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Aquatic Display: Navigating the Roman Imperial World in Acts 27

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  20 November 2015

Warren Carter*
Brite Divinity School at TCU, PO Box 298130, Fort Worth, TX 76129, USA. Email:


This article reads Acts 27–28.10 as an ‘aquatic display’ that offers Christ-believers a spectacle of navigating the stormy imperial world. It argues that Pliny's Panegyricus similarly employs aquatic displays to instruct in negotiating the emperor Trajan's power. It identifies four means in Acts 27 that assert Rome's power – judicial, military, economic, and the sea as a contested site where the sovereignties of God and Rome compete and cooperate – and which Christ-believers must negotiate by various means including submission, awareness of danger, courage, social interaction, agency, contribution to well-being, and discernment of and contestive allegiance to God's greater sovereignty.

Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2015 

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1 L. Johnson, The Acts of the Apostles (Sacra Pagina 5; Collegeville: Liturgical, 1992) 450, 452.

2 R. Pervo, Profit with Delight: The Literary Genre of the Acts of the Apostles (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1987) 51.

3 Praeder, S. M., ‘Acts 27:1–28:16: Sea Voyages in Ancient Literature and the Theology of Luke-Acts’, CBQ 46 (1984) 683706, esp. 687Google Scholar.

4 For example, B. Witherington, The Acts of the Apostles: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998) 755–6.

5 E. Haenchen, ‘Acta 27’, Zeit und Geschichte: Dankesgabe an R. Bultmann (ed. E. Dinkler; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1964) 235–54.

6 Pervo, Profit with Delight, 51.

7 Pervo, Profit with Delight, 52–3.

8 E. Haenchen, The Acts of the Apostles: A Commentary (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1971) 709.

9 Miles, G. and Trompf, G., ‘Luke and Antiphon: The Theology of Acts 27–28 in the Light of Pagan Beliefs and Divine Retribution, Pollution, and Shipwreck’, HTR 69 (1976) 259–67CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Ladouceur, D., ‘Hellenistic Preconceptions of Shipwreck and Pollution as a Context for Acts 27–28’, HTR 73 (1980) 435–49Google Scholar; Witherington, Acts, 769–70.

10 C. Talbert and J. Hayes, ‘A Theology of Sea Storms in Luke-Acts’, SBL 1995 Seminar Papers (ed. D. Lovering; Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1995) 321–36, esp. 322–5; Praeder, ‘Acts 27:1–28:16’; Huxley, H. H., ‘Storm and Shipwreck in Roman Literature’, Greece & Rome 21.63 (1952) 117–24CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

11 Johnson, Acts, 458; M. Skinner, Locating Paul: Places of Custody as Narrative Settings in Acts 21–28 (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2003) 156–7.

12 Praeder, ‘Acts 27:1–28:16’, 684, 695–706; J. Jipp, Divine Visitations and Hospitality to Strangers in Luke-Acts: An Interpretation of the Malta Episode in Acts 28:1–10 (Leiden: Brill, 2013) 33–7, 254–6.

13 Witherington, Acts, 758.

14 MacDonald, D. R., ‘The Shipwrecks of Odysseus and Paul’, NTS 45 (1999) 88107CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

15 The phrase derives from Coleman, K. M., ‘Launching into History: Aquatic Displays in the Early Empire’, JRS 83 (1993) 4874Google Scholar, who examines the emperor Titus' staging of aquatic displays such as naval battles and re-enacted myths; also Feldherr, A., ‘Ships of State: “Aeneid” 5 and Augustan Circus Spectacle’, Classical Antiquity 14 (1995) 245–65CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

16 M. Bonz, The Past as Legacy: Luke-Acts and Ancient Epic (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2000) 180.

17 This approach has some consonance with those who focus on Paul's exemplary virtues that comprise the ‘Christian Art of Living’; so M. Lang, ‘The Christian and the Roman Self: The Lukan Paul and a Roman Reading’, Christian Body, Christian Self: Concepts of Early Christian Personhood (ed. C. Rothschild and T. Thompson; WUNT 284; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2011) 151–72, esp. 169–72, identifying ‘talking to God … acting philanthropically … seeing the situation clearly … reacting without panic’ (170). J. C. Lentz (Luke's Portrait of Paul (SNTS 77; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993) 94) highlights Paul's virtuous response to adversity, notably bravery, self-control and piety.

18 Also R. Pervo, Acts: A Commentary (Hermeneia; Minneapolis: Fortress, 2009) 652–3. Bate, M. S. (‘Tempestuous Poetry: Storms in Ovid's Metamorphoses, Heroides and Tristia’, Mnemosyne 57 (2004) 295310, esp. 297)CrossRefGoogle Scholar notes that the (literal) storm scene in Odyssey 5 is interpreted both in terms of ‘themes of heroism, justice and order’ elevated to a cosmic level and as ‘a symbolic expression of Odysseus’ internal anxieties' and desire for a reunion with his wife. Analogously, Carrubba, R. (‘The Structure of Horace's Ship of State: Odes 1.14’, Latomus 62 (2003) 606–15, esp. 614–15)Google Scholar notes polyvalent interpretations of the ‘ship of state’ in Horace's Odes 1.14, as a historical reference to the campaign of Philippi, as a ‘ship-of-love’ and as a ‘life- or poetic-journey’.

19 Steve Moyise labels this form of intertextuality ‘Postmodernity Intertextuality’: S. Moyise, ‘Intertextuality and the Study of the Old Testament in the New Testament’, The Old Testament in the New Testament: Essays in Honour of J. L. North (ed. S. Moyise; JSNTSup 189; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2000) 14–41, esp. 33–41.

20 The most sustained discussion is R. Pervo, Dating Acts: Between the Evangelists and the Apologists (Santa Rosa: Polebridge, 2006).

21 Coleman, ‘Launching into History: Aquatic Displays’.

22 C. Williams, ‘Virtus and Imperium: Masculinity and Dominion’, Roman Homosexuality (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 20102) 145–56.

23 I reference Pliny: Letters and Panegyricus, vol. ii (trans. B. Radice; LCL 59; Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1969). For discussion, D. N. Schowalter, The Emperor and the Gods: Images from the Time of Trajan (HDR 28; Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993).

24 Waters, K. H., ‘Traianus Domitiani continuator’, AJP 90 (1969) 385404, esp. 398Google Scholar.

25 Radice, B., ‘Pliny and the Panegyricus’, Greece & Rome 15 (1968) 166–72, esp. 169CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

26 P. Roche, ed., Pliny's Praise: The Panegyricus in the Roman World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011): ‘an exceptionally important speech’ (4).

27 Morford, M., ‘Iubes Esse Liberos: Pliny's Panegyricus and Liberty’, The American Journal of Philology 113 (1992) 575–93, esp. 585–93CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

28 Morford, ‘Iubes Esse Liberos’, 584.

29 P. Roche, ‘Pliny's Thanksgiving: An Introduction to the Panegyricus’, Roche, ed., Pliny's Praise, 6–7; Radice, ‘Pliny and the Panegyricus’, 168.

30 Roche, ‘Pliny's Thanksgiving’, 6–10, esp. n. 14, often with negative examples mostly from Domitian (10–14).

31 In Roche, ed., Pliny's Praise, see Roche, ‘Pliny's Thanksgiving’, 1–4; D. C. Innes, ‘The Panegyricus and Rhetorical Theory’, 67–84; G. Manuwald, ‘Ciceronian Praise as a Step Towards Pliny's Panegyricus’, 85–103.

32 Morford, ‘Iubes Esse Liberos’, 578–82.

33 S. Bartsch, Actors in the Audience: Theatricality and Doublespeak from Nero to Hadrian (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994) 149.

34 Bartsch, Actors, 149–61.

35 Following Bartsch, Actors, 166–9; Roche, ‘Pliny's Thanksgiving’, 14–18, for further examples.

36 Following Bartsch, Actors, 169–87; quotation on p. 169.

37 B. Gibson, ‘Contemporary Contexts’, in Roche, ed., Pliny's Praise, 104–24, also questions Pliny's claim of new speech, noting considerable continuity from Domitian's age and instability in Pliny's claims (116–24).

38 So C. F. Noreña, ‘Self-Fashioning in the Panegyricus’, in Roche, ed., Pliny's Praise, 29–44. Noreña notes that Pliny enhances his own authority and status as consul by highlighting Trajan's laudatory behaviour in his third consulship vis-à-vis the Senate (Pan. 59–64). His final thanks to the Senate are eclipsed by realigning his own career, distancing himself from Domitian in favour of Trajan, and declaring his good intent for his work as consul (Pan. 95).

39 The key work is Manolaraki, E., ‘Political and Rhetorical Seascapes in Pliny's Panegyricus’, Classical Philology 103 (2008) 374–94CrossRefGoogle Scholar; also Morford, ‘Iubes Esse Liberos’, 590–1.

40 For example, Philo, In Flacc. 1.104, ‘the Augustan house;’ Ad Gaium 1.309, Augustus; Ad Gaium 1.141, Tiberius; Ad Gaium 1.44, Gaius Caligula; Josephus, Ant. 19.1, 5–6, 81, Gaius Caligula; J. W. 3.401–2, Vespasian; Juvenal, Sat. 4.37–55, Domitian; Philostratus, Apoll. 7.3, Domitian. Josephus presents Vespasian's son, the future emperor Titus, reminding his troops that they are ‘masters of well nigh every land and sea …’ (J. W. 6.43).

41 Josephus (J. W. 2.367) has Agrippa declare that Roman control of the sea is maintained by ‘forty long ships’.

42 Augustus (Res Gestae 25) claims that he ‘freed the sea from pirates’; Philo (Ad Gaium 1.144–6) describes Augustus as ‘he who cleared the sea of pirate ships and filled it with merchant vessels’.

43 K. C. Hanson and D. E. Oakman, Palestine in the Time of Jesus: Social Structures and Social Conflicts (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1998) 100–6; an inscription, I.Eph 1a.20, in H. Wankel, Die Inschriften von Ephesos, vols. ia–viii.2 (Bonn: Habelt, 1979–84); W. Carter, ‘Master(s) of the Sea? Ephesian Fishermen, John 6.16–21, and John 21’, But These Are Written … Essays on Johannine Literature in Honor of Professor Benny Aker (ed. C. Keener, J. Crenshaw, J. D. May; Eugene: Pickwick, 2014) 65–79.

44 Compare Philo, who hails Augustus as ‘the Caesar who calmed the torrential storms …’ (Ad Gaium 1.143–6).

45 Manolaraki, ‘Seascapes’, 375–6 notes that Pliny uses the same image in Ep. 10.1 (ad gubernacula rei publicae); also Livy 4.3.17; 24.8.13; Horace, Odes 1.14; R. G. M. Nisbet and M. Hubbard, A Commentary on Horace: Odes, Book 1 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1970) 179–82 for literary and possible historical contexts; M. Bonjour, ‘Cicero Nauticus’, Présence de Cicéron: Actes du colloque des 25, 26 Septembre 1982. Hommage au R. P. M. Testard (ed. R. Chevallier; Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 1984) 9–19; N. Thompson, The Ship of State: Statecraft and Politics from Ancient Greece to Democratic America (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001) 167–9.

46 Manolaraki, ‘Seascapes’, 377–9 and literature quoted there.

47 Manolaraki, ‘Seascapes’, 378.

48 Manolaraki, ‘Seascapes’, 379.

49 Manolaraki, ‘Seascapes’, 382–3.

50 Manolaraki, ‘Seascapes’, 383, n. 35 for Cicero's use.

51 Manolaraki, ‘Seascapes’, 376.

52 Manolaraki, ‘Seascapes’, 377.

53 Manolaraki, ‘Seascapes’, 381–2.

54 Manolaraki, ‘Seascapes’, 381.

55 B. Dobson, ‘The Significance of the Centurion and “Primipilaris” in the Roman Army and Administration’, ANRW 2.1 (Berlin: de Gruyter, 1974) 392–434; A. Goldsworthy, The Complete Roman Army (London: Thames and Hudson, 2003) 68–72.

56 Inscriptions attest an ‘Augustan cohort’ in Syria in the first century: ILS 2683 = CIL iii.6687; OGIS 421. Josephus (Ant. 19.365–66; J. W. 2.52) refers to cohorts associated with the city of Sebaste in Samaria under the command of Agrippa I, but their role in transporting prisoners to Rome is unlikely. For discussion, C. J. Hemer, The Book of Acts in the Setting of Hellenistic History (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1989) 132–3; B. Rapske, The Book of Acts in its First Century Settings, vol. iii: The Book of Acts and Paul in Roman Custody (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994) 267–73.

57 Various commentators (e.g. Witherington, Acts, 759) propose that Caesar may have granted one of Julius' ancestors freedom and citizenship.

58 Johnson, Acts, 445.

59 27.2, embarking (ἐπιβάντες), ship (πλοίῳ), sail (πλεῖν), ports (τόπους), put to sea (ἀνήχθημεν); 27.4, put to sea (ἀναχθέντες), sail under shelter (ὑπεπλεύσαμεν), winds (ἀνέμους); 27.5, open sea (πέλαγος), sail through (διαπλεύσαντες); 27.6, ship (πλοῖον), sail (πλέον), put aboard (ἐνεβίβασεν); 27.7, sail slowly (βραδυπλοοῦντες), wind (ἀνέμου), sail under shelter (ὑπεπλεύσαμεν); 27.8, sail along (παραλεγόμενοι).

60 For example, Johnson, Acts, 447; Witherington, Acts, 762–3.

61 God's control of the sea is rooted in creation (Gen 1.6–13). See also Josephus, ConAp 2.121; J. W. 5.218; Ant 1.282; and Philo, In Flacc. 1.123.

62 Verse 1's passive verb ἐκρίθη (‘it was decided’) expresses what seems at first glance to be Paul's subjection to Roman power but, in the light of 27.23–4, it also indicates divine direction.

63 Hemer, Book of Acts, 134.

64 The discussion of ship transportation of grain is extensive. Casson, L., ‘The Role of the State in Rome's Grain Trade’, Memoirs of the American Academy in Rome 36 (1980) 2133CrossRefGoogle Scholar; G. Rickman, The Corn Supply of Ancient Rome (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980); G. Aldrete and D. J. Mattingly, ‘Feeding the City: The Organization, Operation, and Scale of the Supply System for Rome’, Life, Death, and Entertainment in the Roman Empire (ed. D. S. Potter and D. J. Mattingly; Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1999) 171–204, esp. 184–8 on ‘Merchants and Shippers’; Kessler, D. and Temin, P., ‘The Organization of the Grain Trade in the Early Roman Empire’, The Economic History Review 60 (2007) 313–32CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

65 Temin, P., ‘A Market Economy in the Early Roman Empire’, JRS 91 (2001) 169–81, esp. 180Google Scholar.

66 Pliny recounts Trajan, after a harvest failure in Egypt, shipping corn back to Egypt. He exalts Trajan's life-giving powers: ‘even the heavens can never prove so kind as to enrich and favor every land alike but he can banish everywhere the hardships … of sterility and introduce the benefits of fertility’ (Pan. 31–2).

67 P. Erdkamp, The Grain Market in the Roman Empire: A Social, Political, and Economic Study (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005) argues against Josephus' claim (J. W. 2.383–6) that Africa supplied two thirds of Rome's grain while Egypt supplied one third (226–230, 235), claiming that Josephus significantly underplays Egypt's contribution. Erdkamp appeals in part to Pliny, Pan. 31.

68 For what follows, Erdkamp, The Grain Market, 235–7.

69 Akin to the judgement of Revelation 18.

70 Horace, Odes 3.29.63–4; Epictetus, Discourses 2.18.29; Lucian of Samasota, The Ship 9.

71 S. Walton: ‘The State They Were in: Luke's View of the Roman Empire’, Rome in the Bible and the Early Church (ed. P. Oakes; Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002) 1–41, esp. 2–12.

72 H. Conzelmann, The Theology of St. Luke (London: Faber and Faber, 1960) 137–44.

73 P. Walaskay, ‘And So We Came to Rome:’ The Political Perspective of St. Luke (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1983) 60–2.

74 P. Esler, Community and Gospel in Luke-Acts (Cambridge: Cambridge University, 1987) 201–19, esp. 217–19.

75 R. Cassidy, Society and Politics in the Acts of the Apostles (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1987) 145–70.

76 Walton, ‘The State They Were in’, 33–5.

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