The ancient city (Acts 12)

Illustration: the ancient town of Matera

Ancient cities varied widely in size, structure and appearance. Models for the “ideal” city – such as those of the Greek engineer Hippodamus – existed, but reality was determined by topography; the availability of natural resources, especially water; and the need for provisions for protection, commerce and religious observance.

A city’s outside walls were designed to protect residents from attack. Stone was the material of choice, yet mud brick and wood (which was vulnerable to burning) were also used. Major New Testament cities employed large, cut blocks (ashlars) for their walls. These fortifications were impressive for their depth and height, but during the Greco-Roman period walls were seldom comprised of solid rock. Th outside and inside faces were stone, but a gap between them was filled with rubble, especially dirt. This added girth rendered a wall more resistant to bombardment, since the middle layer absorbed shock. It is common to find city walls 5 x 7 m thick, as well as quite high. Fortified towers were often placed regularly along the course of the walls, giving guards the ability to monitor them and fire defensive weapons.

A second wall was typically constructed around the citadel (Greek acropolis), the highest point in the city and the last line of defence against an attack. Flavius Josephus reported that Herod the Great (37-4 B.C.) expanded and strengthened Jerusalem’s walls. Part of this project was the construction of the Tower of David on the city’s citadel. Standing nearly 19 m above ground level and measuring 22 m by nearly 15,5 m, it was a monument to the strength of Jerusalem’s defences. In 35 B.C. Herod also constructed the impressive Fortress of Antonia, the headquarters for the Roman military forces and perhaps also a prison (the likely location of Peter’s incarceration), beside the temple mount.

A city’s market, located along the main road to maximize the flow of visitors and goods, was its social and commercial centre. Known to the Greeks as the agora and to the Romans as the forum, this locale busted with the sounds of haggling merchants, tethered animals and playing children. During the Hellenistic period the Greeks surrounded the markets with stoas (open, roofed colonnades). The Lower Agora at Pergamum, built during the reign of Eumenes II (197-49 B.C.), is an excellent example. Surrounded by two-storied stoas, it featured two isles opening to the interior of the agora. These were left clear for foot traffic, with small shops inhabiting the rear isles, allowing customers to escape the relentless sun. A cistern in a nearby house fed a fountain in the central courtyard of the agora through a system of underground clay pipes.

The market was also the cite of monuments to local heroes and deities and an informal meeting place for residents and visitors. Especially in port cities, it was the location for debate on religious and philosophical ideas. This was the scenario in Acts 17, when Paul engaged the Athenians in discussion in their agora, reasoning with Epicureans, Stoics and any others who happened to be there. The subsequent debate with the council of the Areopagus  would have occurred on Mars Hill, between the agora and the Acropolis.

In the ancient world it was believed that each city had a primary protector deity responsible for its well-being, and it was customary to honour that deity with a temple on the citadel. For example, the temple of Athena Parthenos (the Parthenon) was constructed between 447 and 432 B.C. in honour of the patron goddess of Athens. In the polytheistic religions of antiquity, however, where dedication to a single deity was considered undesirable, temples to multiple gods were the rule. Athena, therefore, shared the Acropolis with sanctuaries to Poseidon, to the mythical king Erechtheus and to Nike (Victory). Rome displayed a similar variety of temples: to Roma, Venus, Diana, Apollo, Jupiter, Mars and other lesser deities and deified emperors, as well as a temple dedicated to all the gods, the Pantheon. This highlights the uniqueness of the Jerusalem landscape, with its lone temple to the one tre God.

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