Background to the Novel “Onesimus”—the city of Colossae in a Roman Province

by | Book Notice, Historical Fiction

As a slave in the Roman Empire, Onesimus lived on an estate just outside of the city of Colossae. His master was Quintus Philemon Scaptius, a minor nobleman who oversaw a successful trading business.

When Onesimus went into town on errands for his master, he took a doublewide cart path for the first mile, which met a larger cobbled street that led directly into the center of Colossae. The town lay near the banks of the blue sparkling water of the Lycus River. The area was known as Phrygia, but it was part of the Roman province of Asia. In the past, Colossae had been the largest city in the region, boasting great commercial success in producing and exporting wool, figs, and olives. However, its importance had been declining for some time, while the nearby cities of Heiropolis and Laodicea began to grow. Still, Colossae still attracted a good bit of traffic and trade because of its location on the main road between the port city of Ephesus to the west and the interior regions of the province to the east. With Laodicea located eighteen miles to the northwest, and Heiropolis seventeen miles to the north, these three towns of the fertile Lycus Valley were like a busy ant village.

Colossae boasted a number of nobles, Roman citizens, freedpersons, and slaves, all engaged in trade, business, art, and religion. Though a few of the temples had fallen into disuse, most were still active—Artemis, Zeus, Demeter, Helios, Athena, and even the Egyptian deities of Isis and Serapis had small temples in the city. At its height, the population had consisted of native Phrygians, ancestors of transplanted Greeks, and a large number of Jews who were resettled there from Mesopotamia by the Greek king Antiochus III. Colossae still retained this cosmopolitan mix, and so, despite its size, had many elements of a large cosmopolitan Roman city.

Onesimus’ journey led directly to the center of town, where, in Roman and Greek style, the forum and the agora were located. It was heart and brain of city life. Onesimus liked Colossae and often wished he worked for a town merchant rather than a wealthy landowner. But his real yearning was to see a real city such as Athens, Corinth, Tarentum, Beneventum—or even Rome itself! That was where real life took place (he was sure). In those places, people did things that mattered, discussed important ideas, and enjoyed the fruits of life.

Errands to Colossae were the high point of his life as a slave—after his tasks were done, he could enjoy some food and wine with fellow slaves, listen to some orator at the podium in the forum, or visit Nanilia in the only brothel in town that allowed slaves as clients.

Still, he despaired of ever being anything more than a second-rate slave in this waning town. How could a slave with no family ever be able to move to a major Greek or Roman city?

He did have a plan, however…

 Onesimus: A Novel of Ancient Christianity

Coming first quarter 2018.

Click here for more.

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