Roman Insula Houses
Next Previous Index Tellout Home

Roman Insula Houses
Page 158

Christian Interior

Insula House at OstiaHow many people could have comfortably fitted into a insula house church gathering under normal circumstances was almost impossible to estimate. Ancient Rome was estimated to have had 1million people living in there in the third century AD but the city itself was only eight square miles in area. Most of these people were housed in insulae. These were the equivalent to our cheap flats or apartments today. There may have been six or seven apartments (called "cenacula") in each insula house. The number of people in each house would have depended entirely on the size of the house and the amount of open space available in each floor plan and this varied immensely. To the extent that separate dining facilities for men and women remained the custom, this separation according to sex, and the smaller children with the women, may have continued in Christian assemblies in separate rooms. But all would presumably have been positioned in such a way as to be able at least to hear the voice of the president or the preacher.

Woman Presbyter

The Upper RoomAnother possible scenario, presented by Carolyn Osiek and David L. Balch in "Families in the New Testament World - Households and House Churches" was that women were led by a woman presider in a separate section of the dining facilities during the meal, only joining the men for the teaching, or perhaps only then when an important visitor presided and spoke.✞

Insula Houses

San Clemente RomeIf no members of the community possessed a large enough home, which was probably often the case, the group would have to gather elsewhere, most likely in one or two rooms of Christian insula houses, perhaps in the large ground floor rooms. "In Roman architecture, an 'Insula' which was Latin for 'island,' plural 'insulae' was a kind of apartment building that housed most of the urban population of ancient Rome, including ordinary people of lower or middle class status and all but the wealthiest from the upper-middle class. The first church buildings of 'San Giovanni e Paolo' in Venice and the 'Basilica of San Clemente in Rome' seemed to have been built over the remains of the original Christian insula houses."

42,000 Roman Insula!

Roman House InteriorIt was estimated that there could have been between 15,000 and 20,000 insulae in Rome alone in the late 3rd century. Although there was little archaeological evidence for Christian insulae, one has to ask why these particular locations were later chosen as Christian church sites. It was quite possible that these were examples of insula houses where the earliest Christian meetings took place in a room or apartment of the original house. For example Paul wrote, "My brothers and sisters, some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you." in 1 Corinthians 1.11 may have been an insula, and Paul's late night discourse in the third storey room at Troas in Acts 20.7-12 was probably another. "On the first day of the week we came together to break bread. Paul spoke to the people and, because he intended to leave the next day, kept on talking until midnight. There were many lamps in the upstairs room where we were meeting. Seated in a window was a young man named Eutychus, who was sinking into a deep sleep as Paul talked on and on. When he was sound asleep, he fell to the ground from the third story and was picked up dead. Paul went down, threw himself on the young man and put his arms around him. 'Don't be alarmed,' he said. 'He's alive!' Then he went upstairs again and broke bread and ate. After talking until daylight, he left. The people took the young man home alive and were greatly comforted." All of this probably happened in a Roman insula house!✞

"Roman Insula Houses"
by Ron Meacock © 2018

^Top Page Next Previous