Roman Open House
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Living Room Access 171

Atrium

Atrium GardenThe contrast between space for visitors and space for family in the Roman open house in the Roman Empire indicated a welcome for the uninvited as well as invited visitors. There was no clear contrast between work and leisure. The Romans lacked our distinctions of place of work (office or factory) from place of leisure in one's home. Business was regularly conducted through an open door at home, whether it was by an emperor receiving the reports of his secretaries and procurators, by a republican noble giving his legal advice, or by a merchant, craftsman, or shopkeeper operating from his workshop or selling goods in his shop that was part of his house.

A Visual Axis

AtriumWhen a passerby looked through the open door of a Roman open house, he or she could see right through! Often a visual axis ran from the open door through a main room, then through "the living room office" where the owner was displayed as if upon a stage (with the floor actually built a few inches higher than the other rooms) and then into the colonnaded garden. There are many examples, among them the "Casa dell' Atrio a Mosaico" in Herculaneum, where the vista from the open door passes through the center of the atrium into the living room office, with a garden opening off to the right of this vista, and the "Casa del Mobilio Carbonizzato", also in Herculaneum, where the view from the door is framed by the openings of the living room office, then focused on the shrine in the garden wall beyond.

Secret Meetings or Not

Casa wall artIt is also possible but not likely that in the case of Christian meetings held in a Roman house, the neighbors may not have known what was taking place. But certainly where meetings were held in an apartment complex, there could have been no question of secrecy, for everyone in the building must have known everyone else's business. Outsiders regularly were invited or perhaps even wandered into Christian meetings. It would be a mistake, therefore, as shown by 1 Corinthians 14.23 to envision every Christian gathering at this time in a spacious private house, or even operating with full privacy. Paul writes, "So if the whole church comes together and everyone speaks in tongues, and inquirers or unbelievers come in, will they not say that you are out of your mind? But if an unbeliever or an inquirer comes in while everyone is prophesying, they are convicted of sin and are brought under judgment by all."

"Roman Open House"
by Ron Meacock © 2017

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