Pliny and the Christians
Caius Plinius Caecilius Secundus, commonly known to posterity as the Younger Pliny, has just finished his day's work as Proprætor—that is to say, Governor—of the Roman province of Bithynia. It has evidently worn him out almost to the verge of exhaustion. He has, indeed, the look of feeble health. His gentle, delicate features are drawn as with habitual pain; his cheeks are pale, with just one spot of hectic colour in the middle; the lines on his forehead are deeper than befits his age, for he is but in his forty-seventh or forty-eighth year; his figure is bent and frail, and thin almost to emaciation.
The room shows evident signs of the occupation of a man of culture. Though it is his official apartment, and he has his study elsewhere, it has something of the look of a library. A little bookcase, elegantly made of ivory and ebony, stands close to his official chair. Half a dozen rolls—for such were the volumes of those days—are within reach of his hand. He can refresh himself with a few minutes' reading of on or other of them, when the tedium of his official duties becomes more than he can bear; using a writer's privilege, we can see that Homer is one of the six, and Virgil another. The wall facing him is covered with a huge map of the province; and most of the available space elsewhere is occupied with documents, plans of public buildings, and other matters relating to the details of government; but room has been found for busts of eminent writers, for some tasteful little pieces of Corinthian ware, and for two or three statuettes of Parian marble. At a table in the corner a secretary is busy with his pen; but were we to look over his shoulder we should see that he is not occupied with the answer to a petition or with a report to the Emperor, but with the fair copy of a poem which the Governor has found time to dictate to him in the course of the day.
Pliny has just risen from his seat, after swallowing a cordial which his body physician has concocted for him, when the soldier who kept the door announced a visitor—"Cornelius Tacitus, for his Excellency the Governor." Pliny received the new-comer, who, indeed, had been his guest for several days, with enthusiasm.
"You were never more welcome, my Tacitus," he cried. "Either I am in worse trim for business than usual, or the business of the day has been extraordinarily tiresome. In the first place, everything that they do here seems to be blundered over. In one town they build an aqueduct at the cost of I don't know how many millions of sesterces, and one of the arches tumbles down. Then, in Nicæa here, they have been spending millions more on a theatre, and, lo and behold ! the walls begin to sink and crack, for the wise people have laid the foundation in a marsh. Then everybody seems to want something. The number of people, for instance, who want to be made Roman citizens is beyond belief. If Rome were empty, we could almost people it again with them. But, after all, these things need not trouble me very much. One only has to be firm and say 'No!' But here is a more serious matter, upon which I should like to have your advice."
The Governor handed to his friend two or three small parchment rolls, which he took from a greater number that were lying upon a table. As Tacitus read them, his look became grave, and even troubled.
"What am I to do in this matter?" said the Governor, after a short pause. "For the last two or three days these things have been positively crowding in upon me. You don't see there more than half that I have had. They all run in the same style: I could fancy that a good many are in the same handwriting. 'The most excellent Governor is hereby informed that there is a secret society, calling itself by the name of Christus, that holds illegal meetings in the neighbourhood of this city; that the members thereof are guilty of many offences against the majesty of the Emperor, as well as of impiety to the gods;' and then there follows a long list of names of these same members. Some of these names I recognize, and, curiously enough, there is not one against which I know any harm. Can you tell me anything about this secret society which calls itself by the name of Christus?"
"Yes," answered Tacitus; "it is more than fifty years ago since I first heard of them, and I have always watched them with a good deal of interest since. It was in the eleventh year of Nero—you could only have been an infant then, but it was the time when more than half of Rome was burnt down."
"I remember it," interrupted Pliny, "though I was only three years old; but one does not forget being woke up in the middle of the night because the house was on fire, as I was."
Tacitus went on: "Well, I shall never forget that dreadful time. The fire was bad enough, but the horrors that followed were worse. People, you know, began to whisper that the Emperor himself had had the city set on fire, because he wanted to build it again on a better plan. Whether he did it or not, he was capable of it; and it is certain that he behaved as if he were delighted with what had happened, looking on at the fire, for instance, and singing some silly verses of his own about the burning of Troy. Well, the people began to murmur in an ominous way—you see, more than half of them were homeless. So the monster found it convenient to throw the blame on some one else, and he threw it upon the Christians. You know what a Roman mob is; as long as it has its victims, it does not much care about the rights and wrongs of a case. I did not see much of what was done to these poor wretches, but I saw enough to make me shudder to this day when I go by the place. It was at a corner of the Gardens on the Palatine. They had fastened one of the miserable creatures to a stake, and piled up a quantity of combustibles about him, but not near enough to kill him at once when they were set on fire. I shall never forget his face. It was night, but I could see it plainly in the light of the flames, which yet had not begun to scorch it. There was not a trace of fear on it. He might have been a bridegroom. Boy as I was, it struck me very much, and I said to myself, 'These are strangely obstinate people, I take it, and might be very dangerous to the State.' And that is the view I have always taken of them; and it has been borne out by everything that I have seen or heard."
"But," said the Governor, "have you ever made out that there is anything wicked or harmful in this superstition of theirs? I have heard strange stories of their doings: that they mix the blood of children with their sacrifices, that they indulge in disgraceful licence, and so forth. Do you believe that there is anything in these reports?"
"To speak frankly," replied Tacitus, "I do not. On the contrary, I believe that they are a singularly innocent and harmless set of people; that they neither murder nor steal; and that if all the world were like them our guards and soldiers would have very little to do."
"Yet," said Plinius, "you seem to speak of them in a somewhat hostile tone. If they are so blameless they cannot fail to be good citizens."
"No, this is precisely what they are not," was Tacitus' answer after a few moments' pause. "I take it that obedience is the foundation of our commonwealth, obedience to the Emperor now, as it once was to the Senate and people. No man must set his own will or his own belief above obedience. If he does, he takes away the foundation. Tell one of these Christians to throw a pinch of incense on an alter, and he will refuse. Not the Emperor himself could make him do it. The pinch of incense may be nothing. Neither the State nor any single soul in it may be one whit the worse for its not being thrown; but it is an intolerable thing that any citizen should take it upon himself to say whether he will or will not do it. Depend upon it, my dear Pliny, these Christians, though they never trouble our courts, civil or criminal, are very dangerous people, and either the Empire must put them down, or they will put the Empire down."
"What, then, would you have me do?" asked the Governor.
"Act with energy; arrest these people; stamp the whole thing out."
"But it is too horrible. It is—if you will allow me to say it—it is even absurd. Here are thieves and cut-throats without number at large; profligates who spend their whole lives in doing mischief, and villains of every kind. Yet a Governor is to leave these hawks and kites to themselves, and pounce down upon a flock of innocent doves. Forgive me if I say, my dear Tacitus, that I never saw you so little like a philosopher."
"There are times," replied Tacitus, "when one has to think, not about philosophy, but about policy. Look at the Emperor. You know what manner of man he is. He is not a madman, like Nero; he is not a monster, like Domitian, who was so fond of killing that he could not spare even the flies. But Nero and Domitian were not so stern with the Christians as he is. 'Obey me,' he says, 'or suffer for it. If I let you choose your own way, the Empire falls to pieces.' Yes, my dear Pliny, distasteful as it must be to be a man of your sensibility, you must act."
"I shall consult the Emperor," said the Governor, who felt himself hard pressed by his friend's arguments.
"Certainly," said Tacitus; "it would be well to do so. I understand that he wishes to be consulted about everything; though how he contrives to get through his business is beyond my understanding. But meanwhile act. You need not do any thing final, but Trajan, if I know him, would be much displeased if he were to find that you had done nothing."
"What would you advise, then?"
"Send a guard of soldiers, and arrest the whole company at one of their meetings. It would be easy to learn the place and the time. These societies have always some one among them to betray their secrets; though, indeed, this can hardly be a secret. You need not keep them all in custody. Probably many will be slaves. I hear that the slaves everywhere are deeply infected with the superstition. You can let them go, and make their masters answerable for them. Nor should I take much heed of artisans and labourers; but you will keep any person of consequence that there may be, and, above all, their priests, or elders, or rulers, or whatever they call them."
The Governor pressed a handbell that stood on the table at his elbow, and bade the attendant who answered the summons send for the centurion on duty.
In the course of a few minutes this officer appeared.
"Fabius," said Pliny, "you have heard, I suppose, of certain people that call themselves Christians?"
"Yes, my lord," answered the centurion, "I have heard of them."
It required all the composure—one might almost say the stolidity of look—that is one of the results of a soldier's discipline, to enable Fabius to reply without showing any change of countenance. He had been for some months a "catechumen"—one, that is, who was receiving instruction preparatory for baptism. He had been somewhat inclined of late to draw back. The new faith attracted him as much as ever, but there were difficulties which it put in his way. Could he hold it and be a soldier? His teachers differed. The eldest minister, a man of liberal views, thought that he could. Cornelius, the godly centurion, who was the first-fruits of the Gentiles, had not been bidden to give up his profession. One of the younger men, whose temper was fiery, almost fanatical, took the opposite view. The soldier was essentially a man of the world, and the world was at enmity with the Church. Nor could Fabius hide from himself the difficulties. Idolatry was everywhere. His arms, for instance, bore the images of gods; to be present at sacrifice to gods was a frequent duty; worst of all, he would himself be called upon to sacrifice by burning incense before the image of the Emperor. All this had made him hesitate.
"Do you know their place of meeting?" asked the Governor.
"And the time?"
To answer readily would have been to betray too intimate a knowledge of the Christians' proceedings.
"Doubtless," my lord," he said, despising himself at the same time for the prevarication, "I can find it out."
"Then take a guard on the first occasion that occurs, and arrest in the name of the Emperor all that you may find assembled."
"It shall be done, my lord," said Fabius, still unmoved, and, after saluting, withdrew.
No one would have recognized the centurion Fabius, with his almost mechanical rigidity of movement, in the agitated man who, for the next hour, paced up and down in his chamber. It is to be feared that he wished over and over again that this disturbing influence had never come into his life. Here was a conflict of duties such as he had never even dreamed of. Could he let these men and women whom he knew, some of whom had been so kind to him, who would have done all they could for him, run blindly into danger? And yet, would it not be a breach of duty to warn them? The Governor trusted him; the charge laid upon him was a secret. Could he, as a soldier, betray it? Again and again he made up his mind, only to unmake it the next moment. At last the struggle ended, as such struggles often do, in a compromise; and here circumstances helped him. The meeting would be the next day, he knew; and it was now afternoon. There would not be time to warn all the members of the community, even had he known—what he did not know—where they were to be found. But there was one to whom word must be sent at any cost. This was Rhoda, the daughter of Bion. Fabius had been one of the many who had been struck by the girl's singular beauty. Like his rivals, he had seen that her heart had no room for any earthly love. Still, he cherished her image as one might cherish the vision of an angel. To think of her in the rude hands of soldiers, or dragged to the common prison, was simply intolerable. That must be prevented, if it cost him his officer's rank, or even his honour.
No sooner had he made up his mind to send the girl a warning message, than, as if by the ordering of some higher Power, an opportunity presented itself to him. He caught sight of one of Bion's slaves, who was driving down the street an ass laden with farm produce. To accost the man as he passed might have raised suspicion. A safer plan would be to waylay him as he returned, which he would scarcely do before evening was drawing on. And this he was able to carry out without, as he felt sure, being observed by any one. He thrust into the hands of the old man—a faithful creature, whom he knew to be deeply attached to Bion and his family—a letter thus inscribed:—
"Fabius the Centurion, to Rhoda, daughter of Bion.
"I implore you that to-morrow you remain at home. This shall be well both for you and for those whom you love. Farewell."