This project dealt with the image of the city created by the Christian preacher John Chrysostom (ca. 349–407) in its relation to the urban context. The literary model of the Syrian metropolis Antioch presented in Chrysostom’s homilies and writings does not intend to give an accurate depiction of the historical polis of Antioch in the fourth century, but reflects the author’s religious, social and political preoccupations and visions.
While existing scholarship has largely mined Chrysostom’s works for historical information about the city, as well as for his ideas about urban Christianity and society, this study takes a literary approach and investigates the ways in which Chrysostom’s rhetoric models the audience’s perception of Antioch in order to reform their attitudes and behaviour. The thorough examination of his rhetorical technique demonstrates that Chrysostom aims, not to confirm his congregation’s perception of the city, but to transform it according to his vision of a Christian community. His ultimate goal in rhetorically modelling the city is to eradicate traditional elite values that dominate the social life in the city and replace them with a characteristically Christian way of urban life.
For an accurate understanding of Chrysostom’s notion of the city it is essential to realise that his homilies present a textual imagination of the urban space, rather than aiming at a mimetic representation of the material cityscape; this is the central idea behind the novel approach of “cityscaping”. The project therefore focused on the processes by which the image of the city is created and manipulated in rhetorical communication, and to identify the functions which these depictions fulfil. A defining characteristic of the rhetorical images is that they are not purely imaginative or fictional, but closely related to the existing urban space in two respects. Firstly, they include familiar features of the real city of Antioch, for example buildings, social conditions and local customs. Secondly, the images are embedded in discourses current in Antioch at the time, including those on orthodoxy, poverty and power. Considering these two aspects, the project explored the rhetorical strategies used to influence the audience’s conception of the urban space, among others selection and deliberate omission of details, foregrounding of certain types of public behaviour, defamiliarisation and demonisation. The analysis of these techniques shows that Chrysostom semanticises the urban space, thus investing it with a variety of meanings in an attempt to make his listeners aware of the true nature of the city and the significance of their own conduct in the urban sphere.
What is of paramount importance for Chrysostom’s agenda is his belief that a city is essentially a social space that is constantly produced, negotiated and transformed by those who make use of it. Consequently, his preaching seeks to reorient and discipline the Christians’ dealing with the city and, in doing so, reshape the social and religious life of the Antiochenes. Combining approaches from literary criticism and the sociology of space the project has shown that the rhetorical imaginations are meant not only to generate specific mental models of Antioch, but first and foremost to transform routine dealings with the urban space. Chrysostom aims to guide the movements of the Christian citizens through the city, influence their interactions with both people and places, subject the use of space to strict regulations, and transform visible expressions of habitus. A comparison of earlier works with later sermons reveals that Chrysostom’s responses to the challenges of urban life developed from total rejection of the polis as a hostile space to the active appropriation of urban space by Christians. His main aim was to profoundly change the production of urban space and thereby replace the classical polis with the Christian city.
Related Publications (Selection)
Jan Stenger, “Healing Place or Abode of the Demons? Libanius’ and Chrysostom’s Rewriting of the Apollo Sanctuary at Daphne”, in: Silke Petra Bergjan and Susanna Elm (Eds.), Intellectual Exchange and Religious Diversity in Antioch (CE 350-450), 2018, 193–220
Therese Fuhrer, Felix Mundt and Jan Stenger (Eds.), Cityscaping. Constructing and Modelling Images of the City, Berlin, Boston: De Gruyter, 2015