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Notebook: Great Cities of the Bible - Philippi

J Grant

Macedonian Philippi

Philippi is situated at the north of the Aegean Sea, ten miles inland from the Gulf of Neapolis, and is named after Philip of Macedon, father of Alexander the Great. He ascended the throne of the kingdom of Macedonia in 359 BC and proved himself to be a skilled diplomat and soldier, greatly strengthening his kingdom and extending its boundaries. In 356 BC the citizens of Crenides, which means "Wells" requested him to become their protector. He annexed the town to his kingdom, mainly because of the gold deposits in the area, and gave it the name Philippi. The city, however, was allowed to retain its autonomy and political system. The second objective in annexing the town was to install a garrison at a strategic point. The site controlled the route between Amphipolis and Neapolis. This was part of the great route which crossed Macedonia from the east to the west and which was reconstructed later by the Roman Empire as the Via Egnatia, a vital link joining the eastern provinces of the empire to those in the west.

The gold reserves added greatly to Philip’s income, very necessary for the political and military pursuit of his aims. The north-west of the city was a marsh, and when this was drained it provided a new area for use in agriculture. Combined with the gold industry this enhanced further the wealth of the city which was to be seen in the theatre and other buildings which displayed its prosperity and importance. When the Romans invaded in 167 BC, however, Philippi was not chosen as the capital of the Roman controlled area as by that time the gold reserves were depleted and the city was much diminished in wealth and influence.

Roman Philippi

It was not until the civil war, which followed the assassination of Julius Caesar, that Philippi became prominent again. In October, 42 BC the armies of Brutus and Cassius met those of Mark Antony and Octavian in the plain situated on the west of the city. The forces of Brutus and Cassius, two of those who were involved in the murder of Julius Caesar (44 BC), were defeated. After the battle Philippi was given the honour of being a Roman colony, Colonia Julia Philippensis, designated as a home for ex-legionaries. Some 11 years later Octavian, after defeating Mark Antony at the battle of Actium, became the first Roman emperor, taking the title Augustus. Philippi then became Colonia Julia Augusta Victrix Philippensium. These battles, therefore, were critical in the transformation of the Roman Republic into the Roman Empire.

To be designated a Roman colony brought with it great privileges. "During the empire, colonies were showcases of Roman culture and examples of the Roman way of life. The native population of the provinces could see how they were expected to live. Because of this function, the promotion of a town to the status of colonia civium Romanorum implied that all citizens received full citizen rights and dedicated a temple to the Capitoline triad: Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva, the deities venerated in the temple of Jupiter"1 in Rome.

Retired legionaries in Philippi were given Roman citizenship due to their loyal service. Each veteran received a grant of land from the Emperor. Remarkably, legionnaires who had fought for Mark Antony were given this honour. "Within a few years after Augustus’ defeat of Antony at the battle of Actium (30 BC), as many as 500 more Roman soldiers - mostly veterans of Antony’s praetorian guard who had lost their claims to land in Italy - received allotments and accompanying privileges in Philippi"2 . The Jus Italicum, was conferred. This was the law which covered the Italian Peninsula, and which differed from the law of the provinces. Economic privileges, such as exemption from tribute etc. and political privileges, such as freedom from interference from the provincial governor, were enjoyed. The city was controlled by praetores (civic commanders), magistrates who administrated justice. "Philippi as a Roman colony had two magistrates, who were normally called duoviri (meaning two men), but who preferred the more dignified title of Praetor"3. There were also lictores (constables), sometimes called "rod carriers". These were the official attendants to the magistrates, and were responsible to act as police. As symbols of their office they carried their fasces, bundles of rods with an axe placed among them. The message this gave was that the magistrates had the authority to inflict punishment, both corporal and capital.

Being a citizen of Rome brought exemption from certain forms of punishment, such as scourging, beating, and crucifixion. When put on trial it gave the right to appeal to the Emperor. In a colony the language they relished was Latin and their dress and currency were Roman. The citizens of Philippi, therefore, although Romans, were living as a colony, surrounded by a society that did not have the privileges and standing that they enjoyed. Their whole manner of life and the privileges they enjoyed differed greatly from those who lived around them.

Roman citizenship, as has been noted above, was conferred as recognition of faithful service rendered to the Roman state, and also by purchase. Paul was a freeborn Roman (Acts 22.25,28). His father or grandfather most probably purchased this. The chief captain who was responsible for his safety after his arrest in Jerusalem had purchased his citizenship at great cost.

Philippi in the Acts of the Apostles

On his second missionary journey Paul and Silas travelled from Antioch through the Roman provinces of Syria and Cilicia and then into Galatia where he visited Derbe and Lystra. Timothy joined them there and they continued travelling west until they reached the port of Troas on the Aegean Sea. It was there that a vision appeared to Paul: a man of Macedonia calling, "Come over into Macedonia, and help us" (Acts 16.9). Responding to this call, Paul and those accompanying him travelled by sea over to the port of Neapolis, near to Philippi. Although Philippi was not the capital of the Roman province, Luke confirmed its importance, stating that it was the "chief city of that part of Macedonia" (Acts 16.12).

Strategically, therefore, Philippi was an ideal place to plant the good seed of the gospel. Many have commented that it was the first city in Europe where there is a record of the preaching of the gospel, but it must be remembered that "Europe" as a region or continent did not exist at that time. The neighbouring port and the Egnatian Way mentioned above, with the passing traffic on that vital highway, made it a centre through which many would pass, a great advantage in preaching the Word.

But Philippi was still a centre of spiritism, demon possession, and idolatry. This was a well-established industry that brought wealth to its practitioners, and when the power of the gospel was displayed in the deliverance of a young woman from the spirit that possessed her, her masters acted. Paul and Silas were called before the magistrates, scourged, and imprisoned. The authorities, however, acted in haste, not thinking it possible that either of these two men were Roman citizens. That evening there was an earthquake and the keeper of the prison and his family were saved and baptised.

On the morning the magistrates sent word that Paul and Silas were to be released and had to depart from the city. What fear must have gripped their hearts when they learned that these two men were Roman citizens! Paul’s insistence that the magistrates should come to him was no doubt partly to show that care had to be taken when dealing with those Christians who would remain when he departed. Six years later, on his third missionary journey, Paul paid another visit to Philippi (Acts 20.1-6).

The Epistle to the Philippians

Paul was writing to those who lived in a city where citizenship was an important issue. Their separation from the local population around them was jealously guarded. The apostle, however, deals with the other citizenship possessed by believers, and teaches the Christians that they enjoy a citizenship of far greater worth than that of Rome. "Our citizenship is in heaven", he declared, and it is from there that we are looking for the Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ (Phil 3.20). They were not looking for the coming of some important personage from Rome. One, whom they served and loved, was coming one day. Far greater present privileges and far greater prospects were the possessions of those who were citizens of heaven, surrounded by others whose manner of life was different from that of Christians.

1 J Lendering.

2 The Anchor Bible Dictionary, Doubleday, 1999.

3 Ranks of Roman government and army found in the book of Acts. J Spring.


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