Virtually nobody has ever heard of Puteoli, including Bible-believing Christians. That’s unfortunate, for Puteoli shared the spotlight in events that changed history.
Now called Pozzuoli, Puteoli was a tiny city located in the Bay of Naples on the western coast of Italy. It is mentioned in Acts 28:13. Paul passed through it in about 62-63 A.D. as a chained prisoner on the way to appeal to Nero for his freedom.
Puteoli sat precariously and almost literally in the bulls eye of Rome’s sulfurous, stinking, boiling, shifting, idolatrous playground. Here Rome’s wealthy aristocracy, including the Caesars, enjoyed what Cicero called, “A…delightful, a most desirable place, despite the crowds of bores that almost make one want to flee.” It was a place of much wine, prostitutes of all sorts, made possible by temples of idolatry to a multitude of gods suited to every fleshly occasion, such as Venus, Diana, Apollo, Bacchus, Serapes, and many more. Here brutality fed appetites for bloody thrills. This whole gulf was the Roman “escape,” even as its hot springs reeked with a rotten odor oozing through sulphur. All of it sat atop a boiling cauldron below, which heaved and tossed the earth above in preparation for an occasional release of God’s wrath.
The sins of the antediluvians enflamed God’s wrath to curse the ground and sent its crust cracking and shifting, competing for space. The Eurasian and African plates met violently head-on along Italy’s western shore, building such friction as to melt solid rock. Pressure from it couldn’t go down, so it boiled up into a string of nine volcanoes along an 800 mile faultline with Rome smack in the middle. Rome, whose passions vacationed in the shadow and on the slopes of the most dangerous, violent, destructive volcano on the European continent. The world knows it today as VESUVIUS!
A towering peak arose amid the depravity to say that evil is more than dumb—it is pure stupidity! The fools before the Noaic flood discovered it the hard way, but here was a theater telling the world that humanity was doing it all over again. This blowhole of death and destruction had erupted many times before, and so it seems incredible that the Romans didn’t even have a word for VOLCANO! But they did know as a frequent event that the ground often moved with thunder beneath their feet as it shook down buildings, but to which they as much as yawned and went on with their business of sin. After all, although they all, even the rich, had gardens and enjoyed the peaceful things of life, they never missed events at the arena where men and beasts fought to the death in violent butchery. Someone might get crushed under a roof, but they were mentally calloused to such tragedies.
The city officials of Puteoli, at about the time the Apostle Paul walked through it in Emperor Nero’s chains, petitioned and received from Nero the title of “August,” that is, one of Nero’s official, royal cities. It shared the ring of cities around Vesuvius with such others as Pompeii, Neapolis (Naples), and, Rome’s most favored, Herculaneum, which was later to be covered under 75 feet of volcanic rubble and forgotten. All of these had one or more theaters where “stars” performed on the stage. Suetonius, in his ancient biography of the infamous Nero, records that in about 64 A. D. Caesar Nero made his singing debut for the first time on a public stage in Neapolis, only a few miles from Puteoli. A Vesuvian quake began shaking during his performance, but calloused Nero kept singing until he finished his song. Tacitus records that the whole theater caved in shortly after being evacuated. The irony being, as he sang his song he had the Gospel to the gentiles, Paul, on a chain which, in turn, was shackled to Nero himself, perhaps the very reason he wasn’t crushed in the cave-in since God later used Nero to release Paul.
But Nero was at center stage of yet another irony: You see, an active volcano is a violent belch with a blessing. The layered soil around it turns the landscape lush. The Romans then planted farms in it and raised bumper crops of fruits and vegetables. Pompeii, for instance, grew grapes and exported more wine to Rome than we can imagine. Ironically, they boiled the juice for wine in lead pots. Stirring it would have scraped lead into the boiling syrup, giving the wine a high lead content. When modern archeologists dug up and analyzed the skeletons of Vesuvius’ victims, they had high levels of lead poisoning. It is known today that lead poisoning causes insanity. Many scientists now believe such despots as Nero and Caligula drank excessively with poison in their goblets. The irony being, they were cursed with a blessing from a curse because their passions were turned on their heads.
Pompeii suffered an irony of its own: It perished in the 19 hour Vesuvian belch in August of 79 A.D. The city had been conveniently located on the Sarno river and near the coast. After the eruption Pompeii was ten feet under, the course of the river now missed them, and they were no longer convenient to the coast. As if that would make any difference to a city ten feet under the ground. Yes, Pompeii also died like Herculaneum, and was forgotten.
Volcanologists now estimate between 10,000 and 25,000 people perished in that eruption, but, ironically, today more than 3,000,000 people live in Vesuvius’ shadow, even as the ground beneath their very feet rises, falls, cracks, and rumbles as it emits slimy pools and sulfuric steam. They trust the experts who are trusting their instruments and instincts for enough warning to race for safety. It is a risky trust, for God’s wrath doesn’t have scientific sensors attached to it. They somehow missed the simple solution: Stop bathing in their spas and start bathing in God’s righteous holiness. A very simple truth storms at these millions for their attention: To live and move and have one’s being in the shadow of one of Earth’s favorite blowholes is not conducive to long life and good health. One might feast a while, but it is only a flash in the pan.
Another irony: Two tectonic plates also do battle up and down the California coast along a faultline about as long as the one in Italy. There sit San Francisco, Hollywood, Los Angeles, and San Diego within its striking range. The ground shakes and rumbles warnings as depravity plays while astride this unpredictable curse, trusting in their wealth, human achievement, scientific know-how, and their own gut instincts. Christians work there among fools, many thinking somehow a disaster would bypass them and destroy only unbelievers, never considering that Satan’s success among the lost was because the church slept.
On the coast of ancient Herculaneum sat a fabulous villa owned by one Calpurius Piso, father-in-law to Julius Caesar. It is today referred to as the Villa of the Papyri because of the priceless papyri scrolls archeologists uncovered in its ruins. Ironically, one can virtually visit this opulent spectacle today by simply touring the J. Paul Geddy Museum, also on the coast, but this one is in Malibu, California. The blueprint of it was lifted from the ruins of the one in Herculaneum, and faithfully copied. The one in Malibu was built with wealth acquired in America, which was founded on Christian principles of freedom, whereas the one in Herculaneum was built by blood, sweat, and tears of slaves, whose dug-up bones tell us they starved as they toiled. One would think Americans could find something better to copy.
Ironically, most of the scrolls in the original villa were those of an Epicurean philosopher, Philodemus, who began, “…god is not the world,” meaning the gods have nothing to do with the affairs of men. The one in Malibu is saying the same thing. In fact, today America says it from the White House to the poor house, from public schools to our most elite universities, from Hollywood to virtually every major news desk. This, even as there in the sideline shadows where we shoved Him, stands He who will judge the nations. At that tribunal He can and will surely say, “I told you so.”
Of all the gentiles of human depravity in Paul’s day, surely the Romans were most strategic in which to sow the good news of the Gospel. Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles, passed through Puteoli, but he was chained to one of Nero’s soldiers. He was allowed to lodge there seven days with “brethren,” but the evidence best lends itself to believe these were his Jewish brethren, not Christians. In fact, no historical evidence exists to show that later Christianity in that city can be traced to Paul’s visit. They were simply too busy with sin, enjoying the wealth of Rome’s elite, partaking in depravity’s sensual pleasures.
But we would be mistaken to say these citizens of Puteoli, Pompeii, Neapolis, and Herculaneum were not cultured. They certainly were, as evidenced by their works of art. They could even be poetic. The following verse was found on the wall of a citizen of Pompeii:
“Nothing can last in unending time.
When the sun has shown brightly, it
Returns to the sea;
The moon wanes, which was just now full.
So the savagery of love’s passions often
End up as a gentile breeze.”
But Christ-less culture always reduces it to emptiness and vanity, just as King Solomon wisely stated in his Book of Ecclesiastes. It surely showed in Roman culture, as it does today on the faces of their statues and wall paintings. As writer Rick Gore said in his May, 1984 National Geographic article, THE DEAD DO TELL TALES AT VESUVIUS: “Did the excavators, I wonder, notice the eyes in the paintings, busts, and statues? So many stare vacantly ahead…these faces do not express much joy. Often they seem to be asking whatever gods are listening why there has to be such sorrow in the world. From these eyes flows a sadness that sums up the fate of this ‘loveliest region of the Earth,’ that makes me want to say,’…alas Pompeii, alas Herculaneum.'”
True enough, for there is a vast difference between open joy in God’s daylight, and all the laughing in the dark—a truth well illustrated on the back cover of that issue of the National Geographic magazine: A Kodac advertisement shows a photo of an ape whose eyes gleam a happy twinkle, as a pleasant smile stretches his lips.