I wrote about the Roman domus (house) in my last post. The peristyle domus I described was an urban dwelling. Today I want to highlight a few more details about Roman era homes. In particular, we need to say something about the Roman villa. Outside Roman cities, in the centuries prior to the New Testament, the wealthiest Romans began building villas at the outside edge of the cities. These were pleasure houses much as some folks today have summer homes. As impressive as these were, the more significant villas for our purposes are the villas that engaged in agriculture.
The population outside the cities was overwhelmingly very poor but a vast amount of real estate was controlled by the very top echelons of the Roman hierarchy. As we will see later, the only socially acceptable business for the pinnacle of Roman society was agriculture. Roman villas were established in the countryside to oversee the agricultural and mining work done by slaves and free workers. Some villas were essentially small towns. (These were the forerunners of the latifundia system in Latin America and the plantations in the American South.) Below is a drawing of one villa from EduNETConnect with a brief description.
This is a picture of what a villa looked like around 350 AD. This one is a reconstruction of a villa that stood at Chedworth, England, but it is typical of what villas looked like throughout the Western Roman Empire. Compare it to the German farm. What differences and similarities can you find? The villa is built around a central square garden. This is where the owner and his family would live or stay for a visit. Many land owners lived in towns and cities, and had their estates managed by a landlord, in which case the landlord would live here. The main buildings are made of stones or bricks with a tile roof. The villa could include many different workshops, such as a black smith, bake ovens, stables and so on. Gardeners, maids, nannies for small children and other household servants, most of them would be slaves, lived right at the villa. Some field workers would live at the villa, but most would live in small huts with their families in the huge fields surrounding the main villa. Some would be slaves, others would be free people renting land from the land owner. The rent of these tenant farmers would be paid with a share of the crops they grew. A villa could have hundreds of people living there, surrounded by hundreds and even thousands of hectares of fields. Located in or near the villa were orchards, herb gardens, flower gardens, and vineyards. Animals kept here included horses, sheep, goats and pigs. A villa was a self-contained community, the focal point in many rural areas of the empire. Many villas survived the collapse of the empire and grew into permanent settlements, what eventually came to be called a village.
This rural villa is what Jesus had in mind in passages where he talked of a master who leaves a servant in charge prior to leaving on journey with a plan to return at some distant date. Many of the villa owners did not live at the rural villas, or they did so for only a portion of the year. They spent most of their days living in the cities where they went about their business. They would leave a man called a vilicus in charge (who could be a free man or a trusted slave.)
There was no law enforcement in these areas outside the city and many of the villas had their own private prisons (ergastula) for disciplining slaves. They were outside the Roman penal system. Occasionally, an unfortunate free person might be kidnapped and thrown into these secluded prisons. They were often dark windowless facilities from which people could hear weeping and gnashing of teeth. Note Jesus comment to the Roman Centurion in Matthew:
“When Jesus heard him, he was amazed and said to those who followed him, "Truly I tell you, in no one in Israel have I found such faith. I tell you, many will come from east and west and will eat with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the heirs of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth." (Matt 8:10-12, NRSV)
Rebellious and recalcitrant servants were the primary reason the ergastula existed and Jesus was drawing on precisely this imagery.
Another form of urban dwelling that was emerging prior to the time of Christ, was apartment-like buildings called insulae. Shops of modest shopkeepers were on the first floor with living quarters above. With the discovery of improved formulas for making concrete in the first century C.E., more insulae with more floors began to be constructed. Residents with a little more wealth would occupy apartments behind the shops on the ground floor. The rent was cheaper with each higher floor. By the fourth century, Rome listed 46,000 insulae and only 1,700 domus. (Osiek and Balch, 21) It simply is not clear how prevalent insulae had become by Paul’s time but the transition was well underway. Here is floor plan for a generic insula:
Finally, we need to point out that there was a variety of structures that people lived in outside the major cities. Most people lived in small one or two room huts made of differing materials depending on the region. Those with a little more wealth might have a few more rooms. Jesus based his ministry out of Capernaum. Setting the scene for a woman with the lost coin in Luke 15 Kenneth Bailey writes:
The native building material for homes in that district [Capernaum] was, and is, a beautiful and very black basalt. Simple one-room village homes were about the size of an American one-car garage. Windows were only ventilation slits in the walls, approximately three inches high and located some seven feet off the ground. The poor used flat stones of basalt for flooring while large slabs of basalt stretched from arch to arch to form the ceilings. (Jacob and the Prodigal, 87)
As interesting as these other living arrangements may be, the subject of this series is the “household of God” as a metaphor for the church. What is essential for our purposes is to understand that insulae, huts, and black basalt homes do not constitute a “household” in the Roman sense of the word. The “household” was the domus or villas owned by the paterfamilias, the head of the household and a Roman citizen. The household included the domus and villas owned by his sons. The household included all of the people living in these various facilities and all of the material possessions contained therein. In larger households, there could literally be hundreds of people. They were all “under the hand” of the paterfamilias, worshiping his gods and engaged in the household business. This was not the insular non-productive nuclear family of the early 21st century in the West.