The method I have observed toward those who have been denounced to me as Christians is this: I interrogated them whether they were Christians; if they confessed it I repeated the question twice again, adding the threat of capital punishment; if they still persevered, I ordered them to be executed…. The temples, which had been almost deserted, begin now to be frequented… and there is a general demand for sacrificial animals, which for some time past have met with but few purchasers.
To which Trajan replied:
The method you have pursued, my dear Pliny, in sifting the cases of those denounced to you as Christians is eminently proper…. No search should be made for these people; when they are denounced and found guilty they must be punished; but where the accused party denies that he is a Christian, and gives proof… by adoring our gods, he shall be pardoned…. Information without the accuser’s name subscribed must not be admitted in evidence against anyone.
The passage here italicized suggests that Trajan only reluctantly carried out a pre-existing statute. Nevertheless, we hear of two prominent martyrs in his principate: Simeon, head of the church of Jerusalem, and Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch; presumably there were others of less fame.
Hadrian, a skeptic open to all ideas, instructed his appointees to give the Christians the benefit of every doubt. Being more religious, Antoninus allowed more persecution. At Smyrna the populace demanded of the “Asiarch” Philip that he enforce the law; he complied by having eleven Christians executed in the amphitheater (155). The bloodthirst of the crowd was aroused rather than assuaged; it clamored for the death of Bishop Polycarp, a saintly patriarch of eighty-six years, who was said in his youth to have known Saint John. Roman soldiers found the old man in a suburban retreat, and brought him unresisting before the Asiarch at the games. Philip pressed him: “Take the oath, revile Christ, and I will let you go.” Polycarp, says the most ancient of the Acts of the Martyrs, replied: “For eighty-six years have I been his servant, and he has done me no wrong; how then can I blaspheme my King who saved me?” The crowd cried out that he should be burned alive. The flames, says the pious document, refused to burn him, “but he was within them as bread that is being baked; and we perceived such a fragrant smell as might come from incense or other costly spices. At length the lawless men commanded an executioner to stab him. When he did this there came out a dove, and so much blood that the fire was quenched, and all the crowd marveled.”
The persecutions were renewed under the saintly Aurelius. When famine, flood, pestilence, and war overwhelmed a once happy reign, the conviction spread that these evils were due to neglect and denial of the Roman gods. Aurelius shared the public terror, or yielded to it. In 177 he issued a rescript ordering the punishment of sects that caused disturbances by “exciting the ill-balanced minds of men” with new winds of doctrine. In that same year, at Vienne and Lyons, the pagan populace arose in fury against the Christians, and stoned them whenever they dared to stir from their homes. The imperial legate ordered the arrest of the leading Christians of Lyons. Bishop Pothinus, ninety years old, died in jail from the effects of torture. A messenger was sent to Rome to ask the advice of the Emperor as to the treatment of the remaining prisoners. Marcus replied that those who denied Christianity should be freed, but those who professed it should be put to death according to the law. The annual festival of the Augustalia was now to be celebrated in Lyons, and delegates from all Gaul crowded the provincial capital. At the height of the games the accused Christians were brought to the amphitheater and were questioned. Those who recanted were dismissed; forty-seven who persisted were put to death with a variety and barbarity of tortures equaled only by the Inquisition. Attalus, second to Pothinus in the Christian community, was forced to sit on a chair of red-hot iron and roast to death. Blandina, a slave girl, was tortured all day, then bound up in a bag, and thrown into the arena to be gored to death by a bull. Her silent fortitude led many Christians to believe that Christ made his martyrs insensitive to pain; the same result might have come from ecstasy and fear. “The Christian,” said Tertullian, “even when condemned to die, gives thanks.” Under Commodus the persecutions waned. Septimius Severus renewed them, even to the point of making baptism a crime. In 203 many Christians suffered martyrdom in Carthage. One of them, a young mother named Perpetua, left a touching account of her days in prison, and her father’s prostrate pleas that she should renounce Christianity. She and another young mother were tossed and gored by a bull; we have an indication of the anesthetic effect of fear and trance in her later query, “When are we to be tossed?” Story tells how she guided to her throat the dagger of the reluctant gladiator who had to kill her. The Syrian empresses who followed Septimius had little concern for the Roman gods, and gave Christianity a careless toleration. Under Alexander Severus peace seemed established among all the rival faiths.