|Schaff on the
persecution of Christians under Trajan
Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church
Trajan, one of the best and most praiseworthy emperors, honored as the "father of his country," but, like his friends, Tacitus and Pliny, wholly ignorant of the nature of Christianity, was the first to pronounce it in form a proscribed religion, as it had been all along in fact. He revived the rigid laws against all secret societies, and the provincial officers applied them to the Christians, on account of their frequent meetings for worship. His decision regulated the governmental treatment of the Christians for more than a century . It is embodied in his correspondence with the younger Pliny, who was governor of Bithynia in Asia Minor from 109 to 111.
Pliny came in official contact with the Christians. He himself saw in that religion only a "depraved and immoderate superstition," and could hardly account for its popularity. He reported to the emperor that this superstition was constantly spreading, not only in the cities, but also in the villages of Asia Minor, and captivated people of every age, rank, and sex, so that the temples were almost forsaken, and the sacrificial victims found no sale. To stop this progress, he condemned many Christians to death, and sent others, who were Roman citizens, to the imperial tribunal. But he requested of the emperor further instructions, whether, in these efforts, he should have respect to age; whether he should treat the mere bearing of the Christian name as a crime, if there were no other offence.
To these inquiries Trajan replied: "You have adopted the right course, my friend, with regard to the Christians; for no universal rule, to be applied to all cases, can be laid down in this matter. They should not be searched for; but when accused and convicted, they should be punished; yet if any one denies that be has been a Christian, and proves it by action, namely, by worshipping our gods, he is to be pardoned upon his repentance, even though suspicion may still cleave to him from his antecedents. But anonymous accusations must not be admitted in any criminal process; it sets a bad example, and is contrary to our age" (i.e. to the spirit of Trajan’s government).
This decision was much milder than might have been expected from a heathen emperor of the old Roman stamp. Tertullian charges it with self-contradiction, as both cruel and lenient, forbidding the search for Christians and yet commanding their punishment, thus declaring them innocent and guilty at the same time. But the emperor evidently proceeded on political principles, and thought that a transient and contagious enthusiasm, as Christianity in his judgment was, could be suppressed sooner by leaving it unnoticed, than by openly assailing it. He wished to ignore it as much as possible. But every day it forced itself more and more upon public attention, as it spread with the irresistible power of truth.
This rescript might give occasion, according to the sentiment of governors, for extreme severity towards Christianity as a secret union and a religio illicita. Even the humane Pliny tells us that he applied the rack to tender women. Syria and Palestine suffered heavy persecutions in this reign.
Symeon, bishop of Jerusalem, and, like his predecessor James, a kinsman of Jesus, was accused by fanatical Jews, and crucified a.d. 107, at the age of a hundred and twenty years.
In the same year (or probably between 110 and 116) the distinguished bishop Ignatius of Antioch was condemned to death, transported to Rome, and thrown before wild beasts in the Colosseum. The story of his martyrdom has no doubt been much embellished, but it must have some foundation in fact, and is characteristic of the legendary martyrology of the ancient church.
Our knowledge of Ignatius is derived from his disputed epistles, and a few short notices by Irenaeus and Origen. While his existence, his position in the early Church, and his martyrdom are admitted, everything else about him is called in question. How many epistles he wrote, and when he wrote them, how much truth there is in the account of his martyrdom, and when it took place, when it was written up, and by whom—all are undecided, and the subject of protracted controversy. He was, according to tradition, a pupil of the Apostle John, and by his piety so commended himself to the Christians in Antioch that he was chosen bishop, the second after Peter, Euodius being, the first. But although he was a man of apostolic character and governed the church with great care, he was personally not satisfied, until he should be counted worthy of sealing his testimony with his blood, and thereby attaining to the highest seat of honor. The coveted crown came to him at last and his eager and morbid desire for martyrdom was gratified. The emperor Trajan, in 107, came to Antioch, and there threatened with persecution all who refused to sacrifice to the gods. Ignatius was tried for this offence, and proudly confessed himself a "Theophorus" ("bearer of God") because, as he said, he had Christ within his breast. Trajan condemned him to be thrown to the lions at Rome. The sentence was executed with all haste. Ignatius was immediately bound in chains, and taken over land and sea, accompanied by ten soldiers, whom he denominated his "leopards," from Antioch to Seleucia, to Smyrna, where he met Polycarp, and whence be wrote to the churches, particularly to that in Rome; to Troas, to Neapolis, through Macedonia to Epirus, and so over the Adriatic to Rome. He was received by the Christians there with every manifestation of respect, but would not allow them to avert or even to delay his martyrdom. It was on the 20th day of December, 107, that he was thrown into the amphitheater: immediately the wild beasts fell upon him, and soon naught remained of his body but a few bones, which were carefully conveyed to Antioch as an inestimable treasure. The faithful friends who had accompanied him from home dreamed that night that they saw him; some that he was standing by Christ, dropping with sweat as if he had just come from his great labor. Comforted by these dreams they returned with the relics to Antioch.