Posted by: chuckbumgardner | July 23, 2012

Roman Architecture, Social Life, and Christian Gatherings

Five years back, I took some notes (here) from an essay by David Balch on Greco-Roman households and their relation to Pauline and Christian mission.  I am currently perusing a book he co-authored with Carolyn Osiek, Families in the New Testament World: Households and House Churches (Westminster/John Knox, 1997), which predated the essay and states some of his point more thoroughly.  I’ll share a bit here on the architecture and social customs regarding the household; the relation to 1 Cor 14:23, “If, therefore, the whole church comes together and all speak in tongues, and outsiders or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are out of your minds?” will be evident.

Balch and Osiek agree with the conclusion of Andrew Wallace-Hadrill that the Greco-Roman atrium-house (a larger dwelling, as opposed to the more cramped apartment-like insulae) was not the exclusive but the primary setting of Pauline churches.  And regarding these atrium-houses, the 1st-century-B.C. architect Vitruvius noted “that everyone has the right to enter a vestibule, atrium, and peristyle, reserving as private space for the family only bedrooms, dining rooms, and baths!” (Oseik and Balch 17).  “The lack of privacy in Roman houses and society would drive most modern people insane.”  Oseik and Balch go on to quote Wallace-Hadrill:

The Greek house is concerned with creating a world of privacy, of excluding the inquisitive passerby; the Roman house invites him in and puts its occupants on conspicuous show.  Vitruvius’ contrast is not between space for visitors and space for family but between space for uninvited and for invited visitors.  Much closer in our terms is the contrast between work and leisure.  The Romans . . . lacked our distinctions of place of work (office, factory, etc.) from place of leisure (home).  Business was regularly conducted at home, whether by and emperor receiving the reports of his secretaries and procurators, by a republican noble giving his legal advice, or by a merchant, craftsman, or shopkeeper operating from the officina (workshop) or taberna (shop) that were part of his house. (25, quoting from Wallace-Hadrill, Houses and Society in Pompeii and Herculaneum, 45, 47)

All the same, there was often a doorkeeper who controlled access.  So, as Osiek and Balch note, “We conclude that these houses were not simply open, nor were they closed like modern homes.  Access was much more fluid than modern persons typically allow, more analogous to modern businesses where customer regularly enter and leave than to modern Western homes.” (25)

As well, “when a passerby looked through the open doors of these houses, he or she could see right through the house!  Often a visual axis ran from the door through the atrium, then through the tablinum, that is, through the ‘living room/office’ where the owner was displayed as if upon a stage (with the floor actually built a few inches higher than the other rooms), and then into the peristyle, the colonnaded garden.”  (25) Domus Romana

You can get an idea of this sort of visual axis in the above model (taken from the online Ancient History Encyclopedia).  Imagine for yourself a group of Christians meeting and singing together or listening to preaching.  Given my own observations, normal entry points to a worship space tend to be at the “back” of the space so as not to distract the people from hearing the speaker, so if an “outsider” were looking in the doorway in the image above, I imagine he would be looking more-or-less directly at the speaker.

Here is an interesting suggestion of a related matter, from which it might be well to learn in our day:

Given what we know about the structure of domestic buildings, how are we to envision the physical arrangements in which these gatherings took place?  In these earliest years, perhaps for the first century and a half, there were probably no structural adaptations for Christian worship, but rather, the adaptation of the group to the structures available.  The size of the meeting space in the largest house available must have determined the size limit of a worship group.  When the group became too large, another was founded in another location.  Assemblies of the “whole church” could take place from time to time on important occasions in a place large enough to accommodate it: perhaps a very large domus, or a rented hall. (33)



  1. I should note here Edward Adams’s work, The Earliest Christian Meeting Places: Almost Exclusively Homes? (, which gives possibilities and evidence for Christian meetings in many locations other than homes; my last comment/implication above is considerably weakened by this volume.

  2. […] sees the presence of unbelievers at a service as a live possibility (1 Cor 14:26, 29; see my earlier post on this); this possibility is heightened by the various venues which could potentially have been […]

  3. Followup note from reading J. Paul Sampley, “Living in an Evil Aeon: Paul’s Ambiguous Relation to Culture (Toward a Taxonomy),” in Paul in the Greco-Roman World: A Handbook (rev. ed.; London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2016), 2:426:

    “Paul supposes that unbelievers enter worship unbidden? How do they do that? The answer lies in two facts. One, Pauline assemblies typically met in homes. Two, houses, typically not only the family’s residence but also the family’s business place, were structured so that persons passing along the way could see deep into the house. The houses were decorated so as to enhance curiosity and to entire entrance. Business depended on ready access by strangers; worship made itself available to outsiders’ wandering in to see what the commotion was about.”

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