Dictionary of Christian Biography and Literature to the End of the Sixth Century/Trajanus, M. Ulpius
Trajanus (1), M. Ulpius (Nerva), emperor, belonged to a family of Italian origin settled in the colony of Italica in Baetica. He was born on Sept. 18, probably in a.d. 53, and passed his early life in the army under his father, a distinguished officer who had risen to the consulship. In Oct. 97, being then in command of the army of Lower Germany, he was adopted by Nerva, with whom, till his death on Jan. 27, he reigned jointly, and then became sole emperor. He remained on the Rhine, placing that frontier in a state of defence, till in the latter half of 99 he made his entrance into Rome, being received with the greatest joy. He died at Selinus in Cilicia, probably c. Aug. 7 or 8, 117.
For us the interest of his life centres in the famous rescript, addressed to his friend Pliny in reply to his letter detailing his procedure towards the Christians in Bithynia. Pliny had arrived in his province immediately before Sept. 18, 110, or more probably 111 (Mommsen, Hermes, 1869, 59), and the letter was probably written in the year after his arrival. The rescript is one of a series of replies to inquiries on the most various subjects—police, baths, sewerage, precautions against fires water supply, public buildings, etc.—and neither Pliny nor Trajan seems to have considered the subject one of special importance. Pliny's letter is the earliest heathen account of the services and behaviour of the Christians, and Trajan's reply is the earliest piece of legislation about Christianity that we possess.
After stating that, having never been present at trials of Christians, he was ignorant of the precise nature of the crime and the usual punishment, and also how far it was the practice to pursue the inquiry, Pliny asks the emperor whether any distinction should be made on the ground of age; whether those who abjured Christianity should be pardoned, or a man who had embraced Christianity gain by renouncing it; whether the mere name apart from any crime or the crimes associated with the name should be punished? Provisionally he had taken the following course in the case of those charged before him with being Christians. "I demanded," he says, "of the accused themselves if they were Christians, and if they admitted it, I repeated the question a second and a third time, threatening them with punishment; if they persisted, I ordered them to be led to execution. For I felt convinced that, whatever it might be they confessed they were, at any rate their unyielding obstinacy deserved punishment. Some others, who were Roman citizens, I decided should be sent to Rome for trial. In the course of the proceedings, as is generally the case, the number of persons involved increased and several varieties appeared. An anonymous document was presented to me which contained the names of many. Those who denied that they were or ever had been Christians I thought should be released when they had, after my example, invoked the gods and offered incense and wine to your image, which I had ordered to be brought for the purpose along with those of the gods, and had also blasphemed Christ, none of which things, it is said, can those who are really Christians be compelled to do. Others, who were accused by an informer, first said they were Christians and then denied it, saying that they had been, but had ceased to be, some three years, some several, and one twenty years ago. All adored your image and those of the gods, and blasphemed Christ. They declared that all the wrong they had committed, wittingly or unwittingly, was this, that they had been accustomed on a fixed day to meet before dawn and sing antiphonally a hymn to Christ as a god, and bind themselves by a solemn pledge [sacramento] not to commit any enormity, but to abstain from theft, brigandage, and adultery, to keep their word, and not to refuse to restore what had been entrusted to their charge if demanded. After these ceremonies they used to disperse and assemble again to share a common meal of innocent food, and even this they had given up after I had issued the edict by which, according to your instructions, I prohibited secret societies [hetaeriae]. I therefore considered it the more necessary, in order to ascertain what truth there was in this account, to examine two slave-girls, who were called deaconesses [ministrae], and even to use torture. I found nothing except a perverted and unbounded superstition. I therefore have adjourned the investigation and hastened to consult you, for I thought the matter was worth consulting you about, especially on account of the numbers who are involved. For many of every age and rank, and of both sexes, are already and will be summoned to stand their trial. For this superstition has infected not only the towns, but also the villages and country; yet it apparently can be checked and corrected. At any rate it is certainly the case that the temples which were almost deserted begin to be frequented, the sacred ceremonies which had long been interrupted to be resumed, and there is a sale for fodder for the victims ["pastumque venire victimarum," so Lightfoot], for which previously hardly a buyer was to be found. From this one can easily conclude what a number of people may be reformed,
if they are given a chance of repentance." Trajan replied with the following rescript: "You have followed the right course, my dear Secundus, in investigating the cases of those denounced to you as Christians, for no fixed rule can be laid down for universal adoption. Search is not to be made for them; if they are accused and convicted they are to be punished, yet with the proviso that if a man denies he is a Christian and gives tangible proof of it by adoring our gods, he shall by his repentance obtain pardon, however strong the suspicion against him may be. But no notice should be taken of anonymous accusations in any kind of proceeding. For they are of most evil precedent and are inconsistent with our times" (Plini et Trajani Epp. 96, 97).
Besides the interesting information thus afforded on the belief and practice of the early Christians (hints are apparently given of the existence of some formula of prayer, of the Eucharist and Agape), what light does it throw on the legal position of the Christians? That trials of Christians had to Pliny's knowledge already taken place appears by it, and the allusion cannot be to the Neronian persecution when he was scarcely three years old, and hardly can be to that which was commenced and almost immediately discontinued by Domitian, assuming that the objects of it were Christians and not Jews. Pliny's language points rather to proceedings of a regular kind against Christians. On the other hand, the fact that a man who had attained distinction at the bar, and who had held all the high offices of state, had never witnessed a trial of this kind, proves that they were rare. Again, no statutory enactments as to Christianity existed, or Trajan would have referred to them in his rescript according to his usual custom, when senatus consulta or edicts of preceding emperors bore on the subject on which he is writing (cf. lxvi. and lxxiii.). Pliny's action was therefore based on the fact that Christianity was a religio illicita, its professors members of a collegium illicitum, at what might be termed the Roman common law. While Christians were regarded by the Roman government as a mere variety of Jews, they shared in the toleration enjoyed by Judaism as a religio licita. When the separation between the two religions became apparent to Roman eyes, Christianity lost this shelter and its professors fell under the ban that extended to all unlawful associations. The exact time when the Romans became aware of the distinction has been the subject of much controversy; at any rate, it had become apparent by the end of the 1st cent. Nero does not appear to have issued any edicts against Christians in general, and if Christianity, either apart from or along with Judaism, suffered under Domitian (Dion, lxvii. 14), all the measures on the subject were repealed by Nerva on his accession (ib. lxviii. 1).
What, then, was the effect of Trajan's rescript? Formally it made the position of the Christians worse. It confirmed, by a positive enactment, the view Pliny had taken of their status at common law. Practically, however, the qualifications that they were not to be sought for, and anonymous accusations ignored—qualifications due to Trajan's abhorrence of delation in all its forms (cf. Juv. iv. 87; Tac. Ann. iv. 30; Pliny, Pan. 34, 35), and from which it was his especial pride to be free—must frequently have been a boon to the Christians. This secondary bearing of the rescript was first insisted on by Tertullian (e.g. Apol. c. 5, in Migne, Patr. Lat. i. 276) and the primary thrown into the background. >From Tertullian this view of the rescript passed to Eusebius and from him to other Christian writers, till at last it came to be taken as an edict of toleration terminating a general persecution (Sulp. Sev. ii. 31; Orosius, vii. 12, in Patr. Lat. xx. 146, xxxi. 1091), a theory excluded by the words of the rescript itself, "That no fixed rule could be laid down for the whole empire." It was not from favour to the Christians that these limitations were introduced, and Trajan's chief objection to them was his dread of secret societies, which were especially prevalent in Bithynia (Epp. xxxiv. xciii. cxvii.).
Overbeck (Studien zur Geschichte der Alten Kirche) maintained that the rescript was the law that regulated the position of the Christians till the beginning of the persecution of Severus in 202, and that from Tertullian downwards a thoroughly mistaken view of it had been taken. He asserts that during this period it regulated the practice of the emperors, and that they did not deviate from it either in favour of the Christians or against them. He supports his position by pointing out that Justin Martyr under Antoninus Pius, Athenagoras under M. Aurelius, and Tertullian under Severus (Apol. I. 4, Legatio pro Christ. 1 and 2, in Patr. Gk. vi. 333, 892–893, and Apol. 1–4, in Patr. Lat. i. 259–289), all agree in stating that the mere name of Christian was punishable. The trials of Ptolemy and Lucius before the prefect of the city are conducted precisely in the manner laid down by the rescript (Justin, Apol. II. in Patr. Gk. vi. 445). M. Aurelius, on the occasion of the persecution of Lyons, issues a rescript following the same rule, that those who abjured Christianity should be released, those who refused should be executed (Eus. H. E. v. 1). Overbeck, therefore, rejects not only the protection edicts ascribed to M. Aurelius and Antoninus Pius, which are now generally considered to be forgeries, but also, following Keim, argues (134–148) for the spuriousness of Hadrian's letter to Minucius Fundanus, which has usually been thought to be genuine, and which is not really inconsistent with Trajan's rescript.
The only martyrs known by name as having suffered under Trajan are the bishops Symeon of Jerusalem and IGNATIUS of Antioch.
For Trajan's relations with the Christians consult also Eusebius (H. E. iii. 32, 33, 36), Tillemont, Mém. eccl. (ii. 167–212), and Gibbon (c. 16). The ancient authorities for his reign are singularly meagre, and the dates, and even the order of many important events, have been determined only by the evidence of inscriptions and coins.