Wednesday, October 7, 2015

The Emperor Trajan

Reading N°36 in the History of the Catholic Church

 Fr. Fernand Mourret, S.S.

Emperor Trajan (AD 53-117)
The peace policy that allowed St. John the Apostle to return to Ephesus, publish his Gospel, and die in peace in a steadily growing Christian community, continued throughout the reign of the Emperor Nerva. The coming of Trajan in AD 98 seemed at first to consolidate the religious policy of his predecessor. The new ruler's first act was a long letter to the senate promising not to put to death any righteous man.[1] It was with marked friendliness that Rome received this soldier, son of a soldier, who had won military glory at the age of forty-two, a man of austerity in spite of certain hidden weaknesses,[2] whose speech was clear, precise, and forceful, notwithstanding his lack of literary culture.[3] The old senatorial aristocracy saw itself in this prince, who possessed a robust but short-spoken good sense, a devoted but narrow patriotism, a conservative but not discerning mind, ready to sacrifice everything to the Roman order and the unity of the Empire, but having no care for things of the soul or respect for inner liberties or sense of the delicacies of conscience; in a word, capable of interpreting in a spirit of judicious tolerance the duty of giving to Caesar what is Caesar's, but unable to respect or perhaps even to comprehend the duty of giving to God what is God's. Such was Trajan. Pliny praises him because, after the fifteen years of Domitian's assertion of divinity, he refused to call himself God.[4] If he had a god, it was that of Roman unity, and as he considered this unity to rest upon the unity of religious worship, it could be foreseen at the outset of his reign that the Christians had every reason to dread the narrowness of his patriotism.

A broader and deeper mind would have understood that Christianity, instead of weakening the necessary foundations of the Empire, was able to strengthen them. Although the Christians were not disposed to give their sovereigns a homage of adoration, they prayed for them with sincere heart and obeyed them loyally. We have already seen the beautiful prayer for the emperor which Pope St. Clement sent to the Christians of Corinth right after Domitian's persecution,[5] and we are acquainted with the lessons of obedience which St. Paul gave to the Christians of Rome during the tyranny of Nero.[6] Trajan was not keen enough to see in the Church the "great school of respect"[7] which might perhaps have saved the Empire's unity against more real dangers. Like Nero, he saw an enemy where there was an ally; for him Christianity was the odium generis humani.

It is probable that there were martyrs in the first years of Trajan's reign;[8] but the rescript in which the Emperor's policy toward the Christians is expressed was written in AD 111 or 112. We must pause to consider this imperial act and the principles of which dominated the whole religious policy of the Antonines.

Pliny the Younger
Cathedral of S. Maria Maggiore, Como
In the fall of 111,[9] Trajan received from the legate of Bithynia, who was then Pliny the Younger, a long letter, setting forth the embarrassing situation in which the emperor's representative found himself on account of the considerable development of Christianity, and asking of the emperor a regulation for his guidance. The germs of faith sowed in the various provinces of Asia Minor by the preaching of St. Peter and St. Paul had grown extraordinarily. The Christian communities, profiting by the Roman legislation regarding hetairiae, or professional and religious corporations, increased everywhere, driving back paganism before them. The temples were deserted; the sale of animals intended for the sacrifices suffered a crisis. Hence arose repeated complaints, which were taken to the legate. Nearly everywhere, in his tours through his province, Pliny found himself in the presence of some of these Christians, of whose doctrine he knew nothing and, furthermore, cared little to know. But he did know that "they were in the habit of meeting on a certain fixed day before it was light, when they sang in alternate verses a hymn to Christ, as to a god, and bound themselves by a solemn oath, not to any wicked deeds, but never to commit any fraud, theft, or adultery, never to falsify their word, nor deny a trust when they should be called upon to deliver it up."

As an upright magistrate, careful to prosecute only crimes enumerated in the law of his country, Pliny judged it not proper to proceed with rigor against such people. But informers intervened, some of them anonymously, in such numbers and so insistently, that the legate had to do somethingabout the matter. Pliny's letter continues:
I judged it so much the more necessary to extract the real truth, with the assistance of torture, from two female slaves, who were styled deaconesses: but I could discover nothing more than depraved and excessive superstition. I therefore adjourned the proceedings, and betook myself at once to your counsel.[10]
In reply to the lengthy communication of the accomplished scholar, Trajan writes with that "imperial brevity"[11] which came to him from his military character and was suited to the giving of commands:
The method you have pursued, my dear Pliny, in sifting the cases of those denounced to you as Christians, is extremely proper. It is not possible to lay down any general rule which can be applied as the fixed standard in all cases of this nature. No search should be made for these people; when they are denounced and found guilty, they must be punished; with the restriction, however, that when the party denies himself to be a Christian, and shall give proof that he is not (that is, by adoring our gods), he shall be pardoned. [...] Informations without the accuser's name subscribed must not be admitted in evidence.[12]
Tertullian points out the illogical part of this decision. He says:
It forbids the Christians to be sought after as innocent, and yet it commands them to be punished as guilty.[13]
Its unreasonableness is patent if it is looked at from the point of view of morality. But Trajan, as a jurist of ancient Rome, was scarcely aware of this point of view when reasons of state seemed to be involved. It is true that the Christians did not commit any crime in common law; but simply by not performing certain religious ceremonies touching the State gods, they were disturbing the "Roman order." This is precisely why a simple "adoration of the gods" will bring them complete pardon. The "Roman order" does not require search to be made for Christians: this would involve a commotion not demanded by the situation. The crime of being a Christian will become punishable only if it is made manifest by a precise denunciation.

This, at any rate, is Trajan's view. From this principle many of his successors drew more severe consequences; they did not alter it essentially. The reasons of State, so unjustly appealed to against the Christians, were advanced, now by the jealousy of Jewish sects, now by the monstrous calumnies which the pagans invented about the Christian mysteries. But, even when the decrees of persecution seem forced upon the emperors by the rage of the people, the final reason for the attack on Christianity will remain this principle which, through Trajan, goes back to the first persecution by Nero: the Christian is the enemy of the Roman civilization, understood after the pagan manner; he is an object of "hatred for mankind."[14] Thus are we to explain this curious anomaly, puzzling at first glance, namely, that the fiercest persecutors of the Church are not always the most detestable from the moral point of view. Often they have but little care for the Roman unity, whereas those most devoted to the State are at times led to make a sort of divinity of it, to which they sacrifice all.[15]

This was so in the case of Emperor Trajan. His reign was glorious in many respects, but it was stained by the blood of three holy pontiffs: the head of the Church of Rome, the head of the Church of Jerusalem, and the head of the Church of Antioch: St. Clement, St. Simeon, and St. Ignatius.

The account of the condemnation, exile, and death of the great Pope St. Clement is preserved in the Passio Clementis,[16] which is quoted by Gregory of Tours,[17] and seems to be known to the writer of the note on Clement I in the Liber Pontificalis.[18] The plainly legendary details of this document were pointed out long ago. But even in the most incorrect histories, there is usually some basis of truth.[19]

According to the best critics, the following are the historical elements contained in this document. On the occasion of a popular uprising in Trajan's reign, Pope Clement was exiled to the Chersonesus. There he found two thousand Christians who had been condemned to the hard labor of the marble quarries long before. Clement consoled and encouraged them. Many conversions took place in the district. With the building material of the abandoned temples and with the wood of the forsaken sacred groves, churches were constructed. These facts reached the ears of the Emperor, who spared the multitude of the Christians, but ordered the aged Pope to sacrifice to the gods, under pain of death. When Clement refused to obey this command, the judge gave orders that an anchor be fastened to his neck and he be thrown into the sea. "There is nothing incredible in this account," says Allard,[20] and Duchesne proves that the tradition of St. Clement's martyrdom was current in Rome as early as the end of the fourth century.[21]

The Martyrdom of Pope St. Clement I
Pier Leone Ghezzi (1684-1755)

There is no historic document that enables us to determine the date of St. Clement's martyrdom. But we know the date of the death of St. Simeon, bishop of Jerusalem, and of St. Ignatius, bishop of Antioch. It was the year 107.[22]

The story of the last days of the holy Bishop of Jerusalem is told by Eusebius, who takes the details from Hegesippus' account. This latter, a converted Jew of the second century, was well situated to be exactly informed. Simeon, son (or grandson) of Cleophas and cousin of our Lord, was 120 years old. He was denounced by Jews and by Judaizing Christians, both as a Christian and as a descendant of King David. The accusation was received by the consular legate of Palestine, Tiberius Claudius Atticus, who had the venerable old man tortured. The holy Bishop's courage aroused the admiration of all present. At last he was put to death on a cross. Hegesippus adds that, as the search for David's descendants was further prosecuted, those very ones who had denounced their pastor were arrested and put to death after being found to belong to the number of the Savior's relatives. God's justice was thus exercised even in this world upon the vile informers.[23]

The Martyrdom of St. Simeon of Jerusalem


[1] Xiphilinus, in Champagny, Les Antonins, I, 227.
[2] Tillemont, Histoire des empereurs, II, 118.
[3] Dio Cassius, LXVII, 7; Aurelius Victor, Epitome, 13.
[4] Pliny, Letters, X, 25, 97.
[5] Cf. Reading N°31: Pope St. Clement
[6] Cf. Reading N°20: Epistle to the Romans
[7] This phrase is Guizot's. "The principles of Christianity, if graven on the heart, would be incomparably more powerful than this false honor of monarchies, these human virtues of republics, and this servile fear of despotisms." (Montesquieu, Esprit des lois, bk. 24, chap. 6.)
[8] Allard, Histoire des persécutions, I, 142.
[9] Some authors say 112. From the standpoint of general history, the date is of little importance.
[10] Formerly there was a lengthy controversy between scholars with regard to the authenticity of this letter. It has been denied by Aube (Histoire des persécutions, p. 219), Desjardins ("Les Antonins d'après l'épigraphie," in the Revue des Deux Mondes, December 1, 1874), and Havet (Le Christianisme et ses origines, IV, 425 ff.). But the authenticity of the letter is now universally acknowledged. See Boissier, in the Revue archéologique, 1876, p. 114; Renan, Les Evangiles, p. 476, note; Allard, Histoire des persécutions, I, 116 ff.; Harnack, Geschichte der altchristlichen Litteratur, II, 866; Lightfoot, Apostolic Fathers, part 2, I, 51.
[11] "lmperatoria brevitate," says Tacitus, referring to Galba. Tacitus, History, bk. I, chap. 18.
[12] Pliny, Letters, X, 97.
[13] Tertullian, Apology, 2.
[14] Allard, in his Ten Lectures on the Martyrs (pp. 120 ff.), and more fully in the Revue des questions historiques (July, 1912), clearly shows that the liberty accorded to Christianity, far from being a cause of weakness for the Roman Empire, was, from the time of Nero, an element of peace and security.
[15] On the causes of the persecutions, see Allard, op. cit., pp. 109-125, and "La Situation légale des chrétiens pendant les deux premiers siècles," in the Revue des questions historiques, 1896, pp. 5-43; Callewaert, "De la base juridique des premières persécutions," in the Revue d'histoire ecclésiastique, 1911, pp. 5-16, 633-651.
[16] See this document in Leclercq, Les Martyrs, I, 189 ff.
[17] St. Gregory of Tours, De gloria martyrum, 35 f.; cf. Missale gothicum, in Mabillon, De liturgia gallicana, p. 218.
[18] Duchesne, Liber Pontificalis, I, 124, note.
[19] Cf. Tillemont, Mémoires, II, 139. Tillemont makes this remark in connection with the Acts of SS. Nereus and Achilleus. And he does not pass a definite judgment on the authenticity of the Passio Clementis. He says: "We would wish that these things were as certain as they are famous." (Ibidem, p. 174.) But the difficulties which made the learned critic hesitate, have, it seems, for the most part been removed by Allard, Histoire des pers., I, 170 ff., and by de Rossi, Bullett. di archeol. crist., 1864, p. 5.
[20] Allard, op. cit., p. 170.
[21] Duchesne, Liber Pontificalis, I, 124; cf. ibidem, p. xci. Duchesne observes that neither St. Irenaeus nor Eusebius nor St. Jerome speaks of the martyrdom of this great Pope. So true is it that silence by the very best informed writers on an event of the highest importance cannot be regarded as a conclusive proof against the historical reality of that event.
[22] Eusebius places St. Simeon's martyrdom in the tenth year of Trajan, i. e., 107. On the date of St. Ignatius' martyrdom, see Allard, op. cit., pp. 189-192.
[23] Eusebius, H. E., III, xxxii, 1-4; cf. Acta sanctorum, February, III, 53-55.


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