17: Roman Correspondence

All the saints salute you, chiefly they that are of Caesar’s household.

Philippians 4:22

Correspondence provides the historian with valuable evidence, therefore assisting the process of understanding the facts of a past generation.

Trajan, who ruled Rome from 98-117 AD, while being a great secular leader was a poor judge of spiritual truth. Reviving old laws prohibiting secret societies he applied these especially to Christians. While he did not encourage a proactive seeking out of Christians he did promote a policy of persecution when people were proven to belong to this ‘sect’. This contradictory policy enabled some Governors to overlook Christianity while others were considerably more intolerant.

This confusion prompted Pliny, the Governor of Bythinia to write to the Emperor, for help in justifying his actions and for advice as to future policy. The very fact that the emperor is corresponding with senior officials concerning Christianity is proof of the spread of this movement ; it was causing deep concern in the Roman palaces and regional power centres.

The content of Pliny’s letter is most illuminating; the ‘superstition’ was spreading through Asian Minor, pagan temples were forsaken, the sellers of sacrifices were losing business, every class, gender and age were turning to Christianity. This persuaded Pliny of the necessity of employing draconian tactics to clamp down on what he regarded as a dangerous superstition; he even had women put on the savage rack.

It is evident that men like Trajan and Pliny, considering themselves to be educated and enlightened individuals foresaw the logical outcome of Christianity. The delicate spiritual balance between gods and men, which underpinned Roman society, was under threat by a movement which claimed that their resurrected leader was the only God, He alone being the exclusive way to God. For an emperor who elevated himself as a god, this was too much.

Pliny couldn’t quite understand. He described this religion as “depraved and superstitious”; he could not explain its rapid spread and growing popularity. Yet he could not ignore it because if Rome were to ignore Christianity she would do so at her peril.

But we understand completely. The King is reigning, building His Church and the gates of Hell never did and never will prevail against her.

Lo, the great King of kings with healing in His wings,
To every captive soul a full deliverance brings;
And through the vacant cells the song of triumph rings;
The Comforter has come!

Francis Bottome

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