Beers, Holly. A Week in the Life of a Greco-Roman Woman. Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic, 2019. 172pp. Pb; $16. Link to IVP Academic
Like the other books in the Week in the Life series, Beers is a New Testament scholar who attempts to bring to life the world of the first century. Beers is associate professor of religious studies at Westmont College. She has previously contributed monograph The Followers of Jesus as the ‘Servant’: Luke’s Model from Isaiah for the Disciples in Luke-Acts (LNTS 535; London: T&T Clark, 2015), reviewed here. Unlike other books in the series, Beers brings a female perspective by focusing not only on a very poor woman in Roman Ephesus, but a poor woman who is pregnant. Many of the cultural and historical background featured in this book have not been covered in one of the other books.
The book follows the daily life of Anthia, the pregnant wife of Philetus as they encounter the gospel in the city of Ephesus in the mid-50s A.D. Philetus is a fisherman and a couple sell their fish at a stall in the agora. Although the couple are free, they are extremely poor and rarely know where their next meal is coming from. Beers describes the kind of poverty the average person faced in first century Ephesus. The family lives in a very small room with their child and extended family. They often make do with very little food, often no more than a piece of bread each day.
The book also refers to the way individuals relied upon the gods to get them through the day. Philetus prays to Glaukos the patron god of fishing when he does not catch enough fish and praises this god when he manages to bring in a good catch. When the neighbor child is sick, the parents sacrifice to both Artemis and Asclepius hoping to heal the child’s fever. When a character in the story passes a statue of the Emperor, they utter a short prayer to the divine Emperor.
Since this is the middle of the first century in the city of Ephesus, it is no surprise Philetus and Anthia encounter the apostle Paul teaching outside the school of Tyrannus. Beers uses Paul’s speeches in Acts 14 and 17 to suggest how Paul may have taught the assembled crowds and the crowd’s reaction to the idea of a crucified and resurrected Jesus. When Anthia is invited to a church service, she is shocked to find Roman citizens sitting and eating with slaves. Anthia struggles to understand why a wealthy Roman woman would care about her at all, let alone give her food and clothing without expectations associated with Roman patronage.
There are several other plot points which are borrowed from the book of Acts. For example, when the neighbor’s child is dying of a fever, the mother brings a handkerchief blessed by the apostle Paul and the child is healed (Acts 19:11-12). Beers refers to magicians we have converted to Christianity burning their scrolls (Acts 19:18-19) and the failed exorcism by the sons of Sceva (Acts 19:13-16). Although she never makes an explicit connection herself, I can’t help but wonder if the wife’s prayer to Jesus to keep her safe in childbirth alludes to 1 Timothy 2:15, a woman will be saved through childbearing.
A major focus of this story is the hard life of a woman in the ancient world, a life which was much more difficult for a pregnant woman. The book begins with a tragic story of a woman who dies giving birth to her child. Anthia herself suffers a great deal in the story, often at the hand of her abusive husband. Although the woman is in the late stages of her pregnancy, she is still forced to work in the family business, care for her son, and submit to her husband’s sexual needs (even though he visits a prostitute). Beers includes infanticide and the exposure of female babies several times in the book. It is likely an exposed child would be taken by someone to be raised as a slave. On one occasion a nursing woman is sold in the slave market to be used as a wet nurse by a wealthy aristocrat.
One thing Beers communicates well in this book is the absolute filth of the ancient world. Frequently Beers describes public latrines as well as the use of a communal chamber pot in the family’s single overcrowded room. Her son publicly urinates on one of the many pots set aside to collect urine for the fullers. On a number of occasions Anthia must deal with bleeding because of her pregnancy.
As with other books in this series, the book is illustrated by occasional sidebars in photographs to help the reader understand some details of the story. I think they were less of these in this volume than in previous books in the series. This may be due to the fact that there are few physical remains left by the extreme poor of the ancient world. Nor is there a great deal of description of poverty in ancient literature. Nevertheless, Beers judiciously uses what evidence is available to paint a vivid picture of poverty in the ancient world.
Not everyone in the book is poor. At the meeting of a host church, Anthia meets Claudia, a wealthy Roman citizen who invites her to a meal in her home. Here Beers describes the terrace houses in the city of Ephesus. In contrast to the filthy, crowded one-room apartment that she lives in, her wealthy Roman patron lives in a beautiful home with multiple rooms and running water. As Anthia says, even the dog looks better fed than her family. This meal also provides an opportunity to describe what a wealthy Roman family might eat for a meal.
Conclusion. This is my favorite of the Week in the Life series for two reasons. First, since I have visited Ephesus it is easy to imagine the scenes in the agora, the latrines, or the terrace houses. Beers has succeeded in placing her story in the world of first century Ephesus as it is known from archaeology. Second, in both the ancient and modern world, these kinds of stories are rarely told from the perspective of a poor woman. Although the other books in the series have similar imagery, none capture the despair of poverty in the Roman world like this book.
For reviews of other volumes in this series, see my reviews of
- James L. Papandrea, A Week in the Life of Rome
- Gary M. Burge, A Week in the Life of a Roman Centurion
- John Byron, A Week in the Life of a Slave
Although not part of this series,
NB: Thanks to IVP Academic for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.