Philippi was a major city in Greece on the Aegean Sea at the foot of Mount Lekani. Originally called Crenides, the city was renamed by Philip II of Macedon in 356 BC. Today, Philippi lies in ruins in the region of Filippoi, which now belongs to East Macedonia and Thrace. Since 2016, the ancient ruins have been classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
In the New Testament, Paul’s letters to the church at Philippi are recorded in the Epistle to the Philippians. The apostle first visited the city with Silas and possibly Luke, the Gospel writer, in either AD 49 or 50 during his second missionary journey. “From there we travelled to Philippi, a Roman colony and the leading city of that district of Macedonia. And we stayed there several days.” (Acts 16:12) Whilst there, Paul met a woman who dealt in cloth named Lydia who converted to Christianity after hearing Paul’s message.
Philippi had become a Roman city in 42 BC, two years after the assassination of Julius Caesar. The assassins, Marcus Junius Brutus and Gaius Cassius Longinus escaped from Italy to Greece where Caesar’s heirs Mark Antony and Octavian eventually defeated them at the Battle of Philippi. Following this, veteran soldiers were released from Antony and Octavian’s armies and encouraged to colonise city. When Octavian became the Roman Emperor Augustus in 27 BC, he continued to encourage the colonisation, renaming the city Colonia Augusta Iulia Philippensis.
By the time Paul reached Philippi, the city was likened to a “miniature Rome” under the municipal law of the Romans. Philippi is thought to be the first European location visited by Paul and, therefore, could be the first introduction of Christianity to the continent.
“Moreover, as you Philippians know, in the early days of your acquaintance with the gospel, when I set out from Macedonia, not one church shared with me in the matter of giving and receiving, except you only.” (Philippians 4:15) In his letter, Paul includes a short thank you note to the Philippians regarding their hospitality and the gifts they had subsequently sent to him. This, however, goes slightly against Paul’s claim in his letter to the Thessalonians in which he declares “We had previously suffered and been treated outrageously in Philippi” (Thessalonians 2:2). Nonetheless, a small church was erected in Philippi and named the Basilica of Paul after the prophet.
Although it had the oldest congregation in Europe, Philippi did not become a bishopric until the 4th century. Over the following two centuries, many ecclesiastical buildings were erected, including seven churches. At the end of the 5th century, a cathedral took the place of the original Basilica of Paul, which is said to have rivalled the churches of Constantinople.
Philippi was a heavily fortified city, which helped it survive Slavic invasions during the 6th century, however, a pandemic in 547 known as the Plague of Justinian significantly weakened the city’s population. An earthquake in 619 almost flattened the city and, although people remained in the area, it was no bigger than a village by the end of the 7th century. It is thought the Byzantine Empire used the village as a garrison, however, the area was captured by the Bulgarians in 838. By the 900s, the Byzantine Empire had reclaimed the former city and Emperor Nicephorus II Phocas rebuilt the fortifications. Philippi began to grow and prosper once more, becoming a centre of business and wine production by 1150.
After the fourth Crusade, Philippi was captured by the Serbs but continued to thrive. What happened after this, however, is not certain. Whether gradual or sudden, the city was abandoned and by the 1540s, all that remained were ruins.
Philippi is now a graveyard of once splendid buildings; a sorry end for one of the first Christian European cities. Still standing is the entrance to an Ancient Greek-style theatre and relief decorations by Philip II (4th century BC). Many of the columns forming the Roman forum still stand, however, whatever they supported has crumbled away. Roman gravestones can still be deciphered in places and a floor mosaic containing the name of St Paul indicates where the basilica once stood.
It is a shame there is not much left of the city, however, Philippi will be eternally remembered through Paul’s letters to the Philippians.
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Rev'd Martin Wheadon