How Roman Was First Century Philippi?

When Paul arrived in Philippi in late A.D. 49 the city was one of the most important cities in Eastern Macedonia. Luke refers to Philippi as a “first city” in the region (Acts 16:12). The old Greek city of Philippi was founded in 350 B.C. By Philip II. The Greek city was conquered by the Romans in 86 B.C. and by 42 B.C. it could be described as a “small settlement” (ECM 1151).

Marc Anthony began to settle retired veterans from the 23rd Legion in 42 B.C. after he defeated Cassius and Brutus. After the battle of Actium, Augustus re-founded the city in 31 B.C. as Colonia Iuilia Augusta Philippiensis. There were at least 1000 colonists settled in the city. The city was originally populated by “veterans of Antony’s praetorian guard who had lost their claims to land in Italy” (ABD 5:314).

Ancient Philippi As a colony, Philippi was considered an extension of Rome. The citizens enjoyed Roman citizenship and ius Italicum, a legal status which permitted self-government and tax-exemption to its citizens. Thessalonica was a free city, but Philippi had a higher status as a colony.

The total population of Philippi at the time of time of Paul’s visit was nearly 10,000 with slaves making up about 20% of the population (Verhoef, Philippi, 9, 12). Verhoef suggests the eleven named individuals associated with Philippi implies there were as few as 33 adult members in a city of 10,000.

Religious life in first century Philippi was similar to most Greco-Roman cities. Although it was not as ancient as many Greek cities, Philippi was “rich with pagan connections” (Keener, Acts, 3:2381). On the Acropolis above the city there are “more than 90 sculptures represent Diana, goddess of the hunt” (Verhoef, Philippi). These 90 or so figurines represent around 50 per cent of the total number of pictures and inscriptions that have been found at the acropolis. Consequently Diana must have been incredibly important in the life of the Philippians” (62).

Lynn Cohick suggests several factors which make Philippians fertile ground for Empire studies (“Philippians” in Jesus is Lord, Caesar is Not). First, inscriptional evidence indicates that the imperial cult was present in first century Philippi (169). Second, there is a great deal of citizenship language in Philippians as well as the usual “Jesus is Lord.” Third, there are studies on Philippians that describe Paul as “colonialist and imperialist” as well as those who see Paul as critiquing the Empire. Cohick concludes that if Paul is anti-imperial, it is part of his Jewish context. Certainly there is a challenge to the power of Rome, but that is not very different than any Jew living in the middle of the first century. There were two temples dedicated to Imperial Cult, although it is difficult to know how influential the imperial cult was in first century Philippi.

In the mid first century, the city was populated with “relatively privileged core of Roman veterans and their descendants” as well as Greeks descended from the original inhabitants of the region (ABD 5:315). The Roman veterans owned agricultural estates worked by slaves.

At the time of Paul’s visit to the city, Philippi was a moderately sized Greek city with a strong Roman influence.

Reading Philippians through Roman Eyes

In the previous post I pointed out a few historical details which indicate Philippi was more or less Roman city in the mid-first century. How does this background effect our reading of the letter? There are quite a few things in the letter which are illuminated by this background, let me suggest just three.

First, Paul the Slave vs. Paul the Citizen (Phil 1:1). Paul identifies himself as a slave in the first verse of the letter. The superscription to the letter is unique in that Paul identifies himself solely as a slave and his readers as “overseers and deacons” in the church. Often this is explained either as a reflection of the close personal relationship Paul had with the church (O’Brien) or as a part of the literary genre of “friendship letter” (Fee).

Joe Hellerman sees the titles as a part of Paul’s reconstruction program.  “Paul has a legitimate right to proclaim his apostolic status, but chose instead to refer to himself as a lowly δοῦλος” (Reconstructing Honor, 120).  Paul does not mention his citizenship in Philippians, even though his experience in the city involved his illegal arrest and imprisonment as a citizen. “Citizens who have a citizenship in heaven should live according to the Gospel of Christ. In my opinion, in this verse and in 3:20, Paul contrasts the very desirable Roman citizenship with the citizenship that is connected with heaven” (Verhoef, Philippi, 33).

Second, The Pursuit of Honor (Phil 2:5-11). Jesus considered his equality with God as not “a thing to be grasped.” A “thing to be grasped” (ἁρπαγμός) refers to asserting a title or putting forth a claim for something, or something to be exploited. Think of someone who “makes a claim” for a legal settlement, they think they are entitled to compensation so the “make a claim.” The King James Version had “did not think it robbery,” reflecting the idea of grabbing at something.

In the Roman world, a Citizen of high standing might wear a toga indicating his rank, and expect that others notice it and give him proper deference. Jesus did not consider his rank as God was something he always needed to claim. Paul describes Jesus in this verse as occupying the very highest rank imaginable by anyone in the ancient world, he was in fact God. Yet that position and rank was not something he insisted upon, as the Romans would have done. He set aside that rank in order to humble himself.

The Roman world was based on extreme social stratification. There was a rigid social order in the Roman world, from the extreme minority elites who had virtually all the power to the majority slaves who had absolutely no power. In fact, Roman life can be described as a “Quest for Honor” (cursus honorum).  Hellerman shows the lengths to which a Roman might go in order to gain honor. For example, on the tombstone of C. Luccius (A.D. 134), all of the honors achieved by the man are listed. In contrast to this, Paul offers his own list of honors in Phil 3:5-6, which he considers “rubbish.”

While members of Roman culture were motivated by self-promotion, members of Paul’s churches were to seek the honor of others and to think of others more highly than themselves. This flies in the face of the Roman world, and as Hellerman points out, it flies in the face of power relations within the church (p. 99).

Third, Setting Aside Marks of Honor. In Phil 2:7-8, Jesus emptied himself of his honor and prestige. The meaning of “emptied” is important here. The verb (κενόω) refers to setting the status described in verse 6 in order to be obedient.  There is a great deal of theological weight placed on this word, but the phrase is better understood in terms Roman status, especially in the practice of wearing the toga by Roman elite.

The toga was a sign of elite status in the Roman world. Hellerman makes the point that this would be equivalent to a Roman senator setting aside his toga (his mark of status) and taking on the rags of a slave (also a mark of status). Because of that humble obedience, Jesus is exalted to the highest status imaginable, even above the emperor of Rome! That Jesus is called Lord is counter to a Roman world where Caesar is Lord and worshiped as a god (p. 167). So when he “he emptied himself.” Jesus “divested himself of his prestige or privileges” (BDAG). It is as if he voluntarily set aside his toga, the sign he was the highest ranking Lord in the universe.

Rather than divesting himself of divine attributes, the idea Paul has in mind the humility Jesus had in the incarnation, so much so that the God of the universe could set aside that status in order to serve others.

Rather than having the form of God, Jesus took on the form of a servant. The ESV translates this as servant, but it is the same word as “slave,” the lowest possible social class in the Roman world. Jesus therefore set aside the toga, and picked up the rags of a slave. Think of the Roman emperor stripping himself of the finest clothing available to a Roman citizen and putting on the stained and flea-infested rags of the lowliest slave.

Just as the status of a Roman citizen was evident by what they wore, so too the clothing of a slave signal his status. Even a slave with some social standing would not dress in a toga! The social status of a servant was always viewed negatively in the Roman world.

In modern western culture, a person at a store might say something like “I am at your service” in order to indicate their willingness to help someone. In the Roman world, this would be a shameful expression, a servant was.

Although Jesus was by nature God, he voluntarily took on the nature of a human. In doing so Jesus is the model of humility for the honor-conscious members of the Philippian church.

Honor, Citizenship, and Philippians

It is remarkable that the issue of Paul’s citizenship first arises in Philippi in Acts 16.  Citizenship was not common in the first century, not everyone was guaranteed the privilege of being a citizen of the Empire.  In 28 B.C. there were approximately 4.9 million citizens, by the time of Claudius there were 5.9 million. Most of these lived in Italy or were serving in the army. That Paul was a Roman citizen was significant, but even more so in the city of Philippi.

The city of Philippi was a re-founded as a Roman colony in 42 B.C. after supporting Octavian in the Roman civil wars. Rome settled a number of retired soldiers there in 42 B. C. and again after the battle of Actium in 31 B.C.  As Polhill observes, the city was an impressive Roman city when Paul visited it (P&HL, 161).

One of the most striking features of the city of Philippi was civic pride.  Joe Hellerman summarizes this “the Romanness of Philippi,” citing the catalog of inscriptions now available to scholars. He comments that compared to other cities in the Greek world, Philippi had a “preoccupation with honorific titles and offices which characterized the social priorities of both elite and non-elite persons in the colony.”  Titles mattered to this colony of retired soldiers, since titles were a sign of social significance.  To be a citizen of Rome was to have a higher social standing than the non-citizen.

Paul’s use of citizenship terminology in the letter suggests “that Paul sought intentionally to mimic the honor inscriptions that confronted his readers on a daily basis throughout the colony” (Hellerman, 783).  In fact, Paul uses citizenship as a metaphor only in Philippians.  In 3:20 he describes the believer as a “citizen of heaven” (πολίτευμα).  In 1:27 Paul states that one’s “way of life” ought to be worth of the Gospel.  The word translated “way of life” is πολιτεύομαι, to “be a citizen” (BDAG).

Paul’s point in using this language in Philippians is to show his readers that being “in Christ” is far superior to being “in Rome.”  You may be a citizen of Rome, but that does not matter at all if you are a “citizen of Heaven.”  I imagine that someone in Philippi might have judged a person who was merely a “citizen of Philippi” as socially inferior.  The members of the church, according to Acts 16, included a business woman (Lydia), a retired soldier (the jailer) and perhaps a slave girl (formerly possessed).  That “mix” of social strata is radical in the world of first century Philippi, yet Paul describes them as all citizens of a kingdom far superior to Rome.

If this reading of the citizenship metaphor is correct, then it will change the way we read Paul’s boasting in chapter 3, but also how we read the “Christ Hymn” in 2:5-11.

Bibliography:  Joseph H. Hellerman, “Μορφη Θεου As A Signifier Of Social Status In Philippians 2:6,” JETS 52 (2009), 778-797. This article draws out the implications in the Christ Hymn in detail.