Orpheus was born a slave. His first master put him to work in a tannery, where he slept next door to the vats of caustic urine and alum. The child woke each morning with his eyes watering from the fumes, took whatever crumbs of bread were left by the older slaves, and set to work carrying the piles of hides back and forth. The other slaves would often laugh at the sight of him, his head hidden under a stack that weighed more than his stick-frame body. But Orpheus seldom laughed. His back and legs were still striped with white scar tissue where the foreman’s short whip had licked out so many times. When he turned seven Orpheus was sold to a new master, the owner of a bakery, and Orpheus began to feel that maybe the gods had forgotten whatever grudge they held against him. Here Orpheus worked just as hard, straining against the beam that turned the big mill-wheel and ground the day’s wheat into flour. But here Orpheus was welcomed by a clutch of other boys more-or-less his age. Each morning at cock-crow one of the house slaves, a hard-eyed woman, would bring stale bread left over from the previous day. There was always enough for all the boys, and she would wait while they wolfed it down. Whenever a fist-fight broke out over one of the last pieces she would haul them apart and slap each one hard on the ear. Once a week they were even given pieces of salted fish to chew.
Orpheus soon discovered that the days work went easier on a full stomach. His new master was not so free with his lash, and the boy’s scabbed back began to heal properly. The boys still knew to keep busy—they had felt a stick across their calves or shoulders often enough—but they knew the baker was a fair man. As they worked they would sing and tell each other stories they had heard from the men who delivered the grain. As often as not these were lurid tales of drunken soldiers and whore houses, told with all the boldness of boys for whom these adult worlds were like far off foreign lands. On festival days, though, the boys would run free through Rome’s narrow alleys and soon enough their nervous giggling gave way to the swaggering experience of young men with experience of the world. When Orpheus turned twelve his master began to pay him a few coins each week, and on festival days these would be spent on strong wine at one of the taverns or on the bawdy plays. After a few dares one of the other boys made it into a brothel without being tossed out on his ear. From then on their gang spent most of their earnings on meetings with their favourite women in the narrow prostitutes’ rooms. So by seventeen Orpheus and the others thought themselves real men of experience. He had been given a man’s work and sweat from his earliest memories, left like a man without mother or father. And so where he could Orpheus took a man’s pleasures and thought he had found life’s sweet marrow.
As Orpheus reached real manhood, though, and his beard began to grow in earnest, his life took an unexpected turn. He was lounging under a portico in one of the central markets when a troop of soldiers marched by, fresh from a campaign in Germania. Orpheus was transfixed. Here were men of strength, men who fought in great battles and brought the Roman eagle to the wild places at the world’s edge. In that moment Orpheus wanted more than anything to take a soldier’s cloak and march as one of them. As two of the soldiers passed near Orpheus, though, one gave the slave a look of disgust and said to his mate “Look what Rome has become!” Then they were gone again, lost in the column of stamping feet and ringing armour. Orpheus was left in shock. What could the soldier have meant? Orpheus was a man, living a man’s life. True, he was a slave. But the soldier could never have known that just from his appearance on the paved porch. Orpheus looked down at the wine cup balanced in his hand. For the first time in his life he felt the heat of shame.
From that day Orpheus looked at his friends’ wild festival days with new eyes. Where before he had simply reveled in the pleasures of the body, now he saw how the young men seemed like a pack of animals. Where was the honour in a life like that? Where was the dignity? Orpheus might be a slave, but he felt a new craving for something to live and die for beyond pushing the mill-wheel and bedding a prostitute. The problem was that Orpheus did not have the slightest idea what such a life might look like. He found his answer in another unlikely source, the Jewish slave named Jason who delivered bread to one of the noble houses nearby. Orpheus began to look forward to his brief talks with Jason, and he heard about the Jews’ one god. This god did not carry on like Orpheus and his fellow slaves. This god had given his people a noble law, a rigorous path to walk, so that their lives would be a beacon of justice in a dark and depraved world. Soon Orpheus stopped visiting the brothel and the tavern. Instead, on festival days he would visit the closest synagogue and pepper the old men he found there about the laws of Israel’s God. He even began to learn his letters so that he could begin to read the law for himself.
When some Jews arrived with news of the Messiah, Orpheus’ eyes brightened again. God’s own king had come, and he was gathering followers for God’s new empire! In this empire, Orpheus learned, no-one would be a slave. Every man would be free and stand with the same honour as his neighbour. He only had to put his trust in this king, Jesus, obey him with all of his strength. Then, when Jesus came back to reveal his glorious empire, Orpheus would be a part of it all!
What Orpheus did not expect was the emperor’s edict, nailed up one morning on the doorpost outside the bakery. Claudius was clearing the city of dangerous foreigners and subversives, and the Jews were included in the ban. He began to see soldiers knocking on doors and ushering families through the alleys with their hand-carts and a few possessions. On the next festival day Orpheus found the synagogue locked and empty. He was not alone, though, in front of the synagogue door. There were others like him, god-fearers who had never been circumcised as a Jew but came to learn God’s law. And most of the little crowd standing by the synagogue door were also putting their trust in the coming king, Jesus. So they decided, then and there, to keep meeting together. Every seventh day Orpheus got up before it was light, crept over the sleeping bodies of his fellow slaves, and made his way along the cobblestones to a small house owned by one of the Jesus-followers. There they gathered, heard the law read, sang hymns to God and his king, and shared Jesus’ sacred meal.
Eventually the Jews were let back into the city, but Orpheus felt little need to go back to the synagogue. He knew the law well and had felt the presence of the king Jesus, had seen him perform acts of power through God’s Spirit. Besides, most of the Jews who came back to the city had turned against Jesus. They said he was a criminal and a liar, not Israel’s king. They said he would never come back. But Orpheus knew different. So he and the others kept on meeting in their little church, welcoming visitors when they came with news of the king’s followers in other parts of the world. A few Jews did hear about their gathering and began to join them. Together they studied and prayed and tried to live faithfully as they waited.
When Orpheus heard about Paul’s coming visit he was deeply disturbed. This Paul had been stirring up trouble all over Asia and Greece. He taught people to abandon God’s law! He told them that they could live just like the pagans, that Jesus did not care about Israel’s law. How ridiculous. Orpheus tried to imagine going back to the brothel and then praying to king Jesus, and his thoughts recoiled. This Paul might find a large audience for his lies, but no one would convince him that Israel’s God had changed that much. So as he gathered with the other church members, in the hour before dawn, Orpheus crossed his arms in front of his chest. Paul had sent a messenger with a letter, and as the man stood up to read out Paul’s speech Orpheus fixed the man with a cold stare.
One thought on “Imagining Paul’s Audience in Rome: Orpheus”
Great thoughts to help us imagine a life of a slave hearing of Jesus, and the possible outcomes, in those early days of Jesus’s appearance in earth. Thanks for this Ian, and blessings as you continue to add helpful content and context in this period Alan Grills