Elements of an Ancient Greek House (Oikos)

In general, the Romans borrowed and improved upon Greek concepts, so it should come as no surprise that there are similarities between both the Roman Domus and the Greek Oikos. In Greek use, the word “Oikos” could be referring to the house, the family, and/or the family’s property; so they are sometimes confused.

Entrance – outside of the entrance of the house, there was usually a sculpture called a herm. It was a representation of Hermes – while famous for being the god of messengers, he also was a god of good luck and fertility. It leads into the Courtyard.

Courtyard – most rooms lead into the Courtyard. It would often contain an altar dedicated to Hestia, the goddess of the hearth, architecture, and the right ordering of domesticity, the family, the home, and the state. Altars to Hephaestus, the god of blacksmiths, craftsmen, artisans, sculptors, metals, metallurgy, fire, and volcanoes were also quite popular. There was usually a well in the Courtyard. When the weather was nice, women would sometimes do their spinning and weaving in the Courtyard.

Store Room – the equivalent of pantry; there were large jars called amphorae and pithoi in which the goods were stored.

Work Room – this room was dedicated to the production of crafts and goods that the household would sell; slaves did most of the work.

Andron – these rooms were almost exclusively set aside for the use of the men of the family, not unlike our man cave. It would be the most elaborately furnished room in the house.t Men entertained their male guests, friends and business partners alike. Drinking parties called symposia were held here. The only women who were permitted to enter were slaves who were serving the men or specially hired female entertainers.

Gynaikon – these rooms were almost exclusively set aside for the use of the women of the family, here they would spin and weave, entertain their friends and female relatives, as well as look after their children. If a visiting male friend were to force his way into this area of the house, it would be a grave insult that would incur a stiff punishment because it was dishonorable. The Andron and Gynaikon were located as far apart as possible.

Slave’s Rooms – sparsely decorated and with little furniture, these were conveniently located. The rooms of male slaves were near the men’s quarters and the rooms of female slaves were near the women’s quarters.

Kitchen – the kitchens had a central hearth; everyday cooking was done in basic pots. The finest cooking ware and dishes were used when serving special guests.

Bathroom – water was collected from the well and then heated over the fire for typical bathroom usage. They also had clay pots for more typical bathroom usage.

Bedrooms – they were more elaborately furnished than the slave’s rooms; the beds were similar to the couches in the Andron, they also had wooden chests used to store clothing and other personal items.

Cultural Expectations in a Greek House

1.) Gender segregation was a reality of every-day life; there were certain rooms in the house that certain people couldn’t enter because of their gender. In general, women were stashed away in the private rooms that were deepest in the house and furthest away from the more public spaces of the house.

2.) A man was the kyrios (lord, master, “head”) of his household. He was responsible for the well-being of his wife, children, and any unmarried female relatives. It was his duty to arrange marriages for his female relatives, provide for their dowries, and represent them in court as the family lawyer. He was the master of the household slaves. He would also conduct business on behalf of the whole family. Another one of his duties was to be the priest of the family and give offerings on the household altars to the deities.

3.) Women could conduct business within certain limits and hold a limited amount of property. Women rarely left the house (they had to get their husband’s permission first), but were always accompanied by their male slaves when they did. Girls were rarely formally educated, rather they remained at home and learned domestic skills. They were never invited to dinners held by the kyrios; rather they held their own women-only dinners instead.

4.) Region to region, there was some variation, for example, in Sparta the men lived in the barracks, leaving the women at home. When the men went off to war, the women were left to run things, so they had more freedoms than was typical for other regions.

5.) Boys were raised in the Gynaikon until they were about six or seven years old, then they began to receive formal education. When children were considered fully grown, they offered their toys on altars to the gods and goddesses as a thanks offering for having lived long enough to grow up.

(There’s more to be said on cultural elements, and I’ll add them over time as I learn them.)


Elements of an Ancient Roman House (Domus)

While is is true that Roman houses varied according to type and status, there were important cultural considerations in a typical upper-class Roman house. There were areas that were technically “public”, and areas that were very much “private.” The essence of a Roman house was designed based on social order. While some rooms were common to most houses, there were less important rooms that were included / excluded according to the master’s taste.

Entrance Hall (Vestibulum) – a combination between a porch and a waiting room which blocks the rest of the house from view, it reduces heat loss and is a good spot to leave one’s outer wear. It also represents an element of security for the rest of the house. It is a part of the Ostium and it leads to the atrium.

Tabernae (Shop Fronts) – These were shop fronts that lined the street, they were let out to tenants.

Ostium (Janua / Fores) – refers to the entrance of the house, it sometimes held a small room (cella) for the porter / janitor / ostiarius as well as the dog that guarded the house.

Atrium – the most important part of the house; it is the open, central court from which the other enclosed rooms lead off. There was usually a drain pool in the middle of the room that would will up a cistern below it (an impluvium that caught rainwater that fell through the compluvium – a hole in the roof). Guests and dependents (clients) were usually met here; for this reason it was usually the most lavishly furnished room in the house. It provided both light and ventiliation. It also contained the little chapel to the ancestral spirits (lararium), the household safe (arca) and sometimes a bust of the master of the house.The atrium was the public part of the house.

Fauces – hallways.

Tablinum – between the Atrium and the Peristyle/Peristylium was the office where the dominus (master of the house) would receive his clients for the morning salutatio. Roughly in the center of the house, it served as a command station as the head of the social authority as the paterfamilias (father of the family.) It contained the family records and archives.

Peristylium – an open courtyard within the house, it was similar to the Atrium but was larger and contained a piscina (pool). It might contain flowers, shrubs, flowers, benches, sculptures, and even fish ponds. There were usually columns supporting the porches. The Peristyle was the private portion of the house and was off-limits to business guests.

Triclinium – the Roman dining room. It featured a low square table with three couches on the sides (klinai). A slave known as a tricliniarcha was responsible for overseeing slaves of inferior ranks to keep the room clean, keep it in order, and attend to the guests dining needs. This room was off of the Peristyle.

Alae – Open rooms on each side of the atrium, ancestral death masks (imagines) were among the things displayed here.

Cubiculum – Bedrooms. A mosaic on the floor often indicated where the bed should be placed. There were separate rooms used for daytime and others for nighttime. These were off of the Atrium.

Balineum – a bathing chamber which contains the bath.

Bibliotheca – a personal library, it eventually became fashionable for even unlearned men to have large libraries just so they seemed to be more intelligent.

Coenacula – the rooms in the upper story of a multi-level house.

Solaria – A terrace on the top of the house where Romans would bask in the sunlight. Some of them featured artificial gardens with fruit trees and fish ponds.

Pinacotheca – An art gallery that was also used to display statues.

Culina – Kitchen. Slaves prepared food for their masters and guests in this dark and smoke-filled room (it didn’t have a chimney.) It was off of the Peristyle.

Posticum – The back door used for discrete exits, as well as the servants entrance.

Exedra – Normally a public feature, a place to gather for debates, it’s a semi-circular area in a room for the purpose of holding a conversation, it was usually outdoors in the Peristyle.

Cultural Expectations in a Roman House

1.) It was considered improper to enter a house without giving notice to anyone already inside. Spartans would shout, Athenians and other nations would use the knocker, others would rap the door with the knuckles or with a stick.

2.) Every morning the Salutatio was expected: clients would wait even before daybreak in the vestibule until the doors of the atrium were opened. He remained there until the patron appeared and the nomenclator announced the name of the dependent who brought his morning greeting. The callers were divided into various groups, according to their rank and intimacy; even men of good position were not exempt on account of status, but could be found among the callers. Some clients would be invited to accompany the patron wherever he might be going that day. Others would receive their dole (a wicker basket with a portion of food in lieu of being invited to attend the meal with their patron.) Then they would hurry off to another house to be similarly rewarded.

3.) Guests dining in the triclinium leaned on their left elbows, leaving their right arms free. Usually three, sometimes four guests shared the same couch. The head of man would be near the best of the man who lay behind him, so he would be said to lie on the bosom of the other. Because of this, each person was considered as below (status-wise) him to whose breast his own head approached. So when facing the triclinium and standing on the empty side, the head of the table and the seat of honor would be the one nearest you on your right hand side (as there’s no one to lean on); whereas the places of least honor would be the one nearest you on your left hand side (as there is someone to lean on). While Greek and Jewish cultures also adapted to the use of tricliniums, their configurations of honorable seats also differed.

4.) Houses were built on the social order, rules about being the head the household (dominus / paterfamilias / oikodespotes) were by design and Roman Tradition as well as part of Roman Law. With it came certain expectations and roles for various members of the family. The head of the household was the priest of the family cult and therefore lead the spiritual lives of the family, he was the C.E.O. of the family business and therefore controlled all business aspects, he was the lawyer of the family and represented them in all legal matters, he was the political representative of the family and therefore spoke on their behalf concerning politics, he was the master of the family and controlled all the slaves, he was the patriarch of the family and made decisions over his extended relatives, and he was the patron who had clients who depended upon him as their benefactor.

(There’s more to be said on cultural elements, and I’ll add them over time as I learn them.)


I know, I just said that Christianity has a lot of spiritual pollution doing more harm than good. But the truth is, completely pure ideology can be just as harmful and sometimes worse. I grew up in a denomination that anchored itself to Biblical Inerrancy. I watched it used the Inerrancy card to police it’s own and kick out anyone who didn’t measure up. Once the liberals and moderates were out, all that was left was for the conservatives to size up one another and call out those among them who were too liberal or not conservative enough to be one of them. It’s not enough to be a believer, it’s about being one who believes exactly the right things in exactly the right way to be an insider who belongs in the group. It is a lot like passing through a series of increasingly narrowing gates, ones that are humanly impossible to enter in – you become stuck, unable to go further in, but also isolated from all the others who couldn’t quite measure up to your level that you spent so much time seeing yourself as ideologically superior to them.

When applied to Christianity, it means judging those who don’t believe exactly as you do are outside of the fellowship and outside of the faith, they are impurities who mar your perfection, they are the dross meant to be put to a trial by fire and removed as the cast-off and inferiors that they are. It tends to create an excess of pride. And since we know that pride goes before a fall – any group dedicated to pure ideology is destined to fail before it even begins; but odds are they’ll still give it a good old fashioned try anyway.

What we need is to find a way to accept one another even though our ideology isn’t identical. A way to teach each other without tearing down those who reach different conclusions and without invalidating their beliefs. We need to find a way to achieve unity and still honor all kinds of diversity. That will take no small amount of humility. Perhaps there’s this church down the road that has the right idea; it’s both a baptist and a Methodist church. The two congregations couldn’t afford to maintain separate spaces, so they agreed to share one building and pool their resources together. We still haven’t quite figured out how they make it work, if the Baptists get to have the early morning service and the Methodists get the late morning service, for if both churches are one congregation and they alternate on Sundays which type the service will be, Methodist this Sunday and Baptist the next. Somehow, they found a way to make it work, instead of being either Baptist or Methodist, they are both Baptist and Methodist; more than that, they’re both Christians. Instead of falling victim to the temptation to separate into many smaller and smaller groups, they view themselves as a part of just one larger, all-encompassing group that has room for everyone, everywhere.

I know, the Bible says not to add to it, but also says not to take away from either – perhaps these elements were built into it and simply ignored. Looking at what Paul had to say, he didn’t seem to think that everyone had to agree with each other about everything, he allowed people to come to different conclusions about smaller matters and didn’t see it as a threat to their faith. The question becomes who gets to decide what a smaller matter is? That’s the other problem with the Inerrancy group, every dotted I and crossed T becomes a central matter and every disagreement becomes heresy. That’s not the kind of Christianity that we were meant to have.

Thinking back to Corinth, how Jesus, Peter, Apollos, and Paul were four teachers that the church divided itself according to it’s preferences, perhaps we miss that all of them were supposed to be teaches and all of them were supposed to bring different perspectives into the church. That of the founder, the founder’s closest follower, the founder’s chosen instrument to reach certain people, and one who picked up the mantle after others had laid down the foundation. Paul talked about that – one starts a work, the next builds on it. One plants a seed, the next waters it. We’re not all foundation builders, we’re not all seed-planters. Instead of sticking to a foundation (and never building), keeping on planting seeds (but never watering), we were meant to have divergent teachers that helped us continue to build and to grow and to mature – to challenge us to adapt to new ways of thinking.

Just as the air we breathe isn’t pure oxygen and the water we drink isn’t completely pure either – as it travels in the water cycle, it picks up certain impurities. In this region, water often filters itself through the natural limestone, which adds calcium while removing iron. Christianity’s filtration system has been off kilter for quite some time, often letting in more harmful elements and blocking helpful ones, leaving a bad taste in it’s wake. We don’t know how to answer the questions about what makes for a good teaching or a bad teaching anymore. We find ourselves listening to the people we shouldn’t and ignoring the people we should listen to. It’s no wonder our environment has become so toxic.

Childhood View

“I got a drop-dead simple childhood view of salvation, perhaps that’s how it was always meant to be. The more I add up all this information, it seems it all comes down in the end to you and me.”

So I’ve just discovered jazz and with it a bit of Trans-Siberian Orchestra. When I heard this lyric – it really stuck out to me. Christianity ruined itself when it decided to put childish ways behind it. It decided to explain the works. The story went from one of Jesus saving us (somehow) (and for some reason) (from something) to one of Jesus saving us by substitutionary atonement for God’s glory from God’s sovereign will that anyone who doesn’t believe won’t be saved from God sending them where the unrighteous go when they die. Then they said that in eternity past God created everyone, predestined some of them to be saved and predestined the rest to not be saved. A simple view of salvation grew increasingly complex as we tried to answer questions – turning a savior into the monster that he saves us from in the process.

It reminded me of the Masked Magician doing a trick and then revealing how it’s done – as fascinating as it was, it was also a gauntlet being thrown down to challenge a community famous for never revealing it’s secrets to make new secrets to astound us all and to rise to the occasion of doing something new. Some days I wish I hadn’t watched those episodes and learned how all the tricks were done. Magic without mystery was meaningless.

And so it seems is a God whose ways are higher than our ways, and yet we can fully explain from infinity past to infinity future what he has done, is doing, and will do as if we understand him and how his tricks are done. Like Pharaoh’s magicians, we can replicate some of his power – to cure plagues and to cause them, to make fields grow and to make fields die, to war with the best of them with devastating weapons of mass destruction and mass casualties.

There is something to be said for a simpler view of Christianity, where there is mystery and suspense and unpredictability. Kids aren’t told that salvation can be denied to them because they aren’t elect. It’s only as kids grow up are the simple sketches of faith filled in with more detail, things that were deemed too difficult, too inappropriate were hidden from them are now revealed. They put away childish things behind them, and for some, that includes a simple faith, a trusting spirit, a knowledge of salvation.

The Power of Words

Rhetoric is language designed to have a persuasive impact on it’s audience but is often regarded as being insincere and lacking in meaningful content. We hear it all the time – particularly during election seasons as politicians become desperate enough to say anything in order to get us to vote for them. Christians also have to be aware of their rhetoric as well, especially when it comes to Christians in positions of leadership.

In an episode of Deep Space Nine called “In the Hands of the Prophets”, a religious leader challenges a science teacher to either include her philosophy or just not teach on the origins of life. She speaks to her people, calling them action. The parents begin to withdraw their students from school. The workers fail to report to their posts the next day. Even shop-owners refuse to sell their goods to certain people. The tension boils as an explosion rocks the station and destroys the school. Fortunately no one was harmed.
Vedek Winn: The Prophets have been kind today.
Commander Sisko: The Prophets had nothing to do with what happened here today. This was the work of a disturbed and violent mind, who listened to your voice, not the Prophets’.
Vedek Winn: Is the Emissary holding *me* responsible for this act of terrorism?
Commander Sisko: The Commander of this station is.
Vedek Winn: May the Prophets forgive you for abandoning them.
Ultimately, a young woman tried to assassinate another religious figure who arrived in an attempt to broker a peace … she was caught, and she yelled as she was dragged to a cell: “The prophets spoke! I answered their call!”

Over the weekend, a pastor’s rhetoric got him some national attention. He’s not the first and he won’t be the last. It’s a free country and he has the right to say anything he wants. Should anyone listen to him as he speaks for God and acts upon his statements in a rather violent fashion, it’s the pastor who will get away with stirring up trouble so he can keep on doing it. Words really do have power. We can use our power to stir up anger and hatred or we can use our power to inspire love and compassion. There’s a point when an ill-chosen word or an emphasis on a certain thing is something somebody else will understand as a call to action.

I know a lot of Christians have this fierce desire to call sin ‘sin’ and to speak the truth in love – but all too often it turns into an excuse to fall back upon degrading, hateful language. When people hear that – they don’t always think: “Sign me up for that!” I know of no one whose testimony includes: “After watching Westboro picket the umpteenth funeral, holding up signs it really hit me that they were speaking on behalf of God and I cleaned up my act and got right with God.”

Jesus put it this way – the mouth speaks what the heart is full of; so if a Christian says more hateful things than loving things, he or she has lost their way. Another Star Trek episode, from Voyager, called Nemesis, features this line: “I wish it were as easy to stop hating as it was to start.” Christians have a history where hatred came easily, not as something that’s a primary part of our belief, but secondary. Christians used the bible explain why institutional racism was okay. Even today, the Bible has been used to clobber people who aren’t on the same page about morality. This kind of hatred comes as second nature – I know because I learned it early on. It might have been the rhetoric as Marriage Equality bills were being pushed through congress, or from various sermons about the correct biblical lifestyle – but I learned how to hate far easier than how to love. The crazy thing is – I thought I was being loving. I thought I was rebuking sin when I was being an offensive jerk. Some might say: “Good! That’s how you know you’re getting the message across.” To which I’d point out that Jesus never insulted the woman at the well, called out the woman caught in adultery, criticized Zaccheus or berated Mary Magdalene in the name of righteously calling sin ‘sin’. Such things he reserved for the religious leaders of his day. We have it backwards – usually saying “touch not the Lord’s anointed” for their failures and leaving the harshest words for the worst of sinners. That means that each of us as Christians are backwards, too – loving only those like us and hating those who are not like us. I can’t say I’ve completely defeated that hatred, but I refuse to feed it anything that gives it any more power. And that means recognizing that rhetoric does a lot more harm than good, stirs up a lot more hate than love, and it’s not something I want to latch onto or to subject myself to. Be it a politician who will say anything or a pastor whose zeal for righteousness cancels out any capability to be compassionate – I just don’t need their words having that power over me.

The Waterworks

It was years ago – the church youth group had gone to an outing at some state park or another, I forget which one. Our teacher had us circle around a small pipe next to a hand-operated pump. We tried to keep our distance, the smell of rotten eggs was very strong.
“People used to come here from miles around just for this water … sulfur water. It was believed to be healthier than normal water. It was said to make crops grow better, food taste better, clothes be cleaner, and kids to grow up stronger. It wasn’t uncommon to see people bringing jugs that they would fill up and take home back with them.” The teacher began explaining.
And as our luck would have it, one of the campers from the nearby campgrounds happened to walk up and start pumping water into an empty milk jug. The fresh smell of sulfur burned in our nostrils. When the camper had gone, the teacher continued.
“Anyway, this pump wasn’t always here. It was installed to make it easier for people to access the water, to get it to them quicker. At first, it worked really well, but eventually, they realized that they had damaged it. As you saw just now, the water barely trickles out.”
In his conversation with the woman at the the well (John 4), Jesus told her about living water. It might be better to center the conversation on running water – as that’s close to what was meant. Wells and cisterns usually housed still water. One couldn’t always be certain how good the water was to use. (I saw a documentary where children in India were showing off their well, they explained that the fish in the bottom of it were serving an important purpose – if ever the fish died, they would all know that the water was polluted and it was unsafe for them to drink of it.) Running water, like water from rivers, was a powerful symbol of water that brings life. Perhaps that’s part of the reason why Revelation 22 tells us that from God’s throne will flow the river of the water of life.
If water is a metaphor for Christianity, then we have to consider what people can do to/with water. Ancient Romans were known for building their aqueducts – which directed and moved water. Cisterns stored water. Wells could be dug to find water. In the same way, Christians can build structures to direct and move Christianity, places to store it, places to find it. But we have to take care that we don’t damage it in the process – like the sulfur well, the best of intentions doesn’t prevent us from destroying the thing we’re trying to preserve. We are pretty far removed from what was – the original Christianity in it’s original form. We can’t return to what was – but that doesn’t mean that what is should be what will be from now on – like water, all things are subject to change.


While reading comments, I noticed one of a young mother who was frustrated that nobody seemed to want to step up and watch her children during church services no matter how much she begged and pleaded for help. My first thought was an incredibly unhelpful statement which I decided not to post. I have my reasons for not doing childcare. I suspect some people think they’re too old, too tired, and don’t have the energy or strength to chase around the under five crowd. Some realize that they really aren’t that great with kids and only like their own or their own grand kids, figuring they’ve done their time and deserve to retire from the business. To be honest, when something isn’t your cup of tea, it sucks to be stuck doing it without any real choices or acceptance of the thing that you really are good at.

It was a typical Sunday, almost exactly like the ones before it and the ones that followed after it, with ever so slightly discernible changes in the songs that were song or the theme of the message being preached as the most notable. The pastor’s wife stood up and announced that a volunteer was needed to watch the children, which consisted of her three sons and no other children. During the meet’n’greet, the woman in front of me turned around and said: “You should teach the children!” How she arrived at that conclusion was something of mystery. I hadn’t interacted with the children the whole time I was at that church. They didn’t know my name and I didn’t know theirs. I hadn’t shown any interest in children or mentioned children at all. In fact, the only way she could have come to that conclusion that I was a suitable teacher was if she believed that young women are innately experts at childcare. After all, I was both young and a woman. I matched the criteria completely.

My previous church pretty much believed the same thing – that young women ought to plug-into church ministry by serving in the nursery indefinitely. Once on the rotation, there was this unspoken expectation that they would continue to serve. There were two exits – one was having a child of their own and the other was quitting the church in some form or another. To remain in a church and quit doing childcare was to be constantly guilt-tripped about being selfish, hating children, and hating our brothers and sisters in Christ. It was almost a constant imposition based on the belief that all young women ought to take care of young children. There never seemed to be a viable alternatives.

Not watching kids was turning my back on whatever was meant by biblical womanhood. It was as if I was the pot declaring to the potter: “You can’t use me like that! I won’t let you.” There was never a moment to consider what my gifts and skills and talents pointed to another reality of something else that I made for, because having been young and female, then I could only be a nursery worker because the Bible says so. These days, when I ask about what the Bible teaches about Biblical womanhood, there’s a lot of quiet, beating around the bush that ultimately says that my role is that of wife and/or mother, preferably both. It says I can be/do anything so long as I’m submitted under the authority of my husband (preferably, if I had to I could be submitted to my father as long as I remained single but ideally I’d eventually get married). It says I’m defined by my relationships – somebody’s daughter, somebody’s wife, somebody’s mother and that I’m never a somebody in and of myself. Related to the video – it bothers me that I refer to these people just that same way – somebody’s mother, the pastor’s wife, the elderly woman who sat in the row ahead of me next to her husband. I couldn’t tell you what their names were. Their names are less important than their role and it shouldn’t be that way.

These days, I’ve learned not to rely on the church. They can’t see what’s in front of them. While they would have me serve in the nursery, they ignore my increasing skills with foreign languages, my increasing knowledge of church history as well as ancient cultures, the finer points of theology, and my interests in other things. Obviously, I can’t be trusted to teach other women and children because I might corrupt them into questioning what the church is telling them to believe about their role in the church. These things would make me a great candidate as a potential teacher – if I were a guy. But I’m not. So obviously, the only thing I can do, and should do, in order to serve God is to watch children indefinitely because God never made women with another plan in mind of how they could best serve the church. Except for maybe as a missionary, but the idea that women can’t teach white men because they would deceive them and yet can teach foreign men suggests sexism and racism is alive and well. But hey, what do I know?