“So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall!”
–1 Corinthians 10:12 (NIV)
It’s important to understand where humankind has been. Those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it or something like that, right? If that is the case, here comes the gloomy part. We don’t just have to read the book of Revelation to understand prophecy. The historical accounts documented in the Old Testament books of Kings and Chronicles serve as great parallels for our modern society. While civilization has greatly progressed since then, it seems the values of the culture have not really caught up with innovation as much as we’d like to think.
Fast forward to the New Testament.
It’s important, and interesting, to picture just how innovative New Testament culture was. We probably too often think of life back then as Jesus live it: nomadic, inopportune, poor, and backward. Life wasn’t just led by people in a dusty, dirty desert. While the Roman Empire had a lot of rural areas, it was surprisingly urban. To illustrate these innovations, here’s a short quiz that will help understand the parallels of the New Testament world and our modern times.
Question: Who had 250,000 miles of roads linking one end of their land with the other?
Answer: The Roman Empire had 250,000 miles of roads, many paved, linking Morocco and Northern Africa to Britain in Northern Europe.
Q: What city had more than 300 million gallons of water supplied to it each day?
A: The Romans made aqueducts an everyday fact of life and by 100 A.D. they had constructed nine of them which supplied more than 300 million gallons of running water every day to Rome.
Q: What governmental building could store up to 10 million gallons of water?
A: King Herod The Great, ruler in Palestine at the time of Jesus’s birth, made sure the Temple Mount in Jerusalem had easy access to water. It, alone, had more than 37 underground chambers and reservoirs which could have held as much as 10 million gallons of water.
Q: What Roman entertainment venue seated 225,000 people?
A: The Hippodrome, home to Circus Maximus chariot races (as in the movie Ben Hur) and Christian persecution seated 255,000 people in downtown Rome.
Q: What city had a theatre that seated 25,000 people?
A: Excavated ruins of the theatre at Ephesus, site of Paul’s preaching in Acts 19:29, indicate it may have seated approximately 25,000 people.
The New Testament only covers about 100 years, not hundreds of years like the Old Testament. The fall of the Roman Empire happened well after John wrote Revelation so secular history and archeology have to provide the insight to the conveniences (and obstacles) Jesus and the apostle Paul faced when ministering. Besides, the Bible does not really address a lot of the specific ordinary Greco-Roman pagan life that Christians outside of Palestine would have lived with daily.
So, let’s start with a brief thousand-foot historical flyover snapshot of the Empire.
The Roman Empire began in 63 B.C. under Caesar Augustus, the Emperor at the time of Jesus’s birth, and the early period lasted until 135 A.D. The Late Roman Empire period lasted until 324 A.D. A top-level Christian uprising of sorts began under Emperor Constantine while the western half of the Roman Empire collapsed at the same time. The Byzantine Period ushered in by Constantine lasted from 324-360 A.D. It comprised mostly the eastern half of the Roman Empire, which survived the breakup of the western empire. The focal point of the Empire under in the Byzantine Period became Asia Minor, modern-day Turkey, and Palestine. The Roman Empire fell in the fifth century.
The Roman Empire may have followed a similar pattern as did the Israelite nation in the Old Testament. In the Old Testament Israelite nation, the southern kingdom of Judea held true to God’s commands longer than that of the northern kingdom of Israel which fell to captivity first as a result of its fall from God’s grace. While the western portion of the Empire was known for debauchery and to persecute Christians in public massacres, such as in the Circus Maximus, Christianity was taking root in the eastern portion. Paul’s seeds in Asia Minor were growing. Constantine made Christianity the official religion during the Byzantine period and it survived.
The Romans were not unlike us in today’s society.
Rome was cosmopolitan. It was the sin capital of the ancient world and debauchery carried over throughout all the Empire. It would have made Las Vegas or Hollywood Boulevard look like a Sunday school picnic. Just name the immorality and it could be found there, from abortion, incest, and child abuse to the glorification of brutal killings of all kinds. And, when in Rome (or the entire Empire) what’s expected and accepted? “Do as the Romans do!”
Romans believed their urban citizens should be able to benefit from public works. Public and governmental buildings were well-maintained and streets and water systems were elaborate for the day, although not at all sanitary. The Romans had covered drains leading to sewers under the elaborately paved streets they constructed. Public latrines flushed by water from aqueducts went into those underground sewers, but then directly into the river or another water supply.
They promoted commerce by making marketplaces easily accessible to the citizens. It is believed that Paul took advantage of them and set up a tent-making shop in Corinth. They had gymnasiums to promote health and physical fitness, like wrestling, swimming and weight-lifting. Like the Greeks, they appreciated athletic games of skill. The Roman way was known for elaborate public bath houses, similar to modern-day spas, but they were centers for debauchery.
Luxury was magnified by the Romans. Luxurious homes were built throughout the empire and they transformed the Doric Order Greek architecture into more extravagant-looking Ionic Order. Even Roman theatres tended to be more elaborate than the Greek ones and some of them were even partly under awning roofs. In fact, the great Colosseum in Rome had an awning over its entire circumference that allowed many of the spectators to be shaded. In terms of extravagance, our modern thirst for the finest things in life is not much different than it was in the days of the Roman Empire. That quest also led them to financial ruin, a reason for its fall.
The Romans led the way in ancient innovation and the prime example of their innovation was the aqueduct. They could be hundreds of miles long and remnants of some of those aqueducts remain even today. By 300 A.D. Rome contained 1,352 sites where water was available. Those aqueducts provided the city water to flush public latrines, for public fountains and even for use in some private homes. Water was literally available at nearly every corner.
The subfloor of the Colosseum was also a prime example of their innovation. It included underground rooms, corridors and even elevators. The floor itself was actually made of wood and covered with dirt so trap doors would have a more theatrical effect when sprung open. The entire Colosseum could be flooded for naval reenactments. Drivers who raced at the Hippodrome Circus Maximus chariot races had corporate sponsors. Other innovations include: the invention of concrete, multi-level inner-city housing developments (although structurally unsafe) and water transported in lead pipes (led to the the plumber profession, Pb is the chemical sign for lead).
We’ll continue to explore Roman innovations and history, primarily the road system. Jesus made mention of Roman roads as did Paul. We’ll see that this particular innovation was vital to the evangalism of Paul and the cities in Asia Minor.
For now, consider the following questions:
What innovations do you find most interesting? Do you know of others?
How are you picturing the Roman Empire compared to the cities Jesus visited?
What tools do you think were needed most for ancient evangelizing?
Any other questions or comments.