Things Are Remarkably the Same

I have been reading a lot lately about the first two centuries of the Christian experience. Part of my research is of the Roman culture of the period and I am struck by how at home we might be in Rome or any Roman city of a certain size.

There were shopping malls of mutli-stories. People lived in apartment buildings of up to seven stories. The better apartments were on the second floor above the street. The discovery of electricity and the invention of the elevator reversed the desirable floor from low to high creating today’s elite penthouse dwellers. The early Christians often met in apartments and gathered in the homes (Domus) of the wealthy for larger gatherings as only about 50,000 Romans of a population of nearly 1,000,000 lived in freestanding houses.

Below the account from Acts 20 describes such an apartment in Troas and reflects the real culture of the first century. It is useful to learn that much of the text of scripture is reliable in what it tells us. JWS


7 On the first day of the week, when we met to break bread, Paul was holding a discussion with them; since he intended to leave the next day, he continued speaking until midnight. 8There were many lamps in the room upstairs where we were meeting. 9A young man named Eutychus, who was sitting in the window, began to sink off into a deep sleep while Paul talked still longer. Overcome by sleep, he fell to the ground three floors below and was picked up dead. 10But Paul went down, and bending over him took him in his arms, and said, ‘Do not be alarmed, for his life is in him.’ 11Then Paul went upstairs, and after he had broken bread and eaten, he continued to converse with them until dawn; then he left. 12Meanwhile they had taken the boy away alive and were not a little comforted.

Acts (Chapter 20)

Ancient Roman Insula or Insulae

Towards the end of the Republic in Rome and other cities only wealthy Romans could afford to live in private houses. Most citizens lived in apartment buildings and tenement houses called insulae or insula in the singular. Roman insulae were sometimes six or seven stories high. The emperor Augustus restricted their height to seventy feet; Nero, after the great fire of his reign, brought the limit down to sixty feet.

The ancient Roman insula was often built very poorly and cheaply for speculative purposes with Juvenal speaking of the great danger of fire and collapse. Outside rooms were lighted by windows. There were sometimes balconies overhanging the street. These, as the windows, could be closed by wooden shutters. The inner rooms of an insula were lighted by courts if assuming they were lighted at all.

Roman insulae were sometimes sub-divided into apartments of several rooms, but were frequently let out as single rooms. At Ostia remains of insulae were found where each of the upper apartments has its own stairway. The ground floors were regularly occupied by shops or taberna. The superintendent of the building, who looked after it and collected the rents, was a slave of the owner and was called the insularius.