Persecutors seldom get good press. Whether the reporting is done by the journalist or the historian, it is always easier to side with the victims. The courage and fortitude of martyrs holds greater appeal than the haughty rationalizations of their judges and executors. Thus, the persecutors are seen as cruel and capricious tyrants, sybarites, inattentive to the needs of their subjects and indifferent to the ways of God.

In the writing of Christian history, the emperors most closely identified with the persecution of Christians—Domitian, Decius, and Diocletian—have long been the object of obloquy and abuse. One early Christian writer, Lactantius, even wrote a book entitled On the Death of the Persecutors. Its purpose was to describe in lurid detail the torturous end of the “enemies of God.”

Humane Roman Officials

Yet the writing of history is more than the celebration of the deeds of noble and virtuous men and women; it is also the challenge to understand what offends and disturbs our moral sensibilities.

The earliest document on Christianity written by a Roman official bears no marks of cruel indifference; its author, Pliny (governor of the province of Bithynia in Asia Minor), is humane, cautious, prudent, fair, and pious.

Pliny had been sent (c. 111) by the emperor Trajan to tour the cities of Bithynia and to oversee the social and economic affairs of the region. At one of these cities, located on the southern shore of the Black Sea, the local citizens lodged a complaint against Christians living in the region. What prompted the petition is not known, but it may have had to do with the refusal of Christians to participate in the public cult.

When Pliny looked into the matter, he discovered that the “sum total of their guilt or ...

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