Life in the Ghetto

Meditations from the Classics

Life in the Ghetto
Ancient Rome
Juvenal, Roman, AD 55-138
Satires III


Subura–A neighborhood in first century Rome.

 Juvenal, a first-century Roman poet who relished satire and found delight in mocking the Roman customs, described one of the blue collar neighborhoods just outside of downtown ancient Rome. Called Subura, he lived there for a while and hated it. Julius Caesar had a little house in Subura before becoming famous. Nobody lingered here longer than he had too. But alas many of the working poor had no escape.

Juvenal described it as a busy, crowded, noisy, dirty area brimming with crime, prostitution and endless trades such as shoemakers, iron-mongers, wool merchants, cobblers, etc.

One thing he particularly despised were the wave, of Greek immigrants that flooded this neighborhood seeking a new life.

“What I cannot endure, my countrymen, is Rome turned Greek!”

Juvenal looked down on these aliens. He said they couldn’t be trusted. They would do anything to please their masters in hopes of gaining power and possibly inherited wealth. They’re sneaky, and they like to become all things to all people just to reach their goals, he said.

            “He is anything and everything you please, all in one. Grammar, rhetoric, geometry, painting, or wrestling, prophesying, rope-dancing, medicine, and magic—he is master of them all. Give the word, and your hungry Greekling will climb the clouds.”[1]

As I read these lines over a few times, I thought I could hear a faint Pauline sentiment in the back of my mind. I thought a little more and then I pegged it: Paul said:

“For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a slave to all, that I might win the more…I have become all things to all men,[2] that I may by all means save some” (1 cor. 9:19, 22).

Say what you will but it sounds like the Greeks of ancient Rome were pretty versatile and ingenious. Paul seems to have done something pretty similar–blending into his surroundings to be more effective as a messenger of the Gospel.

Maybe we should all break out of our limitations and find more common ground with the world about us.

David R. Denny Ph.D.
[2] τοῖς  πᾶσιν  γέγονα  πάντα…

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