Chapter 10: The Mission

Prisca—the good mother—undertook Paul’s education at once, guiding him through the streets and markets whenever they were able to steal time away from the shop.  Though relatively new to Corinth herself, Prisca was already familiar with it’s layout and history and character. Learning the city had been, for her, an act of self-preservation.  If this was to be their home, she wanted to know where all the exits were.

Besides, she knew Rome. And that alone qualified her to teach Paul about Corinth. In all the important things, Corinth modeled herself after the capital of the world. How else could a city so young manage to be so cruel?

Their first stop was the agora, a sprawling market area paved entirely in white marble and flooded with the ebb and flow of a human tide.  The cries of vendors assaulted them. The smells of cooking meat and the pungent aroma of fish filled the space.  On every side, tall buildings and statues and fountains rose above them and hemmed them in. 

“This space is the heart of Corinth, Paul.  It’s living, breathing center.” She lectured in a tone that reminded him of the teachers of his youth.  “Yet, even at its heart, Corinth is divided. There’s the Bouleterion, where the senate meets, and not ten steps away is a tavern. There’s a pornographer’s shop right in the shadow of that temple. They put their public buildings next to baths and brothels.  Corinthians feel no need to hide their vices or segregate their sins.  You can see it in the way they build. They’re proud of being powerful and religious and rich and sinful, all at the same time.” 

She pointed to a squad of soldiers marching in tight formation through the square. “That’s why Corinth was reborn in the first place, to extend Roman power. The Proconsul is based in Corinth, of course, and protects Rome’s interests throughout Achaia. Roman taxes are collected here. Roman soldiers are dispatched from here. Roman justice is administered here.”

She took in the city with a gesture, turning to look directly at Paul. “This is all about power. The kind that comes from a sword. The kind that uses fear and coercion and threat and violence to get its way. Don’t let the pretty buildings fool you. Behind the marble is something much harder. Do you understand?”

He nodded like the good student.

Prisca changed her focus.  “Do you see the temples?” She pointed out the Temple of Apollo to the north, the temple of the Deified Octavia to the west, the temples of Tyche and Hermes and the sacred fountain of Poseidon crowding each other in an architectural jumble. “Do you see how they dominate, how they tower over the other buildings?”

“So many temples,” Paul murmured.  “So many gods.”

“And that’s not the half of it. Aphrodite. Asclepius. Demeter and Persephone. Nike. Athena. Each of them has a temple in the city. Some of them more than one. I guess Corinthians need all the gods they can get.  They have bigger appetites than most people.  It takes this many gods just to give them what they want and forgive them what they’ve done.”

“It is impressive,” Paul admitted, taking in the grand temples, the imposing civic buildings, the statues and monuments. “You have to give them that.” 

“I suppose. But if you listen closely you can hear them all shouting, ‘Corinth is great.  Corinth is powerful.  Corinth is a force to be reckoned with.’ Shouting too hard, if you ask me.”

“What do you mean?”

She pursed her lips and blew out a long breath, thinking. “Great buildings don’t make a great city.  You have to remember that a hundred years ago, this was all rubble. These people you see? They don’t have the blood of heroes and philosophers and poets and statesmen in their veins. They’re the great grandchildren of Rome’s rejects.”

“Ah,” Paul nodded, seeing her point. “So the buildings are meant to distract you from a painful truth.”

“That’s what I think. Corinth wants to be great. But what she is is rich.  Look around. What else do you see besides temples and courthouses?”

Paul obeyed, though he already knew the answer she expected.  “The shops, of course.”  They were everywhere.  Scores of them crowded behind porchways on the north and south of the agora.  Dozens more forming a spine down the center.

“Look over at the Temple of Octavia.” She pointed once again to the west.  “Do you see the shops all along the front?  There are more around the sides and back.”

“That’s convenient. Pick up a new toga after you get splashed with sacrificial blood.”

Prisca laughed.  “Or pray for a windfall after spending all your money on carpets!” She took his elbow and walked to the propylon, the massive, marbled gateway opening from the agora onto Corinth’s main street.  “Look down there, along the Lechaion Road.  Shops lining both sides all the way out to the wall.  Turn left and you run into another agora—not as big as this, but every bit as busy.  Go right and you hit the meat market.  Everywhere you turn in Corinth, there’s a shop or a market or, failing that, some poor man pushing a cart and selling trinkets in the streets.”

Paul smiled. “So business is the grease for Corinth’s wheel.  It’s what keeps things turning in this city.”

But Prisca did not smile.  “It’s not just the grease.  It’s the wheel itself.  And the axel and the wagon and all it contains.  Take commerce out of Corinth and there’s precious little left.” 

She frowned.  “I wish I could take you up on Acrocorinth. Show you the roads leading in and out of the city and the harbors beyond. But we don’t have time today. Besides, climbing that rock might be the death of you.”

Paul was not amused.  “I get around pretty well for a man my age.”

She ignored him.  “Over there,” she pointed northwest, “is the Corinthian gulf—a straight shot to the markets of Italy in any season.  Over there,” she pointed to the northeast, “is the Saronic Gulf—a straight shot to the markets of Asia and Syria and Egypt.  And between them is the Isthmus,” she held her hands apart, palms turned in, to illustrate.  “Three miles of land separating the two gulfs.  Across that land is a road,” she drew a finger across the gap, ”the Diolkos.”

“Yes,” Paul nodded. “I crossed it on the walk from Athens.”

“Then you saw the ships. They anchor and off-load their cargo. That gets carted across the Diolkos and loaded onto other ships which, in turn, sail off to market.  And guess who controls the entire operation? Guess who collects all the taxes and fees?”


Prisca beamed.  “Bright boy! There’s more. To the south lies the Peleponesus with its orchards and fields and cattle and fishing fleets.  To our north are the provinces of Epirus and Attica with their hungry cities and manufactured goods and ores and quarries.  There’s a constant stream of trade goods flowing north and south.  And all of it crosses the Isthmus.”

“Let me guess,” Paul interrupted.  “Corinth controls the roads and taxes all the traffic.”

“Exactly.  Corinth is wealthy because of an accident of geography. She happens to be at the right place for a long time. And she exploits that advantage at every turn.” She paused and looked around the agora, feeling small in the face of so much greed.

“Taxes,” she raised a thumb. “Trade,” she raised a finger. “And services,” another finger went up.  “What are all those sailors to do as they wait for their ships to be hauled across the Diolkos?  And what about the merchants and traders and teamsters and tourists who need a break from their journeys north and south?  Corinth boasts more inns and taverns and restaurants than any city in Greece.  You can get a tooth pulled while you’re here.  You can visit a doctor.  You can hire a lawyer or a scribe.  You can resupply your vessel or replace an ox or fix a wagon.”

“And I suppose they offer other services as well?”  Paul motioned towards a group of women posing seductively for a band of sailors.

“Yes.  There’s plenty of that in Corinth.”  Prisca blushed.  “Street walkers for the sailors, brothels for the traders, and haetera for the wealthy tourists. Women. Girls. Boys.  Smutty picture books and wine by the amphora.  If you bring money, anything can be bought in Corinth.”

“How do you know so much about such things?”

“I have eyes, don’t I?”

They made their way up the Lechaion Road toward the northern section of town and the poorer quarters where Aquila’s shop was located.

“Thanks for teaching me about Corinth, Prisca.”  He said it casually, without thinking.  Just words tossed off as an expression of gratitude. He thought later, smarting, that even an apostle could say stupid things on occasion.

She stopped dead in the middle of the street and turned on him darkly, her face shifting between anger and dread.  “No, Paul!  You know nothing of this city.  You have no idea who these people are and what they’re capable of.  You look at Corinth and see an overgrown Philippi, an wilder version of Tarsus.” She swallowed hard, working to control her emotions. “But I look at Corinth and see Rome.” She shuddered. “Corinth is Rome’s true child. And she’s learned her lessons well.  Corinth is rich because she is ruthless.  She is powerful because she is cruel. And she is so in love with pleasure that she cares nothing for the pain she must inflict to have it.”

He’d touched a nerve. Her voice was shaking and her eyes bored into him. “There are not just evil people in this city, Paul.  The city itself is evil. It was born of an evil mother. It has Rome’s disease.”

She closed her eyes for a beat and took a deep breath. “They say Corinth has been the making of many men.  But it’s broken far more than it’s made.  Good men most of all.  And it will break you,” she poked a hard finger into his chest, “it will break all of us, if you are not very careful.”

She turned and walked on, leaving Paul to follow.


Prisca was right, of course.  He had much to learn about Corinth. Corinth wasn’t Tarsus or Philippi. It certainly wasn’t Jerusalem. It wasn’t any of the cities he’d known before. The Corinthians spoke a different language. They lived in a different world.

And Prisca was right about something else. If he wasn’t careful, he could do real damage. Not just to himself and his cause. To her.

So he determined to become a serious student of Corinth, to search out the city and its ways. During those first days, when he wasn’t stitching hides at the shop with Aquila, he walked the streets incessantly. He eavesdropped on conversations and peered into the dark recesses of temples. He witnessed the ready violence of Roman soldiers on patrol. He sat in dingy tavernas and talked to strangers.

Watching, always watching through squinted, searching eyes. 

Each night, he returned to the safety of the couple who sheltered him. He asked questions as they shared the evening meal and listened intently while they explained how Corinth worked, how Corinth thought.

It was just the beginning. It would take weeks before the place made sense to him. But already he suspected that knowing the city would cause him more pain than pleasure.  Prisca was right about that too. When he looked closely, he could see the disease beneath the carefully painted face. Beneath the perfume, he could smell the decay.

[Next Chapter]

[Beginning of the novel]

© 2012 by Tim Woodroof. Reproduction of this material requires permission from the author.