The Apostle Paul resided in many cities of the Roman Empire including Tarsus, Antioch, Ephesus, Thessalonica, Athens, Corinth, and Rome. As I lead tours to these ancient cities, we often wonder what life was like in them in the first century A.D. One of the interesting “institutions” are the thermopolia—”fast food establishments” that were found in every large city. For example, eighty–three thermopolia have been discovered at Pompeii, and more have been discovered at nearby Herculaneum and at Ostia—the port of Rome. (be sure and see the final two paragraphs of this blog)
This is the Thermopolium of Vetutius Placidus (aka T. of Asellina) that is located on the lower floor of his house in Pompeii (Italy). It is situated on the main street of Pompeii, the via dell’ Abbondanza. Food and drink were sold and consumed here. Note the large storage jars that are built into the masonry and marble counters.
On the back wall is a well–preserved lararium—a shrine dedicated to the household gods. Among others Mercury, the god of trade, and Dionysus, the god of wine are depicted (maybe assisted sales?!). A hoard of 6.6 lbs. of worthless coins were found in one of the jars. It was evidently left behind when the owner fled Pompeii as ash rained down from the eruption of the volcano Vesuvius (picture below). In the back of the shop, not visible, was a slightly more private eating area. A staircase led to guest rooms on the second floor—a brothel? These thermopolia were situated street side on the ground floor of apartment buildings and even elite houses.
The thermopolia were visited primarily by the lower classes as the upper classes would dine in the luxurious surroundings of their own homes. The houses of lower classes of people rarely had kitchens, thus they would eat at an establishment such as this, or they would “carry out” the food to take back home.
Since many (most?) of the early Christians were from the lower classes, they probably frequented places like the local thermopolium. And, it is very probable that Paul and other leaders of the Early Church did so as well in the cities that they resided in! Is it not possible that in establishments like this that the Early Christians shared their belief in “Jesus is Lord”—rather than “Caesar is Lord?”
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