Life Can Be Riot in Pompeii and in Ephesus

In the latter half of Acts 19 we read about a riot in the city of Ephesus caused by Paul’s preaching. According to Luke, Demetrius and other silversmiths in Ephesus attempt to raise a mob in order to protect their pocket books and the reputation of the goddess Artemis. Luke notes that the mob was only quieted because of the intervention of the town clerk who reassured the crowd that the reputation of Artemis was safe, he instructed Demetrius and the other silversmiths on the proper way to lodge a complaint, and the town clerk cautioned the crowd that they were in danger of being charged with “rioting,” since there is no cause for the commotion (Acts 19.40). 


While many doubt that the preaching of Paul (and no doubt other nascent Christians in the city of Ephesus) could have caused such a commotion, literary and non-literary evidence suggests otherwise. 

Around the year 59 CE, the Roman historian Tacitus records the following about a riot that broke out in Pompeii over a gladiatorial combat: 

“About the same time a trifling beginning led to frightful bloodshed between the inhabitants of Nuceria and Pompeii, at a gladiatorial show exhibited by Livineius Regulus, who had been, as I have related, expelled from the Senate. With the unruly spirit of townsfolk, they began with abusive language of each other; then they took up stones and at last weapons, the advantage resting with the populace of Pompeii, where the show was being exhibited. And so there were brought to Rome a number of the people of Nuceria, with their bodies mutilated by wounds, and many lamented the deaths of children or of parents. The emperor entrusted the trial of the case to the Senate, and the Senate to the consuls, and then again the matter being referred back to the Senators, the inhabitants of Pompeii were forbidden to have any such public gathering for ten years, and all associations they had formed in defiance of the laws were dissolved. Livineius and the others who had excited the disturbance, were punished with exile” (Tacitus, Annals 14.17; translation taken from http://classics.mit.edu/Tacitus/annals.10.xiv.html).

What is so fascinating about Tacitus’s account is that we have non-literary evidence that confirms Tacitus’s testimony. As archaeologists uncovered the ash covered city of Pompeii, they discovered the following picture, which captures the madness of the riot that day in 59 CE. Notice the artist captured the Ernst T. Bass-like quality of the people “chunking rocks” at each other.

Picture taken from http://farm5.staticflickr.com/4108/5096062227_79c1881de7_b.jpg
A few things are worth point out. According to Tacitus, this riot began with “abusive language,” which is somewhat analogous to our story in Acts. Demetrius and the other silversmiths used rhetoric to stir up the crowds. Unlike Acts 19 however, the uproar in Pompeii escalated from words to an all out riot with stones and weapons, which is confirmed by the above picture. The results of the bellicose behavior of the people at the gladiatorial show that day were the deaths of both children and parents, and the injury of many. Moreover, this riot drew the attention of the then emperor Nero and the Roman Senate, which resulted in the banning of “public gatherings” for “ten years,” and the exile of Livineius, who put on the show, and the people who “excited the disturbance.”This harsh punishment leveled by Rome was meant to ensure the peace and stability of the Empire, and to deter further riots in the Empire. Thus this situations helps us understand the following words of the town clerk: “For we are in danger of being charged with rioting today, since there is no cause that we can give to justify this commotion” (Acts 19.40).

This picture from Pompeii and the testimony from Tacitus is just one of the many ways in which the material culture of the Graeco-Roman world can be used in conjunction with literary sources in order to illuminate the New Testament! 

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