Antioch-on-the-Orontes was one of the four great cities of the Greco-Roman-Byzantine world. Although almost unknown today, it once rivaled Alexandria, Rome and Constantinople. Ancient writers described it as a breathtakingly beautiful city with grand civic buildings, baths, houses, temples, synagogues, churches and colonnaded streets—all bordered by the Orontes River and surrounded by mountains. According to the patriarch John Chrysostom (c. 345–407 C.E.), who was born and educated in Antioch, the city was home to 200,000 souls: Greeks, Persians, Syrians, Phoenicians, Judeans and Romans. Antioch was the most multicultural city of Late Antiquity; for centuries, pagans, Jews and Christians lived here side by side, most of the time in peace.
So it was with great excitement that archaeologists sponsored by Princeton University and an international consortium of musems arrived in Antioch in the spring of 1932. From 1932 to 1939, when World War II put an end to their work, this team mounted the first—and, so far, the last—excavations at Antioch. To the disappointment of the excavators, however, the site’s most promising areas were buried under a modern city (Antakya, in Turkey) and dozens of feet of alluvial material deposited by the Orontes River. They did uncover Antioch’s north-south road, which helped them understand the layout of the ancient city. But they were unable to locate the magnificent public buildings described 048by ancient authors, such as the imperial palace complex on an island in the Orontes. The only public buildings excavated by the archaeologists were a few baths and two churches. They also found Byzantine churches in the hills around Antioch and at the nearby port of Seleucia Pieria (
Nonetheless, the team’s finds were spectacular. They uncovered about 90 private dwellings, dating from the second to the sixth century C.E. Many of these houses were decorated with splendid mosaic floors, showing colorful scenes from Greco-Roman myth and cultic rituals. The lives of the private elite came into sharper focus, observes Christine Kondoleon in the catalogue of a new exhibit on Roman Antioch at the Worcester Art Museum in Massachusetts, while “the public or religious dimensions of the city … remain more vivid in written accounts.”1
That’s the irony of Antioch: Before a spade struck the earth, the archaeologists knew the city’s entire history from literary sources, and they could reconstruct its ancient skyline, at least in the abstract. Although few remains existed above surface level, more was known about Antioch than about such well-preserved Roman cities as Sabratha in Algeria and Jerash in the Jordanian desert.
Alexander the Great was the first to imagine the city of Antioch, according to the fourth-century C.E. Greek orator Libanius, who was from a wealthy Antiochene family. In 333 B.C.E., after defeating the Persians at the Battle of Issus, Alexander stopped at the future site of Antioch and drank from a sweet-water spring. The 23-year-old conqueror declared that the water tasted like his mother’s milk, and he resolved to build a city on the site.
The story of Antioch’s founding is told in several sources. After the death of Alexander in 323 B.C.E., the lands he had conquered were divided among his generals, with Ptolemy Soter (c. 367–283 B.C.E.) taking Egypt and the southern Levant and Seleucus Nicator (c. 358–281) taking Syria, Mesopotamia and Persia. In 300 B.C.E. Seleucus built his capital on the Orontes and named it Antioch after his father, Antiochus.a
The Seleucid Empire was ruled from Antioch until 64 B.C.E., when the Roman general Pompey captured the city and made it the capital of the Roman province of Syria. From such sources as Libanius and John Malalas, a sixth-century C.E. historian and monk who lived in Antioch, we know that both Seleucid and Roman Antioch prospered from the Silk Road trade route that led up the Euphrates to the Greco-Roman site of Zeugma (see “After the Flood”) and across Syria to the Mediterranean (pieces of Chinese porcelain were found during the 1930s excavations). Ancient chroniclers tell of a sumptuous life at Antioch—a level of luxury that is also well attested by the gorgeous mosaics uncovered by the Princeton team. The Greek historian Polybius (c. 200–118 B.C.E.), for example, describes magnificent games put on in 167 B.C.E. by the Seleucid king Antiochus IV:
The festival … was headed by five thousand men in the prime of life armed after the Roman fashion and wearing breastplates of chain armor. Next came five thousand Mysians, and immediately behind them three thousand Cilicians armed in the manner of light infantry, wearing gold crowns. Next came three thousand Thracians 049and five thousand Gauls. They were followed by twenty thousand Macedonians, of whom ten thousand bore gold shields, five thousand brazen shields and the rest silver shields.2
That’s just the beginning; horse-driven chariots are still to come, along with elephants and thousands of sacrificial cows. Polybius’s account is certainly an exaggeration. It is quoted in a work called The Learned Banquet begun by one of Polybius’s contemporaries, Athenaeus, and probably completed in Rome in the late second century C.E.—thus the account more likely reflects the wealth of the city in Roman times.
Antioch’s floruit came in the Roman period. During the reigns of Augustus (27 B.C.E.–14 C.E.) and Tiberius (14–37 C.E.), the city received its paved, colonnaded north-south road and its numerous public buildings. By the mid-first century C.E., Antioch had become one of the centers of the Christian movement—despite, or perhaps because of, its 300-year-old Jewish community. It was in Antioch that early followers of Jesus, including the apostle Paul, were first called “Christians” (Book of Acts 11:26). All of Paul’s missionary journeys departed from and returned to Antioch. Later, in the Byzantine period (334–638 C.E.), Antioch was one of five cities with a patriarchal see (that is, a bishopric), along with Jerusalem, Alexandria, Rome and Constantinople.
In the mid-sixth and early seventh centuries, Antioch suffered from a devastating earthquake, plague epidemics and repeated attacks by Persians and then Arabs, who conquered the city around 637. After that, Antioch was but the shadow of its former glory.
Pagan Antioch worshiped a vast array of gods. In Greco-Roman politics, religion was largely an open system, free of dogma. The Tyche of Antioch, the goddess in charge of protecting the city whose name she bore, had her own cult image standing in a temple, where rituals were performed in her honor. Her temple appears on Roman coins from Antioch, but the excavations did not locate its remains.
The Greek gods had been worshiped since the city’s beginnings. Although Athena boasted one of the oldest temples in the city, none was more important than the oracular shrine of Apollo at Daphne, an affluent community south of Antioch. Daphne, the huntress of Greek myth, was pursued by the god Apollo; to prevent her from being caught, her father, the river god Peneus, changed her into a laurel tree. The name “Daphne” was given to the site because of its grove of laurel trees. According to Libanius, Seleucus dedicated “the place to the god, since he found that the myth was true” (Oration 11.94).
Roman emperors and their family were granted divine honors in all eastern Greek cities, and Antioch was no exception. After his death and deification, Trajan (98–117 C.E.) received his own temple and sacrifices at Antioch. Foreign deities, whose mystery cults generally required special initiation, also found a home in Antioch. Cults devoted to the Greek god Dionysus and the Egyptian goddess Isis were the oldest and best established.
Another member of Antioch’s diverse pantheon was Mithras, whose cult was mostly favored by soldiers.b None of these temples and shrines has survived.
Of the 300 floor mosaics excavated during the 1930s, only a few depict cult 051practices. One mosaic of the Ceremony of Isis and two mosaics from the House of the Mysteries of Isis seem to depict Isis’s initiation ritual and the maritime festival over which the goddess presided.
Do these pavements provide direct evidence for the cult of Isis in Antioch? Or are they merely decorative panels, artistic compositions from a mosaicist’s cartoon-book?
We don’t know. In Pompeii, a fresco depicting Isis ceremonies was uncovered, along with an actual temple in which the rituals were performed. The Pompeii fresco shows the priests of Isis, with their shaved heads and white linen garments, performing sacrifices in front of the temple while devotees attend the ceremony. The Antioch Isis mosaics, though very badly preserved, may well be just as faithful to the reality of the cult. But even if they do not show what occured during the ceremonies, they suggest that the cult of Isis existed in Antioch. Only further excavations can shed light on what their contexts were, whether domestic or sacred.
One of the earliest mosaics comes from the second-century C.E. dining room of the House of the Atrium, which has been reassembled in the Worcester Art Museum. A stunning work of art representing thousands of hours of work, the floor pavements, which dinner guests would have admired as they entered the room, include the Drinking Contest Between Dionysus and Herakles. Here we see an intoxicated Herakles outdrunk by the wine-god Dionysus and forced to exit the stage—perhaps a gentle message to the dinner guests: Eat, drink and be merry, but in moderation!
The Drinking Contest is flanked by panels depicting a satyr and a maenad, Aphrodite and Adonis, and the Judgment of Paris. These floors—walked upon and strewn with crumbs, animal bones, shells and the detritus of easy living—were clearly not sacred cult images. But that does not mean they had no connection to local cults and legends. According to Libanius, for example, it was believed locally that the Judgment of Paris—which ignited the Trojan War—took place in the mountains around Antioch rather than on Mount Ida in Greece. Furthermore, Antioch was home to the fertility cult of Adonis, a god who is born in the spring and dies in the fall.
Jews were integrated into the life of Antioch from the very beginning,”3 according to Brandeis scholar Bernadette Brooten. The first-century C.E. historian Josephus, a Jew from Jerusalem who lived in Rome and wrote in Greek, records in Jewish Antiquities that Jews were honored by Seleucus himself for having fought with the Greek armies:
Seleucus Nicator granted them [Jews] citizenship in the cities which he 052founded in Asia and Lower Syria and in his capital, Antioch, itself, and declared them to have equal privileges with the Macedonians and Greeks who were settled in these cities (12.119).
In later centuries, Jews permeated all levels of society: Aramaic-speaking Jewish peasants lived in the countryside around Antioch; Jewish artisans lived in the city, and hellenized Jewish landowners even lived in the wealthy suburb of Daphne.
For Jews, however, living in Antioch was at times a delicate balancing act. According to Josephus, both the Seleucids and, later, the Roman rulers required citizens to carry out state religious rituals unacceptable to Jews. Things got especially tense when Jews in Judea rose up against their Roman masters. According to Josephus, for example, after the First Jewish Revolt (66–70 C.E.) some citizens of Antioch petitioned Emperor Vespasian to revoke Jewish rights of citizenship. The emperor refused.
According to John Chrysostom, there were several synagogues both within and outside the city. In addition to the Ashmunit synagogue in the southeastern part of the city, the Matrona synagogue served Daphne’s well-to-do Jews. Each synagogue sent representatives to a general governing council headed by a chief magistrate. Sometimes pagans and even Christians attended Jewish worship, which was often conducted in Greek.
Archaeology tells us very little about the Jewish community in Antioch. This is in distinct contrast to archaeological excavations at other contemporaneous Jewish sites, such as Sardis, in western Turkey. At Sardis, archaeologists have excavated a magnificent synagogue, with a peristyle (colonnaded) court, marble floors, a double tabernacle, a hemicycle (a semi-circular, stepped platform) for the elders, as well as opus sectile (inlaid pieces of marble in geometric or figural compositions) panels on the walls. Antioch’s Jews would 053certainly have erected buildings like the Sardis synagogue—perhaps even on a grander scale, considering that Antioch’s Jewish community was larger and more influential than Sardis’s—but so far none has been found.
There are two main pieces of archaeological evidence for the Jewish presence in Antioch, both unremarkable. The 1930s excavations uncovered a small stone fragment engraved with a menorah and four Greek letters, “GOLB.” According to Bernadette Brooten, the word is not Greek; it is probably a Greek transliteration of a Hebrew or Aramaic personal name or a word designating a person’s trade, such as barber or sculptor.
The second piece of evidence is more intriguing, though it offers only oblique evidence of the Jewish presence in Antioch. In 1935 a third-century C.E. lead curse tablet was found in a well in ancient Antioch’s House of the Calendar. The 5-inch-long tablet had been inscribed in Greek script, rolled up and deliberately thrown into the well. The tablet’s inscription, which was read only recently at the Straus Center for Conservation at the Fogg Museum of Harvard University by a team of conservators and epigraphers led by the present author, has not yet been published. Engraved with magical formulas and prayers, the tablet curses a greengrocer named Babylas. The text opens with a series of voces magicae; a few lines down, the secret name of god is invoked as “Iao, he who thunders and hurls lightning.” Iao is the magical version of Yahweh’s name, and it is invoked in hundreds of late-Roman magical texts from all over the Mediterranean basin. The following is an excerpt, which begins with the magical (and no-longer-understood) incantation EREBATH SARDOA SIROSACHOR:
O thundering and lightning-wielding Iao, cast down, bind, bind together Babylas, the greengrocer whom Himera (also called Hesychia and Dionysia) bore in her womb, he who lives in the neighborhood of the Mygdonians. Just as you cast down the chariot of Pharaoh, so cast down his … soul … O thundering and lightning-wielding Iao, just as you choked the first-born of Egypt, so choke up [his animals] … Now too, bind, bind down, bind together his animals and his donkey, let them overturn, let them fall apart, let them not be able to move, from this hour and day forth, now, now, quickly, quickly.
Since the text refers to episodes from the Book of Exodus (the plague that killed the first-born and the submerging of Pharaoh beneath the waters), one might 054assume that the magician who made the tablet was Jewish. It is more likely, however, that Iao is simply another deity in an ever-expanding, eminently syncretic, pagan pantheon of gods and demons.
The proof lies in another tablet found in the same well. This second tablet also curses Babylas, though now the magician invokes the pagan deity Typhon, not Iao, to carry out the spell. The Jewish god was only co-opted here, on the same footing as any other pagan deity, to serve the purpose of cursing. Monotheism was foreign to the world of late-antique magic.
For Christians of the eastern Roman Empire, Antioch, like Jerusalem and, later, Constantinople, was a city full of wonder and awe. It was home to one of the earliest Christian communities. It was a base from which missionaries, like Paul, traveled through Anatolia and to Greece. It was one of the places where basic Christian doctrine was developed. In the Letter to the Galatians, for instance, Paul wrote that he rebuked the church leader Peter at Antioch for insisting that gentile Christians follow Jewish laws regarding purity and circumcision. Paul concluded that such laws should not divide the Jesus movement, for “no one will be justified by the works of the law” but only by “faith” (Galatians 2:11–16).
In the fourth century, Antioch was the home of antiquity’s most famous Christian orator, John Chrysostom, whose Homilies Against the Jews claimed that “the shrine (synagogue) of Matrona and the temple of Apollo are equally profane.” Antioch later became a hotbed of doctrinal dissent fomented by the Nestorians.c In the fifth and sixth centuries, far from the city’s doctrinal debates, monastic communities arose in the mountains around Antioch, dispensing their own brand of Christianity to a population eager for miracles and guidance. According to the Syrian bishop Theodoret of Cyrrhus (393–466), St. Symeon Stylites, supposedly buried at Antioch, lived for 30 years on a 60-foot-high column in the mountains east of the city.
Compared to pagan cults and Judaism, Christianity left more impressive traces on the archaeological record of Antioch. This comes as no surprise, since Christianity was the city’s dominant religion at the time of its demise in the sixth century C.E. But of the major ecclesiastical buildings that dotted the city, including Constantine’s great octagonal church near the palace and hippodrome, Justinian’s church to the Virgin Mary and the church of the Holy Prophets, nothing has been found. Some of these structures, ancient sources recount, fell just short of Constantinople’s Hagia Sophia in size and grandeur.
The Antioch excavations revealed only one ecclesiastical building, which, although quite minor in relation to the great imperial foundations, still affords a glimpse into the rituals of Christian Antioch. Built in the fourth century C.E. on the south side of the Orontes River, outside of the city walls, it was a cross-shaped funerary structure, or martyrion, presumably meant to house the remains of Saint Babylas (who shared this rare name with the greengrocer mentioned in the curse tablet), who was martyred around 250 C.E. The relics of Babylas would have been housed within the chancel enclosure, next to the altar. On a visit to Antioch in 362, the Roman emperor Julian, later called “the Apostate” for renouncing the Christian faith and attempting to restore pagan cults, moved Babylas’s relics to the necropolis of Antioch on the ground that the mortal remains defiled the nearby temple of Apollo Daphneion. Christians claimed divine vengeance when the temple was 055destroyed by fire shortly after the bones were transferred. (Julian later took revenge by writing a satirical oration, the Misopogon, which condemned the people of Antioch for their sloth and greed.)
Much of the archaeological evidence for Christian Antioch comes from outside the city itself. The seaport of Seleucia Pieria was to Antioch what Piraeus was to Athens and Ostia to Rome. The church excavated there in the 1930s may have been inspired by Constantine’s lost Great Church at Antioch. The interior decoration included mosaic pavements and carved reliefs (colored in a technique close to enameling called champlevé) above the columns. The church’s mosaics depict a continuous procession of animals and seem to allude to the beauty and diversity of God’s creation, a favorite theme of fourth- and fifth-century religious oratory in Antioch. The champlevé reliefs bear the earliest Christian figural representations in the Antioch region, including depictions of David and the Apostle Paul.
The mountains of northern Syria, moreover, abound with some of the best-preserved ecclesiastical buildings from the fourth to the sixth century C.E. Most of these are modest country churches built on the basilica plan, but others, such as the church at Kalat Siman, are grandiose shrines associated with the cult of ascetics.
Nor do the most impressive pieces of north Syrian Christian art come from Antioch. Many are from small country churches scattered in the mountains. One of the most beautiful objects is the so-called Antioch Chalice, now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. When it was discovered in 1910, it was thought to have come from Antioch; recently, however, it has been attributed to the church of Kaper Koraon, a nearby village. This gilded silver openwork cup is decorated with images of Jesus and the Apostles seated in a vine. The 8-inch-tall vessel was originally made as a container for a much plainer silver cup, which rests inside. Some early 20th-century scholars identified the silver cup as the Holy Grail, the cup used by Jesus at the Last Supper. The chalice itself, they argued, was made in the first century to house the Grail.
They are both clearly Byzantine, however, made in the sixth century C.E. But this is Antioch, a city comfortable with martyrs, magic and myths.
Antioch-on-the-Orontes was one of the four great cities of the Greco-Roman-Byzantine world. Although almost unknown today, it once rivaled Alexandria, Rome and Constantinople. Ancient writers described it as a breathtakingly beautiful city with grand civic buildings, baths, houses, temples, synagogues, churches and colonnaded streets—all bordered by the Orontes River and surrounded by mountains. According to the patriarch John Chrysostom (c. 345–407 C.E.), who was born and educated in Antioch, the city was home to 200,000 souls: Greeks, Persians, Syrians, Phoenicians, Judeans and Romans. Antioch was the most multicultural city of Late Antiquity; for centuries, pagans, Jews and Christians lived […]