Chapter 7: Urban Chaos and Crisis: The Case of Antioch

Christianity was an urban movement, so we must understand cities of the time. Stark focuses on Antioch in this chapter.

Cities were packed

Greco-Roman cities were small in terms of area and population. Antioch was small in size because it was founded as a fortress in 300 BCE. It had 150,000 people in two square miles (within the city walls). This means 117 people per acre, as compared with 21 in Chicago, 23 in San Francisco, 37 in New York City, and 100 on Manhattan Island (where people live much higher up in the air than they could have in ancient cities). Inhabitants also shared their space with livestock. In addition, large areas in cities were taken up by public buildings, monuments and temples: 35% of the area in Pompeii, 43% in Ostia, and 50% in Rome. If we assume Antioch was average, then the new calculation yields 195 people per acre. For comparison purposes, modern Bombay has 183 people per acre, and Calcutta has 122.

Furthermore, streets were extremely narrow. Tenements lacked furnaces, fireplaces, and chimneys to funnel away smoke from fires for cooking and heating. Tenements were extremely drafty, which carried away smoke but increased the likelihood of fire, which was a constant dread for inhabitants.

Cities were dirty

Due to all this, there were serious sanitation problems. In addition, there was no soap. Inhabitants must have been extremely filthy. People had to carry water to their homes in jugs (unless they were rich). So water had to be limited to essential needs (meaning not washing clothes or floors, or even often bathing). The water was probably contaminated, as well.

The baths were “public”, but probably not to the common man. According to Stark, “It is obviously silly to suppose that the wretched masses of Rome soaked nightly in the Roman baths, hobnobbing with senators and equestrians (the capacity of the baths reveals this to be a physical as well as social absurdity).” It is also silly to assume that everyone went to the public latrines when they needed to. Cities were dependent on chamber pots and pit latrines; tenements were probably entirely dependent on the pots. Many individuals dumped the contents of these pots into the streets at night rather than walk to the sewers.

Disease accompanies all this filth (helped along by the insects that would have been drawn to this filth).

Urbanites died young

It was not until the twentieth century, that urban mortality was sufficiently reduced that the cities of western Europe and North America could sustain their populations without additional in-migration from rural areas. The cities of the Roman Empire needed such a substantial amount of in-migration in order to offset mortality that, as the rural population declined, Roman cities must have begun to shrink.

Life expectancies were probably under 30 at birth. Where mortality rates are very high, the health of those still living is very poor. Most probably had chronic health conditions that caused pain and some degree of disability. Sickness was highly visible: “Swollen eyes, skin rashes, and lost limbs are mentioned over and over again in the sources as part of the urban scene…Ancient letter writers are obsessed with wishes for health, reports on the sender’s health, and inquiries after the health of the recipient. A modern reader might be tempted to dismiss [this] as so much polite formula…But that would be quite wrong. There are many very strong statements reproaching correspondents for not writing about their health, like ‘I am astonished that so far you have not written me about your health.’” Women were especially afflicted because of chronic infections from childbirth and abortion. No wonder healing was such a central aspect of both paganism and early Christianity.

Since the mortality rate in cities was so high, a high proportion of the population consisted of recent newcomers. Crime rates in modern cities are highly correlated with rates of population turnover. This is because there are few interpersonal attachments. The cities were indeed filled with crime. In addition, the cultural diversity of the empire and waves of newcomers to cities meant that the local culture was very ethnically fragmented.

Cities were constantly destroyed and rebuilt, and also constantly depopulated and repopulated, which radically changed their ethnical composition. Antioch, though, was repopulated over and over again because of its strategic importance as a stronghold against Persia.

Christianity as salvation and revitalization

Stark argues that “Any accurate portrait of Antioch in New Testament times must depict a city filled with misery, danger, fear, despair, and hatred. A city where the average family lived a squalid life in filthy and cramped quarters, where at least half of the children died at birth or during infancy, and where most of the children who lived lost at least one parent before reaching maturity. A city filled with hatred and fear rooted in intense ethnic antagonisms and exacerbated by a constant stream of strangers. A city so lacking in stable networks of attachments that petty incidents could prompt mob violence. A city where crime flourished and the streets were dangerous at night. And, perhaps above all, a city repeatedly smashed by cataclysmic catastrophes: where a resident could expect literally to be homeless from time to time, providing that he or she was among the survivors.” He goes on in the final chapters to explain how such people would surely feel that the end of days was near, and would yearn for salvation. I think this may be going too far, though, since life had probably been like this for quite some time.

Christianity served as a revitalization movement in many ways by creating new norms and new kinds of social relationships. It offered charity to the homeless and poor. It offered attachments to a city filled with newcomers. It provided family for a city filled with orphans and widows. It offered solidarity in the face of ethnic strife. It offered nursing services to those harmed in the frequent fires, epidemics and earthquakes.

Such conditions had existed long before Christianity, of course, so Stark is not suggesting that these conditions caused the advent of Christianity. He does argue that Christianity’s superior ability to solve or ameliorate these problems partly explains its growth.

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