Roman Provincial Government in AD 114: How to Deal with Christians
Rome was a military power at its core, and virtually everyone who rose in the political ranks had extensive military experience. When only one legion was stationed in an imperial province, its commander was also the provincial governor. With multiple legions, one man, who had himself once commanded a legion, was appointed provincial governor by the emperor to oversee all legions and administrative affairs in the province.
A provincial governor of a major province might have already been a consul of Rome, but he had served, at the very least, as a praetor, whose duties included serving as a judge in Roman legal matters. This was excellent preparation for running a province, since the governor was the chief judicial officer for provincial residents. While Roman citizens living in a province could expect judicial treatment in accordance with written Roman law, that was not the case for the non-citizens.
The governor of a province had the authority to treat the non-citizens in whatever way he deemed best. Rome’s general philosophy for provincial government was to tolerate local customs while insisting on strict standards of law and order. That meant provincials must acknowledge the state gods of Rome. While that was not a problem for the Empire’s subjects who already worshiped several gods, it was something devout Jews and Christians could never do. Jews were allowed an exception because theirs was an ancient national religion, while Christianity was classed as a “new and illicit religion” (religio nova et illicita) that was denied that exception.
In AD 111, the Senate appointed Pliny the Younger as governor of the province of Bithynia and Pontus, which is located along the south shore of the Black Sea. Pliny died in his province in AD 113. During his brief term as governor, he was a prolific writer of letters, and copies of his official correspondence have survived to this day.
Of special interest is an exchange he had with the Emperor Trajan concerning his approach to the problem of Christians in his province.
“I have never dealt with investigations about Christians, and therefore I don’t know what is usually either punished or investigated, or to what extent. I have hesitated no small amount about whether there should be some distinction in respect to age, or whether young people, however young, should be considered not at all different from more mature people; whether pardon should be given to those who repent, or whether it should be of no use to someone who was once a Christian that he has ceased to be one; whether the name itself, even if there are no criminal offenses, should be punished, or whether only the criminal offenses associated with the name should be punished.
“In the meantime, among those who were brought before me as Christians, I have used the following method. I asked them whether they were Christians. If they admitted it, I asked them a second and even a third time, threatening them with punishment. I ordered those who persisted to be led away for execution, for I had no doubt that, whatever the nature of their belief, their stubbornness and inflexible obstinacy surely should be punished. There were others who were afflicted by a similar madness, but I wrote in the record book that they should be sent to Rome because they were Roman citizens.” ― Pliny the Younger, Letters 10.96,97
Trajan’s reply provided clarity. “You have followed the procedure which you ought to have, my dear Pliny, in investigating the cases of those who had been brought before you as Christians. It is not possible to establish a general law which will provide a fixed standard. However, these people are not to be searched out. If they should be brought before you and proved guilty, they must be punished, with this proviso, however, that anyone who denies that he is a Christian and proves this by his action, that is, by worshipping our gods, even if he has been suspected in the past, should obtain pardon because of his repentance.”
The emperor’s reply was a rescriptum and carried the force of law, but he made clear that it was not establishing an empire-wide policy. Individual governors kept the ability to deal with Christians in whatever way they saw fit.
One “criminal offense” ascribed to Christians was belonging to a secret society, which Trajan had forbidden as potentially threatening the security of the state. Since the days of the Republic, Rome had regulated the private meetings not overseen by a magistrate, requiring a license and restricting the frequency of such meetings. Membership in a secret society was considered treason and could receive the same punishment as participating in an armed riot―execution.
Another offense by Christians classified as treason was their refusal to show reverence to statues of the gods and the emperor. The superstitious feared the gods’ favor could be withheld from Rome and her Empire if the rites weren’t performed perfectly. Even a slight error meant the whole ritual had to be repeated. The Christian refusal might damage the perfection, putting the Empire at risk.
At the beginning of Blind Ambition, Decimus’s father, Tiberius Cornelius Lentulus, is completing three years as governor of Germania Superior. He shares the common opinion that Christians are a treasonous group because of their refusal to participate in the state religion and has decreed a policy toward Christians modeled on the historical policy of Pliny the Younger.
Decimus Cornelius Lentulus is five years into his time as a senatorial tribune. Military service was required before beginning the “course of honors” that defined a Roman political career. He’s the second-ranking officer of a Roman legion stationed in Germania Superior in AD 114. The provincial capital is Mogontiacum (present-day Mainz) on the Rhine River, and the fortress headquarters of his legion (XXII Primigenia) is there. The second legion in the province (VIII Augusta) is headquartered upriver (to the south) at Argentorate (present-day Strasbourg).
Law enforcement in the Empire was done by the military. As an officer of the legion, Decimus would have been involved in the arrest and execution of Christians in the portion of the province patrolled by his legion. He truly is a mortal enemy of Valeria and her family, but she chooses to obey Jesus and rescues her enemy despite the danger to herself and those she loves.
(Quoted letters are from Jo-Ann Shelton, As the Romans Did: A Source Book in Roman Social History. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988)