The Context of the Roman Empire


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On the previous page, we finished by asking the question “So what is understood then by “The Context of the Roman Empire ”? These pages are given as there is a great cultural similarity between the Roman Empire of the First Century and the cultural situation of today’s culture. The process of building community is very similar.

New ideas affect our constructs of the mind and these affect the practical outcomes of our life style. What the world needs is actions of people who believe so much with their whole lifestyle in another world that they cannot help but begin enacting now.


When we had Week 4 of our Italy holiday in Rome in 2005, we stayed in a small convent on the edge of St. Peters Square: Santo Spirito. This Blog Site was inspired by our stay there.


The Teaching of the Kingdom of God was an absurd notion against all the might of the Roman Empire:

The Roman Empire represented the zenith of the best of the human empires. It could adapt any culture on earth into the Roman format. It ran on very enlightened principles and became very wealthy. The British Empire which began to rise in the 1700’s till the 1990’s, was a 1000 ++ later, was based on those same principles.

Harriet and I personally know about the Roman Empire. We were there on a four week holiday in Italy in 2005 in mid March and April. One of the places we went to see was Pompeii. See our travel post at:  Pompeii

Also see the very detailed website: www.thecolefamily.com/italy/pompeii for a virtual photographic tour of Pompeii. See all the wonderful photos of Pompeian life before the eruption in 79 A.D.

Pompeii was founded in the 8th century B.C. by the Oscans, a tribe of peasants and shepherds. By the 6th century B.C. the area was under Greek influence. About 400 B.C. the city was conquered by the Samnites. Rome conquered Pompeii in 80 B.C. The layout of this once vibrant town was a scaled down version of Rome, a model repeated in towns and cities throughout the Roman Empire. Pompeii is unique as an important archaeological site in the world.  Almost every other ancient urban site is simply the remains of a ghost town, long ago deserted by its citizens who carried away with them everything of value .Prior to the eruption of Vesuvius, Pompeii was a thriving city. Then it was buried with so little warning in 79 A.D. that Pompeii was literally frozen in time.

\Vesuvius is currently 4,200 feet (or 1,281 meters) high. Some geologists have estimated that it was 6,000 feet high before 79 A.D. If so, that means the top third of the mountain rained down on the surrounding countryside. The prevailing wind at the time blew much of it in the direction of Pompeii .

Some estimate that 20% of the population perished, though it may have been a much higher number if the volcanic gases were excessively toxic. Thousands fled the city in the afternoon darkness, blacker than any Roman citizen had experienced (except in Jerusalem when Jesus Christ was dying on the cross). The falling debris rapidly accumulated in Pompeii to several feet in the streets and on rooftops, making escape impossible for the thousands who sought shelter in their homes.

If we want to know details about what life was like in a Roman city during the first century, I think by studying Pompeii we can get the very best perspective with the least speculation. We can understand how the privileged rich man and the ordinary slave lived from day to day in the Roman Empire during the time when Christianity was beginning to spread throughout the Mediterranean. A better understanding of life in Pompeii, a city with both Roman and Greek influence, can help us to better understand many of the writings of the New Testament.

The Amphitheatre at ancient Pompeii was where sporting even were held. The passion of the people for gladiatorial games was great. The sporting enthusiasm was similar to that provided today by football games (or soccer in Europe). Gladiator helmets, richly decorated with scenes of Greek mythology, were found in the ruins of Pompeii. It was real people fighting it out to a death finish in front of thousands …. For sport.

The amphitheatre at ancient Pompeii is considered to be the world’s oldest known amphitheatre. About the size of a modern football stadium, it had a seating capacity of 12,000 spectators. It was here in 59 A.D. that a riot broke out during a competition with a rival city. The death of many spectators caused the Roman Senate to forbid any games in the Pompeii Amphitheatre for the next 10 years.


We also spent a week in Rome …. where over successive days where we saw the Colosseum and walked down the excavated Forum Area where Paul and his 1st Century Christians would have walked down. We stayed in a small convent on the edge of St. Peters Square. From there we would walk downstairs after breakfast to see places:

St. Peter’s Square itself, St. Peter’s Basilica

The Vatican Museum

The Palatine plus the Forum Area (First Century) website at: ….. Includes general photos of Rome as well

The Catacombs …. One of six around Rome see:

The flip side of Roman Culture was that people’s lives didn’t matter. Hence you have things like these:

  • The passion of the people for gladiatorial games was great It was real people fighting out to a death finish in front of thousands …. For sport. If certain slaves showed promise, they could go through the gladiator school and provide live sport for thousands in the watching stands ….. to the death with other gladiators or wild animals ….The rewards were great for successful gladiators
  • Executed Christians without mercy when they wouldn’t acknowledge Caesar as God …. Fed them to the lions in a public spectacle in the Colosseum or nearby in another sporting complex or burned them as pitched soaked night-time garden candles in the Emperor’s garden
  • The Romans would go to take over whole countries and just take them over: England, North Africa, Spain, Europe etc. …. Whether they liked or not …… possibly burn their cities to the ground and take their people back to Rome as slaves as happened in Jerusalem in AD 70.
  • Roman culture had a variation on wholesale abortion …. Babies would come to full term …. Then if mothers didn’t want them they would left by the roadside for wild animals or vultures to eat or throw them in the river. …. Maybe 1 in 3 occurred this way
  • Homosexuality was common …. Older men often had young boys as sex slaves


Photos of Early Rome:

IMG_0066.JPG 50

Colesseum_0194 50


See also the downloadable ‘pdf’ file ‘Photos of Early Rome’ for some photographic insights of some of the things we saw of the first century Roman Empire with the latter part of the file on Pompeii.  photos_of_early_rome 25 K The photos above show the following:

  • Ken and Harriet from our one day visit to Pompeii in our four week holiday to Italy in mid March and April in 2005. This photo of us is set against the ruins of an ancient house with the columns of a back courtyard in view

  • Entry into Pompeii now. By 79 A.D. Pompeii was a city covering 160 acres with a population of 20,000. Sixty percent of the inhabitants were free and 40% were slaves. A prosperous harbour town, part Roman and part Greek, Pompeii was similar in many ways to Corinth of the first century A.D. By better understanding life in Pompeii, we can gain insight about the New Testament books of First and Second Corinthians.

  • Pompeii Stadium: This is the amphitheatre of ancient Pompeii where sporting events were held. The passion of the people for gladiatorial games was great. The sporting enthusiasm was similar to that provided today by football games (or soccer in Europe ). Unlike today’s sport it was real people killing each other to death. Gladiator helmets, richly decorated with scenes of Greek mythology, were found in the ruins of  Pompeii. See the website for an explanation of gladiators:


This is considered to be the world’s oldest known amphitheatre. About the size of a modern football stadium, it had a seating capacity of 12,000 spectators. It was here in 59 A.D. that a riot broke out during a competition with a rival city. The death of many spectators caused the Roman Senate to forbid any games in the Pompeii Amphitheatre for the next 10 years.


In the first century, life in the Roman Empire began to change:

People who had been influenced by Jesus Christ who later became known as Christians began arriving in Rome. They spread from 120 people meeting together in an upper room in Jerusalem and spread to the four corners of the then known world. Their influence took over the Roman Empire , went to Turkey and Egypt and the Apostle Thomas even went to India.

The major difference that the teaching of Jesus Christ through his followers made in sequential centuries, is astonishing. In the book: ‘How Christianity Changed The World’, Alvin Schmidt looks in detail at how the secondary consequences of first century Christians coming to Rome made in such areas as:

  • The great value given to every human life …. Rich or poor, slave or freeman, gladiator or citizen, both men and woman, the disabled and the babies (infanticide was totally acceptable)
  • The elevation of Sexual Morality and the value of Marriage
  • Woman Received Freedom
  • Dignity Charity and Compassion replaced the Greco-Roman cultural ethos of uncompassion for the sick and dying and anyone who couldn’t offer the Emperor something
  • The advent of Hospitals and Health Care
  • The imprint on the value of Education for everyone, not just the sons of the privileged citizens
  • Labour and Economic Freedom dignified
  • Science and its commencement
  • Slavery being abolished
  • The stamp on Art and Architecture
  • The Sound of Music

The values that produced these aspects have affected our Western world for the last 2,000 years ….. we take them as normal standards. However, it came at great cost as there were severe persecutions of Christians in the second and third centuries by the Roman Emperors. The values and practices of these people turned the Roman Culture upside down …. Woman equal to men? …. Slaves equal with all people?

There are stories of how these 1st century Christians actually turned the Roman Culture upside down:

  • Plagues: In some of the Roman towns, plagues would occur and so the whole town population would leave the town and go out into the countryside. They would leave the sick, old people, the handicapped and the children behind. These people would die not from the plague but from neglect. Often Christians would go into these towns and look after these people. Some of the Christians would die from the plague. When the plague was over, the families would come back and wonder why their relatives had become Christians.
  • Finding abandoned babies: Christian woman going through the snowy forests in the middle of winter to find abandoned babies ….. taking them back as part of their own family
  • The catacombs where you really see how early century Christians actually turned the Roman Culture upside down: When we were in Rome in May 2005, we went and visited one of the six catacombs in ancient Rome. See www.catacombe.roma.it/welcome.html Bear in mind that all the catacombs are managed and supervised by the Catholic Church and have a Catholic interpretation on the meaning of the catacombs. However, they make the catacombs open to other churches who are not Catholic. It is wonderful reading some the actual letters sent between the leaders of the churches in 250 AD from Rome to Carthage etc. … their actual concerns. The significance of the catacombs is that 2nd and 3rd century Christians couldn’t meet together as the Church because of the written edicts of the Roman Emperors that all Christians should all be killed. Christians lived like everyone else upstairs in the Roman suburbs but they couldn’t show themselves as Christians in any way whatsoever.

They didn’t believe in cremating their dead as did the normal polytheistic Romans but the Christians believed in burying their dead instead ….. to await the 2nd Coming of Jesus and the resurrection from the dead. That is where the six catacombs came into existence. On the land of wealthy Roman Christians, they began to dig out the six catacombs around Rome. They had Christians who did nothing but dig tunnels and grave sites underground for burying their dead ….. It was in soft volcanic rock. All the dug out material had to be taken out by hand and spread on the adjacent land from gunny sacks. There were long tunnels with excavated grave sites cut in the side …. then they would go down more  steps to another set of tunnels …. Then down again for to up to six levels till they met the water table ….. then they couldn’t go any further. For a photograph of one underground crypts,  See where a whole family was entombed.

It is estimated that if all tunnels were put together in all six catacombs, it would six kilometres of tunnels. The tunnels were lit the full length by frequent little oil lamps to light the way. One day some Christians were meeting together at the end of one of these underground tunnels for prayer. The nearby Roman soldiers heard about Christians being down there and came running downstairs along the lighted tunnels and captured the Christians. They took most of the Christians upstairs and killed them but the wealthy lady who owned the land they tried to get her to renounce her faith. Before they killed her, she held three fingers meaning Father, Son and Holy Spirit which was a symbol of the Triune God (vs. one finger which symbolised one god in the polytheistic religion of the Romans). Instead of killing her straight away, they killed  her slowly slitting her throat so she bled slowly over time. The early Christian Church grew on the blood of the martyrs.

Today, I ask myself the question: ‘Do Christians today want a sanctified, legally justified and defended Christianised Kingdom of God’ ….. or ‘Do we want the Kingdom of God from Jesus Christ Himself’?

As the quote from Message Bible, Jesus says:

27 -30”To you who are ready for the truth, I say this: Love your enemies. Let them bring out the best in you, not the worst. When someone gives you a hard time, respond with the energies of prayer for that person. If someone slaps you in the face, stand there and take it. If someone grabs your shirt, giftwrap your best coat and make a present of it. If someone takes unfair advantage of you, use the occasion to practice the servant life. No more tit-for-tat stuff. Live generously.

31 -34”Here is a simple rule of thumb for behaviour: Ask yourself what you want people to do for you; then grab the initiative and do it for them! If you only love the lovable, do you expect a pat on the back? Run-of-the-mill sinners do that. If you only help those who help you, do you expect a medal? Garden-variety sinners do that. If you only give for what you hope to get out of it, do you think that’s charity? The stingiest of pawnbrokers does that.

35 -36”I tell you, love your enemies. Help and give without expecting a return. You’ll never—I promise—regret it. Live out this God-created identity the way our Father lives toward us, generously and graciously, even when we’re at our worst. Our Father is kind; you be kind.


The Status of Woman in the Roman Empire:

The status of woman was exceedingly low in Roman society. It revealed itself in many ways, one of them was the higher rate of female infanticide (it was quite acceptable to leave unwanted babies by the side of the road for wild animals or they would just throw them in the river to drown). It was also shown is ways such as these:

  • Woman had essentially none of rights and privileges that of men enjoyed
  • While many upper class girls received some informal education in grammar and reading, a Roman wife was not allowed to be present with her husband’s guests at a meal
  • There were numerous other restrictions:
  • Married woman were commonly under the Roman law of ‘manus’ which placed her plus all her possessions under the absolute control of her husband
  • He could divorce her if she merely went in public without a veil according to the ‘Plutarch’ (Romulus 22:3)
  • Although a husband could divorce her, she could never divorce him
  • Cato notes that the wife even lacked the right to tell her husband’s slave what to do
  • According to ‘Lex Voconia’ (a law enacted in 169 BC., a woman under manus was legally prohibited from inheriting property. This still in force in the early part of the 5th Century and received strong criticism from Augustine, the Christian bishop of Hippo in northern Africa
  • The most severe deprivation of Roman woman’s freedoms and rights had its roots in Table 4 of the Twelve Tables of Roman law that originated in the 5th century B.C. The Table 4 spelled out the law of patria potestas which conferred the rights of paterfamilias on the married man. In his role of as paterfamilias, the man had supreme, absolute power over his children even when grown, including his grandchildren. He alone had the power to divorce his wife and he also possessed the power to execute his children. He could execute his married daughter if she committed adultery in his or her husband’s house.

The latter right was reinforced by Caesar Augustus when he issued ‘Lex Julia de adulteris’ in 18 B.C. A man’s wife was also subject to her husband’s power of life or death. He had full authority to chastise his wife and in some cases, even to kill her in the same way as he might chastise his own child. To kill his wife for a nonadulterous offence, the husband ordinarily required the consent of an extended family tribunal, but in the case of adultery, no such consent was necessary.

Roman woman had little or no property rights. Goods or money that she could inherit were legally limited. She was not even allowed to leave money to her children if they were under her husband’s patria potestasand its corollary paterfamilias prohibited woman from speaking in public. Roman City Councils, Senate, Legal Courts and all other civic entities were all governed by men. Roman men had no toleration for woman from speaking in public settings. There was a total imposition of silence. It meant woman couldn’t speak in court.

Roman Culture had an extremely low regard for woman. This was expressed by such writers as:

  • Tacitus (ca. A.D. 55 – ca. A.D. 120): in his ‘Annuals’ argued that woman were domineering and cruel
  • Seneca …. Philosopher and statesman: saw anger as a womanish and childish trait
  • Juvenal … Satirist: said ‘There is nothing that a woman will not permit herself to do (Satires 6:457)

This low regard for woman in the Roman Culture, showed also in how woman were used sexually. Woman were essentially slaves of a man’s sexual passions. Promiscuous woman were part of the pagan temple worship eg. The Temple of Aphrodite. In both Greek and Roman temples, sex was a common religious activity. The pagan gods of the Roman and Greeks set no precepts with regard to moral behaviour.

The extremely low status that woman had in Roman Society also existed in Greek and Jewish Societies. Such a status had existed for woman, had been like this for centuries. If you want a current example, look at woman in Muslim Societies today.

The above book by Alvin J. Schmidt is available through Koorong Books for those in Australia ….. see Alvin J. Schmidt ‘How Christianity Changed The World’ (Zondervan, 2001).


A Spirituality from Jesus Christ: Jesus’s Attitude to Woman

The extremely low status that woman had in the Greek, Roman and Jewish societies had existed for centuries. This status was radically affected by the appearance of Jesus. His actions and teachings raised the status of woman to new heights, often to the consternation of his friends and enemies. By word and deed he went against the ancient, taken for granted beliefs and practices that defined woman as socially, intellectually and spiritually inferior. True to his own words, he said ‘ I have come that you may have life and have to the full’ (John 10:10 ). If any group of human beings were in need of an abundant life, spiritually and socially, it was woman of his day.

He had some the following encounters with woman:

  • The Samaritan Woman….. recorded in John 4:5-29

  • Mary / Martha dialogue in their home . recorded in Luke 10:38-42

  • Jesus teaches Martha …. recorded in John 11:25-26

  • Jesus Appeared to Woman After His Resurrection …. recorded in Matthew 28:10

  • Many Appearances of Woman with Jesus in such incidences as these:

  • Many woman followed Jesus … a highly unusual phenomena in his day
  • The woman with the issue of blood … recorded in Matthew 5:25-34 The response was that Jesus healed her and told her to go in peace


The Apostolic Churches Welcomed Woman:

The culturally defying acceptance that Jesus accorded to woman was not lost on the Apostolic Church. Taking Jesus’s precedent, the early Christians ignored the confining, restrictive norms to which woman were subjected to in their societies. Soon after Christ’s physical resurrection, his followers regularly assembled together for spiritual renewal, teaching and fellowship. They assembled together in Jewish synagogues and private homes known as house churches.

In later times, woman were very prominent, not just as worshippers but also as leaders. These are some examples:

  • The Apostle Paul notes that Apphia ‘our sister’ was a leader in a house church in the city of Corinth (see Philemon 2).
  • In Laodicea there was Nympha who had a house church in her house (see Colossians 4:15 )
  • · In Ephesus, Priscilla with husband Aquila, had a house church that ‘met at their house (see I Corinthians 16:19) and he also notes that Priscilla was one of his fellow workers in advancing the Great Commission of Christ that told his followers to go into all the world to make disciples of all nations (see Matthew 28:19)
  • · Another key female leader in the Apostolic Church was Phoebe. In Romans 16: 1-2 Paul refers to her by the male title of diakonos’ (deacon), a position she had in the church at Cenchrae. Paul didn’t use any feminine form of the word but the word is rendered ‘deaconess’ in many future translations (which shows the influence of the Apostolic Community in becoming a Corporation …. see comment below). In addition to calling her a deacon, Paul referred to her as a ‘prostatisor leading officer. In ancient Greek literature, the word prostatismeant presiding in the sense of leading, directing and governing. She was so highly regarded as a leader, that scholars believe that Paul even chose her to personally deliver the Epistle to the Romans for him from Corinth. This was distance of 400 miles. That was no mean accomplishment in those days. This was to Christians in Rome about 56 A.D. ….. who walked the streets like the photos above).


A Spirituality from Jesus Christ transformed the First Century Roman Empire. How did that Spirituality Develop Further?


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