BMCR 2011.09.11

Roman Attitudes Toward the Christians: From Claudius to Hadrian. Wissenschaftliche Untersuchungen zum Neuen Testament, 261

, Roman Attitudes Toward the Christians: From Claudius to Hadrian. Wissenschaftliche Untersuchungen zum Neuen Testament, 261. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2010. xv, 363. ISBN 9783161505539. €99.00.


For most English-speaking readers, the title of Cook’s book will (I suspect) immediately evoke the now classic study of Robert Wilken on Roman criticism of early Christianity.1 Readers looking for a dialogue with Wilken in Cook’s book, however, will be disappointed. Indeed, this is a different kind of study altogether, presenting a close reading of the sources in a detailed manner, organized by emperor’s reign, with the texts included in both their original language and translation, and with copious references (576 notes in chapter 4 alone). Additionally, as the name of the series in which the book appeared indicates, it is mainly written for theologians without the expertise in the Roman world often necessary to interpret the context out of which early Christianity emerged. Inevitably, therefore, Roman historians will find little novelty (as Cook himself acknowledges (1)) in these informative pages. But students and scholars interested in the larger context of early Christian sources will find here a clear synthesis of the main problems involving the interpretation of these texts as well as the main debates surrounding them.

The book is divided into five main chapters, a general introduction, a conclusion, a bibliography (which includes a useful section on “Databases, CD Roms, Websites”), a detailed list of sources (322-51), and three indices (Ancient Individuals, Modern Authors, and Subjects).

Chapter one presents the evidence on “Claudius and the Christians.” Cook reminds us of Claudius’ tolerant attitude toward the Jews, which was always conditioned upon a concern to avoid civil troubles, especially in Jerusalem. This attitude, he argues, provided the context for Claudius’ reaction to Christians in Rome and the sources’ mention of the Emperor’s expulsion of the Jews from the city. On the question of whether Suetonius’ “Chrestus” is to be identified with Christ, Cook is comfortable with leaving the issue unresolved and to “let ambiguities stand” (27).

In chapter two (“Nero and the Christians”), Cook discusses both “pagan” and Christian sources on Nero’s infamous scapegoating of Christians, including a detailed commentary on Tacitus’ text (39-82). He supports the scholarly consensus that Tertullian’s “institutum Neronianum” simply refers to the Emperor’s persecution of Christians and not to any specific legal measure (95-7). The chapter closes with two intriguing sections on the connections between Tacitus and the gospel of Mark (2.4) and Nero and the Book of Revelation (2.5). Cook concludes that scholars are bound to use Tacitus to interpret the context of the Gospel for the first century, in the absence of other reliable texts (105).

Chapter three surveys “Domitian and the Christians” and argues that the Emperor did not persecute Christians. After reviewing the imperial ideology of the early principate and the famous story that Domitian required his subjects to address him as “dominus et deus,” Cook concludes that Domitian in fact attacked “Jewish sympathizers” and not Christians (117 and 121-131). It is later Christian authors, according to Cook, who transformed Domitian’s victims into Christian martyrs and who therefore presented Domitian as a persecutor (131). Cook therefore argues that the dating of 1 Peter and Revelation, traditionally ascribed to Domitian’s reign based on the assumption of a persecution, needs to be revised (136).

Chapter four, on “Trajan and the Christians,” is by far the longest of the book. Following the same methodology as for the section on Tacitus, the bulk of this chapter is a close reading of Pliny’s and Trajan’s letters, a philological analysis where Cook glosses specific words and expressions and presents texts with similar meaning. Some of his conclusions are that “cognitio extra ordinem” is a modern construct and that the best way to understand Roman trials of early Christians is through Pliny’s text; that Christians were punished “for the name” only (166-8); that Pliny was a decent human being and not a cruel persecutor but that the governor’s claim that “pagans” blaspheme Christ had long-term consequences. Additionally, in line with the conclusion of the previous chapter, Cook presents evidence for the re-dating of 1 Peter and Revelation to the reign of Trajan. The concluding section, however, is a bit puzzling as it presents an argument not developed within the chapter, that Pliny and Trajan would have intended to propitiate the gods (250-1). This seems to be an inference from the better documented and later cases of Decius and Diocletian/Galerius, and so this is a highly doubtful hypothesis.

Chapter five, the last of the book, is devoted to “Hadrian and the Christians.” Here, Cook mainly offers a commentary on Hadrian’s rescript to the governor of Asia (original Latin quoted in Justin, Apol. 1.68.3-10, replaced by Eusebius’ Greek translation [ HE 4.8.8-9.3] in all extent manuscripts of Justin’s text; later Latin translation from Eusebius’ Greek in Rufinus, HE 4.9.1-3). Cook argues that it must be set in the context of Trajan’s rescript to Pliny and focuses on what he sees as the central question regarding the interpretation of this text, whether Hadrian viewed the “nomen Christianum” as a crime in itself (262). Cook’s main argument here is that Hadrian’s rescript did not substantially modify Trajan’s decisions concerning Christians. His brief dismissal of Hadrian’s second point (Justin, Apol. 1.68.10: “If someone then accuses them and shows that they have done something against the laws, then make distinctions as follows, according to the gravity of the offense”) in a few lines (270: “It is doubtful that he was attempting to fundamentally alter Trajan’s approach to the “Christian problem” by introducing a new legal principle such as: only those Christians who are guilty of violating specific laws such as theft shall be punished”), however, is unsatisfactory and requires further demonstration. The chapter ends with a brief section reasserting the authenticity of Hadrian’s rescript, which might have been better placed at the beginning, since Cook assumes throughout that it is genuine.

The book’s conclusion, which deals primarily with fourth- and fifth-century examples of Christians persecuting “pagans” and Jews, after the proverbial tables had been turned, is problematic. It is unclear how this brief narrative helps the reader understand Romans attitudes toward Christians, and it is weakened by generalizations such as “Roman governors had sporadically persecuted Christians because they could. […] Christians later persecuted pagans and Jews because they could” (281). In light of much recent scholarship on this topic, this is highly unsatisfactory. 2 Unfortunately, such puzzling chronological leaps forward into late antiquity, where Cook is not as comfortable as he is in the first two centuries, appear throughout the book without a clear justification (e.g. 92-3, 189, 197-8, 213, 218, 232-4).

While chapter four contains much that will be helpful to readers and researchers interested in Pliny and Trajan, it also presents some infelicities. Cook’s assertion that Christians were persecuted for the “nomen,” although undoubtedly correct in strict legal principle, neglects to take into account Pliny’s clear statement that “[Christians’] defiance and inflexible obstinacy should certainly be punished” (Ep. 10.96.3, at 150). In a study devoted to Roman attitudes toward Christians, surely Pliny’s exasperation with the obduracy of Christians ought to be taken into account. In fairness, Cook does devote a section to this topic later in the chapter (169-173), but he does not seem to think it relevant to his discussion of the reasons why Christians were persecuted. The same can be said of Pliny’s mention of his ban on hetaeriae (10.96.7, at 148), which might have played a role in making Christians susceptible to legal action in the first place. Discussion of these possibilities would have made for a more nuanced interpretation.

Similarly, Cook’s analysis would at times have benefitted from more attention to the rhetorical construction deployed by the author of his texts. One example will suffice to illustrate this point: in his discussion of 1 Peter, Cook is content to reassert that Christians were punished for the name (240-3). But his presentation of the evidence highlights the intriguing fact that the author of this text used the same word ( paschein) to describe the suffering of Christians as he had used for Christ’s crucifixion (240). This parallel seems hardly a coincidence, and it would have been more astute to discuss the author’s rhetorical presentation of Christ as the first martyr of Roman persecutions (or at least of the martyrs as following the example of Christ) than debating whether or not paschein reflects an actual persecution (240-1, esp. n. 532).

One final criticism on methodology: in the introduction, although Cook admits that “traditional historical approaches were well suited to my purposes” (2), he presents “othering” as a useful notion to enlighten his topic (2, and esp. n. 6, where he quotes Spivak’s definition as “the process by which imperial discourse creates its ‘others’”). Indeed, it would have made for a fascinating read and would undoubtedly have enriched his analysis. Unfortunately, with the exception of a brief mention regarding a law against heretics from 407 which is not germane to his topic, Cook does not present anywhere in the book why or how the concept of “othering” informed his interpretation. Admittedly, incorporating this concept more fully into his interpretation would have made for a very different book, and perhaps one with which Cook was not as comfortable. If so, the simple solution was to delete the paragraph from the introduction that presented this beguiling concept.

Conversely, the book has many laudable qualities. Cook is especially adept at using epigraphical evidence. His occasional inclusion of rabbinic sources (e.g. 127, 190) is also to be commended, as is his candor with the lack of certainty he found in sources and with the gaps in our knowledge of early Christianity. He also pays careful attention to the legal aspects of the numerous encounters between Romans and Christians before Constantine. This is to be expected, as one of the most important debates regarding Roman persecutions of Christians centered on the legal basis for their treatment of Christians. On this topic, Cook closely follows Timothy Barnes, who argued that Nero did not issue a law against Christians, that Christians were persecuted “for the name only,” that Pliny’s letter concerned Christians who had rejected their faith and Pliny had imprisoned, that Trajan’s reply to Pliny established the legal basis to deal with Christians until Decius, and that Hadrian’s rescript did not fundamentally alter the procedure to deal with Christians.3

Barnes’ influence on Cook’s project, however, was more profound than this summary might indicate. Both the conclusion and the title of the book, with their insistence on the attitudes of Romans vis-à-vis Christians, echo Barnes’s conclusion to his 1968 article: “[Mommsen’s] theory of ‘national apostasy’ fails as an explanation of the legal basis of the condemnation of Christians; but it comes close to the truth if it is applied, not to the law, but to the attitudes of men. It is in the minds of men, not in the demands of Roman law, that the roots of the persecution of the Christians in the Roman Empire are to be sought” (50, emphasis added). Barnes was certainly correct. But it is precisely because of this importance of “attitudes” that Wilken’s book remains important, as a complement that should perhaps be read along with Cook’s, because of his attention to intellectual criticism of Christianity. By contrast, Cook focuses exclusively on a traditional “top-down” political approach that only envisages the official policy, that is, the view of the Emperor and his officials toward Christians (4). Nevertheless, students and scholars interested in early Christianity, Roman persecutions, or any of the sources discussed in this book are likely to find something useful here. Its prohibitive price, however, is likely to deter most non-professionals from purchasing it or instructors from using it as a course text.


1. R.L. Wilken The Christians as the Romans Saw Them. 2 nd ed. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003).

2. E.g. M. Gaddis, There Is No Crime for Those Who Have Christ (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005); T. Sizgorich, Violence and Belief in Late Antiquity: Militant Devotion in Christianity and Islam (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008).

3. T.D. Barnes, “Legislation Against the Christians,” JRS 58 (1968), 32-50.