A Historical Commentary on St. Paul's Epistle to the Galatians

By W. M. Ramsay

Part 1

Society and Religion in Central Asia Minor in the Time of St. Paul

Chapter 21


LYSTRA was situated in a pleasant valley, bordered by gently sloping hills of no great height, through which flows a small but steady stream to be lost in the open Lycaonian plain a few miles farther east. The city was planted on a small hill in the middle of the valley, on the north side of the stream, about a mile north-west of the modern village Khatyn-Serai, which is on the south side of the water. The proof of the position of Lystra is one of Professor Sterrett’s many services to our knowledge of Asia Minor; but the site was divined with marvellously sure intuition by Leake in the beginning of the century. It is about 3780 feet above sea level.

In this favourable position there must always have been a settlement somewhere near Khatyn-Serai; but the history of Lystra begins with Augustus, who founded there one of the series of Coloniae, which he made to defend the southern frontier of Galatia. The name Lystra is probably Lycaonian, for Ilistra and Kilistra also occur in the country: the former a city and bishopric, near Laranda, the latter a village about twelve miles up the stream from Lystra, with wonderful rock-cuttings of the Christian time: both still retain the ancient names.

But it happened that the Lycaonian name had an obvious resemblance to the Latin word lustrum, and a little detail shows the Latin feeling in Lystra. It called itself Lustra, not Lystra, in all its inscriptions and coins. It spelt Roman, not Greek. Greek cities like Prymnessos never used the Latin spelling Prumnessos even if they wrote in Latin;1 but Lystran coins read COLONIA • JULIA • FELIX • GEMINA • LUSTRA.

Accordingly Lystra did not pair herself with the Greek cities of the region. She claimed to be the sister of the Roman Antioch. So we read on the basis of a statue which Lystra sent to her sister in the second century: —2

The very brilliant sister Colonia of the Antiochians

is honoured by

the very brilliant Colonia of the Lystrans

with the Statue of Concord.

It is an interesting point that this inscription is in Greek, proving that, amid all the local pride in Roman names and titles, the Latin language was only a delicate exotic.

Lystra lay eight or ten miles off the great trade route in a secluded glen, and would not have full opportunity of sharing in the Hellenisation of the cities along that road, like Iconium and Derbe. Only a special occasion3 lent it temporary irnportance during the first century. We should expect to find that in it Greek civilisation had not been so strongly naturalised as in the two neighbouring cities. Evidence is very scanty; but, such as it is, it tends to support that view. Lystra is the only place in which the use of the native language among at least a section of the population was prominent enough to find mention in the Acts. In its inscriptions, apart from those of the Latin-speaking coloni, we find few signs of Greek civilisation. There is a larger proportion of Greek among the inscriptions than at Antioch, but not the same evidence of Greek character.

At the same time it should be noticed that it was among the Pagans, engaged in an act of their religion, and not among the Christian converts, that Lycaonian was spoken. There is no reason to suppose that Paul addressed himself to people that spoke only Lycaonian. The existence of Jews, and therefore of trade,4 proves that Greek was familiar to many; the Roman influence really fostered Greek, as we have seen; and there is a considerable number of Roman inscriptions.

As to the Lycaonian religion in Lystra or in Derbe, no evidence exists outside of the Acts. The name of Zeus was given by the Greek-speaking population to the great god who was the most prominent figure exoterically at the sanctuary in front of the city; but such identifications with Greek deities prove nothing as to the real character of the worship. Doubtless it was much of the same character as in Iconium. See Sections 5, 20.

There was a disposition in Lystra to believe in actual theophany, or appearance of the gods on earth in human form, as they had appeared near Tyriaion5 to Baucis and Philemon (according to the pretty tale related by Ovid). That was a Phrygian story, as Ovid says;6  but in religion Phrygia and Lycaonia meet. The Phrygian gods were often worshipped as the “manifest God”: τὸν ἐπιφανέστατον θεόν in inscriptions.

At the hieron before the city, there would certainly be a college of priests, as at the other great sanctuaries of Asia Minor, and not merely a single priest of the God, though of course there was a head in the college at all such hiera. At Pessinus the college contained at least ten priests; at the Milyan hieron there were six.7

Lystra ceased to be a city of any consequence after the Augustan Coloniae lost their importance. When the mountain country was pacified, they were no longer needed as garrisons; and Lystra had not like Antioch a situation such as to make it great in all circumstances. Hence, though it was at first so important in Christian history, and though several early traditions are connected with it, yet in later Christian history it is rarely heard of To Roman policy Lystra owed the only political importance it ever possessed: without that support, it sank again to its original insignificance.

A Lystran martyr Zoilos is mentioned in the early Syrian Martyrology on 23rd May. The story of Eustochius is connected with the city.8  It is mentioned in the tale of Paul and Thekla. Artemas or Artemius, one of the seventy, is said to have been Bishop of Lystra. But it was not represented at Nicaea in 325; for Tiberius, whom Le Quien makes Bishop of Lystra, was really Bishop of Ilistra. Paulus of Lystra is mentioned at the Council of Constantinople in 381.

The only trace of its Christian history that remains is a sacred spring or Ayasma9 close to the city, to which the Greeks of Iconium and Zille resort, and which even the Turks respect as holy. There is much need of excavation on the deserted site in order to clear up some of the details recorded in Acts about Lystra.


[1] C. I. L., III 7043, 7171. Lustra in C. I. L., III 6596 (Col. Lusirensium in last line), 6786.

[2] Sterrett, Wolfe Expedition, 352.

[3] See p. 114 f.

[4] Church in Rom. Empire, p. 69.

[5] The corruptions in Ovid, Metam., VIII 719, trineius, fineius, thineyus, cineius, chineius, tirinthius, phyneius, thyrneius, etc., point to Tyriaius or Tyrieius, not Tyaneius (an impossible form given in the current texts).

[6] Ovid, Met., VIII 621.

[7] Cities and Bish. of Phrygia, I, p. 288, Aristid, Or., XXIII, pp. 451, 490.

[8] See p. 213 and Hisior. Geogr. of Asia Minor, p. 333 f.

[9] ἁγίασμα, the usual name for Christian sacred springs.

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