Ancient History & Civilisation


A Pagan and Christians

Meanwhile, this is the method I have followed with those who were denounced to me as Christians. I interrogated them whether they were Christians. If they confessed that they were, I interrogated them a second and third time, threatening them with capital punishment. Those who persevered I ordered to be taken away. For I did not doubt, whatever it was that they were confessing, that their contumacy and inflexible obstinacy ought to be punished.

Pliny to Trajan, Letters 10.96

During a tour of his province Pliny was confronted with people who were most unusually obstinate: they refused to worship the gods. They were brought to him for punishment; he gave them every chance by questioning them three times; if they persisted in their ‘madness’, he ordered them to be taken away and executed. A few of them had the Roman citizenship which protected them against physical punishment by a governor abroad. Correctly, Pliny sent the citizens off to Rome for trial, illustrating the value of the privilege.1

Their ‘madness’ was Christianity. When yet more Christians were denounced to Pliny(he appeared to be receptive), some of them denied the charge. So Pliny devised a test. Would they call on the gods? Would they pray to an image of Trajan and offer incense and wine? Would they curse Christ? Some of them then stated that they had once been Christians but had given the practice up. They passed Pliny’s test, but were these ex-Christians guilty of crimes committed in their Christian past? On their own account of their ‘madness’, they had behaved while Christians in a moral, if misguided, way. In order to be sure, Pliny tortured two female Christian ‘ministers’, who were evidently deaconesses, not women priests. He found only a ‘wicked and immoderate superstition’, not the lurid tales of group-sex and cannibalism which others ascribed to the sect.

Pliny’s encounter is extremely important because it left him uncertain and in need of advice from the emperor. Trajan’s answer then set guidelines which were observed not only by Hadrian, but by subsequent emperors until the mid-third century. The Christians were not an unknown problem to important Romans. After Paul’s trial Christians had continued to be sentenced in Rome, even in the dark year 93 when Pliny had been a judicial magistrate, or praetor.2 He had not been present personally at such trials, but nonetheless he knew what to do with a stubborn Christian believer. There were well-known precedents by now and such people were ‘godless’. As a result they might provoke the anger of the gods; they were not being asked to do much, only to offer the gods a pinch of incense, but if they refused they should be killed. The really awkward problems were the ex-Christians. After his enquiries, Pliny was strongly inclined to let them off, and so he wrote to Trajan, encouraging him to agree. Trajan replied that existing Christians were not to be ‘hunted’; anonymous denunciations must not be received; lapsed Christians, the nub of Pliny’s problems, must indeed be left alone. This answer limited the dangers for the Church. In the words of a modern atheist historian, the Romans’ prosecution of the Christians was to be a matter of ‘too little and too late’.

The legal grounds of Pliny’s actions have been endlessly debated, but there was also a wider conflict of values. If the poor suffering deaconesses had read Pliny’s nine books of published letters, what would they have made of the values which these presented so artfully? They would have disliked Pliny’s indecent verses, especially those on his ‘Tiro’ and male loves: their Apostle Paul had implied that such sexual acts were a cause of earthquakes. They would also have disliked his respect for suicide. Like other Roman contemporaries, Pliny admired suicide if it was a reasoned end to a life which had become impaired by extreme sickness or old age.3 To Christians, suicide was a sin against God’s gift of life: suicides would long be denied Christian burial.

Unlike most Christian members, Plinywas extremely rich, a Roman senator who had inherited or married into at least six properties in Italy. Nonetheless, he wrote very often of his gifts and help to others. He bestowed civic and cultural gifts on his home town, Comum: he gave it a set of baths and their decoration (but not their maintenance), a temple and a third of the cost of a schoolteacher for Comum’s children. This teacher was Comum’s first ever after the primary stage (the parents, even then, were to contribute the other two-thirds of the cost, but they could at least select the teacher themselves). Pliny also gave favours to friends, even to his old nanny, and he set aside a capital sum whose revenue would support no fewer than 175 children at Comum (they were poor children, but they would be citizen-soldiers and mothers for the future). Despite three marriages, Pliny had no children himself to be his heirs.

Pliny’s gifts were part of a widespread donor culture among the rich on which civic life depended throughout the Empire. In Pliny’s case, the gifts were not self-interested bids for power. He was locally very prominent already. Rather, he gave for the ideals of culture and civic life which he himself upheld. His letters then publicized his gifts. The deaconesses, by contrast, would have told him to give indiscriminately to the poor, because the poor were blessed by God. Gifts (theybelieved) were not just for deserving friends or local towns-men. Gifts could earn their donor spiritual treasure in heaven, an idea which Pliny never entertained. Gifts should also be made discreetly, not trumpeted abroad in letters and honorary inscriptions.

Pliny also had hundreds and hundreds of slaves, at least five hundred (to judge from his will) and no doubt many more. Here, the deacon-esses would be less bothered: Paul had told slaves to ‘serve the more’ and Christian slave-owning had continued. It was rather fine when Plinydescribed how he did not interfere in the capacity of his ex-slaves to make wills and bequests: few Roman masters were so restrained, preferring to take ‘legacies’ back for themselves. Plinywas quite unlike the bad slave-owners in his class, men like the frightful Macedo, whose slaves (Plinydescribed) had murdered him by his bathing pool. Pliny stood for a kinder style, but with a sharp eye, too, on the masters’ safety and the interests which kindness served. The changes in Roman laws for sick or old slaves since Claudius’ reign had had similar prudential concerns: they arose from the underlying fear of a slave-war and their concern was to assure the slave-masters’ survival and ‘interests’.

There was also something fine about Pliny’s family values. It was good to read him telling others to criticize their own faults first (taking out the ‘beam’ in their own eye, just as Jesus had preached): it was particularly good to read him saying the same to an all-powerful Roman father about his erring son. Paul, too, had told fathers not to be harsh to their children ‘in case they should despair’. Pliny’s praises of his wife were most intriguing. Calpurnia was his third wife (two having died) and was very much younger than himself. The deacon-esses would like to read how Pliny claimed to have formed her manners and literary tastes: Christian wives, Paul had said, must submit to their husbands. But it was boastful of him to publicize what loyalty Calpurnia was showing.4 She read Pliny’s works repeatedly (Pliny tells us) and even learned them by heart. When he spoke in court she would send messengers to and fro to hear how his speech was being received. She would wait anxiously behind a curtain while Pliny recited his own works in public; she ‘drinks in greedily the praises of myself’. Calpurnia even set his awful verses to music and sang them to the lyre. The coarse songs to boys were not, one assumes, in Calpurnia’s songbook.

To Christians, this mousy submissiveness was also a virtue. The problem, simply, was Pliny, its self-centred end. What Calpurnia stood for were the virtues of ‘little Italy’: shrewdness, frugality and, as Pliny writes to tell her aunt, ‘she loves me’.5 Pliny has therefore been upheld as the first person in European literature to ‘blend together the role of husband and lover’. Cicero in fact precedes him (in his early years of marriage only), but in both men the strongest love is love of himself. Yet Calpurnia existed in a social setting which Christians accepted too. Women of her class (like many rich Christian women) would often be married by the age of sixteen; theycould not prosecute a case in their own right in court; paternalist laws protected them from lending money to just any person who appealed to them. A similar paternalism remained strong in the laws of the later Christian Empire.

In Christian society, a girl might opt out as a virgin, or be vowed to virginity by her parents. In Pliny’s world, there were no lifelong virgins. There was, however, no alternative route to female ‘freedom’. Since the ‘licence’ of the Julio-Claudian years the women of Rome’s Stoic philosophic cliques were now the most likely to join in an intelligent discussion or to show resolve in a public crisis. Elsewhere, Pliny could not credit that a woman might have literary skills. When one Roman lady wrote witty letters in old-fashioned Latin, Pliny assumed that her husband must have written them himself or taught his wife how to do it. In Christian churches, too, women were certainly not expected to teach or publish or even to send and receive letters (which might be billets-doux).

In upper-class circles, nonetheless, Christianity soon found female converts: heresy was even thought to be particularly attractive to females. Pliny’s social world could have helped the deaconesses to see why. In a rich household, there was almost nothing for the lady to do all day. Slaves looked after her husband; in the evenings he had male guests and listened to music or yet more recitations, but not to anything so limited as conversation à deux over dinner. Pliny likes to describe the exemplary retirement routines of unusually active old men. These ‘keep-fit’ gentlemen read and exercise but even when they go for a drive they rarely take their wife with them. The female of a grand household might end up passing her day by playing board-games.6 In an intended comment on the changes in ‘luxury’ between the generations, Pliny describes how one distinguished grandmother amused herself by keeping a troupe of pantomime-dancers in her household. She always sent her upright young grandson away, of course, before he could watch the troupe performing. Her raffish tastes, Plinysays, were not those of ‘our age’. Although she maintained them when in her late seventies, she had taken them up long before, in days when Nero was still young.7 After Pliny, in the absence of such fun, one alternative for such a bored person would be the Church.

Repeatedly, Pliny commended simplicity, the values of little Italy up near Comum, away from corrupting Rome. Here there was an emphasis which the first Christians had not yet cultivated. ‘Simplicity’ meant country life, in charmed settings whose peace and quiet were upheld as blessed escapes from business down in Rome. Here a man could rest and write in peace, awayfrom the bother of clients and the dependants whom he professed to find so tiresome. Here he could hunt wild boar in the woods (Pliny was keener on this sport than his throw-away remarks at first imply). Here, too, he could lay out a garden. The earlyChristian contribution to garden history is precisely zero, but Plinyis our great spokesman for the Italian ideals of villa life.

By the beautiful lake at Como, he had two particular villas, one by the lakeside called Comedy, one on a hill overlooking it called Tragedy. They were named not for alternating moods, but for the beloved theatrical world. Comedywas low-lying, like the flat shoes of a comic actor, whereas Tragedy was perched high up, like the high heels of the tragic actor’s boots. Pliny also had another villa on the coast just south of Rome, where Aeneas’ Trojans were alleged to have landed and where senators had country bolt-holes within a twenty-mile range of the city. On the borders of modern Tuscany and Umbria (just north of Città di Castello and south of San Sepolcro), Pliny had yet another villa, fanned by a cool breeze in summer. His description of it is the most influential letter to have survived from the Roman world: it can now be matched with archaeologists’ continuing excavations of the site at San Giustino.8

Behind Pliny’s country homes stretched some three hundred years of Roman experience in smart villa life. Cicero had already loved his various houses and, like contemporaries, kept a keen eye on possible buys: he was never one to have two homes when as many as eight might do. In country settings, villas were low and spreading buildings, usuallywithout the tall eighteenth-century symmetry of our Georgian homes. Pliny’s villas extended at odd angles and we need to remember that his stylish letter is not concerned to describe their full extent. He says nothing about the site’s former owners and builders (archaeologists can now point to Granius Marcellus before Pliny). He says nothing about their slaves’ quarters or kitchens or the probable use (as at Pompeii) of his garden porticoes for storing the fields’ important crops: the ‘productive’ buildings have begun to be known through recent archaology. He emphasizes other aspects. Like so many prominent Romans, Pliny liked the challenge of an assault on nature. Like many country gentlemen ever since, he designed his garden and bits of his villa himself. When he dwells on this part of his villas’ charms, he is aware, correctly, that he is breaking new literary ground. For the first time in world literature, hunting, gardening and country-housedesign appear as life’s heavenly trinity, a non-Christian Paradise on earth.

Pliny’s Tuscan garden had a terrace and colonnades, clipped box hedging and enclosed courtyards with fountains. Its special distinction was a ‘hippodrome outside’, a miniature version of Rome’s racecourse, the Circus, perhaps in imitation of Domitian’s hippodrome on Rome’s Palatine hill. It was shaded by surrounding cypress trees and was wittilyplanted with the staple plants of so manyItalian gardens since: clipped box, fruit trees, laurels, plane trees (up whose trunks ivy climbed) and glistening acanthus whose leaves seemed ‘smooth’ to Pliny’s eyes. There was no racing in such a ‘hippodrome’ and, to our taste, the planting was rather spotty. But the evergreens (not yews) were clipped into shapes and letters, including the initials of family-members and working gardeners. At one end, fine marble pillars shaded an area for dining, where male and female guests, as always at Rome, reclined on couches. Water ran merrily through the mock hippodrome and fed the fountains and a marble basin beside the dinner-guests, in which the dishes were floated during meals. In the early sixteenth century Pliny’s letter on his garden was rediscovered and shown to Raphael, who used it as the backbone for his most influential garden, the Villa Madama in Rome.9 Viewed from the house, the supporting countryside seemed to Pliny to be like a painting, while the meadow was ‘jewelled’ with flowers. These ways of viewing landscape would also have a long history in garden design.

Pliny’s praises of rural simplicity, his home and villa life were not unusual in the era. We find them in contemporary poems, especially those of his friend Martial. Martial, too, had prospered under Domitian, but he then left Rome in the new era of the late 90s and kept his praises of country living for his years of retirement back in Spain.10 He had delighted Pliny by comparing him with Cicero. There was a real similarityof themes in the two friends’ writings: Martial’s coarse epigrams suggest what Pliny is likely to have written in some of his risqué verses.

The Christians’ green landscape, by contrast, was Paradise, waiting in the world to come. Villa life was way beyond most of their member-ship’s social status; however, Pliny’s views on public shows would be very congenial to their taste. The deaconesses would have agreed with his moral dislike of pantomime-dancing and the ‘corruptions’ of naked Greek athletics. Pliny also found chariot racing ‘boring’, though there were many keen Christian fans of the sport who would long disagree over this.11 His views on rank and class were also quite Church-compatible. For Pliny, ‘equality’ was proportional to an individual’s social standing: it varied for each of us according to our rank. Spiritually, the Gospels took a contrary view, but although Christians were said to be ‘one’ in Christ Jesus, ‘unity’ did not entail worldly equality. Distinctions of worldly class persisted, therefore, among Christian believers: they were irrelevant, merely, to the life to come.

Here, the deaconesses would have found Pliny very under-informed. The one route to immortality, in his view, was literary work. He could entertain the idea of ghosts, but he had no expectations of a life after death: his uncle even considered the afterlife a fable which restrained old people from a noble death by suicide. Bodily resurrection would have seemed completely absurd to both of them. Unlike the brave deaconesses, Pliny was certainly not cut out for martyrdom, either. Like many other Christians, he would have lapsed when investigated and would have sought forgiveness later. But as a writer-up of others’ martyrdoms, he would have been second to none, even among authors in the early Church.

In Pliny’s values, there was one glaring absentee: humility. He professed ‘modesty’, but it was not the same thing, least of all when he used it to set off his own unfailing virtues. For Christians, but not for Pliny, humility belonged with something else, with the need for redemption as humans created by God.

Three centuries later, in a Christian Empire, the Christian Augustine would withdraw to just such a villa in ‘little Italy’, near Milan, in the wake of his conversion from sex and worldly ambition. In marbled homes like Pliny’s, there were bishops meanwhile who shared many of Pliny’s tastes, the hunting, the landscape, the rural ease. There were even those who wrote scurrilous verses and built grandly with rare stones.12 Far into the Middle Ages, one part of the future lay in a blend of Pliny’s values with a flexible Christian faith.

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