PHILIPPIANS 1 The city of Philippi ("Map 13") in Paul's day boasted a remarkably colorful history:

  • In 359 B.C. the orator Callistratus and some Greek colonists from the island of Thasos founded a colony, called Krenides in northern Greece near Macedonia and Thrace.

  • In 356 B.C. Philip II of Macedon seized the gold mines near the site, fortified the city wall, drained the nearby marshes, con-. strutted a theater, increased the city's size and renamed it after himself.

  • Alexander the Great (the son of Philip II) used Philippi as a base for his conquests.

  • In the second century a.c. Macedonia was captured by the Romans and Philippi became a Roman outpost.

  • In 42 B.C., in the civil war following Julius Caesar's assassination, Octavian (Augustus) and Mark Antony defeated the forces of Cassius and Brutus at a major battle near Philippi.

  • Octavian, also victorious in a subsequent war against Mark Antony and Cleopatra, renamed the city Colonia Julia Augusta Philippensis and settled a number of Roman veterans there.

  • Paul's missionary work in Europe began at Philippi,and it was there that the first baptisms in Europe took place (Ac 16:9-33).

Situated near the Via Egnatia, Philippi lay between Asia and Europe and was thus an excellent base of operations for Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth (Ac 16:14-15), since she could acquire this commodity from the east and sell it to Romans and Greeks in the west.3 Acts 16:12 is sometimes taken to mean that Philippi was the administrative center of the district of Macedonia, but the Greek text of this verse is uncertain and may actually mean that Philippi was "a city of the first district of Macedonia." Evidence from Pliny the Elder (Natural History, 4.38) indicates that the capital city of this region was Amphipolis. A theater that was in use in Paul's day can still be found in Philippi, and a stone crypt near the forum is traditionally identified as Paul's jail (Ac 16:23), although this tradition has not been verified.

The Philippi of Paul's day was essentially a Roman city in Greece. Its Roman citizens enjoyed the same legal rights as those in Italy, and Latin became the common language of the city.The heavy Roman presence in Philippi may account for the greeting from "Caesar's household" in Philippians 4:22. Still, Paul reminded his Christian readers, their citizenship was in heaven (Php 3:20).

Roman Citizenship

PHILIPPIANS 3 Paul was acutely aware of his dual citizenship. In Philippians 3:20 he stated clearly that "our citizenship is in heaven," and he made it clear to the Philippian Christians that this, and not a Jewish pedigree, is what really matters before God. But Paul also knew himself to be a Roman citizen, and in Acts 22:25-29 he claimed the rights of a citizen. (Paul further considered himself a citizen of Tarsus —Ac 21:39—as well as, of course, a loyal Jew.) But what precisely did it mean in the first century A.D. to be a Roman citizen?

Roman citizenship carried with it several important privileges, including the right to vote, exemption from certain taxes, and certain legal protections (although Rome did at times extend citizenship without voting rights to the residents of certain cities). Ancient legal codes did not strive, even in theory, to achieve equality before the law. For example, Roman citizens were not to be tortured and generally were not executed without a judicial process, while noncitizens (and especially slaves)2 were summarily tortured by the authorities.

Over the course of its history, Rome gradually extended citizenship more and more broadly. During the early expansion of Roman power, from the third through the first centuries B.C., Italian cities under Roman rule agitated for and eventually won Roman citizenship for their people. By the standards of the times, Rome became quite generous in granting citizenship. Freed slaves of Romans, for example, automatically became citizens. Paul claimed to be a citizen by birthright (Ac 22:28), although we do not know how his parents had acquired citizenship. In A.D. 212 Emperor Caracalla extended citizenship to all freeborn provincials in the "Antonine constitution," but by this time the distinctive rights of Roman citizenship had so eroded that the act had little significance.

In Paul's day, however, possession of Roman citizenship was still vitally important. Even so, Paul's notion of citizenship in heaven was not derived primarily from Roman analogies. Psalm 87 celebrates the fact that, by divine decree, people from Egypt, Babylon and elsewhere are said to have been "born" in Zion (Ps 87:4). Although the term "citi-zen" is not used there, it could hardly have escaped Paul's notice that this ancient psalm already treated Gentiles as natural-born members of the heavenly kingdom.

Nero, Persecutor of Christians

PHILIPPIANS 4 Nero was emperor for 14 years, from A.D. 54 to 68. His first five years were considered exemplary, probably because of good advisors, such as the renowned Seneca. During this early period Nero demonstrated more respect for the Senate than had his predecessors and reversed some of the cruelty and excesses of power that former emperors had exercised. After Nero's initial five years as emperor, however, one of his trusted advisors died and another retired to private life.Thereafter, the emperor sank into immorality and crime, to the point of being implicated in the murders of his own mother and cousin.

In A.D. 64 fire destroyed much of Rome. Many attributed the blaze to Nero himself, for it quickly became known that he intended to build his new palace on the site of the burned quarters, seizing a good deal of private property for the state.To avoid charges, Nero shifted blame to the Christians. It is reported that Nero burned Christians alive, using them as human torches during his circus races. In 66, after the district had endured a series of harsh governors, rebellion broke out in Judea, and Nero sent his general Vespasian to suppress the Jews. Meanwhile, he traveled to Greece to compete in the festivals there. His trip culminated in his declaration that Greece was henceforth free from Roman rule and taxation, an act that won him the lasting goodwill of the Greeks.' The following year Nero committed suicide in a country villa, while rebellion intensified within the Senate and aristocracy. In the aftermath of Nero's death in A.D. 68, Vespasian left Judea to seize the throne in Rome. Titus, Vespasian's son, took charge of the Roman army in Judea and went on to destroy Jerusalem in A.D. 70, fulfilling the prophecy of Jesus (Mt 24:1-2; Mk 13:1-2; Lk 21:5-6).

Paul's imprisonment and subsequent trial in Caesarea probably took place around 57-59; thus,all of the references to "Caesar" in Acts 25-28 are to Nero. Paul was transferred to Rome and spent at least two years there as a prisoner during Nero's reign (Ac 28:30). Throughout the years of Paul's missionary journeys, Christianity was rapidly making inroads in Rome. By the time the apostle himself arrived, there were already many there who followed "the Way" (Ac 9:2; 19:23; 22:4; 24:14,22), including numerous individuals employed in the imperial palace. Philippians was likely written in Rome while Paul was under house arrest there.2 At the end of the letter he sent greetings from the saints, "especially those who belong to Caesar's household" (Php 4:22).

While Nero began his career with distinction and merit, even winning the love and gratitude of the commoners through the many games and festivals he sponsored, he is remembered most for instigating the Roman persecution of Christians.This policy of persecuting Christians was continued by Roman authorities until the fourth century.