Ancient History & Civilisation


The local history of Syrian Antioch in late antiquity is better documented than that of any other city in the ancient world apart from the two capitals. As it was the main headquarters and springboard for campaigns against the Sassanians, it became a military center and served as a long-term residence for campaigning emperors, such as Constantius and Julian. It features prominently in secular histories, especially Ammianus, and in much of the literature associated with Julian. It is the only provincial city of the eastern empire from which a local chronicle, the work of John Malalas, has survived, and it is the focus of the ecclesiastical history of Evagrius, which is concerned with secular as well as church affairs, especially in the fifth and early sixth centuries. Added to this is the rich texture of local information relating to the later fourth century to be found in the speeches and letters of the pagan Libanius, and in the writings of his near contemporary, the Christian priest John Chrysostom, and to the fifth century in the letters and other writings of Theodoret of Cyrrhus. It is hardly surprising that the quantity of modern work on Antioch is far greater than that on the other major centers of late antiquity.

Antioch extended along the east bank of the river Orontes at the foot of Mount Silpius. City walls, originally built by its Hellenistic founder Seleucus I, ran along the river frontage and then eastward up the mountain slope. They were repeatedly restored and rebuilt in late antiquity, notably under Theodosius I and Justinian. The city itself had a central colonnaded street, two miles long, famous for public street lighting. There is abundant evidence from all periods of major public building. A large octagonal church was under construction at the end of Constantine's life and was dedicated at the Council of Antioch in 341.

Antioch was not as large a city as Alexandria. After the fourth century, it ceased to serve as an imperial residence and declined in importance. It was not itself a sea port, but imports and exports were transported by a canal system that was designed to make the last section of the river Orontes navigable down to the port of Seleucia Pieria.48 Both Diocletian and Constantius are known to have restored the harbor facilities, as it was critical for their major Persian campaigns, and it certainly was a conduit for military supplies up to the expedition of Julian in 363.49 There was an outer and an inner harbor, the latter secured by a chain. A fifth-century inscription contains a tariff of inspection fees on imports via the port, which were payable to the curiosi, the imperial agents responsible for the state transport annona and requisitions systems. These were set at a lower level for short-haul trade from Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Cilicia than from Palestine and Egypt. Annona contributions certainly reached Antioch by sea. The emperors Anastasius and Justinian set up inscriptions at Antioch which published the levels of these fees as a measure to prevent extortion by officials (Malalas 470–1).50

We have good information about the city's food supply in the late fourth century. The best documented shortage occurred in 362–3, as the emperor Julian prepared to invade Persia. The build-up of troops and the presence of the large imperial entourage aggravated the situation, and the emperor attempted to relieve the crisis by making available grain from imperial estates to the civic markets, but much of this was bought up by profiteers. Julian himself was blamed and hunger added a menacing edge to the tense relations between the emperor and the city population before he left on campaign.51 It may have been in consequence that the emperor Valens, who spent much of the 370s in residence at Antioch, instituted an imperial corn distribution system for the city, and this continued in existence until the time of Justinian.52 The periodic famines and grain supply crises, which are a leitmotif of Antioch's history in the late empire, suggest that local requirements could not be matched by maritime imports, and when the city was threatened by and fell to Persian attacks in 529 and 540, the imperial reaction in Constantinople was sluggish and half-hearted. The security of Antioch was not vital to the capital's own survival.

The transfer of at least some of the responsibility for the city's food supply to imperial officials is symptomatic of a major political change which is better documented at Antioch than anywhere else in the empire; the gradual decline in the economic independence and authority of the members of the city council, the local land-owning class, who here, as in almost every other city of the eastern Roman Empire, had hitherto been the mainstay of social order. The letters and speeches of Libanius imply that the number of active councilors had fallen sharply by the late fourth century. Their place was taken increasingly by a smaller number of imperial officials, often themselves local men who had made good. Salaried imperial officials and soldiers took over many of the political and economic functions of local landowners in a process which can also be observed in late Roman Egypt (see pp. 376–7).53 Thus during the late fourth and fifth centuries a middle tier of local government was squeezed out of existence. This widened the gap between the newly enriched landowners, who derived their income from state service, and the urban poor and the peasant population.

One consequence of this was the growing importance of patronage wielded by individuals who had access to the governor. In his speech Against Mixidemus Libanius illustrates how the target of his criticism had replaced a group of officiales as the patron of a group of villages, from whom he exacted produce and services, in return for the protection he offered. As country people became indebted to him, he was able to buy property, gradually building up large estates (Libanius, Or. 52). In his speech On PatronageLibanius depicts how villagers, by making payments of produce or gold, obtained the patronage of the commanding officers of the garrisons stationed among them, and then exploited this military protection to attack and plunder neighboring villages. They also relied on military protection when they refused to pay contributions to the tax levies which were being conducted by local councilors. It is clear that the web of patronage was not limited to locally stationed soldiers, but stretched back to senior military officers, who prevented the provincial authorities from intervening on behalf of the councilors (Libanius, Or. 47).54

There were many consequences of this shift in the balance of local power. The constitutional basis of civic government was rapidly undermined. City councils began to be replaced by coteries of powerful notables who operated primarily in their own private interests, not in those of the city. Already by 370 the emperors had created a new office of defensor civitatis, defender of the city, ostensibly to prevent corrupt practice in the courts at the expense of the rural poor (CTh. 1.29.5). Small-scale landholding began to be replaced by large estates, and the new landowners were often powerful enough to be a law unto themselves, in a position to negotiate with or even defy the demands of the imperial government. Violence and dispossession in the countryside will have led many peasants to move to the city, and the population of Antioch certainly expanded in the fifth century, when its walls were extended to cover a larger area (Evagrius I.20). Meanwhile its richer citizens became wealthier than before. This is illustrated by the luxurious villas, decorated with some of the finest figurative mosaics of the late Roman period, which were excavated by the Princeton expedition to Antioch in the 1930s.55 In material terms the city reached an apogee in the fifth century.

Despite the evidence for corruption and low-level rural violence, which is presented in Libanius’ account of patronage, and the city's reputation for unruly popular behavior, which is conveyed by the accounts of Julian's stay in the city in 362–3, urban disturbances seem to have occurred rarely.56 There was a reasonable level of religious harmony. Pagans and Christians appear generally to have avoided conflict, at least until the notorious campaign of Cynegius Maternus, Theodosius’ praetorian prefect of the East, who directed a vigorous campaign to close down and restrict the activities of the pagan temples in the 380s (see p. 268). Relations between Christians and Jews were too harmonious for the comfort of John Chrysostom, who resorted to a major series of sermons designed to dissuade Christians from attending Jewish places of worship (see p. 253).57 The episode that broke the calm in a serious way was the Riot of the Statues in 387. It is probably not a coincidence that this came at the end of the period when religious tension had been raised by the campaign of Cynegius Maternus. An imperial edict was read out to the city council announcing a steep rise in taxation. As the councilors mounted a petition to the governor of Syria to protest, and tried to enlist the help of Flavianus, the city bishop, rumors of what was happening reached the people, and a mob, led by a claque leader of one of the theater factions, stormed the palace of the provincial governor, and then vented its anger on the imperial images, first destroying wooden panels which carried Theodosius’ portrait, and then overthrowing the bronze statues of the emperor, his wife Eudoxia, and son Arcadius in the forum. They attempted to burn down the house of a councilor who had spoken in favor of the tax rise, but were prevented by the appearance of mounted archers and a body of troops under the Comes Orientis, who arrested the ring leaders. While these were swiftly tried and punished, the city awaited its own punishment with growing anxiety that there would be wholesale retribution. The emperor dealt with the mutiny in two stages. His initial reaction was to strip Antioch of many privileges, including its title to be metropolis of the province, to cut off the annona, and to shut down the hippodrome, theaters, and bath houses. A commission of enquiry then sat to establish who was to blame, and ordered the imprisonment of several councilors. Our sources portray these events from two viewpoints, the pagan represented by Libanius, and the Christian by John Chrysostom. Theodosius chose to pay heed to Christian pleas for clemency. It was the embassy to Constantinople headed by the bishop that secured freedom for the prisoners and the restoration of the city's privileges. John Chrysostom was able to hail the news that the city would be spared further punishment in time for the Easter festival. The dénouement of these events implied a shift in the balance of local power, from the secular council to the Christian authorities.58

The sparse trickle of information for the fifth century includes Evagrius’ detailed account of an earthquake which particularly affected the palace quarter of Antioch, the so-called New City (Evagrius 2.12). Recovery, with assistance from the emperor Leo, was evidently rapid, but Antioch was much more seriously affected in 525, firstly by a fire which destroyed the cathedral of St Stephen, and then by the largest earthquake in the city's history since 115, which allegedly claimed 250,000 lives including that of the bishop Euphrasios. A further shock in November 528 killed an additional 5,000 people. Imperial help was promised, but priorities in Syria switched from peace to war as the Persians renewed hostilities. The so-called eternal peace of 532 promised more than it delivered, and war broke out again in 539. In the following year the Persians descended on Antioch and took the city despite vigorous local resistance, which was led by the circus factions. Khusro I, the Persian king, reputedly took away 30,000 Antiochenes to found and populate a new city in Persia (Procopius, Bell. Pers. 2.14.6). Syria had effectively been left to its own devices by the emperor, since imperial forces were tied down in the increasingly bitter struggle to regain control of Italy. Procopius credits Justinian with an ambitious restoration program after the Persians had withdrawn, but his description implies that parts of the city had to be given up and the fortifications contracted. Streets and public buildings were rebuilt and a new church dedicated to the Theotokos (Procopius, Buildings 2.10.2–25).59 Two years after it fell to the Persians the city was exposed to a more devastating menace; the plague. The earthquakes of the 520s had already dealt heavy blows to the growth in Antioch's population and general prosperity; warfare and repeated recurrence of the plague made the decline irreversible.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!