I recently went on a study tour that visited Biblical archaeological sites in Turkey. This entailed seeing the ruins of cities that were thriving during the mid-to-late first century CE, when Paul evangelized in what was then called Asia Minor and, a few decades later, when John wrote a letter, preserved as the book of Revelation, to several churches in the area. In the first century–and for some time before and after–the region was ruled by Rome. So the ruins we looked at were mostly Roman ruins, though some earlier (Greek, Persian) and later (Byzantine) ruins were in the mix as well. Thus, we spent a good deal of time considering what it was like to live in Roman lands, what might have attracted some of the population to the good news as preached by Paul, and what pressures were felt by those who converted.

Rome must have seemed beneficial to many of those under its sphere of influence. It was a civilizing influence, and brought peace and prosperity to millions. At what cost to those it ruled, though? In a BBC article on Roman power, Andrew Wallace-Hadrill summarizes  how the Roman world looks to modern eyes:

“[R]oman style conquest now seems not the solution but the problem. Centralised control, the suppression of local identities, the imposition of a unified system of beliefs and values – let alone the enslavement of conquered populations, the attribution of sub-human status to a large part of the workforce, and the deprivation of women of political power – all now spell for us not a dream but a nightmare.”

We can’t know exactly what it was like to live in Roman times, but Roman artifacts, ruins, and documents give us some idea. In this post, I’ll describe three types of structures found in most of the cities we visited. The prevalence of such structures reflect their importance in the culture. In subsequent posts I’ll reflect more on Roman society and on the Christian alternative.

So, in most cities we visited, we saw:

One or More Agoras

The agora was an open space where people assembled. The term is Greek; the Roman term ‘forum’ is a near equivalent. Often there were two agoras: a commercial agora, where business was conducted, and a state agora, devoted to matters of government. Here, for example, is the commercial agora at Ephesus:

And here is the commercial agora at Perge:

Notice the columns surrounding the central areas. These were part of covered walkways (known as stoas) onto which shops opened. Notice also the round structure at the center of the agora in Perge. This is thought to be a temple to Hermes, the patron deity of merchants. Our guide suggested that the merchants would gather there every day to offer sacrifices. Was this form of civic religion expected of all merchants? There was probably an early Christian presence here; how did Christian merchants handle pressures to worship Hermes?


Both Greek and Roman cities had large communal baths. These were not just places to practice personal hygiene, but centers of social and recreational activity. Baths typically had a series of pools. Bathers came into the apodyterium (changing room) then progressed through pools that were cool (frigidarium), warm (tepidarium), and hot (caldarium). For example, here are the frigidarium and the caldarium of the Baths of Faustina at Miletus:

The two statues beside the frigidarium are of a river god and a lion. Portrayals of the gods were everywhere, though many are no longer on site since archaeologists have relocated them into museums.

Sometimes the bath was combined with a gymnasium, as in the huge bath/gymnasium complex at Sardis:

The picture was taken from the far end of the palaestra (exercise yard), looking toward the bath. This complex and some of the other ones were huge. They depended on remarkable feats of engineering–besides the pools themselves, there had to be aqueducts to bring the water and furnace rooms to supply the heat. A modern-day practice somewhat similar to Roman bathing might be going to a spa. It’s easy to see that this amenity may have prompted both Romans and the others under their rule to think that the Roman way of life was felicitous.

The Theatre

The Greeks had a long theatrical tradition and by the 5th century BCE were building venues where plays could be presented. The Romans developed a similar interest in the theatre. The structures they built for this purpose were quite similar to the Greek model, though there were some differences. Often, a theatre was built into a hillside, with the orchestra and pulpitum, where the chorus and actors were, at the bottom of the hill. There was usually a scaenae frons, a two- or three-story backdrop to the stage that served as architectural decoration. The audience sat on stone seats in the auditorium, which sloped up from the orchestra and gave a good view of the stage. Here is the theater at Aspendos, built during the reign of Marcus Aurelius. According to the Lonely Planet guide to Turkey, it is considered the best-preserved Roman theatre of the ancient world:

The auditorium seats 15,000. Our guide told us that the rule of thumb is that the size of the city was about ten times greater than the seating capacity of the theatre. I doubt that any of our modern arts complexes have seats for 10% of the local population! And sometimes theatres were much larger than would be warranted by this ratio. Clyde Fast and Mitchell Reddish, in their Guide to Biblical Sites in Greece and Turkey, say that the town of Priene, in the hills south of Ephesus, never had more than 5,000 residents. The theatre there, shown below, seated. 6,500, more than the entire population. They must have been expecting out-of-town visitors!

Notice the large, elevated stone seats in the front row. Premium seating for dignitaries is by no means a new phenomenon!

Though theatres were mainly venues for plays, sometimes there were other activities scheduled. Theatres (as in Ephesus, shown below) that had an entryway beneath the stage and a high wall separating the orchestra from the auditorium were used for gladiatorial fights; the wall was to provide greater security for the paying customers.

There were many other architectural forms that we saw frequently–fountains, shops, stadiums, and temples, to name a few. The last of these were the focus of Roman religion, and I’ll turn to them in my next post.