A concise explanation of the legal basis for Roman persecution of Christians

Tertullian tells us, in his Apologeticum that Christians were told, simply, “Non licet esse vos!” (You are not allowed to exist!)  I happened to see a very nice summary of what this meant, and what it tells us, in Servais Pinckaers Spirituality of Martyrdom, p.66.

It was new to me, and I thought that others might find it interesting also.

The traditional explanation of Christian persecution traces its origin to an imperial decree dating back to Nero or Domitian that Tertullian calls the Institutum neronianum. The text is no longer extant, but if it existed it probably contained these terms of proscription: “Non licet esse Christianos” [Being a Christian is forbidden]. This expression underlies many sayings of authors such as Tertullian: “What a harsh law you have written, which says to us: you are forbidden to exist” (non licet esse vos). The apologists consistently reaffirm that Christians were accused merely of being Christians; that they were reproached only for bearing that name, and Tertullian repeatedly asserts that the sentence condemning them indicates no other crime than that. The magistrate would remind the accused of that concise decree, “non licet esse Christianos,” to which the accused would reply, if he were faithful, “Christianus sum” (I am a Christian), and the case would be closed.[1]

This explanation relies upon Trajan’s rescript of 112 CE in response to a letter from Pliny the Younger. Pliny displayed a rigorous but exact interpretation of the legislation, which he used to condemn Christians propter solum nomen—solely on account of the name:

“I make it a sacred duty, my lord, to consult you with my scruples, for who can better guide or instruct me? I have never attended the trial or sentencing of any Christian. I therefore do not know the exact offenses for which they are prosecuted nor the extent to which they are punished.  I am particularly hesitant about whether to make distinctions according to age. Should we impose the same punishment without distinguishing the younger from the older? Should we pardon those who repent, or is the renunciation of Christianity useless once it has been embraced? Is it the name only that we punish? Or are there crimes attached to that name?”

The emperor approves and confirms the obligation to punish nomen si flagitiis careat (the name, even without misdeeds) and not merely the flagitia nomini coherentia (the misdeeds associated with the name).

This rescript of Trajan presupposes an existent law against Christians, dating back at least to Nero or Domitian, which interpretation he solidifies. According to Tertullian, “Under the reign of Augustus this name [Christian] has arisen, under Tiberius it has shown its discipline, and under Nero it has met with condemnation.  Yet only this institution of Nero has survived, while the others were destroyed” (Ad Nationes I, ch.7).

And so, legally speaking, this very characteristic of being a Christian would seem to serve as the basis of the persecution of the first centuries. The historians still debate the existence of that anti-Christian law. Some think that the legal precedent was laid down by Trajan’s rescript itself. [But] regardless of the historical debate surrounding its legal origins, the persecuted Christians understood the basis of the accusation against them to be the mere fact that they were Christians: “Non licet esse christianos.”

That is rather neatly put, and rather useful to have.

9 thoughts on “A concise explanation of the legal basis for Roman persecution of Christians

  1. Btw, I’ve been going through Apponius. There’s a discussion at the end of Book I about how it’s fine for a Christian teacher to have come from a pagan philosophical, Jewish, or heretical background (as long as they are converted and live a good life), because that way they are armed and armored against arguments from their former background, and they already have skills in speaking and argumentation.

    Obviously, this argues against Apponius being Just Some Medieval Guy, because it seems like a living issue for him.

    But then right before that, there’s a discussion of the death of St. Justin Martyr where he seems to think Justin got speared by a mob of philosophers. Maybe this is just figurative, but the word he uses is “materis,” which refers to the Helvetian heavy spear, the matara, which shows up in the Gallic Wars (I, 26). I don’t think Crescens was Swiss!

    But yeah, the way Apponius writes is puzzling. He doesn’t remind me of any other Latin authors, even though he seems to be totally fluent and native in the way he writes. He uses words that show up more in the medieval Latin vocabulary, but of course a lot of those words probably already existed unattested in classical times, as vulgar Latin or Greekified Latin.

    I want to read more of what scholars think about him, but I’m not looking forward to trying to read German or French, much less finding the books and articles. Bleh.

  2. That’s an interesting bit at the end of book one, then! It would be interesting to read it.

    Google Translate these days does French really quite well! That’s what I would do, to read anything substantial. Get the gist that way, then focus in.

  3. There are a couple of papyri in Egypt from Diocletian’s persecution of the Christians describing the process. In one the reader of a church of an insignificant village certifies what is the property of his church that was being confiscated. Ironically some else since on behalf of the church reader because he cannot read! The other is a personal letter from a person to his family telling how as part of his business trip he was forced to sacrifice to the genius of the Emperor but made someone else do it on his behalf. My understanding is that the reason Christians were persecuted was for refusing to sacrifice to the genius of the emperor

  4. Teeeeechnically, there are situations when “lector” could mean “reciter” or more likely, “cantor.” But it could also mean that the person could read, but only in the language or script used by local Christians for liturgies and the Bible.

    (Or, frankly, it could mean that the person signing the papers was lying, in order to spare the lector, and possibly without telling the lector what he was doing. There were all sorts of things that people did during the persecutions, depending on what they thought was right or what they thought could be gotten away with. Most early Christians were strict about lying, but not everyone.)

    It might be interesting to see if the names on the papyri had ethnic indicators, although of course lots of people who weren’t ethnically Greek or Roman took standard Greco-Roman names.

Leave a Reply