We are about to shift gears in this series so I think it is time for a quick recap concerning the idea of “household” in Greco-Roman society.
Members - The model household was not a nuclear family living under one roof. The model Roman household was headed by a paterfamilias (head of household). It included his wife, children, slaves, slave children, and even free persons working in the household business.
Business - Households were businesses united in a common enterprise. They could range from a handful of people to several hundred. The noblest form of business was agriculture, most notably the enterprises conducted by large villas or plantations.
Authority - The household was ruled by the paterfamilias, who up until the first century C.E. had (at least theoretical) power of life and death over those in his household. Adult sons were under the authority of their father as long as he lived.
Marriage - Marriage was a contract to ensure the legitimate lineage of the paterfamilias and for building alliances between families. Companionship and emotional connection were of secondary concern. Married women tended to give primary allegiance to their family of birth, not the family into which they married.
Brotherhood - Sibling relationships, and particularly brotherhood, were seen as the relationships where the greatest emotional connection existed. Conflict or betrayal between brothers was seen as the most disturbing of conflicts.
Patronage - Roman society was all about whom you know. Patronage was the model by which all but the most rudimentary forms of business were conducted. A patron lavished goods and opportunities on clients who could not possibly return the favor, all the time avoiding (in theory at least) condescension to clients. Clients reciprocated by being at the beck and call of their patron, endlessly singing the patron's praise. (David deSilva calls this the dance of grace.) The paterfamilias was the patron for his household and households had patron or client relationships with other households creating a massive interplay between differing pyramids of patronage.
Status, Honor, and Shame - Status was largely tied to the number of clients you had amassed and Roman society was very status conscious. There was a complex web of criterion for ranking people by class, economic status, patronage relationships, age and gender. Romans were consumed with exhibiting the right traits that symbolized their class and status, and with engaging in appropriate behavior that gave honor to the class and status of others. Failure to show honor or not to behave in accordance with one’s status would bring shame on the whole household, particularly the paterfamilias who symbolized the whole household.
Worship - Each household had a household god chosen by the paterfamilias from the Roman assemblage of Gods. Each of the Roman gods symbolized various virtues. Daily rituals of worship were conducted to honor the household God. This worship solidified the members of the household with each other and the household with Roman society.
There were other important institutions in Roman society. From the late sixth century B.C.E. until the mid-first century B.C.E., Rome operated as a republic with some rudimentary notions of equality among the highest echelons of the Roman citizenry. Some of the voluntary associations operated on a more egalitarian basis and provided an alternative means of status for those blocked from achieving status by other means. However, the household was without question the central institution of Greco-Roman society.
By late in the first century B.C.E., the nature of Roman society had undergone remarkable changes. Julius Caesar extended the bounds of the republic and put down his enemies by the mid-40s B.C.E. He was made Emperor for life in gratitude for his accomplishment but he was assassinated in 44 B.C.E. by those who wished to restore the Republic. Shortly thereafter, he was declared a god. His adopted son, Augustus Caesar, immediately took his place. Over the next fifteen years, Augustus put down all internal rebellion. He offered to the lay down to the Senate his role as Emperor in 27 B.C.E. but they ratified him as Emperor. The Roman Empire was thus firmly established. The era of Pax Romana began and it was said that Augustus, the son of God, had brought the gospel (good news) of peace and tranquility to the world.
To reorient society away from the idea of a Republic, Augustus latched onto the image of the empire as the household writ large, with Caesar as the paterfamilias of the Empire household. All patronage pyramids culminated in him. Eventually households were expected to worship Caesar (or the genius thereof), thereby giving honor and glory to the head of the Empire’s household, the preeminent symbol of Roman society.
So what significance does this have for us as we begin to look at the Jesus movement as it unfolded in the first century C.E.?
First, some Romans believed that the reason the Republic collapsed was that proper respect and honor had not been accorded to the Roman gods. The empire had really only been in full mode since a couple of decades before Jesus’ birth. It was a time of great social upheaval as the Emperors sought to make their new vision of society stick. Failure to honor the Roman gods, live by Roman custom, and to give honor to Caesar, was to foster social decay and chaos, if not outright rebellion. Religious value systems like the cult of Isis, Judaism, and Christianity were, to say the least, suspect practices with the top of the Roman hierarchy and the traditionalists.
Second, the claim of Jesus Christ to be the Son of God bringing good news of peace and justice was a direct assault on the Emperors’ claims about themselves. Similarly, the New Testament notion of the church as the household of God connected members of the church across time and space with God as the paterfamilias. This was a direct challenge to the mission of the Emperors to create the household of Caesar.
I have only scratched the surface of the household concept in the Greco-Roman world. There were considerable differences in the freedoms women experienced in various locales throughout the Greco-Roman world. The Greeks tended to view slaves as automatons without a soul while the Romans believed slaves had a mind and will that had to be conformed to the master's mind and will. There will be more to add in later posts but this will serve as an effective backdrop for what follows.
Next, we turn to the little region of Palestine at the outskirts of the Empire.