Antioch the Lost Ancient City

By Wilson, Sara E. | Humanities, July/August 2000 | Go to article overview

Antioch the Lost Ancient City

Wilson, Sara E., Humanities

"What city can we say is worthy to be compared with this? More fortunate than the oldest, it is superior to some in size, surpasses others in the nobility of its lineage, and others in its all-producing territory," Libanius wrote in the fourth century. The city beyond compare was Antioch.

The rhetorician conceded that Constantinople may have had finer walls, but Antioch was greater "in the abundance of its water and in the mildness of its winter, in the refinement of its inhabitants and in its pursuit of learning." It was better than Rome "because of that fairest thing, Hellenic education and literature."

Located in what is today southeastern Turkey, Antioch flourished from its founding in 300 B.C. until the sixth century A.D. Sitting as it did at the crossroads between Persia and the West, Antioch drew missionaries and merchants, saints and soldiers, actors and artisans. As Libanius wrote, if a man "sits in our marketplace, he will sample every city; there will be so many people from each place with whom he can talk."

The city's vitality unfolds in a new exhibition scheduled to open at the Worcester Art Museum in October. "Antioch: The Lost Ancient City" will travel to Cleveland and Baltimore in 2001. The exhibition highlights the Antiochene passion for spectacle in theaters, games, and festivals; the beauty of homes in the well-to-do city; and its role in the growth and melding together of diverse religions. It gathers objects that have not been together since their excavation more than sixty years ago.

"I proposed an exhibit to tell the story of a wonderful city that was really unknown," says Christine Kondoleon, Worcester's curator of Greek and Roman art. "It was kind of a rescue operation."

Antioch was founded by Seleucus, one of Alexander the Great's generals. "Alexander the Great made no provisions for his succession," says Rice University historian Michael Maas, a contributor to the exhibition catalog. "After his death, his generals began to compete for the empire. After long and bloody civil wars, Seleucus founded what became the Seleucid Empire and made Antioch his capital."

Seleucus had chosen the location carefully, keeping in mind climate, water supply, and security. He built a port city, called Seleucia Pieria, where the Orontes River meets the Mediterranean and located Antioch about ten miles up the river. Halfway between the port and Antioch, he built the resort town of Daphne. Its natural springs and gorgeous vistas made it a favorite retreat for the wealthy of Antioch.

Describing Daphne, Libanius wrote, "If the gods ever really leave heaven and come to earth, I believe that they must come together and hold their councils here, since they could not spend their time in a fairer place."

Antioch reflected the Hellenistic culture of its Graeco-Macedonian founder. "Cities were the emblem of civilization in the Hellenistic world. Cities were places where Greek culture could express itself. They were centers of art, literature, drama- all were acted out on an urban stage," says Maas. "But cities had an economic and political function as well. They governed the areas surrounding them, exploiting the local territories for their economic benefit."

Antioch's wide streets accommodated caravans carrying goods from the East. There were theaters, temples, and a library, and public squares adorned with statues of heroes and deities that provided meeting spaces for the city's inhabitants, who spent much of their time outdoors.

When the Romans defeated the weakened Seleucids in 64 B.C., they annexed Antioch and made it the capital of the province of Syria. While it behooved those who wished to gain positions of power in the Roman administration to learn Latin, Greek remained the primary language of the city.

Hellenistic culture remained intact; the Romans just added to the city's beauty and comfort, lining the main street with colonnades, building temples to Roman gods, paving the gravel roads, and constructing aqueducts. …

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