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
"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
of innocent doves. Forgive me if I say, my dear
Tacitus, that I never saw you so little like a
"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
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.
FABIUS BEFORE THE GOVERNOR
"Do you know their place of meeting?" asked the
"And the time?"
To answer readily would have been to betray
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
"Then take a guard on the first occasion that occurs,
and arrest in the name of the Emperor all that you may
"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
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