Category Archives: Places in Italy

Where Was The Largest Altar in the Ancient World?

View looking southeast at the huge altar that was constructed by Hieron II in the third century B.C. at Syracuse, Sicily!  Click on images to Enlarge and/or Download.

This altar is 643 feet long and 75 feet wide!  Most of what is visible in the picture is carved out of “living rock.” There was a superstructure but most of the stones have been carted off and reused in other buildings in Syracuse. It had been covered with plaster. Many think it was dedicated to Zeus Eleutherios (Zeus the Liberator) and that at its dedication 450 bulls were sacrificed!  Hiero II was the ruler of Syracuse from 270 to 215 B.C.

View looking southeast at the huge altar that was constructed by Hieron II in the third century B.C.

Syracuse was a Greek and Roman city on the southern portion of the east coast of Sicily. Paul spent three days here when the ship that carried him from Malta to Puteoli docked here. (Acts 28:12).

Acts 28:11    After three months [on Malta] we put out to sea in a ship that had wintered in the island. It was an Alexandrian ship with the figurehead of the twin gods Castor and Pollux. 12 We put in at Syracuse and stayed there three days. 13 From there we set sail and arrived at Rhegium. The next day the south wind came up, and on the following day we reached Puteoli.

This probably happened in the spring of A.D. 60.  This altar was 300 years old by the time that the Apostle Paul passed through Syracuse—as a prisoner—on his way to Rome.

Syracuse was founded in 734 B.C. and reached its zenith in the sixth and fifth centuries B.C. The Athenians laid siege to it (415–413 B.C.) but were seriously defeated and this defeat helped lead to the decline of the Golden Age of Athens. Syracuse, along with the whole of Sicily, was fought over by the Romans and the Carthaginians.

In 212 B.C. Rome conquered the city. It carried off many Greek captives and many pieces of Greek artwork to Rome. This influx led to the Romans turning their cultural “tastes” towards things Greek. Unfortunately, the great mathematician and inventor, Archimedes, was killed by a Roman soldier, in spite of the order that he was to be spared.

Additional images can be viewed Here.

 

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I have never seen this before . . . .

Recently we led a group of travelers from Paul’s Shipwreck on Malta to his martyrdom in Rome.  Along the way, we visited the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Paestum that is located about one hour (by car) south of Pompeii.

The Athena temple at Paestum that dates to 450 B.C. Click on image to Enlarge and/or Download.

Paestum has three major temples that date from 550 to 450 B.C.  Our travelers, most of whom had already been to Israel, Turkey, and Greece, were overwhelmed by the beauty and the state of preservation of these temples.  But there was something else that I had not seen before . . . .

There is a wonderful, modern, museum that displays artifacts from the site.   As we were walking through the museum, oohing and aahing at the artifacts, all of a sudden we saw a display where disaster had struck.

There, to our dismay, a lighting panel, from above the artifacts, had come crashing down upon some of the priceless 2,500-year-old objects!  I think this had just happened, for the museum personnel were scurrying about with concerned looks on their faces!

I suppose that by now, the artifacts have been repaired and the display fixed, but this was something that I had not seen before—and hope never to see again!

Paul in the Cities — Where Did They Eat?

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)

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View of a Fast Food establishment (thermopolium, popina, taberna) at Pompeii. Click on Image to Enlarge and/or Download.

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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A Thermopolium from nearby Herculaneum—also destroyed by the eruption of Vesuvius.

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Mount Vesuvius that erupted in August of A.D. 79 covering Pompeii with ash and Herculaneum with a pyroclastic flow.

For use or publication of any of these images please see this link.

Paul in the Cities: Where did They Meet? 2 (Ask Eutychus! Acts 20:9)

Alexandria Troas — Paul on His Return to Jerusalem
on His Third Journey

Acts 20:7     On the first day of the week . . . Paul spoke to the people . . . and kept on talking until midnight.  8 There were many lamps in the upstairs room where we were meeting.  9 Seated in a window was a young man named Eutychus, who was sinking into a deep sleep as Paul talked on and on. When he was sound asleep, he fell to the ground from the third story and was picked up dead.

What kind of building was this group of believers meeting in?  Probably an “apartment building” (insula).  After 2,000 years do any still exist?  Yes!

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High Density Roman Housing at Ostia — the Port of Rome  View of a street on which the Casa di Diana is located. On the left side of the image note the high–density housing (insulae). There were at least three floors, with rooms arranged around a central courtyard where there was a communal fountain.  The upper stories were probably made of perishable materials such as wood.

The term insula refers to a multi–story housing block, that was subdivided into apartments for rent with shops on the ground floor.  Windows and balconies were the principal light sources for the tenants.  The insulae were probably first built of wood and thus susceptible to destruction by fire—a big problem!  (I am not aware of the preservation of any wooden insula)  Often times they were constructed of baked Roman bricks—like this example at Ostia.

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View of a street lined with apartment buildings (insulae) near the via Della Fontana at Ostia. The staircase on the left led up to the upper floors of the building—at least 3 stories high.  This large structure was probably owned by one person who rented apartments, shops, and workplaces to tenants.

The ground floor of insulae were usually shops and stores.  The best apartments were on the lower floors and sometimes were decorated with simple paintings and mosaics.  The upper apartments (on floors 2 and 3) were smaller, more difficult to reach, and dangerous (fire!)—because they were built out of wood!  The upper storeys were typically without heat, running water, and toilets.  The poor, who lived there, would sometimes dump trash and human excrement out of the windows into the street below!  Most of the people, poor and “middle class,” would live in these structures.

New Testament Importance:
Since Acts 20:9 mentions Eutychus falling from a third floor, the group of Christians that Paul was speaking to must have been meeting in a cramped, lower class apartment such as the above.  But to date, no such insulae have been found at Alexandrian Troas, but they were probably built of wood and have perished over the last 2,000 years!

Paul in the Cities: Where Did They Meet?

The cities of the Roman world were filled with small shops that were rented from their owners by the shop keeper.  Some shops were located on the ground floor of elite houses.  Some on the ground floor of an insula.  A number of such shops have been found at the well–preserved sites of Pompeii, Herculaneum, and Ostia (all in Italy).

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This is a fullonica (from Pompeii). It is a large shop that was designed for the washing of dirty laundry. Note the modern staircase that leads to the “living room” above the shop. Click on Image to Enlarge and/or Download.

The photo above is a view of the main entrance (just right of center in the light) to a wool processing/cleaning shop (a fullonica; see here for 5 additional images of this shop).  Note the pool in the lower left, and the modern staircase that led up an upper floor of this shop.  Jerome Murphy–O’Connor writes that typically merchants/craftsmen/etc. “. . . used the lower level for their shop and the upper level for living quarters” (see below for the important biblical discussion).

A fullonica was designed for the washing of dirty laundry and degreasing of fabrics. Based upon inscriptions it is believed that Stephanus was the owner of the fullery. He died during the eruption in 79 AD while trying to escape. The workers for Stephanus, almost all slaves, had to tread on fabrics and clothes for hours, placed in a liquid containing human and animal urine.  The urine was collected in pots placed along the streets.  The smell in a fullonica must have been “putrid” — but the shop was on a main street and houses (upper class) surrounded it!  To view more images of the fullonica with commentary Click Here.

Jerome Murphy–O’Connor wrote p. 48:

The first churches may have occupied the upper-level living quarters of shops like this [his picture is that of a thermopolium—see my previous post]. Shopkeepers typically rented such . . . rooms [from landlords], which opened onto the sidewalk, and then built a wooden platform halfway up to divide the room into two levels [see the picture above!]. They used the lower level for their shop and the upper level for living quarters. . . . .  Statements that Prisca and Aquila, at Ephesus and Rome, hosted “a church in their house” (1 Corinthians 16:19; Romans 16:5), or more literally, “the group [of believers] which meets in their home,” suggest that the early Christians met in the living room above Prisca and Aquila’s shop. Such a room could probably accommodate 10 to 20 persons. This may explain why Paul, at Corinth, preached in the synagogue and later in the house of Titius Justus, rather than in Prisca and Aquila’s home, where he lived (Acts 18:3–7), as these locations could accommodate larger crowds than a room above a shop.

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View looking into the fullonica from its entrance. Note the large rinsing tub on the right side and the rooms and the frescos on the left side. In the distance is the atrium and the processing areas of the fullonica.

Murphy-O’Connor, Jerome. “Prisca and Aquila — Traveling Tentmakers and Church Builders.” Bible Review 6 (December, 1992): 40–51, 62.

Can Notre Dame Be Rebuilt? Yes!

Recently we have witness the catastrophic fire in the Cathedral of Notre Dame—and it’s loss to Christianity and Western Culture in general.  I have seen many sources dealing with the “traumas” that Notre Dame has suffered though its long history but I was surprised by “it will be rebuilt.”  Is this realistic? Or just wishful thinking?

Well, many churches have suffered sever damage through out their history, but to use an example of one in Rome, let me mention the Papal Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls.

Rome — the remains of Saint Paul Outside the Walls after the fire of July 1823.

This is the church where, according to very early Christian tradtion, the Apostle Paul was buried after his martyrdom.  Constantine built the original church, but Theodosius built a new church in this spot around A.D. 390.  This church lasted until July 15, 1823 when it was destroyed by a fire caused by careless workmen who were repairing the roof.  This church had been standing for about 1,400 years before it was destroyed!  Much longer than even Notre Dame (ca. 800 years).

the interior of the church after its reconstruction in 1840.

View looking east down the central nave of the Basilica of Saint Paul Outside of the walls. The nave is flanked by double aisle on both the north and the south.  At the far (east) end is a triumphal arch that is a relic of the old pre–fire of 1823 that is supported by two granite columns.

View looking east at the mosaic at the top of the Triumphal Arch. Although heavily reconstructed this is a relic of the old pre–fire of 1823 arch.

On the top is a “grim–faced” Christ holding his hand blessing in the Greek manner. The four winged creatures above him have “faces” that represent the four Evangelists—gospel writers. Below them are figures representing the saints of the Apocalyse (book of Revelation). On the lower left side of the arch is St. Paul with a sword (of the spirit/word) and to the right St. Peter holding the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven.

View of the “Grotto” (Confessio) that is located below the High Altar

Notice the grating and behind that, a small portion of the sarcophagus that is said to contain the remains of Saint Paul is barely visible.   During the reconstruction of the church two slabs were found with the inscription “PAULO APOSTOLO MART” (to Paul, apostle and martyr).  Below the glass floor are rock carvings and a portion of the apse of an earlier church.

The familiar couryard of the church.

View looking east through the courtyard (Quadriporticus) of the  Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls.  The statue on the left is that of Saint Paul.   Notice the beautiful mosaics of the church.

If this wonderful church can be rebuilt, certainly Notre Dame can as well!

For 21 images of the important Basilica, Click Here.

Rome — Temple of Peace and a Map of Ancient Rome

My last blog post raised a few questions about the “Temple of Peace” where the implements from the Jerusalem Temple were placed.  The pictures that I posted in that blog are (I think) the best of what is currently visible of the Temple.

The Temple, whatever remains of it, is apparently burried under the street—the Via dei Fori Imperiali.  Is there anything else of it that is visible?  Well yes.

Actually, the north wall of the Basilica of Saints Cosma and Dimiano (below), that is located on the south side of the Via Dei Fori Imperiali, preserves the wall of a side room of the Temple of Peace.

View looking south across the Via dei Fori Imperiali at the north side of the Basilica of Saints Cosma and Damiano. Click on Image to Enlarge and/or Download.

The brick wall, left of the main entrance—in white marble—is the only remaining wall of a room that was attached to the actual Temple of Peace.  The actual Temple of Peace—if remains still exist—is probably burried under the Via dei Fori Imperiali that is in the foreground.  Actually, I may have been standing just above the sanctuary as I took this picture.

The brick wall, left of the main entrance—in white marble—is the only remaining wall of a room that was attached to the actual Temple of Peace.

On this brick wall were affixed 150 marble blocks—note the holes in the wall where they were attached to this wall.  This marble rectangle measured 59 ft. by 42 ft. and on it was inscribed a MAP of the city of Rome in the early third century A.D.!  The map is called the Forma Urbis Romae and was executed during the rule of Septimius Severus, between 205 and 208.  Only small fragments of it have been found to–date.

Note the excavations underway just this side of the brick wall—where the Temple of Peace was located.

Next post, back to the Temple Treasures.


By the way, Leen Ritmeyer has published an illustrated article about the Golden Gate of the Temple Mount — Here.