Secular history verifies and clarifies the impression of the city of Corinth offered by Luke (Acts) and Paul (1 and 2 Corinthians). Politically, Corinth was the capital city of the Roman province of Achaia, a territory including nearly all of Greece, which is why Gallio, the proconsul of Achaia, was in Corinth and heard the charge against Paul. Geographically, Corinth was so strategically located its prosperity was almost assured. It was situated on a plateau overlooking the Isthmus of Corinth, two miles from the Gulf. Nearby Acrocorinth, a 1900-foot mountain, acted as a citadel for the city, a fortress so secure it was never taken by force until the invention of gunpowder. It contained an inexhaustible water supply in the fountain of Peirene. A temple of Aphrodite, the goddess of love, sat on the summit of Acrocorinth. At the base of the citadel stood the temple of Melicertes, the patron of seafarers.
Located on an isthmus, Corinth became a crossroads for both land and sea trade. Located between two large bodies of water and two land areas, Corinth was virtually surrounded by the Mediterranean Sea. Were it not for the isthmus on which Corinth was founded, the southern part of Greece would be an island in the Mediterranean Sea. Goods exchanged between the north and south would normally be shipped by land through Corinth.
Much of the sea trade of the Mediterranean from east to west also passed through Corinth. To the west of Corinth was the port city of Lechaeum on the Gulf of Corinth. On her east was the port of Cenchrae on the Saronic Gulf. These acted as ports of call for ships. Travel across the isthmus and through Corinth was generally considered safer than the 200-mile voyage around Cape Malea, the most dangerous cape in the Mediterranean.
To avoid the distance and danger of the journey around the Cape of Malea (now called Cape Matapan), goods would be unloaded at one port, transported across the four-mile strip of land (through Corinth), and reloaded on the other side. Smaller ships were actually transported with their cargo over the isthmus by means of rollers. Consequently, the isthmus was named the Diolkos, “the place of dragging across.” Nero had planned a canal to join the Aegean and Ionian seas, and he even began construction in A.D. 66. The three and one-half mile canal was finished in 1893.
So Corinth became a great commercial center. Luxuries from all over the world were available and so were the vices of the world. These evils did not all have to be imported, however. The temple of Aphrodite had 1,000 cult prostitutes who sold themselves in the name of religion. The Greeks of the day used the verb “corinthianize” to describe an act of immorality. “Corinthian girl” was a synonym for prostitute.
Estimates of the population of Corinth range from 100,000 to 600,000 and it was a very diverse city with an ancient history and a vibrant present. The site had been inhabited since the 4th millennium BC. Alexander made Corinth the center of a new Hellenic League as he prepared for war with Persia. In 146 B.C., the city was destroyed by Roman soldiers because it led the Greek resistance to Roman rule. All the males of the city were exterminated, and the women and children were sold as slaves. The city was rebuilt by Julius Caesar 100 years later, and eventually became the capital of the province of Achaia. Many of those who settled in Corinth were not Greeks. Roman soldiers retired there after receiving their freedom and Roman citizenship in addition to grants of land. A variety of nationalities settled in Corinth, enticed by the prospects of economic prosperity. A good number of the immigrants were Jews.
… this mongrel and heterogeneous population of Greek adventurers and Roman bourgeois, with a tainting infusion of Phoenicians; this mass of Jews, ex-soldiers, philosophers, merchants, sailors, freedmen, slaves, trades-people, hucksters and agents of every form of vice … without aristocracy, without traditions and without well-established citizens. William Barclay, The Letters to the Corinthians, rev. ed. (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1975), p. 2.