Visit Greece: Ancient Philippi

Located just 2 hours from Thessaloniki, the ancient city of Philippi is at the same time easy to get to and off the beaten track. Amidst these ancient ruins, you can imagine the Roman legions facing off in the Battle of Philippi or the Apostle Paul walking the city streets.

Table of Contents

the agean coast from the highway near philipi greece

Getting There

Ancient Philippi is located in the northern Macedonian region of Greece (not to be confused with the country of North Macedonia) near the modern town of Kavala. It is only a two hour drive on the highway from Thessaloniki.

Hours and Admission

The archaeological site and museum have varying hours depending on the season, so be sure to check their website before you go.

Admission is inexpensive, at only 6€ for adults, and kids under 18 get in free. Admission drops to only 3€ in the off-season.

latin inscriptions ruins of ancient philipi, greece

Philippi in History and the Bible

Whether you’ve heard about Philippi from reading the Bible or Julius Caesar, you probably already know that Philippi played an outsized role in ancient history. The relatively small town of Philippi is well-known for two reasons: 

1. The Battle of Philippi in 42 BC
2. The Apostle Paul’s visit around AD 50.

The assassination of Julius Caesar sent the Roman Empire into two years of civil war called the Wars of the Second Triumvirate, which occurred primarily in the Greek region of Macedonia (modern northern Greece). The Battle of Philippi, which actually occurred on two separate days in October 42 BC, became the climactic and final battle of the wars. Here Julius Caesar’s successors, Octavian (later Caesar Augustus) and Mark Antony, defeated his assassins, Brutus and Cassius. The battle was later immortalized by William Shakespeare in Acts IV and V of Julius Caesar.

In honor of their victory, Antony and Octavian re-founded the city of Krenides as a Roman colony and named it Philippi after King Philip II of Macedonia, the father of Alexander the Great. The status of a Roman colony made Philippi like a little “Rome away from Rome.”

Paul came to Philippi on his Second Missionary Journey. After traveling through Asia Minor (modern Turkey), Paul received a vision of a Macedonian man asking him to come preach the gospel in Macedonia (Acts 16:6–10). Paul arrived first at Neapolis (modern Kavala) with his coworker Silas, Luke, and others before traveling the few miles north to Philippi. There Paul baptized a woman named Lydia and began establishing a church before he and Silas were imprisoned. Paul and Silas were miraculously freed by an earthquake, baptizing the jailer before leaving town.

About 10 years later, the Philippi church received a letter from Paul that we call the book of Philippians in the Bible. Paul wrote Philippians as a thankful response to a gift that the church had sent to support him during his Roman imprisonment.

theater ruins of ancient philipi, greece

The Ancient Theater

After parking and paying the entrance fee to the archaeological site, the first thing you will encounter is the ancient amphitheater built into the side of the hill. Originally built by King Philip around 360 BC, the theater is one of the best examples of an ancient amphitheater in Greece today, and if you are visiting during the Philippi Festival in July and August, you may even be able to enjoy a play or concert.

the prison of st paul ruins of ancient philipi, greece

The Prison of St. Paul

Just down from the theater is a place called the prison of St. Paul. The site is actually a Roman-era cistern, but frescoes on the wall suggest that from early in Christian history the site was honored as the place of Paul and Silas’ imprisonment. Like a lot of biblical sites, the authenticity of this site is uncertain, but it is nevertheless worth a look.

ruins of forum in ancient philipi, greece

The Forum and Via Egnatia

After the theater and prison, you must cross a modern road to see the main part of ancient Philippi. (It is closed to through traffic and currently only services the museum.) Immediately after crossing the modern road, you will find yourself on the ancient stone-paved road known as the Via Egnatia. Made by the Romans in the 2nd century BC, this Roman road ran all the way from Byzantium (modern Istanbul) across northern Greece to the Adriatic Sea. The Apostle Paul would have walked this road from Neapolis to Philippi and then later to Thessaloniki. It’s an incredible feeling to stand on the same ancient stone road that so many throughout history, including the Apostle Paul, have also stood on.

via ignatia ruins of ancient philipi, greece

Across the Via Egnatia lies the ancient forum — the city center where the marketplace (or agora), temples, and other institutions would have been found. You can even find one of the ancient latrines in good condition (That’s right. The ancient toilets!). While the ruins give you little idea of what the ancient forum would’ve been like, take note that the inscriptions on the ruins are in Latin rather than Greek letters. This is a reminder of Philippi’s special status as a Roman colony.

While in Philippi, a slave girl who told fortunes through the Python spirit connected to the oracle at Delphi followed Paul for days until Paul cast out the demon. The girl’s owners were angered due to their loss of profit and dragged Paul and Silas into this marketplace, where it was decided that they should be imprisoned (Acts 16:16–24). It’s amazing to imagine these dramatic events taking place right where you stand.

basilica ruins of ancient philipi, greece

The Basilicas and the Octagon

After the conversion of Constantine in AD 312, Philippi became a center of Christian devotion. The ruins of three early Christian church buildings or basilicas remain in Philippi. Basilica A lies between the theater and the prison. Basilica B is just past the forum and can be easily seen because one wall remains standing. Basilica C or Γ (gamma) in Greek is near the museum. All three were built during the 5th century AD and are prime examples of early 3 aisled churches with vaulted ceilings.

One of the earliest Christian structures, however, is the easy-to-miss Octagon in the southeast corner of the forum. The current form of the Octagon was probably built in the 5th century on the site of a 4th century church.

pots in the museum from ruins of ancient philipi, greece

The Museum

Unlike some other sites, the museum is on the other side of the ruins from the parking lot. The museum contains some ruined statues and pottery that cannot remain safely outdoors. But the most interesting feature of the exhibits are the windows looking out onto the plain where Octavian and Antony fought the Battle of Philippi. Displays at the exhibit recount the events of the battle.

the acropolis and ruins of ancient philipi, greece

The Ancient Acropolis

For those interested in a hike, you can climb to the ancient acropolis of Philippi. We didn’t attempt the climb since we were there in the heat of August with a toddler. If you make the climb, you will find ruins of the ancient city walls, dating all the way back to King Philip II of Macedonia, and fortifications dating to the Byzantine Empire in the 6th century AD.

the holy baptistery of lydia near philipi greece

The Holy Baptistery of St. Lydia

To reach one of the most fascinating sites in ancient Philippi, you have to head back to the car and drive west for about 2 miles toward the village of Drama. There you will find the Orthodox complex called the Holy Baptistery of St. Lydia.

When Paul came to Philippi, he first met with a group of women who were meeting for prayer outside the city gate near the River Zygaktis. When he found this group of women worshiping the God of Israel, he declared to them the good news about Jesus the Messiah. Lydia, a wealthy dealer in purple cloth, believed along with her household, and Paul baptized them in this river (Acts 16:11–15). These were the first baptisms recorded on the European continent.

While the church structures are interesting, the best thing to do is simply to go down to the river and imagine the scene recorded in Acts 16 for yourself. We can’t be sure that this is the exact spot where Lydia was baptized, but you can be certain that you are standing close to the spot on the same river where Lydia declared her faith in Jesus.

walking to the holy baptistery of lydia in philipi greece

Tips for Your Visit

We visited Greece in August, which means heat, heat, heat! My tips below are echoes of Stacy’s post about Corinth and are equally applicable to any archaeological site.

Wear Sunscreen and Protective Clothes

There is little shade, and you will be walking around on stone. Whatever the temperature is on your phone, it will be hotter on the site. Make sure that you are prepared with a hat and sunscreen.

Take Plenty of Water

Also, don’t forget your water! It is easy to get dehydrated in these conditions. While Philippi occupies a surprisingly small area, you will be zig-zagging through the ancient town, and you will begin to rack up your step count.

Try not to go During the Hottest Times of the Day… or the Hottest Times of the Year

Spring and fall are the best times to visit Greece because there are lower temperatures and fewer tourists, but obviously most people can only find the time in the summer months. If that’s the case for you, make sure to plan your visit to the site during the morning or late in the evening. At mid-day, you need to be sipping a lemon Fanta and eating a gyros in the shade.

Do Your Research Beforehand

While there are lots of maps and signage on site, you don’t want to waste your time getting oriented once you’re there. Check out A Guide to Biblical Sites in Greece and Turkey or (the more difficult to get) Philippi: Archaeological Guide to learn as much as you can beforehand and to have a firm grasp on where things are at.

Philippi is one of my favorite archaeological sites, probably second to Ancient Corinth. The advantage of Philippi is that since it is fairly distant from other tourist-heavy locales, you will likely have the place to yourself. Standing in the midst of these ruins, you can envision the events of Acts 16 and get a real sense of the people to whom Paul wrote the letter to the Philippians.

Please let us know in the comments if you have been to Philippi before, or if you hope to visit one day!

visit greece: ancient philippi, guide and tips for a great visit
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