Ancient Corinth—Prosperous and Licentious
THE ancient city of Corinth was famed for its wealth, luxury and licentiousness. In this respect it was not unlike modern Western civilization with its material prosperity and emphasis on sex. Information regarding Corinth helps us better to understand Paul’s letters to the Corinthians as well as to appreciate the timeliness of their counsel.
The first Corinth was a thriving metropolis when there still were kings sitting on the throne of Jehovah in Jerusalem. The city was situated on a narrow stretch of land toward the base of the Acrocorinth, a natural rocky fortress some 1,900 feet high. This narrow stretch of land between two seas connected the peninsula of Peloponnesos with the northern part of Greece and was termed “the bridge of the sea,” or isthmos, from which we get our modern term “isthmus,” meaning a narrow strip of land between two seas.
Corinth was favored with a seaport on each sea, one the terminus of Asiatic sea lanes, the other the terminus of those of Italy. Great quantities of goods were transported across the isthmus from one port to the other. Corinth became the wealthiest city of Greece. It also became “one of the most ancient cradles of art.” Corinthian columns were extremely ornate and widely imitated.
Corinth “possessed all the splendor that wealth and luxury could create.” “Not everyone can afford to sail to Corinth” ran a proverb. With its luxury went immorality, abetted by the worship of the “queen of heaven,” Aphrodite, the goddess of “love” and beauty, causing Corinth also to be known as the most licentious city of ancient Greece. At the sanctuary of this goddess a thousand hieroduli, or priestesses, offered their bodies to strangers in proof of their devotion to Aphrodite. Corinth’s hetaerae, or paramours, were notorious both for their fiendish beauty and the high price they charged for their favors. Corinthiázesthai meant “practicing the pander’s occupation.” Male and female libertines were known as “Corinthiasts” and “Corinthian girls.”
In 146 B.C., Roman General Mommius destroyed Corinth, plundering many of its art treasures for commercial reasons. A century later, in 46 B.C., Julius Caesar rebuilt the city and peopled it with Romans and Greeks. While “between the new Corinth and the old the site was the only bond of connection, yet the historical splendors of the place seem to have mastered the minds of the new inhabitants, who before long began to resume all the local cults, and to claim [its] past glory their own.” (Encyclopedia Britannica) Again Corinth became famed as a city both prosperous and licentious. It was this Corinth that Paul visited about A.D. 50, staying for eighteen months and establishing a congregation.
After that Corinth was repeatedly taken by the Turks, Franks, Venetians, etc., and was once leveled by an earthquake. Modern Corinth, Korinthos, lies six miles from the ancient city’s site and has a population of some 18,000. Like its two ancient namesakes, it is an important transportation center. In it are to be found two thriving congregations of Jehovah’s witnesses. Incidentally, on the original site lies Ancient Corinth, a town of about 1,000.
The foregoing facts throw light on Paul’s two letters to the congregation at Corinth that he established. They explain why Paul spoke so strongly about right conduct and pure worship, especially in chapters five through seven of his first letter. In fact, Paul mentions fornication oftener in these two letters than in his other twelve. It also explains why he counseled the Corinthians that it was better to marry than to be distracted by passion.
In view of Corinth’s prosperity we can well understand Paul’s censuring the brothers there for their lack of hospitality, why he stressed that each one should give according to what he has and why he reminded them that “he that sows sparingly will also reap sparingly.” While Paul’s counsel regarding generous giving and clean living is ever fitting and timely, it does have peculiar force to all such as may be living in places that, like the ancient Corinths, are prosperous and licentious.—2 Cor. 9:6.