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Thessalonica In 51 AD

A reconstruction of the Greek city in its New Testament days.


Thessalonica in 51 AD was virtually unchanged since it was built in 316 BC. The entire city and almost every structure in it was nearly 400 years old. The area inside the walls was roughly one square mile. Over 40,000 people lived there.

The Roman Governors who ruled Macedonia from Thessalonica did so for over 200 years without improving the city streets or buildings at all. Money collected from provincial taxes and port tariffs supported administrative and military operations. Any left over wealth was sent back to Italy for the glory of Rome. Even the wealthy Roman Governors who had to live there didn't stay very long - many left forever after less than a year. There simply was no extra money and no good reason for the Romans to improve the city locally. (This remained true until somewhere around 150 AD.)

The one improvement in 400 years was the expansion of the walls after 42 BC. Commissioned by Antony & Octavian after the Battle of Philippi, the project was actually paid for out of the City's treasury. The Triumvirs knew the strategic importance of the city, and the walls had been in disrepair for decades. They also knew two Roman Civil Wars had just been fought in Macedonia. (And Antony already had his eye on the East.) The truth is, the famous tax-free status the two gave to Thessalonica was not without purpose. The money the city had been sending to Rome would now go to building the walls. (There is no record whether or not the tax-free status lasted for very long after it was granted. It may have been revoked when the walls were done.)

Inside the walls, the actual layout of the city was a simple grid-plan with special zoning arrangements. A checkerboard pattern of streets ran North to South and East to West, framing the city-center (agora) and exiting the city at only six gates. In the upper city, the E-W streets curved in order to climb the slope more gradually. North-South streets in the upper city were very steep, and actually formed steps in many places. In the lower city, the streets and blocks were irregular. Southern streets ran mostly parallel to the shore, because that section had originally been outside Cassander’s walls.

The streets themselves were packed earth; none were paved. The main street ran from the Egnatian Gate in the West through the sacred area and past the city center (agora) towards the Kissos Gate in the East. The Egnatian Way itself did not run through the city, but cut back north outside the western wall in order to get up and around the Kissos Mountain range. Inside the walls, the main street ran between the stadium and the agora, intersecting with the main North-South street at the fountain house below the gymnasium.

The main street was positioned as far offshore as possible while still keeping a flat, even slope. It was also positioned roughly midway between the acropolis and the original south wall. The primary main street had to be an East-West street, not just because of the incoming Egnatian traffic, but also because the NS streets were sloped. Only an East-West street could be made flat and even enough for the constant use of so many carts and wagons.

Thessalonica’s main street was about 15 meters (45 feet) wide. From Gate to Gate, it was about one mile long. One person walking could cross the whole city in fifteen minutes, moving quickly and dodging traffic. Cart pushers and wagon teams needed about that long just to get to the agora from the outside. During seasons of extremely heavy rain, teams of official city slaves could bring straw out from storehouses to spread along the main street. This was rare, but sometimes necessary to prevent teams of horses and livestock from slipping, sliding into walkers and crushing them to death.

The designers arranged the public buildings near the city center (agora). The Gymnasium, Stadium, Fountain-House, Council House and official city buildings were all touching or very close to the rectangular center. This city center itself functioned both as a marketplace and political center as well, like an all-purpose town square [or "rectangle"].

Just to the west of the center area, the designers built a sacred area. All the major Greek temples were located in this area, including the large temple of Dionysus from the days of ancient Therme. Only the Greek deities could have sanctuaries in this area, although one sanctuary area had been given to the worship of the goddess Roma and the emperors Julius and Augustus Caesar. Though large and small shrines and monuments could be found most anywhere in the city, the planners designated this location for the large, most impressive temples to the native Greek gods.

Any traveler coming up the main street from the Egnatian gate, then, would soon see the temple structures on either side of the road, leading him toward the town center. Arriving at the agora, the traveler would see the stadium seating and running track spread out to the left, while the town ‘rectangle’ opened up below him to the right, sloping slightly downhill.

One North-South street running up the west side of the agora also spilled openly into the agora, leaving the city-center bounded by official buildings on two sides – the east and the south. This ‘Sea Street’ dead-ended into the main street, but ran down through the southern Sea Gate, giving direct access between the market and the cargo coming in from the shore.

Past the east end of the stadium and the fountain house, another north-south street crossed the main street ran past the Gymnasium on up to the North Gate. Only a few roads even ran north off the main street, leading to the upper-city where the city’s wealthiest citizens kept their townhouses. This ‘Hill Street’ was the most used road to the upper city, and had a few not-quite-paved stretches where citizens had cut and laid stones into the earth as steps, in the steepest places. The top of the city was 110 meters above sea level, which means anyone walking up from the sea would climb over 330 feet vertically before reaching the North Gate or the Acropolis. Since the wealthy were not very hospitable anyway, the poor did not usually bother making the climb.

At the top of ‘Hill Street’ at the North Gate, the uppermost slopes near the north wall were covered by a one-hundred meter stripe of open land reaching east to the acropolis. The city guards who patrolled atop the walls from tower to tower also guarded the two reservoirs that were kept near the northern wall. Secret pipes ran underground from the large tanks uphill to natural springs in the Kissos Mountain range. Water pipes ran from the western tank down to the governor’s residence, gymnasium and the nearby bath houses. Water pipes from the eastern tank ran to a public outlet near the acropolis and then on down to the public fountain house by the agora.

The north-east quarter, near the acropolis, was for the wealthiest class of citizens by far. The houses here were near the safety and prestige of the acropolis and its many large shrines. The nearby water access and exclusive position on the uphill slopes, where the street waste needed only one good rain to wash down and the smell from the lower city was diminished by their altitude above it. The upper-story south-facing windows could often catch sea breezes in the summer months. Besides this, the gymnasium (which was for citizens only) and the theater (which was in the upper slopes to make use of the natural contours for its construction) were both on the north side of the main street. All together, these factors combined to make the north-east quarter the most prestigious, most desirable place to live. This quarter was the exclusive home of the city’s most wealthy and influential families and their households.

The north-west quarter, being a smaller section of town due to the shape of the walls, was also more prestigious than any area below the main street, but not so much as the northeast quarter. The governor’s residence was in this area (it had formerly been a palace of the last Antigonid King). The main Roman administrative building was also in this quarter, along with half of the sacred area, including the Roman sancturay. A great many of the lower-tier wealthy Greek families had their residences here, but it was the Roman elements just mentioned and the many Roman immigrants who lived in that section which caused it to be called the Italian Quarter.

Aside from the agora and half the sacred area, the area below the main street was mostly houses, small businesses and storehouses. Between the Egnatian Gate and Caesar’s Gate on the west side were many inns, workshops and city grain storehouses. Some homes of the mid-status greeks were located in this area from the wall to the agora, including the households of many merchants, priests and some civic clerks and freedmen. The main headquarters of the city guards was in this section, and many of the guards themselves lived in nearby households. The road from Caesar’s gate to the Southeast Gate was not especially wide or busy. A person could walk its entire length easily at a comfortable pace in about 15 minutes.

Below Caesar’s road was the south side. Most buildings in this area were built outside the walls before 42 BC. The poorest greeks and foreigners lived on the south side, where the sludge built up in the street ruts until heavy rains washed it all the way to the sea. The smell of human filth was very strong here, and it mingled with the smell of fish and livestock.

The Southwestern Quarter was home to most of the foreigners who’d settled in Thessalonica. African-Greeks and Jews who’d moved from Alexandria, Egypt two centuries before. The meeting house of the Egyptian cult was just above Caesar’s road, not too far from the sacred area, and north enough to attract interested devotees of a slightly higher status. The foreigners themselves lived nearest to the Sea Wall by the western side of the shoreline, where the anchorage was deepest and most large ships docked. The strong Jewish community lived mainly in this southwest quarter as well, having built their synagogue near the sea, which was outside the original walls at the time, but now stood just within the Sea Wall built after 42 BC.

Over on the Eastern side of the lower city lived the poorest of the poor who were still proud Macedonian Greeks. The Southeast Quarter had virtually no positive features to it at all, except that it was now enclosed within the walls – although the city had been free from barbarian attack since the reign of Augustus. There were taverns and workshops in this area, but mostly just poor households, rented together by large extended families who barely made enough in a year to pay the rent and feed and clothe themselves. The far Southeast corner was the least busy part of the whole city, and often the quietest, but far from the safest. The Greeks who settled for homes in this part of town were very, very poor.

Basically, on the eastern side, the wealth and status of the residents grew gradually higher along with the height above sea level. The section east of the agora from Caesar’s road to the main street, for example, was basically respectable, dwelled in by the households of many merchants and freedmen, men of some wealth, but only medium status. Generally then, Macedonians lived to the East and foreigners to the West, while the very poor lived in the south and the wealthy lived as far uphill as they could afford to. This general trend accounts for virtually all of the more than 40,000 inhabitants who lived within the city walls.

Outside the walls were many more people living in boats, tents and towns nearby. Of course, there was the sea to the south and the great pine-forest hills to the north. To the east, dirt roads, lined with the cemeteries of the common Greeks, spread south along the coast and east into the foothills. These roads led to villages full of people who traveled to Thessalonica weekly if not daily for trade and survival. To the west, the Via Egnatia split off in two forks, West to New Pella, Berea, and eventually Dyrrachium, the Adriatic and Italy beyond. The other fork of the Egnatian Road ran north before cutting back East around Kissos and on towards Amphipolis, Philippi, Neapolis, and eventually Byzantium and the Bosporous.

For more about the larger region surrounding Thessalonica, see the Geography section.


Input from Anonymous Anonymous :

Thanks so much for this wonderful resource. Retired teacher now Teaching Director for Community Bible Study. Teaching a 6-wk. course on 1-2 Thess. Thanks.

Sunday, October 10, 2010  
Input from Blogger Sarge :

Thanks for your work. This was very informative.

Tuesday, April 09, 2013  
Input from Blogger Dwayne Cotton :

Thanks for your labor. Many serious Bible students are being blessed because the Lord is using you in such a powerful way. I will be teaching a 16-week exposition of the Epistles to the Thessalonians. Victory Church Bible School (vcstl.org)

Saturday, March 03, 2018  

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