Christians through Roman Eyes

Delivered at Macquarie University 11 April, 1992
What did the pagans think of the early Christians ?
The three Romans I have chosen through whose eyes we see Christians are two early second century Roman governors Pliny and Tacitus and the fourth century historian Ammianus Marcellinus.  Each is thoroughly Roman in his outlook.

Gaius Plinius Caecilius Secundus took his post as Legate of Bithynia- Pontus (south of the Black Sea) in September 111 AD.  He died at his post less than two years later.

At 50 when appointed he was a youngish governor.

The nephew and adopted son of Pliny the famous naturalist and confidant of Vespasian and Titus, the younger Pliny received the best education available for an aristocratic Roman.  He complted his studies under Quintillian the noted rhetorician.  Pliny enjoyed reading the works of others as well as writing his numerous letters.  The tenth book of letters (60 letters, including Trajan’s replies) were written to the emperor while Pliny was governor of Bithynia-Pontus.

His education completed, Pliny became an advocate in a lower court devoted to property and inheritance matters.  But to fulfil the accepted career path he did a stint in the army – in Syria – but avoided active service, gravitating to a preferred posture, auditing the accounts of an auxiliary legion.  On return to Rome – where he remained until his posting to Bithynia-Pontus, Pliny rose in prominence as public figure – quastor of Domitian, tribune of the people, consul – the most honoured office, all before he was forty.  Thereafter he acted as prefect for military finances (managing a pension fund for disabled soldiers) then prefect of the state treasury.

After the death of Domitian, Pliny returned to private legal practice, awaiting the favour of the new emperor Trajan.  More prestigious appointments came – the coveted augurate, the same priesthood enjoyed by Cicero, on whose career Pliny consciously modelled himself.  Thereafter Pliny was elected president of the curators of the Tiber, the body responsible the riverbanks and the city sewer and sanitation.  In 109 or 110 he was appointed governor of the province of Bithynia-Pontus, thus reaching the pinnacle of his career.  Pliny’s expertise in administration and finance was appropriate given the numerous problems of the cities of the province to which he was sent.

A meaure of Pliny’s love of Roman values may be seen in his letter to a friend who was governor of Achaia:

never forget…how much it means to establish order in the constitution of free cities, for nothing can serve a city like ordered rule and nothing is so precious as freedom

Pliny, Epistle  8.24

On his arrival Pliny began extensive travels, especially to the coastal cities, encountering municipal fraud, maladministration and – not least – worrying evidence of private clubs and associations (hetairia).  Trajan directed that these should disband, including fire-fighting associations.  Who knows what political consequences there might be if meetings outside the official body politic were permitted.

During these travels – but to a city not identified by Pliny – the governor came across the sect of the Christians, about whom he sought the emperor’s advice.

They … repeated after me a formula of invocation to the gods and…made offerings of wine and incense to your statue (which I had brought into court for this purpose along with
images of the gods) and moreover had reviled the name of Christ: none of which things … any genuine Christian can be induced to do.

Pliny, Epistle 10


Tacitus (b. 56-d.117) was a friend and contemporary of Pliny, though not so well known. (Naturally, Pliny’s letters tell us more about Pliny than Tacitus’ historical works reveal about Tacitus).  Tacitus studied rhetoric and became famous as a speaker, as well as a historian, even within his lifetime.  A committed republican, he preferred the Roman republic at its worst to the Imperial system at its best.

A native of Narbonese, Gaul, Tacitus pursued a senatorial career under Vespasian. Under Domitian the tyrant Tacitus was appointed praetor 88, consul 88.  Trajan appointed him Proconsul to the very important province of Asia 112-113 – a measure of his competence ? – thus he held his appointment at the same time as his friend Pliny in Bithynia-Pontus, the adjoining province.

It is significant that these two contemporaries in adjoining provinces – where there were concentrations of Christians – should be the first Romans to refer to the new religion, and at about the same time. The Annals, written c.116, is separated from Christus and his execution by more than 80 years.  Tacitus’ sources of information about Christus are not known. Tacitus would have had access to Pilate’s official report of the crucifixion of Christ in Judaea, but such a report may not have been lodged in Rome. Possibly such a trial may not have been deemed worth the effort or it may have been one of many irregular trials which, according to Philo, occurred in Judaea under Pilate. More probably, however,  Tacitus’ information arose from unofficial sources.

Tacitus has no interest in the origins of Christianity for their own sake.  He is narrating the era of Nero and the great fire of Rome in 64.  Christians and Christus the founder are part of that story and only for that reason are they mentioned.

[The Christians'] originator Christ had been executed in Tiberius’ reign by the governor of Judaea, Pontius Pilate.
But in spite of this temporary set back the deadly superstition had broken out afresh, not only in Judaea , but even in Rome…

Annals of Imperial Rome  xv.44

Critical to Tacitus’ account is the application of the word superstition (superstitio) to the Christians, which disease-like not been eradicated with the execution of Christus in Judaea but broke out afresh in Judaea from which it had spread to Rome, whither in time all such plagues eventually arrive.

Thus Tacitus speaks of Christians in same terms as Pliny, and another from that same aristocratic class, Suetonius (“a new and wicked superstitio“).  The movement of the Christians was a superstitio, which was spreading like a disease throughout the empire.  We detect a sense of fear in these writers.

So what was a superstitio ?

It will not do to simply equate superstitio with our word “superstition.”  By our definition, the Romans were quite “superstitious”; one thinks of their deference to the omens, entrails and the like, which in so accomplished and rational a people strike us as odd.

By superstitio they meant something different, namely, beliefs and practices that were strange to the Romans; cults from nations conquered by the Romans which impinged on Roman government both in the provinces and in Rome itself.

Judaism is an example.  Although for political reasons Augustus and Tiberius afforded some protection for the numerous Jews within the empire, to Tacitus they were “a people prone to superstition and the enemy of true religion” [1]. This resembles his reference in the Annals to the Christians’ “hatred of the human race.”

Roman religion was public and civic in character.  It had priests, rites and ceremonies. It had a private expression, a domestic expression as well as an expression in associations and groups. But these were always a function of a piety that was associated with the Roman state.  The Roman gods were seen as binding society together.  Cicero wrote that “disappearance of piety towards the gods will entail the disappearance of loyalty and social union among men as well, and of justice itself, the queen of all virtues” [2].  Piety including to the minutiae of ceremonial observation (eg the feeding of chickens in a precise way) contributed to the well-being of society, through the providentia of the gods. Piety brought providence.

The Romans distinguished religion from superstition. “Religion has always been distinguished from superstition,” wrote Cicero.  For superstition implies groundless fear of the gods” whereas religion consisted in “pious worship of the gods” [3].  Other writers (e.g., Plutarch) declared that superstition sets people off from the rest of society because it is marked by terror of the deities and also by fanaticism.  Plutarch wrote that the superstitious man “enjoys no world in common with the rest of mankind”.  To him the gods are “rash, faithless, fickle, vengeful, cruel and easily offended” [4].

This, then, would have approximated to Tacitus¹ abhorrence of Christians. He would have seen them as at odds with his view of Roman order and the relationship between religion and that order.  They were a superstitio.

And yet for Christians, as for Jews, the state occasions when the community gathered were a difficulty precisely because of their religious character.  As one contemporary said: “What is a stage show without a god, a game without a sacrifice ” [5].  Thus the Romans chided the Christians, according to the Christian Minucius Felix, [6]:

You do not go to our shows, you take no part in our processions, you are not present at our public banquets, you shrink in horror  from our sacred games.

Hollywood’s portrayal of the Romans as lurid and debauched – influenced perhaps by the rhetorical excesses of Suetonius and Juvenal – is not true of the Roman writers Pliny and Tacitus.  According to their lights they were moral and upright.  Their attitudes towards Christians did not spring from profligate behaviour so much as from their concern for the order of the state and the danger to the state of non-Roman cults, which were private in nature and fanatical, in a word from the effects of superstitio, the spreading disease of Christian superstitio.

Ammianus Marcellinus

A Greek born in Antioch (330-d.395), Ammianus Marcellinus wrote a massive history – Res Gestae -covering AD 98-378 (Trajan to the battle of Adrianople) in Latin in self-conscious continuation with Tacitus (31 books – 1-13 lost; 13-31 cover 353-378 in fine detail, much on eye-witness basis).

As a young man Ammianus served in army under Julian the Apostate, from whom he may have heard criticisms of Christianity.  (Julian was to launch a literary attack Christian beliefs). Nonetheless, Ammianus writes without the animosity of Pliny and Tacitus, though in a somewhat deprecating tone (“synods as they call them” – suggesting Christianity was not by then well established, which it was).  His branding of laws forbidding Christian rhetoricians and grammarians as “harsh” is a direct criticism of Julian the author of those laws.  Even though he generally admires Julian he is prepared to criticise him. [7]

XXI.16 refers to Constantius II, an Arian emperor, at the height of the synodical disputes over Arianism, with many synods and much travelling by bishops at state expense.

Ammianus is not so much anti-Christian per se, as prepared to much criticisms where they were applicable. In XXI.16 it is a silly emperor and incessant seemingly pointless theological disputes which he criticizes.

In another place he notes the dissensions among Christians and their antipathy towards those with whom they differed.  Because of these dissensions Julian the Apostate had nothing to fear from the [Christian] common people, “having found from experience that no wild beasts are as hostile to men as are most Christians to one another” [8]

Again, he criticizes the disputes between Damasus (Bishop of Rome) and his rival Ursinus which led to the slaughter of 137 in the Christian basilica of Sicinius.  He comments sardonically that he understands why there should be such disputes among Christian leaders since, he writes,

“after they have succeeded, they will be free from care for the future, being enriched by offerings from matrons, riding in carriages, dressing splendidly and feasting luxuriously so that their entertainments surpass even royal banquets. And they might be really happy if, despising the vastness of the city, behind which they hide their faults, they were to live in imitation of some of the bishops of the provinces, whom the most rigid abstinence of eating and drinking, and plainness of apparel, and eyes always cast on the ground, recommend to the everlasting deity and his pure worshippers as pure and reverent men”

Res Gestae XXVII.3.12-15

Ammianus is an unbeliever, an admirer of the Apostate Julian.  Nonetheless, he can criticize Julian for foolishness or unfairness. Equally, he can see good in Christians where they are true to their profession of faith and behaviour. But he is not slow in noticing behaviour which is at odds with Christian values. As such he knows more about Christians than Pliny and Tacitus and is more moderate in his assessments.


1. Tacitus The History 5:13

2. Cicero, Nat. D. 1.4

3. Cicero, Nat. D. 117; 2.72

4. Plutarch, On Superstition 166C, 170C

5. Pseudo-Cyprian, De spectaculis 4

6. Minucius Felix Octavius 12

7. eg when Julian made an fool of himself in Antioch – Ammianus Marcellinus, Res Gestae XXII.14.3

8. Ammianus Marcellinus, Res Gestae XXII 5.4