In the Roman Empire, their polytheistic religious practices were a staple throughout the empire. Even the emperor of Rome was viewed in a divine way, and was something that the Roman citizens were taught to be in awe of and respect. During this time, Christianity was a budding new religion, and in any empire differing religious views can be something that causes tensions and problems throughout the empire. The Christians had differing practices and views that were seen as a threat to the Romans and their unity as a whole, and because of this they felt that they needed to stamp out this newfound threat. Due to the inherent differences in these two religions, one founded and one on the rise, it absolutely was a valid fear and something that they felt they needed to contain.
When Christianity was beginning, many of their practices defied the traditional Roman views of religion and frightened many Romans. When the Christians “drank the blood of christ” and “ate his flesh”, this was viewed as cannibalistic and as something very out of the ordinary. Even their most basic concept of monotheism was something that was looked down upon. In any empire, a new and fast growing ‘cult’ of any kind can be a problem, and the Romans viewed it in this way. Any strong empire would be quick to stamp something out that could be viewed as a threat to the uniformity of the empire as a whole, and this is exactly what they did. In Pliny’s letter to Trajan he describes the way that they tried to hunt them out, by “asking them whether they are Christians, if they say”yes”…. I order them away to prison” (Pliny’s Letter to Trajan). They even went so far as to force the suspected Christians to “call upon the gods with the usual formula, reciting the words after me” to show that they were indeed not Christians and could call onto the Roman gods in the correct way. Doing so was their way of trying to eradicate the Christians, or even do enough to scare those that practiced into a state of hiding so that they did not affect the empire.
Trajan, one of Rome’s emperors during this Christian uprising, knew that he had to stamp out the rise of Christianity, but also knew he had to do it in a way that would not create turmoil in his empire. Another major problem that the Roman’s had with Christianity, was that the devout Christians would not worship the emperor’s image, because they did not view him as a divine being as the Romans tended to. Trajan states that Christians “are to be punished, but with this reservation”, then saying that they should not punish based on suspicion alone, but in fact, walking a fine line between trying to eradicate the problem and simply controlling it (Pliny’s Letter to Trajan). Trajan absolutely had the right to do this, and doing it in this way allowed him to keep his empire intact and not cause turmoil, while still maintaining the dominance of the traditional Roman religion.
In general, the threat of Christianity to the Roman empire was a very real and present threat that needed to be handled. The way that the Roman’s went about this, they did in a tactful and decisive manner, and while in the end it did not work fully it was one of the only ways to keep the empire together and unified, even with all of the different cultures.
Pliny’s Letter to Trajan
-Word Count: 586