A multi-cultural metropolis: Antioch in Late Antiquity

A cityscape becomes a literary backdrop for religious communities



Research group (C-6) Cityscaping is particularly interested in the cultural aspects of big cities in antiquity, especially in processes of appropriation. Besides Rome, Carthage, Petra and Gadara scientific research also focuses on one of the most famous and at the same time  – archaeologically speaking – least known ancient metropoles: Antioch.

With his project “Antioch. Rhetorical modeling of a metropolis in late antiquity” Professor Jan R. Stenger (University of Glasgow) looks at the image of Antioch designed by the late classical rhetorician Libanius (314-393 A.D.) and his Christian student John Chrysostom (ca. 349-407 A.D.) in their relation to the urban context. Located in the Roman province of Syria (present-day Antakya/Turkey) Antioch was one of the largest cities in the Mediterranean region in late antiquity. The city’s self-assured citizens prospered from the spice trade and their connection to the Silk Road. The Roman emperors favored the city from the beginning, regarding it as a more suitable capital for the eastern part of the empire than Alexandria or Constantinople. Antioch was also considered the “cradle of Christianity” and housed several religious and ethnic communities. As a center of intellectual life it was also an arena for tensions between pagans and Christians. Therefore, Antioch can be considered as a model for contemporary discussions about megacities, especially with regard to governance and mixed populations. Due to the catastrophic earthquake of 526 A.D. we only have limited knowledge of the ancient city’s buildings and structure: the site is now covered by a modern town, which makes excavations very difficult. This lack of evidence makes the literary descriptions even more important as a source of knowledge about the city’s urban life and space.

Rather than focusing on the “real” city and its material heritage, Stenger’s investigation focuses on two contrasting literary and therefore imaginary models of Antioch: whereas Libanius represents his hometown as a system whose stability can only be maintained by returning to tradition and clear-cut distinctions, Chrysostom aims at a profound transformation of the city’s religious and cultural fabric as well as of its perception. Both authors share the view that the values and habits of their audience should be profoundly revised, and they seek to achieve this objective through the category of space.

Libanius was born into a once-influential family from Antioch and his life’s work focused on oratory and teaching. Though he never held public office he enjoyed the confidence and esteem of the ruling class of Antioch. Although  unfamiliar with Latin literature he nevertheless deplored the growing local influence of the Latin language. He also criticized the increasing imperial pressures placed on the traditional city-oriented culture, which had formerly been dominated by the self-assured upper classes. Despite his own religious views, Libanius cultivated long-lasting friendships with Christians, both as private individuals and as imperial officials. John Chrysostom began his education under Libanius, who imparted to him the skills for a career in rhetoric, as well as a love of the Greek language. Later he became deeply committed to Christianity and turned to theology. Libanius is supposed to have said on his deathbed that John would have been his successor “if the Christians had not taken him from us”.

In both cases the reader is confronted with a textual imagination of the urban space, rather than a mimetic representation of the material cityscape. The imaginary cityscape becomes a literary backdrop for religious communities. This distinctive approach to the urban landscape is the focus of the project. The literary images in the two texts are not purely fictional depictions, but are closely related to the existing urban space in order to enhance credibility. Firstly, they include local buildings, social structures and local customs. Secondly, the images result from contemporary debates and negotiations. Focusing on this interplay between texts and the urban landscape, the project explores the rhetorical techniques used to influence perception of the urban space. In using these tools, Libanius and Chrysostom are trying to evoke in their fellow citizens a fresh awareness of the city and life within it, and thus their aim is to guide the behavior and habits of their fellow citizens. Their modeling of space and knowledge is calculated to exert a profound influence on material and social space.

This project is in close cooperation with projects in research group (C-2) Space and Metaphor


Image above: Antioch on the Tabula Peutingeriana (section)