“Cornelius replied, "Four days ago at this very hour, at three o'clock, I was praying in my house when suddenly a man in dazzling clothes stood before me.” (Acts 10:30, NRSV)
When you read passages like this one in scripture, what image comes to your mind when you read the word “house?” When most of us hear the word "house" we envision something like the graphic to the right. There is a standalone structure surrounded by open acreage that creates physical distance between our home and the world. Sometimes we put fences around that open space. Sometimes we decorate the open space. (I’m partial to crabgrass and dandelions but to each his own.) Some folks build decks on to their house to facilitate outdoor recreation. For most of us, the conventional house is this enclosed dwelling surrounded by real estate. However, houses in the cultures that lived around the Mediterranean 2,000 years ago were considerably different than they are today. If you tend to be a visual person like me, it sometimes helps to have a grasp of the concrete realities involved.
Most homes of the New Testament era were what are called a peristyle home. Wikipedia says, “…a peristyle is a columned porch or open colonnade in a building that surrounds a court that may contain an internal garden.” Walls surround the complex and rooms are along the outer edges with the peristyle in the center. While houses in both the Eastern and Western portions of the Roman Empire tended to be peristyle, the Western homes frequently had an atrium. Another contrasting architectural feature was that homes in the East prior to Jesus' time tended to have rooms isolated from the rest of the home to keep women in seclusion. This feature tended to fade in the later part of the Empire era.
The Roman peristyle home with an atrium is believed to be the primary style of home in which house churches of the New Testament met. Technologically they included features like running water and heat. The following diagram gives a generic floor plan:
You entered the house (domus) through the vestibulum (#3) and passed through fauces (short corridor, #4) into the atrium (#1). The Atrium had an open section in the roof that allowed rain water to come through and fill a large basin call called the impluvium (#5). Here is a picture of an atrium:
(Pompeii. House of Menander. Atrium. Copyright © 1997 Leo C. Curran. For non-commercial use only.)
The cubiculum (#11) off the atrium were the bedrooms. Some might have had a small antechamber where servant would sleep. Here is a picture of a side room although I am uncertain that this is a bedroom:
(Pompeii. House of the Vettii. Paintings. Copyright © 1997 Leo C. Curran. For non-commercial use only.)
The triclinium (#7) was the dining room. It would have a three sided or half-circled couch where people would recline to eat. The tablinium (#8) was the focal point of the domus as you entered through the front of door. It featured a table and functioned as an office. It was the room from which the paterfamilias conducted his business and greeted visitors and people to whom he was patron. When the curtains were pulled back and the doors opened, one could look straight through the atrium, through to the tablinium (#8), and on through the peristylium (#2) to the back of the house. At the center of attention was the paterfamilias in his tablinium in the center of the domus. The walls of all the rooms were decorated with elaborate paintings and the floors had mosaics done in tiles. Having the appropriate décor as you entered the house was a crucial to indicating your status within society to your guests. By Jesus’s day, the tablinium was falling into disuse and the dining areas were expanding size.
At the back of the house, behind the tablinium (#8) was the peristylium (#2), the columned porch area. Off to the sides were often additional rooms like the kitchen and the bath. Somewhere off the peristylium (#2) would be the exhedra or oecsus (#9). This was a space for larger communal meals. Here is a picture of a peristyle from Pompeii:
(Pompeii. House of the Vettii. Peristyle #2. Copyright © 1997 Leo C. Curran. For non-commercial use only.)
Moving back to the front of the house, there would be one or more rooms called taberna (#10). These rooms would be where goods were set out for sale, craftsmen would work, and where goods could be stored. One last feature I want point out is the lararium. The lararium varied in location. This was the shrine to the household gods and it was located somewhere in the house (usually in the atrium or peristylium) where the entire household would gather daily for worship.
The square footage of a house could vary enormously. Concerning the ruins at Pompeii, Carolyn Osiek and David Balch observe, “The average property is ten times larger than the smallest, the largest ten times larger than the average.” (17) Examination of 234 ruins at Pomepeii and Herculaneum revealed homes that ranged from 100 square meters to 3,000 square meters. (201) The specifics of the homes varied considerably but the basic features I just described were fairly constant.
These homes were often remodeled, or torn down and rebuilt. It is believed that the original house churches met in these homes, in either the atrium or the peritsyle. As the numbers of people expanded, walls would be torn out to make more space. According to Osiek and Balch, it appears that Christians in the mid-Second Century and later began to buy homes and convert them into shells with open space to hold a number of people. (35) These became the first domus ecclesia buildings dedicated entirely to meeting for worship. But even prior to emergence of these domus ecclesia it was possible that large numbers could have met together in the peristyle of some homes. Some of the larger homes in Pompeii could easily have handled a couple hundred folks. The House of Citharist could have accommodated more than 1,100 people. (201) It is not accurate to assume that all of the New Testament churches were limited to two or three dozen people.
In the next post, we will take a look at the inusla and the villa.