Via Egnatia—A Highway That Aided Expansion
BY AWAKE! CORRESPONDENT IN GREECE
IN 50 C.E., a group of Christian missionaries first set foot on European soil. They had come in response to an invitation received by the apostle Paul in a vision: “Step over into Macedonia and help us.” (Acts 16:9) The message about Jesus Christ that Paul and his companions brought had a dramatic impact on Europe.
An important aid to the spread of Christianity in Macedonia was the Via Egnatia, a paved Roman highway. After landing at the seaport of Neapolis (now Kaválla, Greece) at the northern end of the Aegean Sea, the missionaries evidently traveled on that highway to Philippi, the principal city of the district of Macedonia. The road led on to Amphipolis, Apollonia, and Thessalonica, the next stops of Paul and his companions.—Acts 16:11–17:1.
Parts of this ancient highway survive to the present and are still used daily. Now there are plans to construct a modern highway that will follow the route of the ancient road and bear the same name.
Who built the original highway? When was it constructed, and for what purpose?
As Rome continued its conquest eastward, Macedonia became a Roman province in 146 B.C.E. This acquisition, however, created a new need for the empire—the ability to deploy military forces to the new territories quickly. The Via Appia, or Appian Way, on the Italian Peninsula already connected Rome to the southeast Adriatic Coast. But now the empire needed a similar highway on the Balkan Peninsula, so the Via Egnatia was conceived. It was named after the chief engineer of the project, Roman proconsul Gnaius Egnatius.
Starting from the seaport town of Dyrrachium in the province of Illyricum (Durres, Albania), the Via Egnatia extended all the way to the ancient city of Byzantium (Istanbul, Turkey), measuring over 500 miles [800 km]. The construction began in 145 B.C.E. and took some 44 years to complete. As intended, the Via Egnatia soon became a very useful instrument for Rome’s expansionist policy in the East.
Difficult Terrain for a Road
The terrain, however, made the construction of the highway challenging. In its initial stage, for example, the roadway meets Lake Ohrid, which it skirts to the north. Then, after winding through mountain passes and making its way eastward across an inhospitable terrain of punch bowls, denuded mountains, and valley basins partly occupied by lakes, the road eventually reaches the central Macedonian plain.
As the highway approaches the city of Thessalonica, it follows level and open countryside. But the terrain on the east side of the city is hilly. Curving through these hills, the Via Egnatia descends into a valley occupied by lakes with ill-defined, marshy edges. Continuing on, it winds its way through valleys and marshes till it reaches the ancient town of Neapolis.
From there the route follows the Aegean seacoast eastward and crosses into the region of Thrace. In its final segment, the highway takes a rather straight and level course to its destination, Byzantium.
Serving Its Purpose
The Via Egnatia became the most direct and convenient route between Rome and the Roman conquests to the east of the Adriatic Sea. It facilitated the formation of Roman colonies in Macedonian towns and strongly influenced the economic, demographic, and cultural development of the area. The highway made possible the easy transport of copper, asphalt, silver, fish, oil, wine, cheeses, and other items.
Prosperity resulting from such trade made certain towns along the road, such as Thessalonica and Amphipolis, some of the greatest urban centers in the Balkans. Thessalonica, in particular, developed into an important commercial center, rich in artistic and cultural activities. True, the cost of maintaining this road fell partly on the communities through which it passed. But, in return, these communities enjoyed the rich benefits of international trade.
Role in Spread of Christianity
The Via Egnatia, however, brought to the people living in the area a benefit far superior to material prosperity. Take, for example, the prosperous businesswoman Lydia. She lived in Philippi—the first city in Europe to hear Paul preach the good news. After landing at Neapolis in 50 C.E., the apostle Paul and his companions traveled ten miles [16 km] northwest along the Via Egnatia to Philippi.
“On the sabbath day,” Luke wrote, “we went forth outside the gate beside a river, where we were thinking there was a place of prayer; and we sat down and began speaking to the women that had assembled.” Among the women who listened to Paul was Lydia. On that very day, she and her household became believers.—Acts 16:13, 14.
From Philippi, Paul and his associates moved on along the Via Egnatia through Amphipolis and Apollonia to Thessalonica, a total of some 75 miles [120 km]. (Acts 17:1) To preach the good news in Thessalonica, Paul made use of the Sabbath-day gatherings of the Jews in the local synagogue. Thus some Jews and a multitude of Greeks became believers.—Acts 17:2-4.
Likewise today, Jehovah’s Witnesses in Albania and Greece use segments of this same highway to reach people living in these territories. Their goal is to spread the good news of God’s Kingdom, just as the apostle Paul and his missionary companions did. (Matthew 28:19, 20; Acts 1:8) Indeed, the Via Egnatia is a Roman highway that has aided spiritual expansion, both in the 1st century and on into this 20th!
[Maps on page 16, 17]
(For fully formatted text, see publication)
Dyrrachium, Illyricum (Durres, Albania)
SEA OF MARMARA
[Credit Line on page 16]
Mountain High Maps® Copyright © 1995 Digital Wisdom, Inc.
[Picture on page 16]
On the road to Neapolis
[Picture on page 17]
On the road to Philippi