Artist's rendering of ancient Ephesus, a Roman city with stadiums, columned walkways, and terrace houses sprawling into the distance

Escape from Ephesus: A First Century Story of Courage and Faith

Historical Context

Before I let you dive into this short story, I must give some historical context. As you can already tell by the title, this work of Biblical fiction takes place during the 1st century CE. More specifically, its main events occur at the same time Paul the Apostle lived and preached in Ephesus, in 55-56 CE. (For reference, Ephesus is located on the west coast of modern day Turkey). I decided to base my short story around the “Riot in Ephesus” from Acts 19:23-41, but from the perspective of a young woman.

Slavery in antiquity

This fictional young woman gets sold into slavery as a teenager. Slavery in the ancient world looked a lot different than slavery as we think of it in more modern times. First, race was not a factor in determining who became a slave and who did not. Slaves were taken from conquered lands, born into the system from their parents, or sold to pay off a family debt. Second, most slaves could expect emancipation by the time they were thirty years of age or older if they served well. And third, many slaves were specialists, such as a doctor, teacher, accountant, secretary, or even shipmaster. Owners trained unskilled slaves both for immediate profit to the household and as a career path once they gained freedom. Unfortunately, slaves still received physical abuse if they did something wrong. Masters also reminded them of their inferiority and class status on a regular basis.

Artemis of Ephesus

Two marble statues of Artemis, goddess of fertility and childbirth, on display at the Ephesus Archeological Museum. Both statues show an ornately decorated woman standing with hands reaching outwards.
Two marble statues of the goddess Artemis from the first and second centuries CE on display at the Ephesus Archeological Museum. Credit: Abby Dorland

Religion was another important part of daily life in Ephesus in the 1st century CE. The majority of Ephesians worshiped Greco-Roman deities. Chief among these was Artemis, goddess of fertility and childbirth. The Ephesians made her their own, placing her birth in a grove just outside the city and throwing festivals in her honor. They built the famous Temple of Artemis, or Artemision, and dedicated it to her. 127 columns approximately 57 feet high surrounded the temple, making it roughly double the size of the Parthenon in Athens.

Known as “the Way,” Christianity became seen as a threat and challenge to Artemis’s authority in Ephesus. Christianity was not a state-sanctioned religion, and adherents risked loss of reputation, business, and honor among trade guilds and elite circles. With miraculous healings taking place, sorcery book burnings in the agora, and Paul drawing huge crowds at the hall of Tyrannus, this tumultous time in Ephesus’s history sets the stage for Cora, a 16-year-old slave, to tell her own story…

Prologue

Ancient grave relief of a woman looking sadly at a baby reaching towards her from another woman's arms.
Credit: George E. Koronaios/Wikimedia Commons

*Bam* *bam* *bam*

The old, wooden door of Cora’s family’s insula sounded like it was about to shatter.

“It’s Atticus,” Cora’s mother whispered, her face draining of color. She went timidly to the door and opened it, revealing a finely dressed Roman man. 

“I believe your rent is due today,” Atticus said with a sneer. “Hand it over.” 

“Please, Atticus, will you be so gracious as to grant us one more extension? I promise I will have the money by next week!” Cora’s father pleaded, kneeling in reverence to the wealthy Roman. 

Atticus considered for a moment, and then broke out laughing. “If I say yes to you, Lycus, how many more tenants in this run-down building will think they get a pass too? Absolutely not.”

Lycus tried a different approach. “My daughter is pregnant, and it has been increasingly hard to find enough food to live on.”

Atticus’s eyes flickered over to Cora, standing in a dark corner of the one-room apartment. Cora felt his gaze move up and down her body, landing at last on the round bump of her belly. 

“If she was not with child, I would recommend her for another service that could pay your rent,” Atticus curled his lip into a crooked smile. “But I do not want her now. I will come back this evening to collect what you owe me. If you are unable to pay, I will not hesitate to evict you.” His red cloak swished as he turned on his heel, slamming the door behind him.

The Harbor

“Ouch! Why are you grabbing my arm so hard?” Cora asked as her father half-dragged her down the stone street. Lycus gave a short grunt in answer, refusing to look at her. They had reached the harbor of their city, Thessalonica, which was one of the largest trade ports in Macedonia. Why are we here? she asked internally. The smell of freshly-caught fish jogged a memory. Five years ago, she had watched her cousin Gaius leave on a merchant ship from this very spot. He told his family he was joining “the Way,” led by a Jewish man named Paul. Cora’s family had disapproved greatly. They were dedicated to worshipping the Greek gods and goddesses of their homeland, one of which, Persephone/Kore, Cora herself was named after.

“There they are,” Lycus muttered under his breath, breaking Cora out of her thoughts. She blinked in surprise. They were nearing the row of slavers on the wharf. 

“800 denarii for a 16-year-old female!” Lycus shouted to anyone who would listen. “She will make an excellent wet nurse in a few months!”

No, no, no, no, this can’t be happening. The realization of what her father was doing dawned upon her. She tried to pull away, but he only gripped her arm harder.

“I’ll take her for 500,” a tall, bearded man replied. 

“700 denarii—no more, no less.”

“600.”

“650.”

“Deal.” 

“I’m sorry daughter, I had to do it,” Lycus whispered into Cora’s ear as he held his hand out for payment. “There was no other way.” Stunned, Cora watched as he pocketed the coins and left without so much as a backward glance. I just got sold into slavery to pay off my family’s debtWhat is going to become of me? And what will become of my child?

Part One: Morning in Ephesus

Inside view of an excavated terrace house in Ephesus. A dark gray mosaic covers the floor of a hallway in a diagonal pattern, and narrow marble columns support wooden beams to an adjoining room.
Inside a terrace house in Ephesus. Credit: Abby Dorland

Cora woke at dawn to a sharp cry. She sat up and sighed, rubbing the brand new bruise on her shoulder. Another day a slave in the house of Demetrius. She stood up from the straw cot placed in the corner and walked over to the crying baby, pushing back the curtains surrounding the ornately carved wooden crib. As she picked up the infant and directed its head to her breast, she couldn’t help thinking about her own child. Dead, most likely. Tears welled up in her eyes, remembering the last time she saw her baby. Demetrius had ordered her child, a girl, to be left in the designated area for exposure in Ephesus. She was a wet nurse for his wife, after all, and they did not want her milk shared with anyone but their precious child. 

Please, Artemis, she prayed. You delivered my baby successfully, only to have them take her away from me. Help me escape this wretched place!

Lyra, Demetrius’s wife, walked in. She was dressed in a woolen stola, dyed a rich olive green. “Cora,” she said sharply. “Why did you let my child cry for that long? Are you neglecting your duties? Don’t let it happen again, or I will have Demetrius punish you.” 

“Yes Lyra, of course,” Cora replied in an even tone. Inside her head, a much more fiery response directed itself at Lyra’s retreating figure. I don’t care what it takes, I am going to leave this house as soon as an opportunity presents itself. Leaving my child to die alone in Ephesus was the last straw. Lyra, you won’t have a wet nurse for your baby for much longer!

Part Two: Tradesmen in Trouble

Underneath the Gate of Mazaeus and Mithridates in Ephesus. Marble columns support the giant stone archway. Green pine trees cover the hillside under a bright blue sky.
Underneath the Gate of Mazaeus and Mithridates in Ephesus. Credit: Abby Dorland

“My business has been declining, and I’m certain it’s because of those troublemaking Jews!”

Demetrius did not sound pleased. Cora could not help but overhear his conversation with Lyra in the dining room while she ate her own meal in the kitchen. Demetrius worked as a silversmith, making shrines dedicated to Artemis. He was the most prominent silversmith in Ephesus, thus making him the leader of their guild of craftsmen. 

“I’ve heard rumors of people getting healed from handkerchiefs touched by a Jewish man named Paul,” Lyra said in a lower tone. “He claims to heal in the name of Jesus.”

“This is blasphemy to Artemis!” Demetrius exclaimed. “If this goes on much longer, we won’t have an income! I am going to meet with the other silversmiths under the Gate of Mazaeus and Mithridates to see if we can put a stop to this foolishness.”

Suddenly, an idea popped into Cora’s head. Demetrius will not be home at his regular time. Lyra doesn’t pay much attention to me if the baby is quiet. This is my chance to escape! I’ll leave the house after feeding the baby one last time. Then, I’ll wait by the harbor until it’s dark and try to sneak onboard one of the merchant ships. I’ll even offer my body if I have to. She shuddered at the memory of Atticus’s eyes roaming over her figure. I hope it won’t have to come to that. Artemis, please protect me.

Part 3: A Riot in Ephesus

The theatre at Ephesus, built into the hillside. Columns line a stone paved street in the foreground.
The theatre of Ephesus. The structure has a capacity of 25,000 people. Credit: Abby Dorland

Cora sighed. Her plan to escape that night was ruined by Lyra sending her to the agora to get food for that night’s dinner. An older slave accompanied her to the marketplace. Clearly, they don’t trust me to go alone, Cora remarked slyly to herself. As they entered the busy square, a hundred smells, sights, and sounds begged for her attention. Sellers of meat, grains, and vegetables haggled with customers over prices. Donkeys hitched to mills ground up flour. The smell of spices assaulted Cora’s nose as they entered a dimly lit shop. 

“Remember, we’re looking for ginger, tumeric, and cinnamon,” the older slave told her. 

Cora was about to resign herself to the task when she heard a shout come from the corner of the agora, near the Gate of Mazaeus and Mithridates. 

“Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” 

She turned her head to look and was surprised to see a growing mob surrounding a man giving a speech. Demetrius. This is the gathering he was talking about at lunch. Cora made out a few of his words through the shouts of approval from other silversmiths.

“There is danger not only that our trade will lose its good name, but also that the temple of the great goddess Artemis will be discredited; and the goddess herself, who is worshiped throughout the province of Asia and the world, will be robbed of her divine majesty!” 

“Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” shouted the crowd a second time. More people from around the agora began joining in the chant. Soon, the swelling crowd made its way to the street. Cora saw the opportunity to leave the supervision of her companion, and she took it.

Chaos in the Theatre

“Where are we going?” Cora breathlessly asked the woman next to her as they half-walked, half-ran with the crowd. 

“I don’t know,” the woman shrugged. “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” she chanted loudly again. The mob reached the theatre and flooded in. Cora saw two figures being pushed roughly up on stage.

“Who are these men, and what have they done?” she wondered aloud.

“Those are companions of Paul, the troublemaker of Ephesus!” yelled a butcher standing next to her. “They dishonor our great goddess Artemis by preaching about ‘the Way.’ It’s time to kick Paul and his religion out of this city!”  

Cora looked closer at the men on the platform trying to fend off the angry mob. That’s strange, one of the men looks familiar. She elbowed her way through the crowd to get a closer look. 

She gasped. “Gaius!”

Part Four: A Way Out

An engraved circle in stone outside the theater in Ephesus. It has 8 lines cutting through the middle. A finger points to the rim of the circle.
The ICHTHYS wheel: a circle capable of spelling the Greek letters of a Christian phrase. Credit: Abby Dorland

Cora tried to hold off her frustrated tears. Her long lost cousin was surrounded by an angry mob, and she had no way to help him. After what seemed like an eternity, the city clerk appeared on the stage and motioned for silence. 

“Fellow Ephesians, doesn’t all the world know that the city of Ephesus is the guardian of the temple of the great Artemis and of her image, which fell from heaven?  Therefore, since these facts are undeniable, you ought to calm down and not do anything rash. You have brought these men here, though they have neither robbed temples nor blasphemed our goddess.”

The crowd grumbled at this comment, but remained under control.

“If, then,” the clerk continued, “Demetrius and his fellow craftsmen have a grievance against anybody, the courts are open and there are proconsuls. They can press charges.  If there is anything further you want to bring up, it must be settled in a legal assembly. As it is, we are in danger of being charged with rioting because of what happened today. In that case, we would not be able to account for this commotion, since there is no reason for it. Go back to your homes.”

An Old Friend

The clerk stepped down from the platform, and the crowd slowly began to disperse. Cora fought against the flow of people to make her way to her cousin.

“Gaius!” she exclaimed, at last breaking free from the swarm of people.

“Cora? Is that you?” Gaius said in surprise before pulling her into a warm embrace. “I thought I would never see you again!”

“Neither did I,” replied Cora with a smile. “There is much to discuss, but we must first find a safe place.” She lowered her voice. “I’m in a bit of trouble.” 

“Of course, of course,” Gaius replied. “Let me introduce you to my companion, Aristarchus. He knows where we can go to spend the night out of harm’s way.”

“I don’t think you understand. I’m a runaway slave.”

Gaius’s eyes widened. “I see,” he rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “I must consult Paul first, but I think after what happened here today, it is no longer safe for us to preach in Ephesus. Why don’t you join us for Macedonia? We were planning to return there.”  

“Anything to leave Ephesus,” Cora whispered quickly, “I can’t risk being caught.” She rubbed the sore spot on her shoulder. So long, Demetrius.

Part 5: Leaving Ephesus

A Roman merchant ship heading out to open water.
An artist’s rendering of a Roman corbita. Credit: Adonis Kotzias/3D Links Gallery

The fresh breeze off the Aegean Sea lifted Cora’s spirits. I’m going home! Home to Macedonia. A million questions ran through her mind. Will my family be living in the same insula? Did being sold into slavery actually help them? What will Father think? I don’t know if I can even face him again. She knew one thing for sure: she could never live with her family again. As a runaway slave, she would be putting them in great danger.

A gruff voice from the wharf caught Cora’s attention. “I’m looking for a young woman wearing a gray stola, olive-colored skin, about this high.” The man motioned with his hands. “She’s a runaway slave.”

A slavecatcher! Cora looked down at her clothing. She hadn’t changed stolas since yesterday. She grasped desperately at Aristarchus. “Hide me, quick!”

“I haven’t seen anyone fitting that description,” Gaius replied calmly to the man holding a set of chains. 

“Then you certainly won’t mind a quick search of your ship.” The man brushed past Gaius, striding up the gangway. 

Cora heard the heavy steps coming down into the hold. She was wedged between a bag of flour and a sharp wooden box. The man moved closer to her hiding spot, tossing goods out of his way. 

“I’m going to find you, little rascal,” the slavecatcher spit. “Demetrius is paying me a hefty sum for this job.” 

Cora held her breath. 

“Why would a runaway slave hide on our ship?” Gaius asked loudly. “My companions and I are part of the Way.”

The man recoiled at this news. “I don’t want anything to do with you blasphemers. Artemis may punish me.” He returned quickly up the stairs, leaving the ship with a fearful glance. 

A New Faith

Cora slowly released the breath she had been holding. 

“Praise Jesus they didn’t find you!” Gaius hugged her tightly. Praise Jesus? What about Artemis? Cora hadn’t really thought about the faith her cousin now believed in. She echoed her thoughts out loud, looking at Gaius’ face for a hint of disapproval. 

“I don’t blame you for worshipping all the gods and goddesses you’ve known growing up in Macedonia, and now in Ephesus. But those are false gods. There is only one true God.”

Cora looked at Gaius in surprise. “One god? Controlling everything? How can this be?” 

Gaius laughed at her questioning face. “Don’t worry, I will have plenty of time to explain everything, now that we’re free to set sail.”

Cora looked at the open water that now separated them from Ephesus. She was uncertain of what her future would hold, what religion she believed in, and how her family would receive her back in Macedonia. But of one thing, she was sure: her life as a slave was over.  

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