The ancient city of Rome and the novel Onesimus

The city of Rome looms large in the setting of my upcoming novel, Onesimus: A Novel of Christianity in the Roman Empire. The city was known as Caput Mundi: the head of the world. To a Roman citizen, Rome was the head of the body: it was the brain, the eyes, the mouth, the ears of the Empire.

 It was in Rome that the Empire thought, felt, had a will, and controlled the rest of the Empire. Sustenance flowed to the head from all the rest of the body in the form of grain, wine, money, gold, and all other goods imaginable. The head directed, controlled, and set the tone for every other member of that massive body.

The Roman Forum as it stands today

Photograph by Markus McDowell

As the largest and most populous city in the world, Rome of the first century had a million inhabitants—a number that would not be attained by any other city on earth until London reached that figure seventeen hundred years later. Yet Rome had begun life as an insignificant settlement of farmers on the east bank of the Tiber River 800 years earlier. The city began its true growth when the Etruscans took over the village around 600 BC and began to work the land. They drained the marshes in the valleys between the seven hills, built a wall, paved roads, and constructed squares. Slowly the city expanded, swallowing nearby cities and villages and regions farther and farther afield, eventually founding a “Republic” in 509 BC. The city continued to grow, in physicality, power, and influence. Its language, Latin, became the language of the region and the language of governance. It developed strong and efficient armies and navies. Rome conquered the powerful entity called Carthage. As time marched on, Rome made more conquests, all driven by the power that resided within the city of Rome. Spain, Greece, and Syria became part of the growing body of which Rome was the head. The army was one of the most powerful, efficient, and terrible the earth has ever known. Eventually, the Empire included Africa, Egypt, and much of the British Isles.

Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus (Vatican Museum, Rome)

Photograph by Markus McDowell

Through the reigns of Gaius Julius Caesar, Marcus Antonius and Gaius Octavius Thurinus, Tiberius Julius Caesar Augustus, Tiberius Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, and then, in the second half of the first century, Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, the republic and empire continually grew, spreading its control and influence farther and farther away. With that growth, the city, the head of the body, grew more synapses and connections and complexity. Proconsuls, legates, and prefects ruled the provinces. Their supervision was not harsh, as long as the peace was kept and—most importantly—the taxes and goods kept flowing back to Rome. If not, punishment came swiftly and brutally. Known for its military and administrative excellence, Rome became fat and sated on the wealth that streamed into the city through a vast network of highways and ports.

With each generation, buildings grew larger and more opulent. Often these were edifices set up to honor the gods—the gods which had given Rome such success. On Capitolina Hill stood a huge temple, towering over the city, dedicated to Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva. It had been rebuilt and renovated three times in 150 years. To the south of the Forum were temples to Saturn, Castores, and Vesta. On the small island in the middle of the Tiber was a temple to the god of healing, Asklepius, standing for almost 100 years when Onesimus arrived. The Forum Romanum itself was the hub of the city: a huge square for public business, politics, judicial activity, and governance, along with countless shops selling goods and services. Priestly buildings and monuments to Roman leaders were scattered about, as well as a number of massive stone pillars and totems: spoils of war brought from places as far away as Egypt and Africa. On the hills surrounding the center of the city were the rich and decorous domii of the wealthy nobles and senators: the ones who truly ran the city and the Empire.Crowded in amongst all the marble, stone, wood, silver, and gold were the wood and stone shops, houses, and tenements of the majority of the population—jerry-built, leaning, added to, and partially restored, these buildings and lean-tos were a constant source of worry for the residents. It was not uncommon for a building to collapse or to catch fire, threatening all of those around and conceivably large sections of the whole city.

The masses of citizens, slaves, freed people, poor, gladiators, beggars, shop owners, artisans, thieves, gangs, and prostitutes male and female, crawled and lived and plotted and loved and hated and worked and died in a complicated and chaotic pattern. Order and safety were not always in evidence, though Octavian Augustus had finally instituted a direly-needed force of “cohort urbane” to keep some order in the city, and a team of “vigils” to put out fires. The cosmopolitan nature of the city resulted in a mix of peoples—not only in profession, character, or intentions, but also in ethnic and geographic diversity. There were Syrians, Egyptians, Asians, Africans, Spanish—even Gauls and Germans. Some were slaves captured by the armies, but others were freed peoples, drawn to Rome from lands far away. There were even 40,000 Jews inside the city itself, though most lived in a slum area on the east side of the Tiber, which had been set aside specifically for them.

The city of Rome in the time of the novel Onesimus

The glory of the city was everywhere. The decadence of the city seethed underneath. It was not only the common people who became corrupted in the pool of cosmopolitan wealth available in Rome, but the leaders as well. Julius Caesar had been murdered right in the Forum Senate House itself. Though Octavian brought the Pax Romana, it was not without a high price. Tiberius had been a tyrant and had murdered many of his enemies (or perceived enemies). Gaius Caligula was renowned for his outrageous decadence, and Rome breathed a sigh of relief when he was assassinated. The reign of Claudius seemed to offer a lull in the depravity, though the nobles were never without their corruption, murders, suicides, affairs, debauchery, and political misdeeds. Nero began as a fine emperor, but seemed to become more unstable as time went on. By the time of Onesimus’ arrival in Rome, Nero had murdered his own mother, demanded that his subjects address him as “Lord God Nero,” appointed his horse to the Senate, and forced friends and advisors to retire, go into exile, or to commit suicide.

Yet Rome was not only a place of administrative glory, military might, and overwhelming decadence. Romans had an insatiable love of art, sculpture, literature, and philosophy, which was in evidence all over the city. The Roman virtues of gravitas and pietas, dignity and honor, were long-held values that, in spite of the corruption and decadence, were also in evidence. Rome did not obliterate the cultures she conquered—she assimilated them. Religion, gods, philosophy, architecture, literature, art—anything of use and interest to Romans became part of the Roman way of life. The upper class often became enamored with “foreign” or “exotic” foods, religions, literature, art, and philosophies. Rome was the home, in flesh and in spirit, to people who were hard-working yet also knew how to enjoy life to its fullest. These were a self-sufficient people, but they also made use of others, and made everything their own. The inhabitants of Rome knew that they were Roman through and through—and they loved being Roman.

This city plays a crucial role in the novel for the protagonist: the slave named Onesimus, who lives far from Rome, but dreams of going there one day.

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Author, writer, and freelance editor.
Nonfiction and fiction.

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