The Bible is written in such a way that it is completely and inextricably interwoven with the culture and the customs of the times and places in which its events occur. While the cultural references were well known to the people who lived in biblical times, many of them are unfamiliar to us today. Learning biblical customs has many advantages: it makes reading the Bible more enjoyable when we know about the people and how they lived; it clarifies things in the Bible we would otherwise not readily know, or that do not make sense to us at first; it alerts us to possible mistranslations in the Bible; and it gives us great insight into how to properly apply the Word of God in our lives.
(Author’s Note: Some of the customs articles I write explain ancient customs so we can better understand the Bible, but do not have any direct modern application. That is not the case with this article on hospitality. Although our motels and restaurants are nicer today than the inns of the Roman world, Christians should still “seek to show hospitality.” Ecclesiastes 5:13 warns us about wealth that harms its owner, and that can be the case today. Sometimes we are afraid to open our homes to others because we fear what might happen to what we own. While we want to be wise, true wisdom lies in the eternal verities of valuing relationships, helping others, and fellowshipping around the Good News. These are the things we should be seeking.)
Romans 12:13 (ESV) says Christians should “seek to show hospitality.” The biblical customs concerning hospitality differ greatly because the Bible takes place over thousands of years and involves many cultures. In this article we will focus on the necessity of Christian hospitality in the Roman world.
The New Testament admonishes Christians to show hospitality to others. Besides Romans 12:13 quoted above, the Bible specifically tells Christian leaders to show hospitality (1 Tim. 3:2; Titus 1:8), and 1 Peter 4:9 says, “Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling.” One of the many reasons Christians were to show hospitality to others was because the inns in the Roman world were almost always unpleasant, ungodly places. Travel has always been difficult, and in fact, our English words “travel” and “travail” not only come from the same Latin root word, they were once the same English word and were differentiated only recently. In the Roman world, the condition of the inns made travel even more difficult.
Avoiding the Inns
People who could avoid the inns usually did. Most wealthy people and dignitaries were able to make other arrangements. They usually stayed in private residences, but sometimes they just camped beside the road. Friends, and even mere acquaintances or third party contacts, often had an “I’ll stay at your place and you stay at mine” agreement, and sometimes formalized it with a tessera hospitalis. The tessera was a small clay tablet or a clay flat-figure that was often in the shape of a pig, cow, lion, or shaking hands. The tessera was broken in half, and each party to the agreement kept a half. The traveler carried his half, which gave him entre to the other home even if the owner was away—if the halves matched, slaves or servants who watched over the house immediately granted room and board to the traveler.
In many cases sleeping under the stars by the side of the road would have been nicer than staying in a Roman inn, but the danger of robbers was usually so great that people sought out the “safety” of an inn. The general exceptions were wealthy people and groups. The wealthy usually traveled with a small army of servants who would carry the tents and food and act as bodyguards, while groups were generally protected by virtue of their size.
The Innkeepers and their Clientele
As a class of people, the innkeepers were of such ill repute that Roman law forbade them from joining the army or forming a trade guild. They were generally cheats and thieves, and suspected of spying on their clients and selling the information, which was very likely since they, and their prostitute staff, were in a good position to find out lots of juicy information from the clientele. Innkeepers’ wives also had a bad reputation, and St. Augustine warned travelers about innkeepers’ wives who were witches and who would add magic potions to the food and turn the traveler into a mule.
The standard clientele of the inns were usually just as rough as the innkeepers. They were peddlers, muleteers, sailors or soldiers, slaves or freedmen running errands, runaway slaves, and the like.
Although inns in the Roman world all differed somewhat, just as our modern motels do, they also had a lot of similarity. A standard Roman inn was a courtyard surrounded by rooms. Baggage and animals stayed in the open yard, while people spent the night in a room (or beside their animal if they thought it might be stolen). Almost all inns had a kitchen and a dining room, although sometimes the cooking and eating occurred in one big room. Some inns converted the dining room into a dormitory if the rooms were all full.
Innkeepers made money most any way they could, so many inns had some kind of shop attached, such as smith’s shop where travelers could have repairs made to animal tack, carts, etc., and some inns offered medical treatment, if it could be called that, to people who got sick on the road.
The cold of winter and the heat of summer are always hard on travelers, and most inns offered only a little comfort. To fight the winter cold, some of the more expensive inns had a hot air duct system under the floor or in the walls (the same basic system that was used to heat the cauldarium, the “hot pool,” in the Roman baths). The average inn, however, would have had some kind of brazier or fireplace that heated with coal or wood, or else no heat at all. When it came to the heat of summer there was no reliable relief. The only way to cool rooms during the summer was any breeze coming through the door or a window. Many inns had second story rooms that better caught the daily breezes and were more comfortable than lower rooms.
A Place to Sleep
Unlike our hotels and motels, the average inn did not rent a whole room to the traveler, but rather rented a sleeping space in a room. In nicer inns a person could rent a bed with a straw mattress, but often the “bed” was just a spot on the floor with straw or grasses cut from a field. The obvious question anyone renting a place in the inn would ask themselves was, “With whom (and with how many) will I be sharing a room tonight?” One had to guard his person and belongings very carefully. Roman records show that a number of people who stayed at the inns were murdered for the goods they were carrying, and stealing was very common.
Every experienced traveler also became an expert at inspecting bedding for bedbugs and other creatures, such as fleas, spiders, lizards, etc. No telling how many people had already slept on the matting that was the bed. Bedbugs were so common that they had a nickname: cauponarum aestiva animalia, “the summertime creatures of the inn.”
Food, Drink and Entertainment
The inns were not usually very desirable places to eat, so it was nice that the larger towns had many restaurants to choose from besides the inn. However, in the countryside there often was very little choice. Most travelers carried at least a little something to eat on their journey, making Jesus’ specific instruction to his Apostles not to take food with them when they traveled an unusual request (Mark 6:8). The ancients watered down their wine, and that included the Romans. Unscrupulous innkeepers, however, watered it down a lot, hoping their thirsty clients would not notice. Paul refers to this practice in 2 Corinthians 4:2 (NASB), and says he is not “adulterating the word of God,” that is, he did not water down the Word for his own profit, but taught it full strength in spite of the consequences.
Much more ghastly than watering down the wine was the cheating of some innkeepers (actually, the Roman physician Galen said he knew of many) who stole dead bodies from the Coliseum and cooked them to boost his profits. Inn food was usually in the form of spicy soups and stews so clients rarely noticed. One cheating innkeeper was discovered, however, when a human finger bone showed up in the stew.
All inns had gambling—it just came with the clientele who stayed there. However, there were locals who frequented the inns to take part in the gambling and perhaps enrich themselves with some of the travelers’ purses. In fact, just as today people go “bar-hopping” or on a “bar-crawl,” occasionally some of the more well-to-do townsfolk would go from inn to inn, gambling and carousing through the night. The noise from the raucous partiers could make sleeping in the inn difficult.
Most inns were staffed by male and female slaves who, along with their everyday chores, made money for the owner by being rented out as prostitutes. So if the person or persons the traveler was sharing the room with had the money to pay for sex, well, that would be an added distraction in the room.
Show Hospitality to One Another
To avoid the inns and the ungodliness associated with them, Christians tried to find other Christians with whom they could stay. Thankfully, many Christians knew about the believers in other towns and where to find them, and people usually willingly opened their homes and hearts to brothers and sisters on the road. God commanded Christians who had food and shelter to provide hospitality for others, and that is something we should still be willing to practice today.
 Both “travel” and “travail” came from an older Latin root word that changed somewhat in the Late Latin, and then developed on somewhat parallel paths in the Old French and Middle English. Writings from as late as the 1700’s show “travail” being used when today we would use “travel.”
 Selected Bibliography: Bouquet, A. C., Everyday Life in New Testament Times (B. T. Batsford, Ltd., London, 1953). Casson, Lionel, Travel in the Ancient World (Book Club Associates, London, 1974). Davis, William S, A Day in Old Rome (Allyn and Bacon, Boston, 1962). Gower, Ralph, The New Manners and Customs of Bible Times (Moody Press, Chicago, 1987). Hamblin, Dora Jane, and Grunsfeld, Mary Jane, The Appian Way: A Journey (Random House, New York, 1974). Johnston, Mary, Roman Life (Scott, Foresman and Company, Chicago, 1957). Murphy-O’Connor, Jerome, “On the Road and on the Sea with St. Paul” (Bible Review magazine; summer 1985, p.38-47).