Roman Colonnade Houses
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24. Roman Colonnade Houses


Colonnade GardenBy definition "Colonnade houses" denotes a long row of columns that are straight or curving. Colonnades exist today in many modern buildings like the British Museum in London and the Lincoln Memorial in Washington. Roman colonnade houses in ancient Roman times surprise many by their size and occupation numbers. For example in Pompeii situated to the south-east of Rome on the coast of Italy, the House of the Citharist is 10,215 square foot and the House of Menander is 3,340 square feet. They do seem large even by modern standards. Christian scholars traditionally assume upper limits in Roman colonnade houses of 30 to 50 people in a household worship service, and indeed, some houses could be quite crowded by so many. But if we calculate the numbers in these large colonnaded houses, gatherings of the whole church in a city can still be over a thousand! It is, therefore, a mistake to set a hard upper limit of 30 to 40 for the number of Christians who might celebrate the Lord's Supper together. In Roman houses with colonnade gardens, it can be a much larger number. Ralph P. Martin and Peter H. Davids in the "Dictionary of the Later New Testament and Its Development" assert that many Christian assemblies are certainly much smaller than forty, others can be significantly larger.

Wealthy Patrons

MansionMartin and Davids also write, "We have focused on the larger colonnade houses because many writers have assumed that they did not exist." The New Testament Gaius is head of a synagogue in Corinth and Erasmus is an aedile or an officer of the Roman Republic responsible for the maintenance of public buildings and regulation of public ceremonies in the same city. Priscilla and Aquila, who own one house in Asia and another in Rome, and Phoebe, a notable woman in the church at Cenchreae, and Saint Paul's patron, as well as many others are obviously wealthy enough and probably own colonnade houses in several places, although since we cannot visit them, we will never know.

Ostentatious Residences

Jerusalem House"The need for all early Christian assemblies to be small and private is a modern projection not justified by Roman domestic culture or architecture." The so-called Palatial Mansion in Jerusalem is an example of an ostentatious residence that can easily accommodate the sorts of meetings described in the Acts of the Apostles. It is believed to be a 6500 sq ft residence in the Second Temple era in Jerusalem. It is, in essence, a palace. Some Roman houses cover more than five thousand square feet and include an upper level for dwellings and a lower basement for water installations including pools, baths, and cisterns. The destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD has unfortunately made reconstruction impossible.

Christian Colonnade House

Colonnade HouseChristian colonnade houses in the Early Church are sometimes very large in total square feet by today's standards. There were four main room types. Although Greek houses are typically small and of a standard layout, the "Roman Domus houses" includes many large colonnade houses together with extensive gardens. Professor Andrew Wallace-Hydrill analyzes three different blocks of houses in Pompeii and Herculaneum, a total of 234 houses, dating from 79 AD, the year of the eruption of Vesuvius. He then describes four different types of houses varying from 900 to 9,000 square feet or even larger. No architectural format is standard.

Typical Layout Types

Colonnade Walkway

Survey of Homes

Colonnade HouseWe are told that of the 254 houses surveyed, fifty-eight are Type 4, with surprisingly between 3,100 and 27,000 total square feet, which would be very expensive and luxurious even by today's standards. 57 houses in the sample is Type 3, the "average" size in these two cities is between 1500 and 3,105 total square feet, which is about the size of a large modern North American detached family home.

Pompeii Greek House

Pompeii Greek House VictimThe Pompeii Greek house and colonnaded gardens give us some idea of the luxurious living conditions there in Roman times. The early Pompeii Greek house is buried in "the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD." It gives access from the street through a narrow opening, with stables on one side and a porter's room on the other. The central corridor accesses a colonnaded garden, around which are arranged dining rooms, guest rooms, and a space for the male heads of the houses to receive guests and conduct business affairs.

Garden Complex

Pompeii HouseCarolyn Osiek and David L. Balch in "Families in the New Testament World - Households and House Churches" describe the inside layout and luxurious living conditions of the larger Pompeii Greek houses. "Beyond this grouping of rooms, through a passageway, and another garden was another complex of rooms consisting of the women's rooms, slave quarters, and rooms for domestic activities, called collectively the women's quarters." The Pompeii colonnade garden and Herculaneum house were used by the Early Church for meetings before the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD. The excavations at the two ancient Roman cities near Naples in Italy were called Pompeii and Herculaneum and were both destroyed in 79 AD in the eruption of the volcano Vesuvius. Pompeii was originally founded in the 6th or 7th century BC and was a thriving vacation destination of twelve to fifteen thousand people at the time of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. Pompeii and Herculaneum were only discovered in the late sixteenth century by the architect Domenico Fontana (1543-1607 AD.) Their remains have revealed many well preserved and excellent examples of upper-middle-class Roman homes called a "Domus" along with colonnade gardens. Pompeii was buried under between thirteen and twenty feet of volcanic ash and Herculaneum by approximately fifty feet of volcanic lava during the eruption of Mount Vesuvius."

Frozen in Time

Vesuvius Over PompeiiThe city of Pompeii reveals life in the year 79 AD in a very detailed way right down to the wall paintings, wooden furniture and even preserved people, dogs, and horses in the volcanic ash and lava. Asia Minor archaeological work at Ephesus and Priene, an ancient Greek city founded by Alexander the Great, are also very rewarding in this regard, although, the remains are not in the same well-preserved state as Pompeii or Herculaneum. To the student of the New Testament, these sites bring to mind the congregations of Saint Paul, who often holds his meetings in similar buildings. E. Earle Ellis (1965-2010) an American Biblical scholar in his book "Pauline Theology - Ministry and Society" explains the unusual size and extent of many of the houses and gardens of this time found among the excavations.

Houses and Gardens

Herculaneum House Interior"At Herculaneum, the atria house averaged about 25 x 30 feet in size, the colonnade gardens about 33 x 50 feet including surrounding porches which were about 9 foot wide. Pompeii's colonnade gardens were somewhat larger, the atria being about 31 x 42 feet and the colonnade gardens about 55 x 67 feet. At Ephesus, the excavated dwellings appeared to be equally impressive, with the twenty-four column colonnade garden of one patrician mansion measuring 4,500 square feet."

Greco Roman House

Greco Roman HouseRoman homes owned by significant benefactors have small unimpressive fronts with house room access to wide open garden spaces for seating friends. Carolyn Osiek and David L. Balch write that although Acts does not draw a correlation between the priests and the house assemblies, they find a consistent pattern of converts who could be significant benefactors, including the provision of homes as places for the community to gather. Water installations such as those in the Palatial Mansion can also function for Christian baptisms. The mild, brief, rainy Mediterranean winters and long, hot, dry summers create an environment in which, for seven to eight months of the year, the most pleasant place to be is outside, in the shade by day and under the stars by night. Thus the basic design of the Greco-Roman house of the early imperial period features some kind of central court around which rooms are arranged and to which they have access. The front door and whatever small windows open onto the street are unprepossessing. Even some of the largest and most impressive urban houses preserved have surprisingly small, dark, and airless rooms for sleeping and other indoor functions, except dining.

House Court Access

Ancient PompeiiThe Roman home in the Early Church allows house court access to ornate fresco meeting rooms where the Household of Faith probably meets. Numerous rooms in the spacious Palatial Mansion in Jerusalem are arranged around a courtyard with access from the street. The ornate frescoes in many of the rooms testify to strong Hellenistic or Greek influences similar to those seen at Pompeii. Two prominent features are worth mentioning. The large reception hall measures twenty-four feet wide and thirty-three feet long (792 square feet) and access from the courtyard are through a buffer room to which other areas are reached. E. Earle Ellis explains, "This reception hall could have accommodated seventy-five people. Access to three other smaller rooms from the household courtyard was gained only by passing through this room. The ornamental frescoes which were produced by adding color to fresh wall plaster of ionic columns bearing a schematic Doric frieze in these rooms suggest a public character." "Fresco" is an Italian word meaning "fresh." The Sistine Chapel in Vatican City contains a very famous fresco "The Last judgment" produced with the same process by Michelangelo (1475-1564 AD.) Taken together, the reception hall and the smaller adjoining rooms in the Palatial Mansion in Jerusalem would have accommodated about one hundred people quite comfortably."

Ritual Baths and Baptism

Hand WashingA special feature of this house are the water installations on the lower level. In addition to a small, tastefully decorated bathroom, there are two large ritual baths, each with a double entrance. The Israeli archaeologist Nahman Avigad (1905-1982) suggests that Acts 6.7 which reads, "So the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith" emphasizes the ritual cleanliness in the Christian household which borders on "a cult of immersion." This seems to discount however the changing power of the Christian Gospel, the conversion of so many people and the baptisms which would inevitably follow.

"Roman Colonnade House"
by Ron Meacock © 2019

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