Those who are interested in the history of law could do much worse than to read the letters of Pliny the Younger*. The second century Roman lawyer and magistrate’s letters are still preserved in near perfect form; the most famous of these is Epistle #10 to the Emperor Trajan.

Written in 112 C.E. – aka A.D. – its primary interest to most historians is that it’s the first written mention of Christians outside of the Bible (and the Dead Sea Scrolls, and the non-canonized Gospels, etc. – in other words, the first “pagan” reference). Pliny asks Trajan what he should do: should he execute these pesky Christians whose crimes don’t include any sort of rabble rousing or trouble making but simply refusing to worship correctly?

At least, that’s what most historians focus on, and indeed it’s probably the most salient point that can be derived from the letter. However, Bart Ehrman, in Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium points out another crime they are committing:

Difficulties has arisen in Bithynia-Pontus because of a Roman policy that disallowed groups of people to come together socially – a policy meant to discourage social uprisings: if you couldn’t meet together, you couldn’t plan a revolution.

It also led to less desirable results, however, since among other things, it made it impossible to form fire brigades, leading to enormous problems in some of the communities in Pliny’s province.

That’s right. It was illegal during this place and time “to come together socially”. [Link to the full text of the letter, and quotes/emphasis from the relevant passages at the end of the post.] Without a First Amendment (“Congress shall make no law… abridging… the right of the people peaceably to assemble”) those who wanted to meet in groups had no recourse in the law.

Thank goodness we are so much more enlightened now; that is, if by “we” you mean “not the Texas Legislature”. This is from the Texas Education Code, Section 37.121, Fraternities, Sororities, Secret Societies, And Gangs, but it’s a criminal statute:

(a) A person commits an offense if the person:

(1) is a member of, pledges to become a member of, joins, or solicits another person to join or pledge to become a member of a public school fraternity, sorority, secret society, or gang; or

(2) is not enrolled in a public school and solicits another person to attend a meeting of a public school fraternity, sorority, secret society, or gang or a meeting at which membership in one of those groups is encouraged.

OK, it’s only a Class C, but that’s a crime, right? What the hell? Fraternities, sororities? Gangs, well sure that’s bad, we can’t have that, but what’s the legal definition? Same statute:

(d) In this section, "public school fraternity, sorority, secret society, or gang" means an organization composed wholly or in part of students of public primary or secondary schools that seeks to perpetuate itself by taking in additional members from the students enrolled in school on the basis of the decision of its membership rather than on the free choice of a student in the school who is qualified by the rules of the school to fill the special aims of the organization.

The term does not include an agency for public welfare, including Boy Scouts, Hi-Y, Girl Reserves, DeMolay, Rainbow Girls, Pan-American clubs, scholarship societies, or other similar educational organizations sponsored by state or national education authorities.

The overbreadth is staggering. A few fourth grade girls decide to start their own club and meet in groups at recess (the We Love Barbie Club, the Judy Bloomers, whatever), but little Suzie can’t join unless they vote to let her into the club? Conviction!

Full text of Epistle #10(scroll down to the confusingly titled XCVII), and the specific passage, emphasis added:

They affirmed the whole of their guilt, or their error, was, that they met on a stated day before it was light, and addressed a form of prayer to Christ, as to a divinity, binding themselves by a solemn oath, not for the purposes of any wicked design, but never to commit any fraud, theft, or adultery, never to falsify their word, nor deny a trust when they should be called upon to deliver it up; after which it was their custom to separate, and then reassemble, to eat in common a harmless meal.

From this custom, however, they desisted after the publication of my edict, by which, according to your commands, I forbade the meeting of any assemblies.

[* not to be confused with his uncle Pliny the Elder, whose curiosity about Mount Vesuvius led to his death. When his fellow shipmates questioned the wisdom of sailing so close, he at least had the good sense to quote Virgil, “Fortune favors the brave”.]