One of the oldest and most prominent cities of ancient Greece. Corinth’s importance resulted in large degree from its immensely strategic location at the western side of the isthmus or narrow neck of land connecting the central or mainland part of Greece with the southern peninsula, the Peloponnesus. All land traffic, commercial or otherwise, going N and S had to pass Corinth in traversing the isthmus, which at its narrowest point measures only three and a half miles (5.6 kilometers) across. But international maritime traffic was drawn to Corinth as well, for navigators generally preferred to make use of this isthmus between the Gulf of Corinth and the Saronic Gulf rather than risk the dangerous two-hundred-mile (321.8-kilometer) trip around the storm-swept capes at the southern end of the peninsula. Thus, ships from Italy, Sicily and Spain sailed across the Ionian Sea, through the hundred-mile-long (c. 161-kilometer-long) Gulf of Corinth, and docked at the deep-water harbor of Lechaeum, the western port city tied in with Corinth by long walls. Ships from Asia Minor, Syria and Egypt came through the Aegean Sea and anchored at the eastern port facilities of Cenchreae, or perhaps at the smaller port of Schoenus. (Rom. 16:1) Merchandise from large vessels was unloaded at one harbor and transported the few miles overland to the other, there to be transshipped. Smaller vessels, with their cargoes aboard, were hauled across the isthmus by means of some kind of shipway called the diʹol·kos (Gr., “haul-across”). With good reason the isthmus of Corinth was known as “the bridge of the sea.”
Adding to Corinth’s strategic importance, particularly in a military sense, was its position at the northern foot of the Acrocorinth, a steep rocky hill that towers some 1,500 feet (457.2 meters) above the city and 1,857 feet (c. 566 meters) above sea level. Its fiat top provided an impregnable site for military installations. From here, on a clear day, one can see the Acropolis of Athens, some forty miles (64.4 kilometers) distant.
The initial history of this ancient city is obscure. It was already flourishing in the seventh century B.C.E., when the Isthmian Games, celebrated every two years and drawn on by the apostle Paul for some of his most striking illustrations, were established at the isthmian Temple of Poseidon (the Greek god of the sea and counterpart of the Roman Neptune). (1 Cor. 9:24-27) From the fourth century B.C.E. onward Corinth was generally under Macedonian domination until its liberation by the Romans in 196 B.C.E. As an independent city-state it joined other cities in the Achaean League, became involved in opposition to Rome and was destroyed by Roman consul L. Mummius in 146 B.C.E., its men slaughtered and its women and children sold into slavery. For a century it lay relatively desolate until Julius Caesar, in 44 B.C.E. (some say 46 B.C.E.), refounded the city as a Roman colony, Colonia Laus Julia Corinthiensis. Achaia, as the Romans called Greece apart from Macedonia, became a Roman senatorial province during the reign of Caesar Augustus and Corinth was made the capital.
INDUSTRY AND BUILDINGS
The city of Corinth at which Paul arrived about the year 50 C.E., therefore, was a bustling crossroads of commerce and a political center. The tolls levied on the cargoes flowing across the isthmus contributed much to Corinth’s wealth, but it was also an industrial center, famous for its pottery and bronzeware. The city itself was built on two terraces, one about one hundred feet (30.5 meters) above the other. At its center was the spacious Agora or marketplace, lined with colonnades and public buildings. Rows of shops opened out onto the marketplace, some of the remains discovered giving evidence of shops used for the sale of meat and other foodstuffs, as well as wine. The word macellum was applied to one shop in an inscription. This term is the Latin equivalent of the Greek maʹkel·lon, used by Paul in referring to the “meat market” at 1 Corinthians 10:25. Another inscription found on a step read “Lucius, the butcher.” An unusual feature was that all these shops were serviced with fresh water flowing from a natural fountain through subterranean channels into individual wells in each shop. Evidently this allowed for cooling perishable products.
Near the center of the Agora, excavations revealed an elevated outdoor speakers’ stand called the Bema or Rostra, extending out from the terrace that divided the upper and lower levels of the Agora. Built of white and blue marble and richly decorated with delicate carvings, the stand had two waiting rooms alongside with mosaic floors and marble benches. The Bema is believed to be the “judgment seat” where Jews opposed to the Christian message brought Paul for a hearing before proconsul Gallio. (Acts 18:12-16) An inscription found at Delphi, a city on the N side of the Bay of Corinth, bears the name of Gallio and indicates that he was proconsul at Corinth during 51 and 52 C.E.—See GALLIO.
To the NW of the marketplace stood two theaters, once capable of holding some eighteen thousand persons. Corinthian Christians could well appreciate Paul’s reference to the apostles’ being “a theatrical spectacle to the world.” (1 Cor. 4:9) In a plaza near the theater, archaeologists found an inscription mentioning a certain Erastus who bore the Latin title of aedile, translated by some as “commissioner of public works.” This Erastus could be the “city steward” of the same name mentioned by Paul when writing to the Romans from Corinth. (Rom. 16:23) The Greek term used by Paul (oi·ko·noʹmos) means, basically, “one who manages” or “an administrator.”—See ERASTUS No. 2.
RELIGION AND CULTURE
Notable as Corinth was as a seat of governmental authority and as the leading commercial city of Greece, in the minds of many persons the city symbolized licentiousness and wanton luxury, so much so that the expression “to corinthianize” came into use as meaning “to practice whoredom.” This sensuality was a product of Corinthian worship, particularly of the goddess Aphrodite (counterpart of the Roman Venus, the Phoenician and Canaanite Astarte, and the Babylonian Ishtar). A temple dedicated to her worship sat on top of the Acrocorinthus and one thousand female slaves served Aphrodite as temple prostitutes. Paul had good reason for giving the Corinthian Christians strong counsel and warning regarding moral conduct. (1 Cor. 6:9–7:11; 2 Cor. 12:21) Corinth, of course, had temples to many other gods and goddesses. At the temple of Asklepios, the god of healing, archaeologists have found flesh-colored terra-cotta representations of parts of the human body. These were left at the temple as votive offerings by worshipers, each offering representing the particular afflicted member (hand, foot, breast, and so forth) of the worshiper.
The population of Corinth at the peak of its power has been estimated as 200,000 free residents, with perhaps twice that many slaves. In Paul’s day it was a cosmopolitan city, with people from many lands and races. Besides the Greeks, there was a considerable segment of Italians, descended from the earlier colonizers. Many of the Corinthian disciples bore Latin names, such as Justus, Tertius, Quartus, Gaius, Crispus, Fortunatus and Achaicus. (Acts 18:7; Rom. 16:22, 23; 1 Cor. 1:14; 16:17) A large number of Jews had settled there and established a synagogue, drawing some Greek adherents. (Acts 18:4) There was also a constant flow of travelers and merchants, besides those seeking pleasure at this entertainment and athletic center. Doubtless this contributed to a more broad-minded attitude than that prevailing in other cities visited by the apostle, including Athens, the center of Greek culture. Paul received a vision assuring him that Corinth contained many righteously disposed persons and so he spent a year and six months at this strategic meeting place of the East and the West. (Acts 18:9-11) During this time he likely wrote his two letters to the Thessalonians.
Paul’s associates in tentmaking and fellow Christians, Aquila and Priscilla, went with him when he finally sailed from the eastern port of Cenchreae heading across the Aegean Sea to Ephesus in Asia Minor. (Acts 18:18, 19) Eloquent Apollos, however, followed up Paul’s activity, watering the seeds sown in Corinth. (Acts 18:24-28; 19:1; 1 Cor. 3:6) Paul showed deep concern for the congregation he had formed in Corinth, dispatching Titus to represent him there on two visits, as well as writing his two weighty letters to the Corinthian congregation. (2 Cor. 7:6, 7, 13; 8:6, 16, 17; 12:17, 18) Unable to make a planned stopover visit with them in transit to Macedonia (2 Cor. 1:15, 16, 23), Paul, nevertheless, did spend three months in Greece later on, probably in 55-56 C.E., and spent part of the time in Corinth, writing his letter to the Romans from there.—Acts 20:2, 3; Rom. 16:1, 23; 1 Cor. 1:14; see CORINTHIANS, LETTERS TO THE.
[Picture on page 378]
Bema in foreground, with Acrocorinth in background