Sardis (modern day Sart), south and slightly east of Thyatira, was a very ancient city, becoming the capital of the Lydian Kingdom in the 7th century BC but existing centuries before that (Herodotus, Histories). This kingdom of Lydia said to have invented coinage, and the “Lydian stater” is famous as the earliest type of coin ever discovered (Herodotus, Histories; Xenophanes of Colophon). The wealth of Sardis came from the fertile farmland outside the city, the textile industry, and the Pactolus river which provided water and contained gold dust, or more specifically an alloy called electrum (McRay, Archaeology and the New Testament). Located on a major highway from the Aegean coast which provided access to the east, the city was a stronghold in ancient times. The citadel of Sardis had been known as a place of military fortitude, even being described as “the strongest place in the world,” although history shows that the city was defeated on several occasions (Polybius; Strabo, Geography; http://www.sardisexpedition.org/en/essays/about-sardis).
During the 1st century, the city had a gymnasium, a theater (about 20,000 capacity), a stadium (12,000 or so spectators), an aqueduct, public baths, temples to Augustus, Tiberius, and possibly Vespasian, and a famous temple to Artemis that was still in ruins and being rebuilt during the 1st century. The temple of Vespasian depicting on coins was possibly located on the northern slope of the acropolis (McRay, Archaeology and the New Testament; http://www.sardisexpedition.org/en/essays/about-sardis). Most of the public buildings were in the north third of the city, while the rest of the city, south of Marble Road, was primarily a residential area. The famous synagogue of Sardis, known as the largest in the ancient world and able to accommodate about 1,000 people, was constructed in the 3rd century AD adjacent to and over the earlier gymnasium (Seager, “The Building History of the Sardis Synagogue”; http://www.sardisexpedition.org/en/essays/about-synagogue). Since there was no earlier synagogue underneath this structure, in the synagogue of the 1st century in Sardis, mentioned by Josephus, would have been located elsewhere (Josephus, Antiquities).
In the letter to the church of Sardis, the Christians “have a name that you are alive, and you are dead,” and are then commanded to “wake up, and strengthen the things which remain” (Revelation 3:1-2). It has been suggested that the language is reminiscent of the destructive earthquake of 17 AD which destroyed the city, retaining its name even though it had been destroyed, and the extensive rebuild during the reign of Tiberias (“Unto The Church In Sardis”; Tacitus, Annals; Strabo, Geography). This earthquake also occurred at night, when people were asleep, and the residents had apparently not paid attention to the tremors preceding the massive quake. Emperor Tiberias gave Sardis, where the disaster was the worst, 10 million sesterces to rebuild their city, plus five years of tax exemption. In gratitude to Tiberius for granting money and tax exemption to rebuilt the city, Sardis erected a statue of Tiberius, with an inscription calling him the “Founder of the city” (McRay, Archaeology and the New Testament). In a way, he was the founder of the new Sardis, and for a while the city was called Caesarea Sardianeon. Other sudden, stealth catastrophes struck Smyrna at night or when they were not on alert, such as the assassination of the king and usurpation of the throne by Gyges and subsequent beginning of the Lydian kingdom (Herodotus, Histories). About 170 years later, king Croesus was defeated at Sardis by the Persians, using a secret passage, even though Croesus thought he was untouchable in his citadel. The church at Sardis apparently followed the instructions of this letter, since Christianity persisted there through the Byzantine period. Melito, who wrote an apologetic defense of Christianity to the famous philosopher emperor Marcus Aurelius, in addition to several other scholarly works such as “On The Passover,” was probably the foremost bishop of Asia Minor in the 2nd century AD while he lived in Sardis and led the Church there. The earliest known church building at Sardis, however, dates to the 4th century, after Constantine legalized Christianity and possibly after Theodosius made it the official religion, since in the time of the early Church, the Christians at Sardis must have met in private houses as was common throughout the Roman Empire (4th century Byzantine Church “E”).