earlier, a noblewoman, Pomponia Graecina, wife of Plautus, the British triumphator, had died, who at Nero’s time was also accused of confessing to an “external superstition” (Tacit. Annal. 12, 32), but was left to the house court of her husband and was acquitted by him. Friends with Julia, daughter of Drusus, granddaughter of Tiberius, she lived in a melancholic mood for forty years since her murder by Messalina, Claudius’ wife, and did not take off her mourning clothes during this time. The interpreters have mostly wanted to see a Christian in this remarkable woman, albeit somewhat hastily; but since participation in the Isian service, which one could still think of, was nothing remarkable in society at that time, it is more than likely that Pomponia Graecina, like the Flavians, added a strict soul discipline to her initiation into Greek wisdom through the recognition of Jewish monotheism.
Thus, the slave quarters and problematic groups of freedmen provided, like the highest social classes, the elements for an orderly crowd, for whom the alleged happiness of this era was misery or a barren thing, which they gladly gave up for participation in a new spiritual covenant. From them, an army formed that rose up in the heart of the Roman Empire to judge the world.
2. The Last Judgment.
Plato gave the slogan for this great anti-imperial and anti-Roman army. This philosopher, who had tried in vain on his political excursions to Syracuse to heal the degenerate democratic and aristocratic elements of his time through a self-invented tyranny, referred the despairing, those who still have eyes and “want to see,” upward. The true state, for him, was in heaven.
In the golden age of the Antonines, this supernatural community was the subject of street preaching. Lucian could count on his audience to understand him when, in “Hermotimus,” he discussed the possibility of reaching that better world. The philosopher of this essay calls the journey to the otherworldly state “the only matter that concerns everyone who cares about their own well-being, despite the difficulty of the journey. And if our old homeland on this earth tried to hold us back with both hands, he exclaims, if our parents or children even begged us so movingly, clung to us so desperately, and did not want to follow our example, we would have to tear ourselves away from them and embark on the journey to the glorious city. All its inhabitants are foreigners who came from other places, for no one is born a citizen. There one finds barbarians, slaves, beggars, whoever wants to be a citizen and who is not weakened and made feeble by the hardship of the journey.”
The Cynic makes it a little easier for himself when he says goodbye to the world. According to the caricatured depiction that Lucian gives of his settlement with the existing order in “The Sale of Philosophical Sects,” he throws his fortune, if he has any, into the sea, doesn’t care about house and homeland, and considers everything that people do and value to be nothingness. Even if he still mixes with the crowds, he maintains the posture of one who is alone among them and, through this isolation, demonstrates his royal independence.
The Stoic wants to conquer and maintain the royal nature that the Cynic gains in a thorough and uninterrupted work. His soul is directed towards the law and order of the universe; he makes that his own rule of life, expresses it in feeling and attitude, and by making himself similar to the God working in the universe, his inner being becomes the fortress against which the attacks of the opponents of the world order bounce off.
Lucian gives us a vivid picture in his essays of the busyness of the cynical beggar monks who roamed the streets of Latin and Greek cities and offered themselves to people as guides to a brief farewell from the world’s hustle and bustle. The Stoics had their audience in the upper society and invited striving spirits to a melancholic gathering of the mind and to readiness for war against the evil course of the world. But Plato had hit the most popular note for the centuries of imperialism.
As the founder of the Academy gave the law, which coincided with the change in the appearance forms of the universe for earlier natural philosophers like Heraclitus, the secluded existence of the ideas, he satisfied the general religious need that had already taken offense at the natural explanation of the world’s life during the time of those bold researchers and now, after the withering away of the former splendor of the gods, more fervently yearned for a comprehensible afterlife. Nothing could be more welcome to this longing than the separation of the cosmic whole into a realm of the upper ideas and the lower region of sensuality, which receives its shape and fleeting existence from its prototypes above. The satiated and the suffering alike heard the echo of their inner lament when they heard that this world was only a shadow cast by the upper invisible world. The desire for liberation from the anxieties of this life took the proposition that the body is the shackle and prison of the soul as a joyful message. Plato’s formula that care for perpetual dying (odvýσxatv ueletav) leads to true life became the solution to the world’s riddle, and the art of dying became the affair of this life.
Plato’s admonitions to refrain from revenge and to strive for a virtuous (tanetvós) life, as well as his warnings against wealth, were never more understandingly received. The persecutions which the preachers of poverty and renunciation had still endured under Domitian confirmed the words of the same philosopher that one who has once glimpsed the city of God above in spirit appears as a fool and out of his senses upon his return to this life. The pessimism which crumbled with the reign of the Caesars is found in the Platonic picture of the position of the wise man, who appears in this world like one who has fallen among wild beasts and is content to keep himself free from the uncleanness of others in a corner. Finally, Plato promised the refugees from this world of shadows the satisfaction that before the judgment seat above, the way to the right and to heaven would be open to them, while those attached to earthly things would be sent to the left and cast down to the lowest Tartarus.
Slaves and freedmen could hear such inspiring messages daily on the streets and in the halls. But even in the houses of the great, they were not kept hidden from them.
We can see from the letters of Pliny how friendly and fraternal the relationship of the great men influenced by Greek wisdom was with them. This man of delicate sensibilities, who during his military service in Syria became friends with some Greek philosophers and persuaded them to move near him in Rome, was, for example, completely devastated when illnesses and deaths occurred among his slaves, and said of those who saw only losses in such accidents that he could not call them human beings (Epist. 8.16). At another time, when he was at a stranger’s table and a guest drew his attention to the relegation of the household’s freedmen, he spoke of the friendly sympathy with which he interacted with his own (Epist. 2.6). However, the great seminar where Greek messages were processed in spiritual intercourse was the women’s chamber.
The history of the late Republican period and the imperial era presents us with passionate and commanding women. Juvenal portrays how the fury nature of a Fulvia or the cold composure of a Livia had taken on the form of the emancipated woman. The women of the Stoic opposition were ascending heroines, like Arria, who handed her husband Patus the dagger with which she first stabbed herself, saying, “it does not hurt!” or like her granddaughter Fannia, daughter of Thrasea, who lost her husband Helvidius Arche and then her son Helvidius in the war of Domitian against the internal enemies, stood against the latter emperor in court, and, having returned from exile under Nerva, dedicated the last years of her life to avenging her son (Plin. Epist. 3, 16. 7, 19. 9, 13).
Noble women like Pomponia Graecina and the wife of Flavius Clemens were far from the bitter resentment of these Stoic heroines against the existing order and possessed a higher freedom in their inner lives than these passionate Furies of the Caesarism. Restricted to the interior of their homes, they must have exchanged thoughts with the women in the company of their freedwomen and with their maidservants in the secrecy of the women’s quarters, just as Pliny kindly interacted with his freedmen. The intimate relationship of such high-born women with their serving female surroundings, which would have had equally gifted and high-minded individuals as the imperial palace and, like it, also had people of Jewish origin, was of significant influence on the spread of Asian cults, particularly Jewish monotheism, among the higher Roman circles. While the penetration of foreign thought alienated families from the Roman genius, the servitude of such households was tantalized by the images of a general freedom that had nothing to do with the long-extinguished memories of the Forum. In addition, Roman society was occasionally terrified by outbreaks of rage that filled the slaves against their harsh masters, and bloody punishments like that over the slaves of Largius Macedo, who had murdered their cruel master in the bath, would only have aroused wild emotions in the slave dungeon of Rome.
These were the social classes, feelings, and thoughts that undermined the empire in secret. The social sentiment that flowed through the world during the Trajanic era alongside official business derived its sustenance from the need for brotherly connection. The Greek discovery of universal equality and brotherhood had ignited a feeling of love in the two central points of the then world, Rome and Alexandria, under the patronage of Seneca and Philo, encompassing all peoples and the remnants of the collapsed state order. Lucan too has added the idyll of this love bond to his great war song. However, love alone, which desires personal connection and would like to embrace the whole world with equal personal intimacy, does not possess the power to work on and transform the secular order. A powerful social drive, it is of floating nature to create a socialist formula for the organization of its environment. In addition, Plato prescribed the flight to the heavenly state above for souls who care for their well-being and seek community with their true fellow citizens for the next centuries – indeed, for millennia.
Too weak to build down here, this highly elevated love, whose wings only carry upwards, will give up the dark mass of this world to destruction with zeal and rejection as it feels strong enough in the midst of a crowd of confessors at the end of the Antonine era. Before Marcus Aurelius closes his eyes, it will unfold the image of how the whore Babylon is consumed in the fire of sulphur rain on the seven hills, and the peoples and powers she has seduced from the cup of fornication with words of friendship and alliance will sink into a sea of blood. The “Beast” of the Apocalypse, which we have already learned about as the figure of world power in the section on Nero, will come into the fiery sulphur pool.
Now let’s see how this ancient pessimism developed under the Trajan and Antonine emperors.
3. The Trajanic Era.
The coincidence that opened the gates of the new era occurred in the following very natural way. Nerva belonged, under Domitian, to the silent circle of senators who were known to tolerate the Flavian tyranny only with reluctance. Dio Cassius claims that he was threatened by the emperor himself and that the conspirators, under the leadership of Domitian’s powerful chamberlain, Parthenius, finally turned to him after their offer of the imperial power was rejected by others (67, 15). The fact that he was connected to the murderers is indicated by the fact that the same Parthenius restored him when he was distraught by the rumor that Domitian was still alive and about to take revenge.
The threatened senators had understood each other. For example, Pliny tells in a letter to Tacitus, in which he asks for a place in his “immortal histories,” how Nerva “wished him and the century luck in an honorable letter.” In partnership with Herennius Senecio, who soon became a victim of imperial hatred, he successfully carried out an action, and when the convicted man immediately retaliated with the accusation of impiety (against Domitian), he avenged his friend, after which Pliny complained about the half-heartedness of this accusation and the unlawful exemption of his person.
The party of the Senate, who groaned for their deliverance, had already agreed on the person of the successor when the blow against Domitian happened within the Palatium. Probably Pliny, who in his letters cites several proofs of his courage towards the Flavian terror regime (Epist. 1, 5. 1, 18. 3, 4), had not been a little active in this agreement. In addition to his age, which made his government only a provisional and a time for reflection on a definitive choice, Nerva’s known liberal attitude and the novelty of his family, which had only made a name for itself in the civil service career, spoke for him. His ancestor was that Cocceius Nerva, Tiberius’ friend and chancellor, who, in grief over the necessity and exhausting endlessness of the pressure on the old aristocracy, gave his life.
Pliny once again stood out when it came to clearing up the old ways. The Senate had shouted for joy when news of the murder in the Palatium came. The images of Domitian in the Curia were immediately overturned, and the Fathers climbed jubilantly on ladders to tear down the reminders of the hated one from the walls. During the first days of this frenzy, the Curia echoed with cries of revenge; but Pliny was not satisfied that only people of minor importance were charged and convicted, and wanted to strike the main blow against Publilius Certus, who had caused the death of the younger Helvidius and had laid hands on him in the Senate itself. He attacked the Senate with his indictment speech and even forced applause, although some had pleaded with him to at least give them, the survivors, some peace, and the majority wished to save the accused. But Nerva did not pursue the matter and did not refer it back to the Senate. Pliny, Arria, and Fannia, along with Anteia, the widow of Helvidius, who had insisted on the right to sue, received as their only satisfaction that Certus lost his position as prefect of the aerarium and his prospect of the consulship, and in the soul-wrenching fear of his persecutor, whom he always believed to see behind him with a sword, tortured himself to death (Epist. 7, 33).
Nerva thought like Mucian and Domitian, who had put an end to the Senate’s rebellion against Nero’s magistrates on behalf of Vespasian. One of his first orders provided for the release of all those accused of insulting the majesty, the recall of the exiled, and the execution of slaves and freedmen who had become traitors to their masters. No one of such people should be accused of majesty offenses against their lords or denunciated by others (Dio Cass. 68, 1). However, he did not want anything to do with a terrorist cleansing of the Senate, and those who returned from exile were surprised when they met at his table one of the most violent prosecutors of the Domitianian era (Plin. Epist. 4, 22). He simply was not inclined to surrender unconditionally to an enraged Senate.
This weakness, which the transition to the constitutional era was still struggling with, could only be put to an end by the soldier whom Nerva called to his side as his successor in a moment of deep humiliation. In the Praetorium, there arose resentment over the neglect that it believed it was suffering in the friendly arrangement between the Senate and the new emperor. After a year, it finally used the freedom in which the murderers of Domitian were moving around as a pretext to play the avenger of offended justice. Casperius Aelianus, whom Nerva had left in charge at Domitian’s downfall, attacked the emperor with his troops and demanded that he execute the murderers. Despite his weakness, Nerva bravely resisted and declared, baring his chest, that he would rather die than stain the Empire and deliver those who paved the way for him. However, according to Aurelius Victor (Epitome, cap. 12), when the Praetorians became even more heated with freedom after the arbitrary slaughter of Parthenius and his companions, he let them force him to justify their act as an expression of their legal zeal in a speech before the people. But for this humiliation, he immediately called for the avenger. He announced to the people from the Capitol that he was adopting Marcus Ulpius Trajanus as his son; he repeated the same declaration, with the interpretation that his son was now standing beside him as Caesar, in the Senate, and accompanied the same message to Trajan, who was then serving as governor in Upper Germany, with the Homeric verse, “Let the Danaans pay for my tears with your missiles.”
The soldier who had grown up in the camp since childhood was now able to lead the ship of the new era into the wide open. Four months after the death of his imperial father (January 23, 98), he avenged him on his detractors by summoning Casperius Aelianus and his unauthorized band to himself as if he needed their services, and had them cut down. After his entry into Rome (in 99), he was able to prepare the spectacle, not yet fully satisfied, of the Senate’s revenge against the informers, which Pliny (Paneg. 34. 35) described with childlike delight, and to let the rest of them be at the mercy of the sea’s whim after their presentation in the amphitheater. Confident in his well-disciplined army, he no longer needed majesty guards, and after he had repeated his father’s edict against the acceptance of slave and freedmen denunciations (Paneg. 42), he was able to write to his Pliny, who once had scruples because of a Bithynian case (Epist. 10, 85, 86), “he should not have had any doubts, since he knew his principle very well, to gain respect for his name neither through fear nor terror nor through majesty trials.”
If Nerva was already a subject of admiration for Tacitus (Agricola, 3), because he “mixed the otherwise incompatible essences, principate and freedom,” Trajan delighted the senators after his entry into the curia with the “facility” with which he invited them (Paneg. 66. 67) to just reach out and consider the empire a common affair. But when we hear how the fathers secretly admit their powerlessness to each other, the matter takes on a completely different appearance. It already has something depressed about it when Pliny varies the theme before a full senate that the emperor “had commanded them to be free and they would be obedient to his decision” (Paneg. 66. 67). But in private, the language is different; for example, Pliny gives a friend who wants to have many and long letters from him, as Cicero wrote, the meek answer (Epist. 9, 2): “Yes, this fertile talent of the past had a sufficient supply of diversity and richness of themes. But you know the narrow limits in which I am confined, even if I don’t say it.”
Once the Senate had risen to the introduction of secret voting for official elections with the approval of the emperor, and Pliny found himself in a position to tell a friend (Epist. 3.20) that he “could write something about the republic and must do it immediately, as there is less occasion for it now than usual. Everything, to be sure, is under the control of one man, who has undertaken cares and toils for the general welfare; yet, along a salutary, well-regulated middle course, certain activities flow to us like streams from that most benevolent source.” A few days later, however, his concern, already expressed in the first flush of enthusiasm, that the innovation would give rise to abuses, had been realized; the ballots were (Epist. 4.25) used by scoffers and jokers as material for pranks, and now he knows no other remedy than that “the remedy, which is too high for the Senate, must come from another.” The emperor must help.
We referred above to the patience with which Trajan adapted himself to the formalities and constitutional etiquette of the assembly of the Fathers, a serious-looking behavior; but the Senate itself gave vent to its enthusiasm for the emperor’s friendly devotion in a babble which can only be called childish.,,Happier, the chorus of fathers cried, believe us, believe in yourself! O, we are blessed.” These were the acclamations (Paneg. 73-75), which were engraved in bronze and recited with a certain modulation like a litany. They are the “serious songs” (seria carmina. Ibid., Cap. 54), which Pliny opposed to the stage couplets in which, in addition to the Senate’s shouts, the earlier emperors were praised. The Fathers now wanted to have the sole privilege of rendering the services to the emperor that, for example, Nero received from the applause of his Augustans.
The Senate was more than ever in the hands of the Emperor. The initiative for important or characteristic measures came from him. The inclusion of the youngest children in the lists of recipients of grain was his work (Paneg. 26-28). Trajan continued the foundations begun by Nerva for the upbringing of poor children in Rome and Italy, but on a larger scale. If these foundations of the imperial fiscus were only an increase in the previous system, whereby the provinces had to help with their taxes to combat the impoverishment of Rome and Italy and the decline of their population, Trajan’s decree that candidates for public office must be resident in Italy (Epist. 6, 19) was a direct reaction against the trend that elevated “outsiders” to high military and administrative posts, and even to the height of the imperial throne.
Also reactionary against the sentiment that had particularly gained ground in favor of slaves and freedmen under Nero’s and Seneca’s influence was his decree that freedmen of a patron whose slaves had murdered him, even if he had given them their freedom during his lifetime, should be subjected to torture. Only a Martial (10, 34) could praise him for his restoration of the right of patrons, whose freedmen had left no will and only an adopted child, to inherit half.
Pliny had to sacrifice his own condemnation of gladiatorial games and animal fights (Epist. 6, 34) and his rejection of the spectacles of the imperial era (Epist. 9, 6, 4, 22) to please him, and he had to glorify Trajan’s restoration of gladiatorial contests, which Nerva had abolished (Zonaras, 11,20), as a means to inspire the free citizen to the contempt of death and the pleasure in beautiful and glorious wounds (Paneg. 33).
Trajan was astute enough to read the inner discontent on the faces of his senators regarding their political nullity. In addition, there was a rich literature that gave expression to a certain storm in their souls.
However, this storm was directed only against the former tyrants. Pliny had even given it a kind of official consecration. As he expounded in his Panegyricus (cap. 53), the true love for good rulers is shown in the belittling of other rulers; one is indifferent to the good or suspects their sentiments when one is silent about the high criminals; in any case, the most significant merit of our emperor is that one can act with certainty against the bad ones.
Tacitus made abundant use of this freedom and increased the antipathy of his “Histories” towards the imperial system to the horror paintings of his “Annals”. Juvenal used the tales from the court of Claudius and Domitian for pointed images, but he rose above the historian of the imperial era through his recognition of the decline of the aristocracy. Pliny himself published a vindictive text for his murdered Helvidius (Epist. 7, 30).
Titianus Capito dedicated a religious cult to the portraits of Cassius and Brutus in his house, celebrated these heroes of the Republic in poems, also wrote about the final moments (exitus) of the victims of the imperial regime, and obtained from Trajan permission to erect a statue of Lucius Syllanus (probably the last of the Junians killed by Nero) in the Forum (Epist. 1, 17. 8, 12). Cajus Fannius died when he had reached the end of the third book of his “History of those murdered or banished by Nero.” Shortly before his death, he dreamt that he was lying on his couch studying when Nero appeared, sat down on his mattress, took the first book of “his crimes” and read it through, then the second and third, and left. The author interpreted the dream to mean that he would not get beyond the third book (Epist. 5, 5).
The upper society of Rome was like this Fannius. The terrifying figures of Nero and Domitian were erected before everyone’s eyes. Revenge and satisfaction (ultio, as the title of Pliny’s book reads) was the general cry. This tense atmosphere was enough of a sign for Trajan that his attention to constitutional formalities did not fully satisfy people’s emotions, and he sought a battlefield to conquer a more sustainable authority.
In his Senate speech (Paneg. 12), Pliny had shown the peoples along the Danube the emperor who would no longer (like Domitian) buy victory with gifts. And hardly had he looked around after his entry into Rome and started his era, than he hurried away from the senatorial atmosphere and began his war with the Dacians, which ended in 106 with the establishment of a precarious Latin colony in the north of the Danube between Transylvania and the Prut.
The last four years of his life were consumed by the Parthian War. He advanced to the Euphrates, took Babylon without encountering any resistance, handed over Ctesiphon, the winter residence of the Parthian kings; Seleucia fell, then Susa; Mesopotamia and Assyria became Roman provinces; the victorious general, who was celebrated as Parthicus, stood on the Persian Gulf and had a fleet built to sail to India as a second Alexander. Then he was awakened from his dream of victory by the news that the easily won cities in his rear had revolted. Tempted away from all support by the retreating Parthians, he had to make his way back like an incendiary over the ruins of the fallen cities and died exhausted and weary of life in the Cilician port town of Selinus (in August 117).
Let us leave the correction of this adventure to his successor and turn to the party that disturbs the peace of the empire more thoroughly than the dissatisfied constitutionalists of Rome. Pliny will acquaint us with the Christians.
4. Pliny and the Christians.
However, the secret that shrouds the first beginnings of the Christian community is so persistent that we cannot even use a testimony that seems to be equipped with all the seals of authenticity with confidence.
The earlier assumption that Pliny began his praetorship in Bithynia, from where he reported to Trajan about his difficulty with the Christian matter in 103, is untenable. In the first letter of the second book of his epistolary collection, he describes the funeral of Verginius Rufus, who, after the defeat of the Gallic Julius Vindex in the last year of Nero, refused the offered empire. Verginius died in 97. Later (Epist. 6, 10), Pliny complains that the monument on this man’s grave has not been completed even after ten years. From the 19th letter of the 9th book, we also see that a friend had referred to this note. Therefore, the collection of letters that this friend had in his possession was published after 107, and the last books of the current collection were only later made available to the public.
Several passages in Book 10 support this view. In the 16th letter of that book, Pliny reports to the emperor (from Bithynia) that a man who had worked for a couple of bakers in Nicomedia and had been held against his will by them had revealed himself as a soldier who had been captured in the Dacian War and given as a gift by Decebalus to the Parthian king Pacorus, in whose service he had served for several years until he managed to escape. Furthermore, letters 13-15 of the same book, which concern the dispatch of an urgent message from King Sauromates of the Cimmerian Bosporus to Trajan in Rome, relate to the time when preparations for the Parthian War were underway. The emperor was concerned that the small rulers in the northeast of the Black Sea, while he was fighting for the maintenance of Armenia’s vassalage and seeking out the Parthians beyond the Euphrates, would not cause trouble in his left flank.
Furthermore, considering that the man who, in the first nine books of his correspondence, barely achieved any success in court, knew how to gain immortality through his lectures and his poetry, up to his love poems, or in social circles, with no mention of his Bithynian struggles and achievements, we cannot include his praetorship in the period covered by those nine books. All the Bithynian letters finally assume the emperor’s stay in Rome, none presupposes his absence in a field camp; therefore, the only time left for Pliny’s foreign office work is the period from September 17 (Epist. 10, 28) 111 until the spring of 113. In the autumn of the latter year, Trajan set out for the East.
There are three characteristic aspects of Pliny’s writing that always cast doubt on its authenticity: the notoriety of Christianity and the tension between it and the imperial government, the complete ignorance of the praetor about the previous legal proceedings, and an immoderate glorification of Christianity alongside a blind rejection of it.
If Pliny attacks the emperor right at the beginning of his letter (Epist. 10, 97) with the words “I have never attended trials of the Christians,” he assumes that the emperor in Rome is already informed about the matter with these few words. Trajan knows that there are Christians, knows what kind of people they are, and knows what to think when he hears the word “trials” about Christians.
Only Pliny, who otherwise boasts of his knowledge of business that “experience” has given him, who exclaims with a certain triumph, “I have often been an advocate, often a judge, often an assessor” (Epist. 1, 20), who also held the praetorship, does not know what the actual subject of the investigation and punishment is and to what extent the latter is usually measured.
To the emperor, as soon as his officer opens his mouth, the matter is clear; the experienced judge, however, is completely unclear as to whether age should be taken into account, whether childhood, being tender, should be treated differently from adults, and whether forgiveness should be granted for repentance. He does not even shy away from the nonsense of the question of whether the Christian name, if it does not include shameful acts, should be punished, or whether the shameful acts that go with the name should be punished.
Nevertheless, he went straight to court. Those who confessed were taken away after two threats of the death penalty (for execution). He did not care about the matter of guilt and simply adhered to the norm he had devised, that mere stubbornness, no matter what the people confessed, was punishable.
Suddenly the scene changes. He receives an anonymous list with the names of a whole series of Christians. Some claim to have been wrongly denounced, and he believes them, since they inevitably brought their homage to the imperial image, which he had brought in with the images of the gods, with incense and wine and cursed Christ. Others, however, claimed to have abandoned their faith three, even more, some of them twenty years ago, and were induced to change their minds by his edict, which, as a result of the imperial order, had banned all associations (hetaireiai).
What a combination! Trajan had issued that declaration
against all kinds of associations when the citizens of Nikomedia wanted to unite their carpenters as a fire brigade (Epist. 10, 42. 43). But how could this edict have been in effect three, or even more, years ago, or long before Trajan’s accession to the throne?
These same people who cursed Christ allegedly began their testimony about their previous “guilt or error” with the words that it consisted of nothing more than that they met early in the morning to celebrate Christ as a god and pledged to abstain from theft, robbery, adultery, and breach of trust in regard to entrusted property. Nothing more, that was all (hanc fuisse summam), which sounds like the triumphant testimony of someone who proudly and with a smiling sidelong glance at the accusation of his faith boasts, “nothing more, that was nothing bad, on the contrary.”
Just as this praise for the cause of Christianity is put into the mouths of those who curse Christ, so Pliny himself adds a brilliant picture of the power of Christianity to his most dismissive verdict on the same matter. After that testimony of the apostates (as if something were missing in their clarity and completeness), he considered it all the more necessary to extract more details by torture from a couple of maids who had the name of servants of the community, and found nothing but a bad and boundless superstition, on which he illustrated the danger of the situation with a picture of the triumph of Christianity over the temple service. “Not only the cities, but also the villages and rural settlements were infected by superstition, the temples were deserted, the sacrificial rituals were neglected, and the sellers of sacrificial animals only rarely found a buyer.”
And had no one in Rome known any of this? Had the current governor no inkling until a few denunciations conjured up Christians before his eyes like ex machina, and does he not say a word about it in his other letters from Bithynia?
Tertullian, at the end of the second century (in Apologet. cap. 1), does make the pagans complain that the city is besieged by Christians, and that the countryside, fortresses, and islands are taken by them, and that every sex and age, every dignity, and every office falls away from the pagans; but one knows the African declamation and rhetoric of this Church writer. The sober and later Origen, who knew the Orient from experience, expressly says that the number of Christians there is only small.
Johann Salomo Semler, the deserving researcher in whom the critical direction of German pietism, stimulated by English Quakerism, reached its most significant development, declared Pliny’s letter, together with Trajan’s reply, to be the work of a later Christian who had invented the negotiations between emperor and governor for the glorification of the rising Christianity. (See this scholar’s “New Attempts to Clarify the Church History of the First Centuries More,” Leipzig 1788.) This work, despite its many stimulating and partly correct points, cannot explain how a Christian could have gone so far as to list whole cohorts of former brothers who, at the first threat of danger, resolved to apostatize from their faith and curse their Master. The incoherence of Pliny’s writing can be explained only by the gradual penetration of Christian interpolations. Even Tertullian, who possessed it in its current form, could not refrain from adding to his own summary statement of it (apologet. cap. 2) the note that Pliny also dismissed Christian officials from their posts.
We have a great witness for the existence of a Plinian writing on the Christian matter in the time of Tacitus. This witness is the historian himself. When he composed his “Histories” and came to his characterization of the Jews during the siege of Jerusalem, that writing was not yet in existence. However, it was in front of him when he composed his “Annals.” He took from it the features for his description of the alleged Christians during the Neronian persecution and the vocabulary “fateri” and “confiteri,” which have their proper place with Pliny, but are tossed around in his work between the acknowledgment of arson and the confession of faith. The “detestable and immoderate superstition” (superstitionem pravam et immodicam) that Pliny found among his Christians has been turned by Tacitus into a pernicious (exitiabilis) one, while Suetonius (Nero, chap. 16) referred to it as “new and harmful” (superstitionem novam et maleficam). Finally, the “shameful deeds” (flagitia), which Pliny associated with the name of the Christians, led Tacitus to derive the people’s hatred towards them from these deeds (per flagitia invisos). We can consider the brutal certainty with which the Annalist speaks of the Christians’ reprehensible superstition as evidence that he found nothing in his deceased friend’s Bithynian letter that could have caused him to waver in his stubborn hatred.
The notoriously late fabrication of the tolerant letters of the emperors Hadrian and Antoninus Pius favorable to Christians justifies our doubt as to whether Trajan’s short response letter to Pliny (Epist. 10, 98) has been transmitted safely through the hands of Christians until Tertullian’s time. The way in which the emperor approves his childishly inexperienced propraetor’s actions and yet later prescribes new measures of mildness and caution is not without suspicion, while the phrase that the consideration of anonymous denunciations is not fitting for the “new era” is consistent with the language usage of the Nerva-Trajanic period. We must, therefore, content ourselves for now with the observation that Trajan’s prohibition of visiting Christians and accepting anonymous reports had early earned him the reputation of a guardian angel of the Christians. Tertullian himself says (Apolog. chap. 5) that through the former prohibition, he had partly broken the edge of the laws invoked against the Christians (frustratus est). However, later, a Pope freed him from hell by the power of his participation.
Gregory the Great (around the year 600) wept as he thought about the noble deed of the emperor for the honor and redemption of the son of a widow who had been unjustly executed, as he made his way over the Forum Trajan’s to the Church of the Apostle Peter. He was so grieved before the altar of his church for the soul of the good monarch that he received a revelation in the night that he would be freed from the torments of Hell because of the power of his prayer, but he must not pray for any other heathen.
On the other hand, it is thanks to his laudable testimony for the Christians that Gaius Plinius Caecilius Secundus was made a Christian in the apocryphal poetry of the following centuries. According to this, on his return from Bithynia, he met Titus, the alleged student of Paul, on Crete, and after being lost in his belief following the collapse of a temple of Jupiter that he had built, he was baptized along with his son, who did not exist in history, in a church that he had built in honor of Christ. A later Roman martyrology, which lists a Secundus who was beheaded along with five companions on August 6 for his Christian confession, gave him the reputation that he had suffered martyrdom in Novocomum, his hometown.
As uncertain and contradictory as the individual features are that Pliny uses to create the picture of the first Christians, we owe it to his inquiry of the emperor that we are on solid ground and see the new community before us in the flesh. Tacitus confirms in his “Annals” (in the second half of Trajan’s reign) the information of his friend and teaches us with his hateful lines about the feelings with which the old republican society of Rome received the appearance of a new association. We see from the excitement of the annalist that the new layer, which baffled the friends of the old order, kept itself apart from the ruling and contented classes and did not allow itself to be unsettled by collisions with existing powers. It did not aim at harmony with the course of the world and the regulations of the world rulers, and thus it could not be shaken by the counterstrike of the sacred privileges. Seneca’s prize of renunciation and isolation, the struggle that the rhetorical schools of Athens and Rome had waged in the name of the soul and love against the horrors of regulations, and the jubilation of the Cynics at their farewell to the world had penetrated the masses.
Let us now wander with Hadrian to Alexandria and try to penetrate the secret there that envelops the birth hour of the new association. Here we will also learn how Judaism, which served as a means for the fusion of Greek wisdom and Roman inwardness, was subjected to a drastic critique by the new birth.
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