Traveling to the Seven Churches of Revelation is quite an experience. All of them are in severe ruin, but all of them have a story to tell through biblical study and research. This month, I thought it would be interesting to examine what life would have been like in the early church. Surviving in the culture and technology (or lack thereof) of the first century would have created numerous challenges and opportunities. Travel with me back to the original life in the Seven Churches of Revelation and gain a greater appreciation for the Christians living their faith back when our Lord sent them a personalized letter.
To really understand daily life in the first century we must think differently than living in a “spoiled” California culture. Houses in the cities of the 7 churches prior to Roman occupation (133 B.C.) were all mud brick with a stone foundation. Some were two-story; some had private wells while others relied on public fountains; all were arranged around a “common” courtyard so additional rooms (insulas) could be added as the family grew through birth or marriage. Houses were lit by oil lamps and several oil lamps were combined to form a type of candelabra.
The main “hang-out” in most ancient towns was the public baths. Most were attractively decorated with marble walls or frescos and were much more than a place to wash…they included facilities for exercise, relaxation, eating, entertainment, debate and even learning. These baths were usually gender separate…but Rome was known for mixed bathing until the reign of Emperor Hadrian. These baths were separated by water temperature. A furnace would heat the hottest bathing quarters, but as the water flowed to different rooms, water temperature cooled. People were very concerned with their appearance. The baths were known as the original “Supercuts.” Women’s hair styles among the elite were elaborate and changed often as portrayed in the many statues you can see when visiting the museums available in Turkey. Most hairdressing was done by a woman’s “ornatrix,” a personal slave/servant, following her bath. Women in the richer cities loved accessories. Women wore hairpins, earrings and brooches, usually commemorating one of the local gods.
One last item of interest would be their aromatic emphasis. Perfumes were a big deal and quite an art in the ancient world. Different smells not only camouflaged body odor, but also were a part of the stress therapy of the people. Even back then, people knew that a new “Yankee Candle” would make life a little easier.
Needless to say, each of the cities in the region we know call Turkey could have different ways of making a living. The Ionian cities, for instance, (Ephesus, Smyrna and Pergamum) were known for their wine. Thyatira was driven by their guilds specializing in wool, leather and bronze. Sardis hit the jack-pot with their gold discovery and minting of coins. Laodicea was a vacation get-away with thermal springs coming from nearby Hierapolis. Each city may have been a little different, but they also had products in common such as tobacco, cotton, fruits of all kinds and various vegetables.
Raising children in the ancient world was a bit “dicey” at best. Upon birth, a child was “presented” to the father for him to determine if he would “accept” the child. If the child was not accepted, there were several options…none good. 1) The child could be abandoned and left to die. 2) The child could be picked up by a childless couple…an early form of adoption. 3) The child might be purchased by slave-traders and brought up in a life of servitude. If the child was accepted, a celebration followed, which was always a little more public and enthusiastic if the child was a boy. In the more Greek towns, moms were expected to feed and care for the children…but history suggests that children had to grow up fast due to the high levels of infection and dangers of childbirth. The average age for a woman in these days was about 27 years old.
No airports or high-speed rail in the ancient world…but there were excellent roads. Most travel was by foot, some on horseback in chariots and elegant wagons if you were among the wealthy. The ancient world was dotted with roadside inns for a modest fee. However, most travelers would set up tents and fear for their safety whenever the sun went down. Bandits were a constant danger. Interesting note: sea journeys were relatively safer, and sea vessels sailed quite near the coastline. We can easily assume that most travels sought the use and expedience of rivers whenever available.
Although the ancient world would have had ancient forms of medicine, several of the cities described in Revelation had elite medical facilities. Remember, people in the ancient world were extremely polytheistic and believed that the majority of personal illness was the punishment of the gods and goddesses. So, in order to recover from disease, people thought they first needed to make the gods happy. Excavations have uncovered shrines to various gods and even body parts which may have been prayed over by pagan priests as people sought health. Some cities, such as Pergamum and Laodicea, had advanced schools of medicine…and hospitals. Great advances were made in healing salves and powders in these schools despite many of their crude techniques. Even mental illness was addressed in the ancient world. The Asclepion in Pergamum was the first to use drug therapy and see the value of exercise and diet as a curative agent.