Thessalonica was founded in 316 BC by King Cassander of Macedon. It was named after his wife, Thessalonike, who was the daughter of Philip II and sister of Alexander the Great. The name itself means “Thessalian victory” in honor of an earlier battle won by the Macedonians.
After the remnants of Alexander’s empire eventually passed to the Roman Empire, Rome made Thessalonica the capital city of the province of Macedonia. Along with Philippi, located about 100 miles to the east, Thessalonica became an important administrative and commercial city along the Via Egnatia – the Roman Road that led from Byzantium across Greece to the Adriatic Sea. It also shared a designation as a Roman colony, along with Philippi, after the Battle of Philippi in 42 BC. In this battle, the armies of Mark Antony and Octavian (Caesar Augustus) defeated the armies of Cassius and Brutus, who had led the assassination of Julius Caesar. Et tu, Brute?
Thus, the city of Thessalonica to which Paul would arrive on his second missionary journey shared a common history with Philippi, with strong ties to Rome and origins that traced back to Philip II of Macedon.
Statue of Philip II of Macedon
Thessalonica In The Bible
On his second missionary journey, the Apostle Paul, along with Silas and Timothy, crossed over into Greece. After spending some time in Philippi, they followed the Via Egnatia west and arrived at Thessalonica. Unlike Philippi, Thessalonica had a large enough Jewish population to support a local synagogue. Paul spent at least three weeks in Thessalonica, proclaiming that Jesus was the Messiah.
His message was received by some. But others in the synagogue grew jealous and engineered a mob to start a riot in the city. The accusations reached the city officials: “They are all defying Caesar’s decrees, saying that there is another king, one called Jesus.” Fearing for their safety, Paul and Silas were sent on to nearby Berea. The Jewish leaders there were more receptive. But when the Thessalonian instigators caught wind of this, they stirred up the crowd in Berea as well with similar accusations. Because of the hostilities, Paul moved on to Athens to wait for Silas and Timothy to join him.
They eventually ended up in Corinth, where Paul set up shop for a while. It was from Corinth that Paul would write two letters to the newly established church in Thessalonica. Despite the hostilities he faced in Thessalonica, Timothy brought encouraging news from the church.
Therefore, brothers and sisters, in all our distress and persecution we were encouraged about you because of your faith. (1 Thessalonians 3:7)
He passed through Macedonia again on his third journey, but few details are given of his itinerary. Thessalonica would become an important church in the early Christian faith. Even today, Thessaloniki is home to the largest Orthodox church in Greece.
Take A Photo Tour
In October 2022, David and JR had an opportunity to visit the city of Thessaloniki. What follows are some observations and key insights.
Day 1 – We left Philippi and made the hour and a half drive to Thessaloniki. The modern highway closely follows the ancient Via Egnatia that the Apostle Paul would have traveled. Along the way, we stopped by to see the Lion of Amphipolis – a tomb topped by a large lion dating back to the 4th century BC. Who knows, maybe Paul passed by this very statue?
After being in small tourist towns and walking through ancient ruins, modern Thessaloniki was a bit of culture shock. The large city was full of young people, shopping, and crowded restaurants that remained packed well into the night. Our hotel was just a block off the waterfront. Thessaloniki sits at the apex of the Thermaic Gulf. Large hotels, sidewalk cafes, and trendy clubs line the boardwalk overlooking the gulf. Once our expectations were adjusted, the city’s energy was contagious.
The Odeon at Thessalonica
Day 2 – The main area in which to see the ancient ruins of Thessalonica is the Roman Forum. In the middle of the city, at a site of the old bus station, the ruins were discovered and subsequently turned into an archaeological site. Along with the forum, the Odeon, bath houses, and a mint are visible at the site. There is an informative museum at one corner that runs below the modern city. One gets the impression that if any city block were torn down, ruins would be uncovered.
Nearby is the largest Orthodox church in Greece – the Church of St. Demetrios. The church itself is beautiful, but excavations beneath the church have reveals additional structures from the Roman era.
It happened to be a holiday in Greece on this particular day, so all the museums were free! So we headed to the Thessaloniki Archaeological Museum. Along the way, we passed the statue of Philip II. After taking in the museum, we headed to the waterfront, where we were greeted with another impressive status of Alexander the Great. Across the gulf we could see Mount Olympus, and the day concluded with a perfect sunset. We were headed home the next day.
The Roman Forum
Statue of Alexander the Great
As far as general insights from the site, here are some additional thoughts:
Insight #1: The modern is built over the ancient, but the importance of the city is still evident
While the Roman Forum has been excavated – rather is in the process of excavation – there are not extensive ruins of Thessalonica like there are in Corinth or Philippi. This is because the modern town has been built over the ancient site. There are several areas where more ruins have been discovered, but you quickly get the picture that underneath every modern block are layers of ancient occupation.
And while there remains much to be discovered underneath the modern city, the bustling city of today certainly echoes the importance of ancient Thessalonica. You can still see its importance along the East-West trade routes, as well as the major port to further trade and commerce. This would have been the case in ancient times as well.
Insight #2: The influence of Philip II and Alexander the Great
While Philip II of Macedon gave his name to the city of Philippi, there is much stronger identification with Philip and Alexander in modern Thessaloniki. Indeed, we sensed as strong a connection to being Macedonians as we did to the locals being Greeks.
Insight #3: The proximity to Mt. Olympus
Our last night in Thessaloniki was a beautiful night. Across the Thermaic Gulf we could see Mount Olympus in the distance. I never realized how close Thessalonica would have been to Olympus. On a clear day, the mountain of the gods would have been visible – a constant reminder of the barriers that Paul would have had to overcome to bring the Gospel of Jesus to the people of Thessalonica. It is interesting that Paul would have had to travel through the sacred precinct of Olympus and Dion to head south to Athens and Corinth, but he never mentions it.
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