Metropolis of the Frontier:
A Concise History of the City of Antioch and its Role in Antiquity

The ruins of Antioch are buried beneath the modern Turkish city of Antakya. Of the four great cities of the late Roman Empire, including also Alexandria, Constantinople, and Rome, it is the one of which we know the least. That it was powerful and influential is certain, but we must know more. Antioch was founded in 300 BC by the Seleukos, son of Antiochus, following the death of Alexander the Great, as it lay precisely between his holdings in Asia Minor and the east. His successors, the Seleucid dynasty, continued to rule it after his own demise. Much like Rome, it lies some 15 miles off the Mediterranean, connected by the Orontes River. At the river's mouth was built the harbor town of Seleucia, which serves in much the same capacity as Rome's Ostia. 300 miles due north of Jerusalem, nearly the same north to Ephesus, only a few leagues from the Danube River, and in a position to command the separation of Turkey and the Middle East, the city's strategic location - both military and economic - saw its rise to prominence.

The fertile territory around the Orontes was ideal for the production of both wine and olive oil, and the capitalization of these resources rendered the city wealthy.Geographic factors were both a blessing and a curse, however. The region was temperate and blessed with a fair wind. Although they were less abundant than olive oil or wine, the fertile Orontes valley also produced sufficient grain and produce to supply the thriving metropolis. At the same time, however, nature could be destructive. Flash floods were a perennial problem, and so were earthquakes. One particularly large quake nearly killed the Roman emperor Trajan when he used the city for a staging area for his wars with the Parthian Empire in 115 AD.

Although the city came under the influence of various kingdoms - largely those founded by the successors of Alexander the Great's generals - in 64 BC Pompey's armies arrived, and Antioch became the capital of the Roman province of Syria. Julius Caesar made it a free city in 47 BC despite its having backed Pompey in the civil war, probably as a sign of good will. The Parthians across the Danube capitalized on the destabilization that accompanied the end of the Roman Republic to siege and capture Antioch, although it was quickly liberated by knew eastern legions loyal to Caesar.Antioch swiftly became an important part of the Roman Empire. It was the center of military administration against the Parthians, and it served as the first major Roman city on the long trade route to Asia - a Roman financial bonanza that was supplied by caravans from both the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf - making it a cosmopolitan center and exponentially increasing its wealth.

During the demise of the Republic and the reign of Augustus the population lay somewhere between a quarter million and 300,000 inhabitants. The process of "Romanization" was under way as soon as Pompey marched down the collonaded streets, but under the empire it was in full effect. Roman political and architectural systems replaced the older Hellenistic ones, although the city remained principally Greek-speaking throughout its life (Latin was almost exclusively reserved for official functions and writings). Antiochene citizens were gradually taken under the imperial wing, lured along by the carrot of citzenship, until 212 AD, when the emperor Caracalla declared everyone living within the boundaries of the empire a citizen.The city was physically Romanized, as well. Caesar himself built a theater, pantheon and aqueduct, and Augustus began work on a massive collonaded street and many temples, including a massive sanctuary dedicated to Jupiter Capitolinus. Other emperors did the same, and encouraged the locals to become involved as baths, insulae, and city planning remade the face of the city in the Roman mold. Local nobles were encouraged, and eventually found it a political necessity, to contribute to the city's welfare and Romanesque beautification, as well.

Throughout the imperial period, power was increasingly consolidated in the city of Antioch, allowing a centralized governing influence in the east. As provincial capital, it was the seat of the Syrian governor and consequently the source of military imperium in the east. During the early imperial period, there were never fewer than two legions under the direct command of the Syrian governor, an imperial appointee. At the height of its power, during Trajan and Marcus Aurelius's Parthian campaigns, Antioch had at its disposal four full legions and an equal number of auxiliary divisions, totalling approximately 40,000 fighting men. Further, it was the center of civil administration, maintaining a conventum that spanned most of the fertile Orontes valley to the Mediteranean Sea. It was also the seat of Syria's provincial assembly, whose members were almost universally Antiochene.

Antioch eventually included theaters (including the particularly large one built by Caesar), an ampitheater, and a circus. A petition by the local elites to the emperor Claudius was approved in 43 AD to begin local Olympic-style games. The emperor Julian (the Apostate) called Antioch a "gay and prosperous city," which was in no small part a result of the city's reputation for spectacle, and luxury. Antiochene households and public works were notorious for their use of water and fountains.

Within the city's conventum was the small, lush town of Daphne, which served as a resort city for the Antiochene elite and the home city of a temple to Apollo. The emperor Trajan built a massive collonaded street down the center of Antioch after the road built by Tiberius was destroyed in the 115 AD earthquake. In addition to wide open space and shining marble collonades, Trajan's road even featured street lamps that were lit during the night and early evening.Antioch became a center for Christian administration as well after it became the imperial state religion. As the home city of the church patriarch, Ignatius, it became both a pilgrimage site and a center for theological study. Rivalry between the Antiochene fathers and those from Egyptian Alexandria was legendary.

In the end, Antioch's rich region and strategic location were its downfall. It was often a point of jealousy for the Sassanian dynasty in Persia, and they had tried repeatedly to capture it during the intermittent wars between the two empires. Earthquakes struck the city fiercely in the 6th century, and several major fires devastated large parts of the internal city as well as its defensive walls. Worst of all, the climate of the Orontes valley proved almost ideal for plague-bearing rats moving north following climate changes in Ethiopia, and the city's population, now more than half a million, was ravaged by the plague. By 540 AD, Antioch was sufficiently weakened that Persian troops were able to storm across the Roman defenses and sack the city. Although it was liberated by Roman troops, it was taken again in 611, and this time was held for 17 years. Although it would become part of the Byzantine Empire in 628 AD, Arab invaders appeared in 641, and the sun set on the dying embers of the splendor that had been Antioch for the last time.



Sites and Artifacts





Lion head water spout, marble, ca. 200 A.D.
Remains of ancient church
Remains of the Theatre of Caesar
Remains of a Roman house
Excavation of the "House Menander"
Bearded male head, marble, 100 B.C. to 100 A.D.
Bust of Dionysus, mosaic, 300 to 350 A.D.
Remains of aqueduct between Antioch and Daphne
Peacocks and grapes, mosaic, 526 to 540 A.D.
Genius of the Pyramos River, mosaic, ca. 100 A.D.
Persian-style rams' heads, mosaic, 400 to 450 A.D.
Remains of curse-tablet of Thaumasios of Antioch

"It seems to me that one of the most pleasing things in cities, and one of the most useful, is meetings and mixings with other people. We [citizens of Antioch] too have done honor to foreigners in the greatest of things, and have profited from foreigners, so that even now their families hold positions among the first. Indeed, if a man had the idea of traveling all over earth with a concern not to see how the cities looked but to learn their individual ways, Antioch would fulfill his purpose and save him journeying. If he sits in our market-place, he will sample every city; there will be so many people from each place with whom he can talk."

-Libanios, Oration 30, "For the Temples"


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Jones, A.H.M. Cities of the Eastern Roman Provinces. Second Edition. London: Oxford University Press, 1971.
Kondoleon, Christine, ed. Antioch: The Lost Ancient City. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000.
Rich, John, ed. The City in Late Antiquity. London and New York: Routledge Press, 1992.
Scarre, Chris. The Penguin Historical Atlas of Ancient Rome. London, New York, Victoria, Toronto & Auckland: Penguin Books, 1995.

Click here to view a map of ancient Antioch

Click here for a text on the Antiochene Jews