Tag Archives: Pompeii

Household gods and Christian Converts

One of the places that we like to visit on our In the Footsteps of Paul: Turkey and Greece trips are the “Terrace Houses” at Ephesus.  In studying these well–preserved houses (domus) it is possible to get an idea of how the “elite” lived in the late Roman Period.

Ephesus: This aedicula/Lararium is the small structure in the center of the image embedded in the wall with two columns in front of it. Evidently here, the household gods were worshiped.

One of the features of these types of houses are small shrines (aedicule) called Lares domestici (see Hurtado pp. 46, 56 below).   It is well–known that the Romans worshiped many “high” deities such as Jupiter/Zeus, Baccus/Dionysus, etc. . . .  but not as much attention is given to the worship of the “lesser” deities such as lares.

. . . Lares functioned as guardians over various settings.  The most common were domestic Lares of each household (Latin: Lares domestici), which represented spirits of family dead who had been elevated to a special kind of spiritual existence on account of their goodness and/or importance.  These spirits protected the family, and all members of the household were expected to reverence them daily in offerings and prayers at the Lararium, a small altar typically placed in the Roman house. . . . In comparison to the more well–known gods, the Lares . . . figured much more frequently in the day–to–day ritual life of people.

. . . . members of Roman households, the family and their slaves too, gathered daily to reverence the household Lares.  (Hurtado pp. 46–47).

Question: is this common practice of worshiping the Lares reflected in the New Testament?

One of the well–preserved Lararium at Pompeii—including the “household deities” that were worshiped here.

Because of the sudden destruction of Pompeii in August A.D. 79 when the volcano Vesuvius erupted a good number of Lararium have been preserved there.

Detail of the above Lararium at Pompeii.

From the New Testament, we realize that believers in Jesus included people from all social classes, ethnic backgrounds, occupations, males and females, etc.

The most significant feature of the Roman household (familia) was that its power was concentrated in the hands of the male head, the paterfamilias.  The members of the household were those persons over whom the paterfamilias had power.  . . .The Roman household normally was composed of husband, wife, unmarried children, slaves, freedmen, and clients . . . . (Jeffers p. 238)

Given that the worship at the Lararium occurred daily, and that all in the household were expected to participate, how would individual converts to Christianity deal with this?

If the paterfamilias—to whom all in the household owed their allegience—converted to Christianity, would he abandon the worship of the Lares?  If so, how would his non-Christian wife, sons, daughters, spouses, even slaves have reacted to this abandonment of such a well-entrenched custom?  Would he even be shunned by his “non–Christian clients” who had owed their allegiance to him?  Would the paterfamilias “force” (because of his status) his household to follow his new found faith?

What if the wife of the paterfamilias converted, but her husband did not?  Would she disrespect her husband and his ancestors by refusing to participate in this daily ritual?  What would be the consequences of such an action?  What about individual children who converted but now would not participate in this worship?

And what about the servants or slaves that were part of the household who worshiped only Jesus?  I would guess that they would be severely punished because of showing disrespect to the paterfamilias.

Another Lararium from Pompeii.  Notice the snake and altar below the shrine.

“The snake, associated with the land’s fertility and thus prosperity, approaches a low laden altar.” (Wikipedia “Lares”)

I am surprised that this “problem” does not seem to be addressed in the pages of the New Testament.


Hurtado, Larry W.  Destroyer of the gods — Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World.   Waco, Texas: Baylor University Press, 2016.

Jeffers, James S.  The Greco–Roman World of the New Testament — Exploring the Background of Early Christianity.  Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1999.

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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.

Riot at Ephesus and A Riot at Pompeii and Now a Tombstone

 

There is a little known wall painting from a house at Pompeii (destroyed by the eruption of the volcano Vesuvius in A.D. 79) that depicts a riot in and around the amphitheater at Pompeii in A.D. 59 (see connection to Acts 19 below images of Pompeii).

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The event that is depicted in this painting is a riot that occurred during the games in A.D. 59. Click on Images to Enlarge and/or Download.

This riot is also known from historical sources.  It was between the residents of Pompeii and those of nearby town of Nuceria. Notice all the people with raised arms = fighting—both inside and outside of the amphitheater. Note that the lower elite seating area has been vacated, but there is fighting in the upper portion of the amphitheater where the lower classes sat.

PompeiiAph6402The amphitheater was built in 80 B.C. when Pompeii became a Roman Colony.  It is the oldest amphitheater in existence!

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View of the exterior of the Amphitheater at Pompeii. In contrast to later amphitheaters note that the staircases to the upper levels of the structure are on the exterior, not in the interior of the amphitheater.

The amphitheater measures 432 x 335 ft. and could hold 20,000 people!  It was used for sports and gladiator contests, hunts and battles with wild animals!  Wall advertisements for the spectacles have been found on the walls of buildings at Pompeii.

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View of the interior of the Amphitheater at Pompeii.

Note the high retaining wall to protect the spectators.  In this earliest of amphitheaters there were no underground passages nor chambers—as in later structures.

On the left side of the image note that the first five rows are “walled off” and were for the use of the elite of the city.  The upper seats were for the use of lower class people and eventually women—who were allowed to go to the amphitheater because of a decree of the Emperor Augustus (r. 27 B.C.–A.D.14).

Riots are Punished!!  Because of this riot at these games, the Roman Emperor Nero removed the head of the city and his family from office and politics and the city was forbidden to hold gladiatorial games for 10 years!  The Romans were not happy with those who rioted!!

Compare the riot in the theater in Ephesus when the apostle Paul was there (Acts 19):

Acts 19:23     About that time there arose a great disturbance about the Way [= followers of Jesus] . . . .

Acts 19:29 Soon the whole city was in an uproar. The people seized Gaius and Aristarchus, Paul’s traveling companions from Macedonia, and rushed as one man into the theater . . . .

Acts 19:32     The assembly was in confusion: Some were shouting one thing, some another . . . .

Acts 19:35     The city clerk quieted the crowd . . . if Demetrius and his fellow craftsmen have a grievance against anybody, the courts are open and there are proconsuls. They can press charges.  39 If there is anything further you want to bring up, it must be settled in a legal assembly.  40 As it is, we are in danger of being charged with rioting because of today’s events. In that case we would not be able to account for this commotion, since there is no reason for it.”

The Ephesus city clerk knew well that the Roman authorities would act severely against a riot.

Much of the descriptive information on the riot and the interpretation of this painting is  from Pompeii: Daily Life in an Ancient Roman City — 13 Riot in the Amphitheater—A.D. 59, by Steven L. Tuck.  Produced by The Great Courses, 2010, Chantily, VA.  Course No. 3742.

Update 28 July 2018.  It was announced today that a 12 ft. long tombstone, in 7 registers!,  of a gladiator was discovered at Pompeii.

Pompei:Scavi rivelano tomba che descrive rissa tra gladiatori

Among other important things, it refers to the riot that I wrote about in the following blog.

Osanna said in a statement, ”we have learned very important facts about the history of Pompeii, including a reference to the famous episode narrated by Tacitus that happened in Pompeii in 59 BC [sic AD], when a brawl broke out in the amphitheater during a gladiator show that led to an armed clash. [see below] The event drew the attention of Emperor Nero, who ordered the Senate in Rome to investigate the incident. Following an inquiry by the consuls, reports Tacitus, Pompeii residents were banned from holding gladiator shows for 10 years, illegal associations were dissolved and the organizer of the games – former senator from Rome Livineio Regulo – and all the others who were found guilty of incitement were exiled. The inscription complements the information given by Tacitus and makes reference for the first time to the exile imposed on some magistrates, the duoviri of the city.

See the blog below for a picture of the event and my connecting it to the riot at Ephesus described in Acts 19.

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.