A Distant Mirror: Official Torture in the Roman Empire

Much is to be learned from the political correspondence of such Roman luminaries as Julius Caesar, Cicero, Seneca, among many others.  Here I am restricting myself to a Gestapo-like bureaucrat, Pliny the Younger (61-113 C.E.), imperial governor of Bithynia province (now part of Turkey) under the divinely mandated autocracy of the Emperor Trajan (53-117 C.E.).

In his numerous letters seeking orders from the emperor, Pliny repeatedly pledges his obeisant loyalty.  But his tone, which seems curiously modern to me, is that of a pragmatic administrator merely seeking clarification of official policy regarding treatment of a small but possibly disloyal, subversive cult.  Here is a high-level governor, entirely indifferent to any considerations of morality, writing in the matter-of-fact, legalistic style we have come to expect from present-day war planners and intelligence agency heads.  New religious cults posed a possible threat of disloyalty to the emperor, whose rule itself is sanctified by the official State religion.

An eccentric, secretive cult known as Christians had become a concern, and Pliny simply requests orders as to how to deal with them:

I do not know…whether it is the mere name of Christian which is punishable, even if innocent of crime, or rather the crimes associated with the name…. I have asked them in person if they are Christians, and if they admit it, I repeat the question a second or third time, with a warning of the punishment awaiting them.  If they persist, I order them to be led away to execution.

On the other hand, after “enhanced interrogation,” many suspects said they had long ceased to be Christians, and, as proof, made offerings to Trajan’s statue and invocations to the official gods.  Christians had been in the habit of gathering to study the Gospels and share a meal afterwards.  But Pliny reports to the emperor that “they had in fact given up this practice since my edict, issued on your instructions, which banned all political societies.  This made me decide it was all the more necessary to extract the truth by torture from two slave-women, whom they call deaconesses… I have postponed any further examination and hastened to consult you.”

Although the “wretched cult” has “infected” both citizens and non-citizens in innumerable towns and villages, Pliny assures the emperor that it is being gradually suppressed, one indication being that:

People have begun to throng the temples which had been almost entirely deserted for a long time; the sacred rites which had been allowed to lapse are being performed again, and flesh of sacrificial victims is on sale everywhere, though up till recently scarcely anyone could be found to buy it [italics mine].

Entirely pragmatic and focused solely on policy which would strengthen the empire, Pliny the Younger strikingly prefigures the modern “fascist” official.  Devoid of independent principles or even ordinary compassion, he furthers his governmental status through carefully consulting with, and carrying out, the edicts of his superior, the absolute ruler.

We can easily discern the lineaments of the very modern-day tactics of intimidating, torturing and even executing without trial supposed “subversives” and suspected “terrorists” (Guantanamo, CIA renditions and black-sites, executions by drone without trial–ad nauseam).

• Note: all direct quotations are from: Pliny the Younger, Complete Letters, trans. P. G. Walsh, Oxford World Classics, 2009.

Intellectual historian and psychoanalytic anthropologist, William Manson (Ph.D., Columbia) has published numerous scholarly books and papers, and is a longtime contributor to Dissident Voice. Read other articles by William.