Tuesday, October 23, 2018

The Plethron & the Xystos

The plethron was the ancient wrestling stadium of Antioch. It merited an Oration from Libanius (Oration X, "On the Plethron"). In Downey's article on the Antioch Olympics he says ".. the successive enlargements of the Plethron, which had been built under Didius Julianus in the heart of Antioch, near the site of the later Forum of Valens, for use in the athletic trials and preliminary contests in the games. In a statement by Malalas (cited by Downeythe Plethri(o)n was built on the site of the house of Asabinus of the Council (πολιτευομενου), a Jew by religion.

The structure was originally designed, with two rows of seats about its four sides, to accomodate as spectators only the trainers, patrons and present and past officials of the games, the building was enlarged by Argyrius, who gave the games in 332AD, and then by Libanius' uncle Phasganius, who gave them in 336, each doubling the former capacity of the seats. The resulting admission of students, workmen and idlers of all sorts destroyed, Libanius says, the sacred character of the contests, which were even set at a later hour to suit the convenience of the new spectators". Downey adds that Proculus, the comes Orientis of 383-4 proposed a further expansion of the seating. This last proposal is what spurred Libanius to his outburst against riff-raff at the plethron!

The Xystos was another structure used for the Games. Malalas relates that this was built (or rebuilt) by Commodus (180-192AD). This is described in some commentaries as a covered track used for sports. In a footnote A.F. Norman suggests some sort of linkage with the Theatre of Zeus and references Roland Martin in Festugiere but my reading of Martin quite clearly states the Theatre of Zeus was in Daphne, moreover Norman attributes Martin as claiming that the Xystos and Plethron were in some way connected with the theatre. Maybe our French is faulty but R. Martin says in reference to the Plethron " il est bien distingué des deux theatres". That sounds like the contrary view.

Both of these structures were in or around the Forum, which is usually named in honour of Valens, for his rebuilding activities.

I have uploaded Richard Foerster's edition of Libanius' Oration X: "On the Plethron" and it is available here:


Friday, July 20, 2018

A Short Bibliography on the Antiochikos

We have dealt with the subject of a broad bibliography of Antioch in a previous postings here and here. A subset of Antioch studies is the study of Libanius's Oration in praise of his home city, the Antiochikos, which we posted upon here. The oration in translation, by Glanville Downey, can be found here

It might be useful to list here the research that deals solely with the Oration in question. Here are the articles I know of:

Les fondations d’Antioche dans l’Antiochikos (Or. XI) de Libanios, Catherine Saliou, Aram 11-12 (1999-2000), p. 357-388

Libanius' Oration in Praise of Antioch (Oration XI): Glanville Downey - Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, Vol. 103, No. 5, (Oct. 15, 1959), pp. 652-686

Antioche décrite par Libanios. La rhétorique de l’espace urbain et ses enjeux au milieu du quatrième siècle, Catherine Saliou, in  M. Steinrück, E. Amato, A. Roduit (dir.), Approches de la troisième sophistique (Mélanges J. Schamp), Bruxelles, 2006, p. 273-285

Libanius the Mythographer: Cultural Competition in the Antiochikos, Alex Lee, Florida State University. 112th annual meeting of CAMWS, 16-19 March 2015 

Vergangenheit und Gegenwart im “Antiochikos” des Libanios. Wiemer, H-U. 2003. Klio 85(2): 442-468.

Libanios' Antiochikos as the First Independent City Praise to Contain an Extent City Description or the Last Evolutionary Stage of a Rhetorical Genus, Alexandra
Voudouri, University of Athens, Greece, I.S.H.R Twentieth Biennial Conference,
Tübingen, July 31, 2015

Antiochikos - Zur heidnischen Renaissance in der Spätantike Aus dem Griech, Tilman Krischer & Georgios Fatouros, 286 S., ISBN 978-3-85132-006-0

Der Antiochikos des Libanios; eingeleitet, übersetzt und kommentiert, Leo Hugi.
Solothurn, "Union," 1919. 164 p.

Antioch as a Centre of Hellenic Culture, as Observed by Libanius, A. F. Norman,  Liverpool University Press | Series: Translated Texts for Historians | 2000, 199p   

Sunday, June 17, 2018

The Sarcophagus "Industry" in Antioch

Antioch was way more than just an Eastern outpost or some staging post on the way to campaigns against the Parthians. As the former capital of the Seleucid Empire for centuries it was where the wealth of that empire gravitated attracting the "big spenders" on not only its own area of dominion but from a broader region (as evidenced by Herod's gift of the Colonnaded Street). It was plugged into various strands of the Silk Road and the Red Sea trade as well as connections through to Palmyra providing interaction with that entrepôt.

So jewellery, textiles and perfumes were the prime stock in trade of the merchants and craftsmen dealing with the Syrian "carriage trade". All of these involved conversion of inputs from distant lands into products for local consumption or export to points west in the Roman Empire.

However, one range of products has received less focus mainly because it is so difficult to pinpoint the exact origin of where work was undertaken. This subset of the city's production was its carved output. With so little in situ to be seen at the site of ancient Antioch and the excavations in the 1930s throwing up little in the way of statuary it has fallen to scholars to see commonality in widely dispersed objects and using the style similarities to source them back to workshops in Antioch. This has resulted in a typology for work of this nature originating in the Syrian metropolis.

Most prominent in cultivating this view was the prominent (and controversial) art historian Josef Strzygowski who in his paper entitled "A Sarcophagus of the Sidamara type in the collection of Sir Frederick Cook, and the influence of stage architecture upon the art of Antioch" (published in the Journal of Hellenic Studies, vol. XXVII 1907, p. 99-122, planches V-XII) launched his thesis upon the art world.

In this article he posits: "It now remains to prove that the Asia Minor sarcophagi also belong to this school of plastic art, and depend from a centre of which till now we knew very little, namely Antioch. For to the sphere of influence of this Syrian metropolis belongs also the region on this side of the Taurus whence the art tendency noticeable in the Richmond fragments may have travelled to the west of Asia Minor just as well as to Macedonia, Greece, Italy and Rome. For the present nothing can be determined with certainty, but it is my firm conviction that the Asia Minor type of sarcophagus had its origin neither at Ephesus nor in any other district of western Asia Minor, neither in Greece nor Rome, but in the angle which lay nearest to Mesopotamia, and had Antioch as centre of culture".  

Here can be seen a few of the pieces of the sarcophagus that prompted this theory: 

A French review of the book at the time sums it up well as: "L'étude du sarcophage conservé dans la collection de sir Frederick Cook, à Richmond, amène M. Strzygowski à établir que les sarcophages de type dit d'Asie Mineure proviennent d'une école de sculpture d'Antioche qui chercha à combiner les motifs de l'ornement impressionniste venu de Mésopotamie avec les plus belles formes plastiques de l'art grec. Parmi les huit figures en haut relief qui ont été conservées (trois adolescents nus du type des Dioscures, deux figures masculines aux draperies flottantes, trois figures féminines également drapées), les trois premières semblent dériver de l'Hermès de Praxitèle; les figures drapées présentent des analogies avec la Muse de Praxitèle de la base de Mantinée et la matrone d'Herculanum du musée de Dresde; les deux dernières se rattachent à la même inspiration que les « pleureuses » du sarcophage de Sidon. L'élégante coquille qui encadre les figures comme une niche trahit l'influence mésopotamienne. Enfin le décor même du sarcophage de Richmond, qui se retrouve sur tous les sarcophages d'Asie Mineure, ne serait, avec ses trois portes surmontées d'un fronton, qu'une copie du « proskenion » des théâtres antiques dont la restitution a pu être tentée grâce aux peintures du quatrième style de Pompeï. L'influence de ce style d'Antioche se retrouve dans le panneau central du trône d'ivoire de Maximien, archevêque de Ravenne, et dans le bel ivoire du Musée Britanique qui représente un archange porteur du sceptre et du globe crucigère. En réunissant ces monuments si éloignés en apparence les uns des autres, on peut donc arriver à reconstituer le mouvement de syncrétisme artistique dont la façade de Mschatta reste la manifestation la plus éclatante".

Strzygowski's thesis could be summed up as that the artists in Antioch took the proscenium of the theatre as their mise en scene for all manner of relief carving but most particularly with regard to sarcophagi. It would seem that Antioch had established quite a niche (excuse the pun) in this type of product and that marble from very distant quarries (as far away as Prokenessos in the Sea of Marmara) was shipped to Antioch to be transformed and then re-exported to a wealthy costumer base across the Empire.