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Trajan and the Christians

May 03, 2010
Trajan and the Christians

Emperor Nerva was an old man when he came to power in A.D. 96, following the death of tyrannical Domitian at the hands of an assassin. Believing in the Republic, Nerva vowed never to assassinate a senator, and he kept his word. He reduced taxes, brought exiles home, ended persecution of Jews and Christians and generally boosted Roman morale by his mild behavior.

On October 27, 97, he adopted Trajan as his son, making him emperor apparent. Trajan, absent with his army, is said to have been unaware the adoption ceremony was taking place in Rome at the Temple of Jupiter. Nerva died suddenly three months later, on this day, January 25, 98, and Trajan became emperor. When he entered Rome it was on foot with a show of humility as if he were a private citizen. His first winter as ruler of the far-flung empire, he spent not in Rome, but in Dacia, completing a military campaign.

Historians generally rank Trajan as one of the noblest-minded and effective of the emperors because of his friendliness, his readiness to go unarmed into homes where he might have been killed, his fair treatment of the senate and his mildness toward enemies who plotted against him. Nonetheless, he was pleased to have his family members elevated to godhood, loved glory, was proud, and a thorough autocrat.

Trajan has a place in Christian history because in correspondence with Pliny the Younger he addressed the issue of how to handle the faithful. This is one of the earliest mentions of Christians in pagan literature and is often quoted.

Pliny was governor of Pontus and Bithynia (in Asia Minor) for three years beginning in 111, He wrote to the emperor explaining how he had dealt with Christians. This included requiring them to worship the emperor or the Roman gods; and if they refused, to execute them. But he wondered if he should execute youngsters and whether it were enough for a Christian to sacrifice to idols or if such a one should still be executed.

Trajan (or his secretaries) replied:

"You observed proper procedure, my dear Pliny, in sifting the cases of those who had been denounced to you as Christians. For it is not possible to lay down any general rule to serve as a kind of fixed standard. They are not to be sought out; if they are denounced and proved guilty, they are to be punished, with this reservation, that whoever denies that he is a Christian and really proves it--that is, by worshiping our gods--even though he was under suspicion in the past, shall obtain pardon through repentance. But anonymously posted accusations ought to have no place in any prosecution. For this is both a dangerous kind of precedent and out of keeping with the spirit of our age."

Trajan, although he did not perpetuate persecution on the scale of Domitian and other emperors, executed several Christian leaders including Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch, and Simeon, Bishop of Jerusalem.


  1. Birley, Anthony. Lives of the Later Caesars. Penguin Books, 1982.
  2. Henderson, Bernard W. Five Roman Emperors. New York: Barnes and Noble, Inc., 1969.
  3. "Trajan." in The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton, 1914.
  4. "Trajan." and "Nerva." in Encyclopedia Americana. Chicago: American Corp., 1956.
  5. Habermas, Gary. The Historical Jesus. College Press Publishing Company, 1996.
  6. Various internet articles.

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