Make the Ancients Live Again

We love our Bible study, and we all want to get to the part where we ask how something applies to our life.  But invest some time in understanding the historical setting of a book.  You might be amazed at the color, crackle, and relevance it brings.

Take for instance the Rome of Paul’s day.

In order to understand life in first century Rome, you have to deconstruct the image already in your mind—one of toga-wearing white people who live in magnificent columned structures made of marble.  These folks (we think) spend their time striking dramatic poses, while debating one another on the finer points of law.  By night they shed their gravitas and indulge in orgies whose excesses have become legendary.¹  These mental pictures of Rome that we all share have been shaped by artistic interpretations of much later times, and by sensationalized historical accounts.

While some such reflections were true of upper class Roman life, they hardly describe the average citizen or the real Rome that existed at the time of the Apostle Paul.

Where Did Everybody Live?

In fact, most of Rome’s million or so inhabitants lived in lower class apartment housing—ghetto districts called insulae.  These tenements were multi-floored, constructed almost entirely of wood, without natural light, fireplaces, water, or sewage.²  Insulae were notorious fire hazards, and likely offered the fuel that burned up most of the city during the Great Roman fire of A.D. 64.   Because of this ongoing danger and non-existent smoke ventilation, only the smallest, tiniest ovens were used for cooking.

The relatively well-to-do could afford houses, although even these were not expansive.  Larger homes might have accommodated thirty people, and for emergency situations, homes with atriums might have managed twice that number.³  Wright reports the discovery of a second century private house that could seat about one hundred people.4 The famed upper room in Acts held one hundred twenty, although private spaces of such size anywhere in the ancient world would have been highly unusual.5

Some dwellings were tied into the Roman sewer system, which allowed a constant flow of water to sweep away waste products.  Householders who were not connected had to  capture waste in pots and then dispose of it in local waterways.  Insulae dwellers  frequented large public toilets, and for a fee relieved themselves.  “People using these facilities conversed about daily matters without embarrassment while seated next to each other on stone commodes without partitions.”6  Contracted manure merchants then removed the feces and recycled it for fertilizer.7

The city was well toileted.  “It was customary for fullers [launderers] to place large earthen jars outside the front of their shops, on the main sidewalk, for use as open-air urinals.  The alkali produced helped separate dirt from the cloth in the washing.” 8

What was for Dinner?

Typical Roman fare might include corn porridge, beans, and occasionally pork, although meat would have been a splurge similar to the way we think of dining out at a nice restaurant.  For some homes, fish would have been on the menu, but it was almost certainly not fresh.  Romans battled blandness the same way we did—with sauce.  Hughes reports that the Roman version of our Worcestershire sauce was called garum, made with fermented fish guts.   Romans used the salty, smelly juice to flavor everything.9

As to sweeteners, sugar was unknown.  Romans had no imports from the undiscovered New World, and therefore used honey.

How Did They Have Fun?

Rome developed an entertainment-driven culture. Juvenal, a Roman satirist, coined the term, “Bread and circuses” complaining about how the mania for fun had diverted Roman attention away from more profound pursuits.  The Caesars were quick to discover how state sponsored entertainment could pacify an unruly and restless populace.  “They created more public leisure than any state had ever imagined giving its citizens, or ever would.  This became addictive.”10  Gladiatorial contests, chariot races, and theater performances claimed the attention of most citizens.

Incredibly, by factoring in a growing multitude of pagan feasts and various celebrations, the Roman work week shrank to an average of three days a week.  In the meantime, the state absorbed lost productivity, and offered free food for participants who wanted to pursue their passions for entertainment.   This, understandably, became wildly popular with the masses.

Celebrities were forged in this cultural mix similar to what we have today, complete with groupies and household names.  Some successful gladiators became champions of the people, and charioteers like the slave Gaius Appuleius Diocles became fantastically rich, winning so many races he was awarded his freedom.

However, as in Hollywood, Rome could be a tough town.  Most aspiring performers either died young or ended life crippled by their sports ambitions.11

How About the Traffic?

The empire was in large part cohesive due to an extensive highway system that honeycombed its client states.  The world would not see the likes of it again until Dwight D. Eisenhower and his U.S. Interstate Freeway System.  Much of the ancient roadway is still available for view, bearing mute witness to Roman engineering skill.   However, “Urban streets were very narrow in Rome [itself], often no more than alleyways cramped between towering insulae and gigantic monuments.”12

The din of traffic could make a night in the city a sleepless one.

“Julius Caesar issued an edict which banned carts, wagons, and chariots…from driving in the city between sunrise and mid-afternoon…it ultimately diverted all Rome’s commercial traffic into the night hours, depriving most Romans of their sleep.  Roman carts had wooden wheels with iron tires  and the grinding and clanking of their progress over the ruts and stone pavements raised a din that mingled with the braying and lowing of beasts, the shouts of carters, the merchants’ bellowing quarrels, and the crash and scrape of goods being loaded and unloaded.  This went on all night long…”13

The most common wheeled vehicle for Roman transport was generically referred to as a carpentum (where we get the short form “car.”).    If it broke down, one could call a carpentarius (from where we derive “carpenter”). 14

Morality & Religion in Rome

God-borrowing took place at an early point in Roman history.  In the wake of military defeats, Romans began longing for what they imagined to be more responsive gods.  The vague animalistic deities of their Etruscan forbears no longer seemed suited for use in a competitive world.  They imported Greek deities, and renamed them (i.e. Zeus to Jupiter, Aphrodite to Venus),15 adding them to an already swelling catalogue of Mediterranean religions and mystery cults.

Although paganism was popularly entrenched in the minds of most Romans,16 the educated classes scoffed at any serious notion of gods, preferring philosophies such as Stoicism, Epicureanism, Skepticism, Neoplatonism, and Gnosticism.17  However, both Roman and Greek minds with one accord found the biblical morality and monotheism of its small Jewish populations “the subject of merriment and ridicule.”18

The eventual convergence of imperial wealth, security, convenience, and idolatry created a perfect storm.  As seen through the eyes of both Tacitus and Juvenal, moral conditions at the end of first century Rome had become horrific.19 Most of this was immediately evidenced in sexual conduct as alluded to by the Apostle Paul (Rom. 1), and included the steady decline of positive character and virtues.

Family Life

The family was the fundamental unit of Roman life.

“The head of the household was the pater famlias, the father of the house and the oldest male member.  Attached to this male was his wife, who was brought from another male-centered house and incorporated into a new family through marriage.  The children of this marriage were also family members. Slaves were considered family members and were the responsibility of the pater familias, although if freed, the slaves were removed (from a legal standpoint) from membership in the family.  Deceased ancestors were an important part of the family as well, and in the mental construct of the average Roman, the dead continued to play a role in family life.”20


Slavery occupied a place of central importance in the empire’s economy.  It was, however, not racially based, as in early America.

“In the Roman world, there were many ways one could become a slave.  Often people entered into a debt-bondage relationship.  Individuals who needed collateral for a loan , or who could not afford to pay back a loan, would enter into the debtor’s care (or send a member of the household to the debtor) for an agreed upon length of time.  Also, children could be sold into slavery if the parents lacked funds or the desire to raise them…Less civil means also brought people into slavery.  Pirates would sell kidnapped individuals…the spoils of war were often human resources—enemy soldiers and civilians were the largest demographic of slaves…certain kinds of criminal convictions could also lead to enslavement…with all of these kinds of slavery, any children born of a slave were themselves slaves.”21

The Roman High Life

Roman social classes were divided into two broad orders—plebians and patricians.  The Plebs (translated “masses”), made up the majority of Rome’s population.  These were the underprivileged.  Unlike the patricians, they could not trace their bloodlines to a genealogy of earlier nobility.  Nor did they typically have the outrageous wealth of the patrician class.

Patricians could afford to live in the stereotypical way most of us think about Rome—gluttony, sexual greed, and lavish lifestyles.  Particular objects of splurge were art and jewelry, clothing, and real estate.

“Ancient Rome, it seems, had its equivalents to the hysterical, grotesque pricing of Pablo Picasso, Andy Warhol, and Jasper Johns.  The Orator Lucis Carrus paid an incredible 100,000 sesterces*for two silver goblets engraved by Mentor, a famed Greek silversmith…Corinthian bronzes were so prized for their workmanship that they cost whole family fortunes….Pliny reported that one ivory table changed hands at 1.3 million sesterces—‘the price of a large estate, supposing someone preferred to devote so large a sum to the purchase of landed property.’” 22

*It is nearly impossible to calculate the dollar equivalent of a Roman sestertius.  Variations range anywhere from .09 to $6.  The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle.

“The display of precious stones by some Roman matrons was grotesquely excessive, and the matrons themselves were monsters of vulgarity…Lollia Paulina, third wife of the emperor Caligula… ‘at an ordinary betrothal banquet [was] covered with emeralds and pearls interlaced  with each other and shining all over her head , hair, ears, neck, and fingers, their total value amounting to 40,000,000 sesterces.’”23

“The finest Chinese silk traded for gigantic prices: a pound of silk for a pound of gold was not unknown.”24

Life Expectancy

Evidence suggests the Roman male could expect to live until his early forties, although some certainly did live longer.     Women could enjoy longer life spans if they could survive pregnancy and childbirth.  At any rate, “Being elderly in Roman society was probably not a normal situation, certainly not a situation that someone would have expected (as in modern times).”25

Although this brief background does not directly touch the text of Paul’s epistle to the Romans, by it we can at least know something of the living, breathing world in which it was originally written, and the people to whom it was sent.


1  Robert Hughes,  Rome: A Cultural, Visual, and Personal History. (New York: Vintage
Books, 2011), 60-61
2  John McRay, Archaeology and the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Publishing Group, 1991), 84-85.
3  Robert Banks, Paul’s Idea of Community. (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1994), 35
4  G. Ernest Wright, Biblical Archaeology. (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960), 165-166.
5 Roger W. Gehring, House Church and Mission: The Importance of Household Structures in Early Christianity. (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2004), 65
6  McRay, 85.
7  Ibid. 85.
8 Ibid, 85-86.
9  Hughes, 133.
10 Ibid, 115.
11  Ibid, 117.
12  Kevin M. McGeough, The Romans: An Introduction.  (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 211.
13  Hughes, 63-64.
14  Ibid, 95.
15  Ibid, 41.
16  Ibid, 131
17  McGeough, 256, 259-260.
18  Alfred Edersheim, Sketches of Jewish Social Life. (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1995), 29.
19 Edith Hamilton, The Roman Way (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1993), 168-169, 170-171
2o McGeough, 133.
21  Ibid, 141.
22  Hughes, 134.
23  Ibid, 134.
24  Ibid, 134
25  McGeough, 132.


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