A day in the life
[above: Plate Base with Peregrina between Saints Peter and Paul, mid-300s AD. Made in Rome. Glass, Gold leaf—Rogers Fund, 1918, Metropolitan Museum of Art]
This fictionalized account of Christian life in first-century Rome, excerpted from A Week in the Life of Rome, provides a window into the early Christian experience. Read through the rest of the issue to learn more of the historical background behind this tale and others. [Available at ivpress.com]
Stachys woke up with a start and quickly looked around to see if anyone was there to witness the embarrassing fact that he had nodded off in his patron’s atrium. He breathed a sigh of relief when he saw that he was alone. A summer breeze blew through the atrium, warm and humid, and the linen awning over the skylight rippled gently. . . .
He looked down at his tanned hands, resting on the folds of the formal toga his patron had given him. . . .
“Stachys my friend!” Urbanus, the head of the household, entered the atrium and walked quickly over to Stachys, and gripped his arm warmly. . . .
Stachys stood up tall, proud to be greeted so warmly by his patron. . . .
“Domin–um, Salve. I trust you are well. And your noble wife, Sabina, and your daughters.”
“Yes, yes, same as yesterday. Stachys, what are you doing here all by yourself?” Urbanus made a mocking frown. “I thought you had neglected to come pay your respects today. Why didn’t you visit me in your turn? It’s not like you to be late.”
“Well, the truth is, I wasn’t late. I’ve been here all morning, but I let the others go ahead of me.”
Urbanus made another face, an exaggerated look of confusion. “What? Why would you humiliate yourself like that, letting my other clients of lower status go ahead of you? And after they probably fought and jockeyed for position among themselves, arguing over petty differences in their net worth just to see who would be first to grovel at my feet?”
“I wanted to ask a favor, but one that I didn’t want the others to hear.” Stachys grew nervous, not really knowing how to say what he had come to say.
“Go on.” Urbanus’s tone was amiable.
“It’s too much to ask, really. It’s just that. . . .”
“Spit it out, Stachys, I have to go to court today, and you and the others have to be there to cheer for my lawyer.”
“Yes, well, the thing is . . . and I know this is not my place, but I came to ask if I might be allowed to call you by your name. I mean, instead of calling you Dominus.”
Urbanus hesitated at first. “Have we come so far? You do remember that you were once my slave?”
“Tell me why.”
Stachys took a deep breath and scratched his head. “You know that I’ve joined the school of the Way-followers?”
“Yes, though you still haven’t told me what a Way-follower is.” Urbanus’s tone was shifting from warm to annoyed.
“A Way-follower is no different from any other Roman in many ways. They are not from a particular country, they don’t even all speak the same language or have all the same customs in common. They believe much of the religion of the Judeans, but the table is open to anyone who is willing to take up their lifestyle and be initiated by baptism. They are, however, especially devoted to one particular Judean; his name was Iesua. He said that he is the way, and the truth, and the life.”
“Wait, is this that Chrestus who was the cause of all the trouble across the river, that led to the emperor banishing all the Judeans?”
“Well, they call him the Christos, but yes. But it wasn’t his fault, or the fault of the Way-followers. But you see, for the Way-followers, Iesua the Christos is Dominus, he is their Lord, and they are not allowed to have any other lord, and if I am initiated and join their table, then I am not supposed to call anyone else Dominus.”
Now Urbanus was a little angry. “What? But I am your patron! I AM your lord! And after my father died, I gave you your freedom so you could live with your son’s mother—may the spirits bless her in Elysium. I took you from managing my olive groves to having your own olive oil business and you owe me a lot of money.”
“Yes, and I will always be grateful and you will always be my patron. I would never betray you. Iesua does not ask us to abandon our patrons or dishonor them in any way. But my new wife, Maria, is very insistent that I learn the rules of their cult and join their table.”
“Your new religion”
Urbanus looked Stachys up and down. “You were always a good and loyal slave—and for the last 15 years you’ve been a good and loyal client. I know you mean no dishonor. Hades! You were willing to completely humiliate yourself in front of all my other clients just to save me the embarrassment of having to publicly consider this question of how to address me. Tell me, Stachys, why is it that your honor has increased in my eyes simply because you are willing to be shamed in order to practice your new religion?”
Before Stachys could think of an answer, Urbanus concluded, “All right. From now on, you may call me by my name, and in the mornings you will visit me first, before all my other clients. . . . Now, we have to get moving because I am due in court. You and the others will meet me on the steps of the new court building, the Basilica Julia. We’re due there at the third hour, so whatever you have to do now, be sure you’re not late. I need all the support I can get. Oh, I almost forgot.”
Urbanus pulled a small leather bag from the fold in his toga and took out a silver denarius. “Here you go. So much easier than when we used to have to give out food baskets to all the clients.”
“Yes, but I can tell you the clients do miss the days when the daily gift might be an invitation to dinner.”
“Ha! Parasites, the lot of them.” Urbanus put his arm around Stachys again. “But now that we are truly friends, you can look forward to an invitation to dinner in the near future, I promise.”
Stachys left the atrium and exited Urbanus’s house. He loved walking through the wealthy neighborhood that was outside the wall to the east of the city. He loved it because wealthy meant quiet. And since he knew that he had already missed most of the Way-followers’ morning prayer gathering that was going on at his house, there was no need to hurry. . . .
Morning prayer meeting
The closer he got to the center of the city, the more the streets became clogged with merchants yelling out their wares, prostitutes standing in the doorways and arches, taverns overflowing their thresholds, teachers trying to keep the attention of their students by shouting their lectures, fortune tellers and potion sellers calling out their promises, and barbers shaving and cutting hair. It was as if for a few hours each day, Rome became one big shop. Stachys pushed through the crowd until finally he was able step into a more open space at the Forum of Augustus. He took a right turn at the Temple of Mars. . . .
When he arrived at his house, the morning prayer meeting was just breaking up. He walked through the group of people still milling around and went to his wife, who was alternating between singing a psalm and blowing out candles. . . . Stachys snuck up behind her, put his hands on her hips and kissed her neck. Maria startled a bit and hunched her shoulders. “Beloved.” Her long dark hair flipped to the side as she turned around and held out her hand for the denarius.
Stachys put the denarius in her hand. “Apple of my eye.”
Maria’s full lips curved up and a nonsymmetrical smile emerged under her prominent nose. “Oh, you’ve been reading the Scriptures. That makes me so happy.”
“Your neck is like an ivory tower. Your nose is like the tower of Lebanon.”
“Don’t overdo it,” she said through a smirk. She handed him two bronze sestertes [a sesterte was a quarter of a denarius] for his lunch and shave.
“Stachys, old man!”
Stachys turned to greet his step-son, Marcus. . . . “Salve, Marcus. How was the prayer gathering?”
“It was a blessing, thanks for asking.” Marcus gestured toward a young woman standing nearby. “Stachys, you know Prisca, don’t you? Her parents are Aquila and Priscilla, the awning makers. They left the city with the banishment of the Judeans, but since her mother is Roman, she was able to stay behind to manage their shop.”
Stachys bowed his head in respect toward the young noblewoman, as Maria put her hands on the shoulders of Marcus and Prisca. “Wouldn’t she make a perfect wife for my Johnny?”
“Mother,” Marcus interrupted, then sighed. “I’m 28 years old. Please don’t call me Johnny. And anyway, it’s hard enough for us to keep our heads down here in Babylon without people using our Judean names. You have to call me by my baptism name, Marcus, like everyone else. And you’re not Miriam, you’re Maria.” He turned to Prisca. “I’m sorry about that.” Prisca just smiled and looked down at the floor, blushing.
Marcus raised his voice to get everyone’s attention. “Now that Stachys is here, I have an announcement.” Everyone got silent. “I’ve received a letter from Peter.” The Way-followers held their breath. “By now he’ll be on his way back to us.” Every held breath was released with a sigh of relief and exclamations of joy.
“He’s coming by ship and should be here within a few days. But because of the banishment of the Judeans, he’s going to have to avoid the main port of Puteoli and come in through Ostia. We have some friends there who will meet him and get him safely off the ship under cover of night. Then we’ll get him into Rome. . . . I know it’s dangerous to travel at night, but we don’t really have a choice. We have to smuggle him in. But there’s more news. The council in Jerusalem has made a decision about non-Judean believers. . . .”
“Non-Judean believers who want to be baptized. . . .” He paused for effect, but his smile spoiled the surprise, “. . . do not have to follow all the laws of our ancestors. They do not have to restrict their diet, and the men do not have to be circumcised.” An audible but restrained cheer rose up from the group. “They do, however, have to refrain from eating meat sacrificed to idols.”
“Va cacá!” Philologus’s face turned red when the whole group looked at him with dismay over his outburst. His wife, Julia, put her hand on his arm as if to quiet him. . . .
Marcus frowned. “Problem, Philologus?”
Philologus avoided making eye contact with Marcus. “It’s just that sometimes that’s the only meat I get all year. And I really like meat.” A few people laughed.
Marcus tried to suppress a smile, and it turned into a smirk. “Yeah, I get it. We all like meat. But I think the council’s decision is the right one. We have to separate ourselves from idolatry. That’s one way we keep ourselves holy.”
When the others finally filed out of their house, Marcus kissed his mother on the cheek and nodded toward Stachys. “I’m going to walk Prisca home.”
“Wait,” Maria stopped him and grabbed his arm. She could tell there was more on Marcus’s mind. “What else did the letter say?. . .”
Joining the Christian table
Marcus sighed. “Reading between the lines, I got the impression that there’s still some disagreement among the apostles. Between Peter and Paul mostly. Do you know they’re starting to call Paul the apostle to the nations? Can you believe that? The nerve of that guy. I mean, Peter converted the first Romans, and to this day he’s converted more non-Judeans than Paul by a long shot. And I know Paul, and I’m just a little concerned that he’s getting too big for himself.”
“And who appointed you judge over the apostles?” It was Rhoda. She had known Marcus since he was a boy, and although she was once a servant in his mother’s household, she had no hesitation about putting him in his place. . . .
“Anyway,” Marcus tried to get back to the point, “we’ll know more when Peter gets here.”
As soon as they were alone, Maria took Stachys’s hands in hers and looked into his eyes. “Well? Did you ask him?”
Stachys smiled. “Yes, I did. And he said yes.”
Maria smiled even wider. “I’m so anxious for you to join our table. Then when you’re baptized, we can have our union blessed. I would feel so much better if we could, since we couldn’t have a registered marriage.”
“Who cares about that?” Stachys protested. Then he lowered his voice and gestured toward Prisca as she was going out the door with Marcus. “Aquila and Priscilla don’t have a registered marriage.” Stachys was immediately self-conscious about his own status, since he was a freedman, just like Aquila. “Same with Philologus and Julia. But it doesn’t seem to matter to them. . . .”
Blessed by the apostles
“But it does matter,” Maria squeezed his hands. “Not what the Romans think, but it matters to the Lord. Aquila and Priscilla had their union blessed by an apostle of the Lord Iesua. When Peter returns, he can do that for us. But first you have to be baptized.”
“Look, if you didn’t want to be with me, you could have done what any other man would have done—you could have taken a much younger wife, a proper Roman girl who wouldn’t have had so many of her own ideas, and her own religion, and who would have had a dowry to give you so you could just have a regular registered marriage.”
Stachys shrugged sheepishly. “The gods gave you to me, who am I to argue with them?”
“The gods!” Maria scoffed. “I was not theirs to give! Did a stone give you life? Did a painted statue give you air to breathe?”
“Well, I never said I was against it. Like I’ve told you before, the dowry thing means nothing to me. I respect the fact that you spent all of your money to get you and your entourage to Rome. That brings honor to your name, Judean or not. We can have this blessing, when the time is right. But now I have to go to court.”
As he walked out the door, Maria was still talking to him. “It wasn’t an entourage. They’re not my followers. Anyway, someone had to get Peter out of Jerusalem.” CH
By James L. Papandrea
[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #147 in 2023]James L. Papandrea is professor of church history and historical theology at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary. He is the author of a number of books including A Week in the Life of Rome (from which this is excerpted with kind permission of InterVarsity Press), The Early Church (33–313), The Earliest Christologies, and Rome: A Pilgrim’s Guide to the Eternal City.
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