The Roman historian Tacitus said the ancient city of Rome was like a sewer into which the filth of all the nations flowed. He was not a Christian. In fact, he said Christianity was a “depraved superstition.” But his assessment of the moral condition of Rome was right.
The capitol city of the empire was an ungodly place. The bonds of marriage gave way to widespread adultery and prostitution. Will Durant in Caesar and Christ said, “Marriage, which had once been a lifelong economic union, was now among a hundred thousand Romans a passing adventure of no great spiritual significance.” Children became a burden to a selfish population who aborted or exposed their offspring. Durant cited Juvenal who praised abortion doctors by saying, “So great is the skill, so powerful the drugs, of the abortionist!” Leaving newborn children in fields and towns to die was so common that the Roman government paid wet nurses to care for infants found at a certain set of columns in Rome. Ancient writers also talk freely about homosexuality, pedophilia, sex trafficking, slavery, drunkenness, gambling, and corruption and perversion among public officials throughout the Empire.
Pleasure was the order of the day in this famous city. Durant said, “Those who stayed in Rome found entertainment plentiful and cheap. Recitations, lectures, concerts, mimes, plays, athletic contests, prize fights, horse races, chariot races, mortal combats of men with men or beasts, not-quite-sham naval battles on artificial lakes—never was a city more bountifully amused.” Many Romans defended gladiatorial shows on the ground that the contestants were condemned criminals who were going to be executed anyway. It was an atmosphere of “eat, drink, and be merry.”
The apostle Paul wrote to Christians in this infamous city about the sinfulness of the Gentile world in Romans 1. They rejected the Creator and worshipped the creation (vv. 21-25). Homosexuality followed as “their women exchanged the natural use for what is against nature” and the men “burned in their lust one for another, men with men committing what is shameful” (vv. 26-27). They became “filled with all unrighteousness, sexual immorality, wickedness, covetousness, maliciousness; full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, evil-mindedness…whisperers, backbiters, haters of God, violent, proud, boasters, inventors of evil things, disobedient to parents, undiscerning, untrustworthy, unloving, unforgiving, unmerciful” (vv. 29-31). Paul was describing the Gentile world in general, but these words certainly define the culture of the city of Rome.
This was the dark side that led Tacitus to say that Rome was like a sewer. The upside is that the church was alive and flourishing and shining like a city set on a hill in this earthly city. Paul wrote to “all who are in Rome, beloved of God, called to be saints” (Rom. 1:7). Saints have been separated from sin by the blood of Christ and these saints had kept themselves pure. Even though they were tested on all sides in this wicked place, these Christians stood firm. Their faith was “spoken of throughout the whole world” (Rom. 1:8). They were in the world but not of the world just as Jesus had prayed (John 17:14-16). Later in this letter Paul urged them to remain separate from sin when he wrote, “Do not be conformed to this world” (Rom. 12:2). We have the trial of living in an ungodly world today and we need this exhortation. If these saints could live a clean life in such a notoriously evil environment, then we can keep ourselves from the wicked one today.