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Friday, January 3, 2014

Persecution, Roman and Christian

by Jamie Lutton

My interest in day-to-day life in the Roman empire began when, as a teen, I read the  fictionalized history of the Roman Games, by Daniel P. Mannix IV Called Those About To Die.

This a history the evolution of the games, from the time of Virgil to the end of the empire, about 400 years. This book focused on the lives and fate of the gladiators and how the games devolved from displays of the military for the citizens like our Blue Angels today,  to expensive huge orgies of slaughter of  animals and people. In a few places, Mannix comments on the   murder of Christians and Jews being fed live to lions and other big cats, or even crocodiles, for the amusement of the Pagan crowds in the Colosseum; and most likely as an attempt to suppress the spread of Christianity..

I read Shaw's 100-year-old play Androcles and the Lion a few years later, which tells the same story from the point of view of the Christian slaves and citizens about to be fed to the lions,

This play has always been a favorite of mine, as Shaw as a political playwright attacks the  hypocrisy of modern Christians, comparing them to the cruel Roman authorities who had Christians executed 1,900 years ago.

I just finished reading an amazing collection of letters from the Roman era a few days ago, that tie these two  together, this book must have been one of  the ancient books these authors read as background for their works.

It is  The Letters of the Younger Pliny. . He was a upper class Roman administrator and lawyer of the late first century AD. I knew as a 17year old he was a eyewitness to the eruption of Vesuvius as I had read that in Garber and Garber 's book Volcanoes.

This book  of letters documents life in the late first century, an accessible history of  letters he wrote and letters he received from other Roman administrators, his relatives,  and the Emperor Trajan. As Pliny lives the life of a Roman administrator, lawyer, an engineer, overseeing the building of aqueducts; he also dodges being exiled or executed by a emperor, who had gone crazy, (emperor Domitian.) These letters make fascinating reading as informal autobiography.  But when I found his letter to the Emperor Trajan about his interrogation of Christians, I recalled Shaw, and realized that this book must be this playwright's source material. 

In one letter to the Emperor Trajan, Pliny discusses his interrogation of suspected Christians, with the question of how to handle anonymous tips that this or that person was a Christian.. At this time, belonging to the Christan faith  was a crime against the Roman state. A Christian of that time would not burn incense to Roman gods, which included the emperor.  By not believing the living emperor as a  living God, the early Christan believers were undermining the State in they eyes of the authorities, and thus were committing treason.Also, there is passing reference to the executing of slave women who were priests, or 'deaconess' one of the proofs that Roman women were early Church leaders.

This discussion of interrogation, torture and execution of slaves and free citizens for the treason of being a Christian is chilling, and a reminder to a modern reader like myself of the value of freedom of religion, which is being debated by American citizens right now. Gay and lesbian citizens are struggling for full civil rights such as marriage, in a culture which has self-styled Christians, ironically, here and worldwide denouncing them, condemning them to hell, and some even calling for killing them outright in Africa and elsewhere.

Here is Shaw's heroine, a young woman, replying to an interrogator rather like Pliny, who is asking her to save her life by sacrificing by burning incense to the Roman Gods, in this case the Caesar.

Lavinia:  No. I couldn't. That is the strange thing, Captain, that a little pinch of incense should make all that difference. Religion is such a great thing that when I meet really religious people we are friends at once, no matter what name we give to the divine will that made us and moves us. Oh, do you think that I, a woman, would quarrel with you for sacrificing to a woman god like Diana, if Diana meant to you what Christ means to me? No: we should kneel side by side before her altar like two children. But when men who believe neither in my god nor in their own--men who do not know the meaning of the word religion--when these men drag me to the foot of an iron statue that has become the symbol of the terror and darkness through which they walk, of their cruelty and greed, of their hatred of God and their oppression of man--when they ask me to pledge my soul before the people that this hideous idol is God, and that all this wickedness and falsehood is divine truth, I cannot do it, not if they could put a thousand cruel deaths on me. I tell you, it is physically impossible.

I recommend then the play Androcles And The Lion, by Shaw, The Letters of the Younger Pliny, and Those About to Die by Mannix.

And also the  Garber and Garber book  Volcanoes is very good; the chapter about Vesivus. has a lot of background history of how the people in the classical world understood about volcanoes, and how the local name 'volcano' came to evolve to mean all volcanoes..

In our modern world, we see religious persecution by Christians in America, who say that gays and lesbians threaten public order by wanting civil rights, the right to marry. This is seen as undermining morality, just as the Christians of 100 AD were thought to undermine morality in Rome by refusing to sacrifice  to the Roman Gods and the current Caesar..

By asking Christians to denounce Christ, the Roman authorities were being asked to replay the crime of Judas, a grave sin.   Modern Christians do not 'get' that gays and lesbians have no choice at all to be other than they are, even more so than Christians could..  I wish more modern Christians understand the faith of early Christians, they would be less quick to damn, to deny the rights of gays and lesbians, to even hope for their death...and consider them moral outcasts by merely existing.

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