Emperor Nerva, dying suddenly on January 25, 98, was succeeded by his adopted son, Trajan. The young man was a soldier, a general with rigid posture, vigorous energy, and conservative ideas. He proved a tireless and able administrator, lowering taxes, publishing a budget, and cutting the cost of government. His building projects benefited the empire, and, in contrast to fellow emperors, he remained faithful to his wife.

Trajan sent his advisor Pliny the Younger to Bithynia when troubling reports arose in 110 about corruption there. Arriving at the Black Sea, Pliny encountered Christians, and he didn’t know what to do with them. His famous letter to Trajan—the earliest extant Roman document regarding Christianity (which Pliny called a “superstition”)—described a worship service and asked for advice:

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Their guilt or error amounted to this: on an appointed day they meet before daybreak, recite a hymn antiphonally to Christ, as to a god, and bind themselves by an oath to abstain from theft, robbery, adultery and breach of faith. After the conclusion of this ceremony it was their custom to depart and meet again to take food; but it was ordinary and harmless food. I applied torture to two maidservants who were called deaconesses. But I found nothing but a depraved and extravagant superstition. The matter seemed to justify my consulting you, especially on account of the number of those imperiled; many of all ages and classes and of both sexes are being put in peril by accusation. This superstition has spread not only in the cities, but in the villages and rural districts as well.

Trajan wrote back, and his answer established Roman policy for years. It was a “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. Christians, he said, were not to be tracked down like animals, but if any were found in the normal course of affairs, they were to be punished. If they recanted, they were to be pardoned.

Though moderate, Trajan became the first to persecute Christians as distinct from the Jews, and among those who perished under his reign was Ignatius, bishop of Antioch.

I praise and honor God Most High. …
When God does something, we cannot change it
or even ask why.
(Daniel 4:34,35)

Robert J. Morgan, On This Day : 265 Amazing and Inspiring Stories About Saints, Martyrs & Heroes, electronic ed. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2000, c1997). Jan. 25.

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