A Journey to Ancient Corinth
“A RENOWNED and voluptuous city, where the vices of East and West met.” That was ancient Corinth. It has also been said that the city’s wealth “was so celebrated as to be proverbial.”
What kind of city would merit those descriptions? Could anyone profit from a “journey” to such a place? We shall see.
Corinth Becomes a Flourishing City
Ancient Corinth was situated on the narrow isthmus connecting the Peloponnesus and mainland Greece. To the east lay the Saronic Gulf and the Aegean Sea, and to the west the Gulf of Corinth and the Ionian Sea. The city was strategically located at the northern base of the Acrocorinth, a steep, rocky hill 1,857 feet (566 meters) above sea level.
Originally but a small town, Corinth was a flourishing city by the seventh century before the Common Era. Early settlers had included the Phoenicians, who may have introduced weaving, dyeing and other crafts. Next came the people of Attica, then the Dorians and eventually the Macedonians. The Romans freed the city in 196 B.C.E. As an independent city-state, Corinth joined the Achaean League, became involved in opposition to Rome, and was burned by Roman consul L. Mummius in 146 B.C.E. The city lay nearly desolate until founded as a Roman colony by Julius Caesar in 44 B.C.E. By the first century of the Common Era, it was the capital of the Roman province of Achaia and was ruled by a proconsul.
With some 200,000 free residents and perhaps more than twice that many slaves at the peak of its power, Corinth was indeed a bustling city. Among its residents were Greeks, some Italians and quite a number of Jews. But the streets were filled with many foreign merchants and travelers, visiting for business or pleasure.
“The Bridge of the Sea”
Overland trade routes passed through Corinth. Also, seagoing vessels brought goods to the city’s ports, Cenchreae, eight and a half miles (13.6 kilometers) to the east on the Saronic Gulf, and Lechaeum, on the Gulf of Corinth a mile and a half (2.4 kilometers) to the west. Some ships anchored at Schoenus, a small eastern port.
If the articles aboard ship were bound for points farther east or west, how could they be taken across the isthmus? Some men thought of constructing a canal. In fact, Roman Emperor Nero actually began such a project in about 66 or 67 C.E., only to abandon it to attend to more pressing matters elsewhere. Centuries were to pass before such a waterway was completed, in 1893. That four-mile (6.4-kilometer) canal linking the Gulf of Corinth and the Saronic Gulf is still in use.
But no canal existed on the isthmus during Corinth’s heyday. Large vessels were unloaded at one port and their cargoes transported overland to the other harbor. Then the goods were loaded onto another ship and sent to their destinations. However, smaller vessels were hauled across the isthmus with their goods aboard. This was accomplished by means of a shipway with rails of wood. The Greeks called it the diʹol·kos, meaning the “haul-across.” With good reason, then, the isthmus of Corinth was called “the bridge of the sea.” Most mariners were willing to cope with the problems of overland transport across the isthmus in preference to a 200-mile (322-kilometer) voyage around the peninsula’s storm-swept capes to the south.
“The Eye of All Greece”
Corinth also was a seat of learning. So true was this that the Roman orator, writer and statesman Cicero (106-43 B.C.E.) called the city totius Græciæ lumen, that is, “the eye of all Greece.”
True, a number of Corinth’s residents were well educated. Yet, many Corinthians engaged in activities that were morally corrupt. For that matter, the expression “to corinthianize” meant ‘to practice fornication,’ and a “Corinthian damsel” signified a harlot. Do you wonder what contributed to such moral laxity in this city termed “the eye of all Greece”?
False religion was a major factor. Consider, for instance, the worship of the goddess Aphrodite (the Roman Venus). Her resplendent sanctuary stood atop the Acrocorinth, towering some 1,500 feet (457 meters) above the city. “The temple of Venus,” wrote Bible commentator Adam Clarke, “was not only very splendid, but also very rich, and maintained, according to Strabo, not less than 1000 courtesans, who were the means of bringing an immense concourse of strangers to the place.”
But how could a visitor to Corinth ignore the impressive temple of Apollo? What about those sanctuaries built to such deities as Jupiter, Hera and Asklepios, the god of healing? Why, statues of heroes and gods lined Corinth’s streets and public squares! Moreover, Adam Clarke commented: “Public prostitution formed a considerable part of their religion; and they were accustomed in their public prayers, to request the gods to multiply their prostitutes!”
Christianity Makes Its Mark
Into such an environment came the Christian apostle Paul about the year 50 C.E. In Corinth, he made tents along with the Jew Aquila and his wife Priscilla. Doubtless all three also cooperated in building up the new Christian congregation in that city. Paul “would give a talk in the synagogue every sabbath and would persuade Jews and Greeks,” those Greeks evidently being proselytes to the Jews’ religion. Encountering Jewish opposition and verbal abuse, the apostle turned his attention to people of the nations and transferred to the house of Titius Justus, adjoining the synagogue. Paul’s preaching bore fruit as Crispus, the synagogue’s presiding officer, his household, and many persons became believers.—Acts 18:1-8.
By night the Lord appeared to Paul in vision and said: “Have no fear, but keep on speaking and do not keep silent, because I am with you and no man will assault you so as to do you injury; for I have many people in this city.” So, the apostle remained in Corinth a year and a half, “teaching among them the word of God.” He thus planted “seed” in the Corinthian field. Some time after Paul, Aquila and Priscilla departed, Apollos “watered” that “seed” by further teaching. Of course, it was God who brought forth growth by means of His active force, the holy spirit.—Acts 18:9-11, 18-28; 19:1; 1 Cor. 3:5-9.
Probably in 55-56 C.E., Paul spent three months in Greece, visiting Corinth and writing to Roman Christians from that city. (Acts 20:2, 3; Rom. 16:1, 23; 1 Cor. 1:14) That the apostle had love for his fellow believers in Corinth is evident from the two inspired letters he wrote to the congregation there. In the second of these, Paul made it clear that his heart had “widened out” in its affections to embrace the Christians of that renowned city. (1 Cor. 1:1, 2; 2 Cor. 1:1; 6:11) Moreover, those letters contained remarks that had special significance for Corinthians.
For instance, Corinth teemed with fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, homosexuals, thieves, greedy persons, drunkards, revilers and extortioners. Paul plainly said that such individuals would not inherit God’s kingdom. True, some Corinthian Christians had been persons of that sort. But, how thankful they were that, as Paul said, they had been ‘washed clean, sanctified, declared righteous in Jesus’ name and with the spirit of God’! (1 Cor. 6:9-11) Moreover, thought provoking was the apostle’s counsel to “be babes as to badness.” Obviously, that meant not seeking knowledge of corrupt, immoral things, but, rather, remaining as innocent as very young children regarding wickedness.—1 Cor. 14:20.
A Walk Through Corinth
Ancient Corinth was built on two terraces, one about a hundred feet (30 meters) above the other. At the city’s center was the Agora, or marketplace, lined with monuments and colonnades. Opening into it were rows of shops that sold various items. On the doorstep of one shop appeared an inscription reading “Lucius, the butcher.” In another inscription was found the Latin term macellum. Paul used a form of its Greek equivalent maʹkel·lon in saying, “Everything that is sold in a meat market keep eating.” (1 Cor. 10:25) When Corinthian Christians heard those words, likely they thought of a local macellum or meat market.
Many of the Agora’s shops had provisions for fresh water. It flowed from a natural fountain through an underground channel into individual wells in each shop. Among other things, this apparently allowed proprietors to lower foods into the water, thus keeping them cool and helping to preserve perishables.
The Agora was in two levels, with shops situated along the line dividing the upper and lower sections. In the midst of these business places was the Bema or Rostra, an elevated platform of white and blue marble replete with decorative carvings. Alongside, on the lower level, were two waiting rooms with marble benches and mosaic floors. Here petitioners could await their turn to appear before a magistrate. Quite a crowd could gather before the Bema; so it was an excellent place for public speaking.
On one occasion, opposing Jews of Corinth rose up against the apostle Paul and took him to the “judgment seat” (Greek, Bema), thought to be the elevated platform just described. There Paul appeared before Proconsul Gallio, but this Roman ruler drove the Jews away, refusing to get involved in their controversies. At that, the persecutors seized Sosthenes, then the synagogue’s presiding officer, and beat him in front of the judgment seat. Possibly this experience led to Sosthenes’ embracing Christianity, for Paul, in opening his first inspired letter to the congregation in Corinth, mentions “Sosthenes our brother.”—Acts 18:12-17; 1 Cor. 1:1, 2.
The Corinthian Christians must have been quite impressed when Paul told them by letter: “We must all be made manifest before the judgment seat [a form of the Greek word Bema] of the Christ.” (2 Cor. 5:10) They could walk into the marketplace and see the Bema, or judgment seat, where mere men rendered judgment. How much more significant to be judged by the glorified Jesus Christ!
Entertainment and Athletics
Theatrical productions were among the attractions of ancient Corinth. In fact, the city had two theaters, one large enough to seat 18,000 persons. Hence, Paul made a very understandable comment when he told Corinthian Christians that the apostles were “a theatrical spectacle to the world, and to angels, and to men.”—1 Cor. 4:9.
Incidentally, near the large theater northwest of the Agora is a plaza paved with limestone blocks. One of these bears a Latin inscription reading, “Erastus, procurator and aedile, laid this pavement at his own expense.” It has been suggested that this Erastus was the same person as “Erastus the city steward” mentioned by Paul when writing to Roman Christians from Corinth.—Rom. 16:23.
Corinth also attracted sports enthusiasts. Every two years, the Isthmian Games were held nearby. It is probable that these originated in honor of Poseidon (Neptune), for a temple to that false god was situated in the southern portion of the isthmus. The contests may have included competitions in music and poetry. But the games also featured such events as chariot racing, running, leaping, dart throwing, boxing and wrestling. What exertions were required of the athlete who sought to win! And what would he receive? The plaudits of men and perhaps a perishable crown.
A Race for Life?
In his first canonical letter to Corinthian Christians, the apostle Paul used the ancient games as an illustration, one that residents of that area could readily understand. “Do you not know that the runners in a race all run, but only one receives the prize?” asked Paul, continuing: “Run in such a way that you may attain it. Moreover, every man taking part in a contest exercises self-control in all things. Now they, of course, do it that they may get a corruptible crown [in the Isthmian Games, it might be of such perishable things as ivy, celery or parsley], but we an incorruptible one [immortal life in heaven].” Then, for their encouragement, Paul used himself as an example, saying: “Therefore, the way I am running is not uncertainly; the way I am directing my blows is so as not to be striking the air; but I pummel my body and lead it as a slave, that, after I have preached to others, I myself should not become disapproved somehow.”—1 Cor. 9:24-27.
Like so many ancient cities, Corinth of old is in ruins today. Modern Corinth is situated three miles (4.8 kilometers) northeast of the former site. So, that “renowned and voluptuous city, where the vices of East and West met,” exists no more. Yet, those desiring to complete the Christian race for eternal life successfully will find the apostle Paul’s counsel in First and Second Corinthians to be encouraging, up-to-date and spiritually rewarding. Why not take your Bible in hand, read those divinely inspired letters, and thus complete your journey to ancient Corinth?
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Gulf of Corinth