If you’re interested in becoming immersed in the first-century Roman world in an entertaining work of historical fiction, I recommend you pick up A Rooster for Asklepios, by Christopher D. Stanley. I found the book to be the perfect combination of instruction and pleasure, and it pulled together for me so many details I have learned in classes, research, and travel.
As a scholar whose expertise is in the social and religious history of the Greco-Roman world, Professor Stanley knows well the background of the New Testament world. My common sentiment as I read was gratitude—gratitude for the author’s careful research and his ability to weave a fascinating story. Sometimes his descriptions confirmed what I knew, but he usually delved much more deeply than I ever have, and I thoroughly enjoyed soaking it in.
The story follows a master and his slave as they travel from their home in Pisidian Antioch to seek healing from the god Asklepios in Pergamum. The story always kept moving, and yet at the same time, I felt that the author was sneaking in some fascinating historical details on nearly every page. I constantly marveled at how much first-century ground he covered, and I wonder how much could be left for his second and third works of the trilogy.
Without giving away the storyline, here’s a taste of what you’ll experience:
- How slaves were variously treated by their masters
- The life of an aristocratic household
- The morning ritual at the household shrine
- Daily prayers offered to the gods
- A festival to the local god Men Askaenos
- The manumission of a slave woman
- Class distinctions between slaves, freedmen, and aristocrats
- Commerce in the marketplace
- A visit to the Asklepion
- The nature of patron-client relationships
- The disdain for a strange new sect related to a certain Paulos
- The way in which Jews navigated life in a Roman world
- Food and dining customs
- A wedding
- Political maneuvering among city officials
- Regular visits to a Roman bathhouse
- Doctors, medicines, and medical treatment
- Sacrificial practices
- Athletic contests
- Common names in the Roman world
- Jewish proselytes, God-fearers, and the synagogue
Certain subjects were familiar to me, but they struck home in new ways. For instance, when you’re immersed in the life of a couple of Gentile characters, their point of view about how the “Jews undermine the unity of the city” made more sense than it ever had before. Because I usually come at matters from a Jewish or Christian perspective, I have failed to appreciate how distinctly odd Jews and Christians were in pagan cities.
I would recommend this book to anyone who wants to understand the Roman world in which Paul traveled and the early church grew. The book only lightly touches on the nascent Christian movement, but you’ll understand the New Testament better if you experience its world. Once again, this journey was so greatly enhanced by my confidence in the author’s decades of research on the social world of Greco-Roman antiquity and his “obsessive concern for accuracy.”
Because the book is set in modern-day Turkey, I think that those who have traveled to these places would especially enjoy it. I would be happy recommending or requiring this for a group traveling to Turkey, Greece, or Rome as well as for courses in the New Testament, early Judaism, and the Greco-Roman world.
I have already recommended this to my college students, and I think it could be enjoyed as a family with older children, though I would note that the book does include a smattering of coarse language, largely related to the main character’s bowel disorder.
You can learn more about the book and the trilogy at the website, www.aslavesstory.com, as well as on the Facebook page. The book is available on Amazon both as a paperback and on Kindle, and it was just released last week on Audible.
I am looking forward this summer to reading the second book, A Bull for Pluto. But I would note, for those perhaps unwilling to commit to a trilogy, that the first book can be read with great enjoyment all by itself.