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).
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.