I will preface this post by stating that I formerly identified as a Catholic; raised in a religious household and educated in Christian schools for much of my life. While I hold no bias, references made to the customs of the religion can be taken from personal experience. In 111-113 AD, during which Pliny the Younger was governor of Pontus/ Bithynia, Christianity was still new religion, yet to be encountered by much of the Roman Empire. It is only fitting, then, that this religion, contradictory from the practices of traditional Romans, be viewed as cult-like and dangerous, as someone other than Emperor Trajan was being worshipped by a rather discrete body of people.
As is the case with any religion, Christianity identifies a God to worship, and develops rituals, customs, and traditions to support this belief system. From the perspective of polytheism, this can be especially alarming. As Pliny acquired a list of Christians and interviewed them, some denounced Christ in efforts to save their own lives. Others would not, and consequently were executed. Discovering the extent of this list, however, and the variety of answers received when interviewing, Pliny consulted the Emperor with the following statement: “For the matter seemed to me to warrant consulting you, especially because of the number involved. For many persons of every age, every rank, and also of both sexes are and will be endangered. For the contagion of this superstition has spread not only to the cities but also to the villages and farms. But it seems possible to check and cure it.” (Pliny’s Letter to Trajan).
While it is ironic that Christianity be deemed a superstition, it follows suit at the time. It is a rather secretive community that has adopted its own symbols and customs, and engages in ritualistic events with self-proclaimed leaders (priests, deaconesses, etc.). The worshipping of a “false god” is accurate considering that the Roman Empire offered sacrifices and incense to its own gods.
A modern example of this cult-like viewpoint can be taken from Ari Aster’s recent movie, Midsommar. A group of graduate students from Canada accompanies their friend and classmate home to Sweden to witness/ participate in a special festival for the Midsummer Solstice. The remote community identifies with their own religion, however the customs and traditions practiced over the course of the festival are inherently cult-like to the foreigners. Though an extreme example, the worship of deities and sacrificial offerings that take place are explained to be religious practices by the community, however are received negatively and considered radical by the foreigners. From the point of view of an American, the traditions displayed do seem cult-like and certainly would be perceived as a threat if the community expanded. Similarly, the practices of Christianity would seem threatening to a polytheistic Roman Empire, and thus, the actions taken by Pliny are entirely justified.
Pliny and Trajan on the Christians, faculty.georgetown.edu/jod/texts/pliny.html.
Aster, Ari, director. Midsommar. A24, 2019.
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