Title: Joy & Joyful

Part 4: When Culture Thwarts Joy

Aug 23, 2021

4. A Government and Society and Culture that Thwarts “Joy.”

            What about the Roman Empire? Beard wrote a chapter titled “The Haves and Have-nots” that makes clear the great disparity between rich and poor, with no middle class.[1] “Vociferous Roman disapproval of ‘luxury’ and admiration of the simple old-fashioned peasant life coexisted, as they often do, with massive expenditure and luxurious habits.”[2] Hypocrisy is universal. Beard notes that all urban dwellers, including the wealthy faced discomforts: streets too narrow for two-way traffic, leading to noisy confrontations between drivers, the use of public streets as sewers, the absence of regular garbage collection, public baths as breeding grounds for infection. However, even though there were universal discomforts, “the vast majority of even the non-slave population . . . at best had a modest amount of spare cash . . . and at worst were destitute, jobless and homeless.”[3]

            Beard also tells us about the socio-economic layers among the 99% of poor people: some had a professional skill and were employed, others had nothing. She notes, for example, that there was a huge requirement for porters at the docks to unload ships, but the labor was sporadic. Thus, it made business sense to hire day laborers to do this work rather than purchasing and maintaining slaves for the purpose. For such day laborers, there were sustained times when they had nothing.[4]

Apollo and Lute coin – From Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC.

Analysis of skeletons indicates that there was widespread malnutrition. Angela joins Beard in noting the evidence for Roman malnutrition and explicitly asks, was Rome “a third world city?”[5] He doesn’t give an explicit answer, but even asking the question implies the affirmative. He notes that slaves were not considered “human” under Roman law, and details the horrors of a slave’s life, although he justifies the institution in its historic circumstance.[6]

The prevalence of economic hardship in the Roman Empire is not a new discovery. In 1892, Hatch described the multiple sources of the economic problems and told his readers, “There grew and multiplied a new class in Graeco-Roman society—the class of paupers.” Hatch also said, for “the mass of men life was hardly worth living. It tended to become a despair.” Thus, Christians, following the teaching of Jesus, made the provision of food and other life necessities a key element of faith and practice.[7]

If we “read between the lines” we get a sense of the economic insecurity that prevailed in Jerusalem, when we read the beginning chapters of Acts of the Apostles. We read about an idyllic communism: “all who believed . . . had all things in common . . . they sold their possessions and goods and distributed them to all, as any had need . . . and breaking bread in their homes, they partook of food with glad and generous hearts.” (Acts 2:44-46.) “There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles’ feed; and distribution was made to each as any had need.” (Acts 4:34-35.) This communal sense of responsibility for one another is related directly to people accepting Christian “salvation,” so “salvation” at this point in history includes being saved from starvation. These passages strongly suggest that abject hunger was so common a problem that it didn’t need explicit explanation. Only the solution to the problem needed explaining.

Claudius coin – From the Roman National Museum

A half-century after the situation in Jerusalem as recounted in Acts,[8] probably during persecutions in the reign of Domitian, the last book of the New Testament canon, Revelation, was written. The final chapters of this book speak of heaven as a utopia, including a “tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month.” (Rev. 22:2.) The notion of a “tree of life” leads most preachers and theologians to refer back to the tree of life in the Garden of Eden. (Gen 3:22.) Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden to prevent the possibility of their eating from the tree of life, and the promise of Revelation seems to be that the experience of the Garden will be experienced in heaven in a new and better way. We should not reject this interpretation of the heavenly tree of life, but we should also attempt to understand it from the point of view of first century residents of the Roman Empire.

For most people in our time, “fruit” leads us to think of a pleasant addition to our regular diet, but we don’t think of fruit as a staple that would keep us from starvation. However when we consider the statement that the heavenly tree of life will be producing fruit every month of the year we are led to see this as a promise of perpetual nourishment, a great promise for people who are perpetually malnourished. If Revelation was initially written for Christians in Ephesus (or even written for all of the congregations in the Roman province of Asia) we are led to think that there was a great deal of nutritional insecurity in the urban centers.

Around the time that Revelation was [9] Clement, the bishop of Rome, wrote to the church in Corinth, and in that letter, speaking of Christian humility, said, “We know that many among ourselves have given themselves to bondage that they might ransom others. Many have delivered themselves to slavery, and provided food for others with the price they received for themselves.”[10] Clement seems to have assumed that the problems of hunger and poverty in Rome were likewise familiar in Corinth. The fact that people would actually sell themselves into slavery in order to purchase food for the hungry is astounding and speaks to the theological discussion of Christian joy. It also has something to say about the degree of secular joy that was present (or absent) in society. Clearly Clement’s statement speaks of serious social problems.

            The Roman National Museum in the Baths of Diocletian (Rome) displays a large quantity of gravestones memorializing “ordinary” people. Most of these identify the occupation of the deceased, and we get a sense that everyone had a recognizable “job,” even though few were wealthy. However this display does not account for the many destitute people who died without any memorial. Perhaps the Tiber was no longer clogged with corpses as it had been during the time of Sulla, but there were certainly many whose death was not noted and who did not have a respectable grave. The ordinary people who did have a respectable grave were extraordinarily fortunate.

            Let’s consider trust in governmental institutions.

            Emperor Claudius reigned between two notorious emperors, Gaius Caligula (reigned 37-41) and Nero (reigned 54-68). Consequently his less notorious reign is not well known among those who don’t study Roman history. He is best known in the Christian community as the emperor who expelled the Jews from Rome.[11] Much of what we know about his peculiar administration of the Empire comes from Suetonius’ history of Twelve Caesars, and Cassius Dio’s Roman History (Book 40).[12]

           Suetonius makes it seem that he was an unlikely and perhaps accidental emperor. He was physically weak and mentally indecisive as well as being subject to whims. Many of the things for which he was responsible seem to have been good, but Suetonius tells us that he was unworthy: “But in hearing and deciding cases he showed strange inconsistency of temper, for he was now careful and shrewd, sometimes hasty and inconsiderate, occasionally silly and like a crazy man.”[13] In contrast, Cassius Dio frames many of the same decisions and events recounted by Suetonius as being reasonable. Dio’s account blames the excesses of the Claudius administration on the Emperor’s philandering wife, Messalina. For example, Messalina sold Roman citizenship to many, as well as selling “military commands, procuratorships, and governorships, but also everything in general,” so that Claudius had to set up a price list for such honors.[14] Dio blames Messalina for a bread riot, while Suetonius blames what seems to have been the same event on drought.[15] Dio blames many murders on Messalina. After Messalina had gone too far, Claudius murdered her and married Agrippina, who also hoodwinked and controlled him.[16] Nero had been Agrippina’s son, and she convinced Claudius to adopt him, so that Nero became the next Emperor, rather than the natural son of Claudius.

Claudius holding libation pan
– Claudius is demonstrating his piety and respect for the gods.
From the Vatican Museums.

            Dio makes only passing reference to Claudius’ excessive drinking, no reference to his affection for gambling, and little reference to his cruelty. Regarding gladiatorial events, Dio says only, “In the gladiatorial combats many persons took part, not only of the foreign freedmen but also the British captives. He used up ever so many men in this part of the spectacle and took pride in the fact.”[17] In other regimes gladiatorial combats were often not fatal, but under Claudius at least one combatant died in every fight. Unlike Dio, Suetonius emphasizes all of these and specifically tells us that Claudius liked to see untrained people fight:

             At any gladiatorial show, either his own or another's, he gave orders that even those who fell accidentally should be slain, in particular the net-fighters, so that he could watch their faces as they died. . . . He took such pleasure in the combats with wild beasts and of those who fought at noonday, that . . . he would for trivial and hasty reasons match others, even of the carpenters, the assistants, and men of that class, if any automatic device, or pageant, or anything else of the kind, had not worked well. He even forced one of his pages to enter the arena just as he was, in his toga.[18]

            The unfortunate boy thus dispatched was a slave whose duty was to remind his master of the names of people who came to him.

            No matter whether Suetonius or Cassius Dio give us the least biased account of the reign of Claudius (who reigned during St. Paul’s ministry), we get the clear notion that it was a chaotic administration. These three emperors (Calugulia, Claudius and Nero) reigned for 31 years, and the continuing chaos had an impact on ordinary people. When we think about these 31 years of governmental chaos, we have to ask to what degree there was a sense of “trust” among the populace. Could they trust their government and public institutions? Could they even trust their neighbors?

            Were things as bad in other Roman cities? We have already seen hints of nutritional insecurity in Jerusalem, Ephesus, Corinth, and Rome. But apart from nutritional insecurity, there was the general issue of the public psyche. In the middle of the second century, the ancient travel writer, Pausanias, wrote of Corinth that sometime prior to the Roman “destruction” of Corinth in 146 BCE, a statue of “Terror” had been set up in the city as part of a civic atonement for killing the children of Medea (an event from mythological times). The so-called “destruction” of the city was far from total, and a community continued on the site until the reestablishment of the city as a colony by Julius Caesar in 44 BCE. Pausanias, writing a century after St. Paul’s visit, tells us, “This figure [the statue of Terror] still exists, being the likeness of a woman frightful to look upon.”[19]

Terror – This is not really the Corinth “Terror” statue,
but I suspect it is close, so I have used this picture in a public presentation
(recognizing that it is not actually “Terror”).
From the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC


            Zanker gives us some context for this statue.[20] Even though we no longer have the woman called “Terror,” we have a number of copies of apparently similar “realistic” and unflattering statues and fragments of such statues. “Realistic” sculpture became common in the third century, BCE, and later. The Romans seem to have had an industry copying Greek statues, and the “realistic” statues in our museums are Roman copies, so we know the cultural impact of such statues persisted for at least 500 years, well into the Christian era.


Drunken old woman – Discussed in this article.
From the Glyptothek, Munich, Germany.

            The focus of Zanker’s attention is a statue now displayed in the Glyptothek, Munich, Germany, called “The Drunken Old Woman.” It depicts an old woman (presumably in a public space) crouching down, clutching her wine jug, and looking skyward. Her dress is falling off her shoulders. She is emaciated and pitiful. In ancient times the statue was bejeweled (there are earring holes in the statue’s earlobes), so the woman depicted is not destitute, but no one would want to trade places. Zanker studies this statue in relation to other depictions of drunkenness and depictions of elderly women (they were stock figures in attic comedy). She was likely an elderly Dionysiac Menead, and also possibly an aged hetaera (high class prostitute). In her young days she had been a person to be envied, but not now.

            No doubt the Corinthian “Terror” statue was part of this “realistic” genre. How common were such scenes on the streets and in the forums, not just in Corinth, but throughout the Roman Empire? It is never “fun” to grow old, but was it dangerous to be elderly in the Roman Empire? Long before a person’s body dies of natural causes, if there is no modern health care available a person will, first, lose their teeth, and later lose their vision to cataracts. Where will a person find joy if it is hard to eat and hard to see?

             Consider also Greek mythology which the Romans appropriated. It is interesting that the Roman satirist, Juvenal (late first-early second centuries, CE) had harsh words for Romans who assumed Greek customs, but in spite of his disdain for anything Greek, his metaphors routinely invoked the stories of Greek gods and heroes, some definitely obscure and of minor importance in the over-all mythological saga. Since Juvenal referenced them so casually, we can be sure that the classic Greek stories were part of the living culture of the Roman Empire. These Greek stories have little good to say about the human prospect. If such stories were as important in the over-all culture as Juvenal suggests, they would likely depress any incipient joyfulness in the society.

Marsyas hanging from a tree
– This is the standard representation (arms above his head, tied),
copied and displayed in many places.
From the Louvre, Paris.

            Let’s return to Corinth for another example. The ancient Temple of Apollo, located in the center of “downtown” ancient Corinth, housed a number of sacred artifacts which were destroyed in a fire. Pausanias tells us about one of these fire-consumed artifacts: “There is also a story that the flutes of Marsyas are dedicated here. . . . given to Apollo by the shepherd who found them.”[21] The story of Marsyas, which we don’t tell to school-children, is disturbing. Athena invented the flute, but discarded the prototype because her cheeks puffed out when she played it, and she thought this marred her beauty. Marsyas, wandering through the forest, found this original flute, and since it was of divine origin he could immediately use it to play beautiful music. He attracted a lot of admiring attention until he was noticed by Apollo, who, among other duties, is the god of music. For some obscure reason the two got into a musical competition, Marsyas playing the flute and Apollo the lute. In round after round the two were tied, until Apollo challenged Marsyas to play his flute inverted. The lute could be played upside down, but not the wind instrument, so Marsyas lost the contest. The unlikely terms of the bet specified that the winner could do anything he wanted to do to the loser, so Apollo tied Marsyas to a tree and skinned him alive.



            The Corinthians would have been reminded, at least subliminally, of this story every day when they saw the archaic temple. But it wasn’t simply a story of local interest. We find statues of the bound Marsyas in far-flung locations. Roman authors made reference to it. For example, Juvenal said, in the opening line of Satire no. 9, “I should like to know, Naevolus, why you so often meet me with clouded brow forlorn, like Marsyas after his defeat.” (Naevolus was apparently an attorney.) Clearly Juvenal expected his reader to know the story of Marsyas. Horace makes reference to a “statue of Marsyas,”[22] and Evans tells us that this statue “stood in the [Roman] Forum, opposite the Rostra, as a warning to the litigious.”[23] The story of Marsyas was well known.

            This is one of many stories telling us that trust was in short supply. The Roman playwright, Platus, wrote comedies featuring slaves who outsmarted their masters to everyone’s delight, but there was dramatic tension in the real-life risk of torturous punishment for that slave. In “The Haunted House” the slave addresses the audience: “Anybody in the audience would like to make a little money? All you have to do today is take my place – for crucifixion.”[24] Recall Emperor Claudius, on a whim, ordering his slave to enter the gladiatorial arena and fight, with no training and no protective armor. His death was swift, and apparently entertaining to the Emperor. This event can be seen as a cameo of the tentativeness of life in that society. Whom could one trust?



[1] Beard, Mary. S.P.Q.R.: A History of Ancient Rome. NY: Liveright, 2015, pp. 435-473.

[2] Beard, p. 435.

[3] Beard, p. 440.

[4] Beard, p. 446.

[5] Angela, Alberto (tr. Gregory Conti). A Day in the Life of Ancient Rome. NY: Europa, 2009, pp. 168-171.

[6] Angela, pp. 179-194.

[7] Hatch, Edwin. The Organization of the Early Christian Churches (4th ed). London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1892, pp. 32-36. We have provided these pages as an appendix in this book.

[8] We recognize that Acts was not written until the 80s or 90s CE even though the events it referred to were in the 30s, 40s and 50s.

[9] I Clement is probably dated 90 – 100 CE. Lake, Kirsopp. The Apostolic Fathers, v. 1 (LCL). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1912, p. 5.

[10] I Clement 55.2, Lake, p. 103.

[11] Acts 18:2; Suetonius, Twelve Caesars: Claudius, 25.4.

[12] C. Suetonius Tranquillus. The Lives of the Twelve Caesars. LCL 1913. Loeb Classical Library edition, 1913‑1914. The English translation is by J. C. Rolfe. Cassius Dio. Roman History. LCL, vols. 7 & 8, 1924-5; Loeb Classical Library, 9 volumes, Greek texts and facing English translation: Harvard University Press, 1914 thru 1927. Translation by Earnest Cary.

[13] Suetonius, 15.1.

[14] Cassius Dio, Roman History, 40.17.5-8, see Acts 22:28.

[15] Dio, 40.33.10, Suetonius, 18.2.

[16] Dio, 40.32.1.

[17] Dio, 40.30.3.

[18] Suetonius, 34.1-2.

[19] Pausanias, “Corinth,” 2.3.7.

[20]> Zanker, Paul. Die Trunkene Alte: Das Lachen der Verhöhnten. Frankfurt am Main: Fischer, 1989.

[21] Pausanias, “Corinth,” 2.7.9.

[22] Juvenal, Satires, 1.6.

[23] Juvenal, Satires, fn. 503.

[24] Platus (tr. Erich Segal). “The Haunted House” in Platus: Four Comidies. Oxford U. P., 1996, p. 147 (lines 354-5).

Power-Reading the Bible 

Take biblical authors out for coffee.

A new Bible-reading skill.

A 5-video course
(1.4 hours)

Click Here
for a free 3.5 minute intro