The taking of Antioch in 540 AD was one in a series of disasters (the earthquakes of 526 Ad and 528 AD followed by a plague outbreak) but one in which the fundamental character of the city and its inhabitants was forever changed. After this event it was never the same because the wholesale transhipment of the population of the city to Chosroes' heartland resulted in the effective destruction of "historical memory" of Antioch more than mere structures.
The perpetrator of this act was Chosroes I, king of the Sassanid empire. Sometimes known as " the Blessed " (or Anushirvan), he proved to be anything but a blessing to the Antiochenes. He lived from 531-579 AD and was the favourite son and successor of Kavadh I and was eventually the most famous of the Sassanid kings. At the beginning of his reign he concluded an "eternal peace" with the emperor Justinian, who wanted to have his hands free for the conquest of Africa and Sicily. But Justinian's successes against the Vandals and Goths prompted Chosroes to begin the war again in 540.
The citizens resolved to send an envoy to Chosroes, to learn what terms he intended to impose, and despatched Megas, Bishop of Bercea, to the king's camp near Hierapolis. Among the king's followers was a renegade, the interpreter Paulus, who had once been a student under a grammarian of Antioch. Chosroes offered Megas to retire from Syria altogether in return for ten centenaria of gold; but, before his answer reached Antioch, two officials sent by Justinian to negotiate with the Persians had arrived. These strongly opposed buying off the enemy, and complained to Germanus of the willingness of the patriarch Ephraim to surrender. Thus, Megas effected nothing, and both Germanus and the patriarch, realizing the hopelessness of resistance, left for Cilicia.
As the Persian army approached, many citizens fled, carrying their property with them; and others were about to do the same, When two Roman officers arrived bringing 6,000 soldiers from Lebanon. This encouraged the citizens to resist. The Persians encamped along the Orontes bank, and sent Paulus to make the same offers as before. Ambassadors from the city also visited the king without reaching any conclusion. Next day the inhabitants, crowded on the battlements facing the Persian camp, used insulting language about the king in the hearing of his army, and almost killed Paulus with missiles when he advised them to buy safety. This event has been used by some historians to paint the Antiochenes as obstreperous but as Haddad points out, shouting insults was a common preparatory tactic in many sieges.
Chosroes, boiling with rage, determined to attack the walls, and next day, while detailing some of his forces to assail different points on the river front, himself led the largest and best part round to the southern heights. Here at one point the ramparts had been found too narrow to hold a sufficient number of defenders, and the besieged, fastening long beams together, attached them to adjoining towers, thus making a wide platform. The Persians came on, sending clouds of arrows, but the soldiers and the more courageous of the younger citizens made a stout resistance. The enemy, by occupying the fatal rock where the defenders had foolishly neglected to post any garrison, were almost on a level with the battlements, and while a dense crowd fought from the platform the ropes which supported it suddenly broke. Those in adjoining towers, thinking that the wall had collapsed, abandoned their posts and fled down the hill.
Lower down, a party of youths, accustomed to the riots which attended the Circensian games, stood their ground; but the soldiers, perceiving that all was lost, and having horses ready waiting, made for the gates, shouting, quite untruly, that a relieving force was at hand, and they must go to meet it. Most of the citizens, with the women and children, also hastened to the gates ; but many were trampled under the hoofs of the soldiers' horses in the narrow streets, which had no doubt been hastily rebuilt after the recent fires and earthquakes. Others were crushed to death at the gates, but the enemy gave little trouble.
As part of a strategem, Chosroes was eager to let the defenders go, and purposely left the Daphnetic Gate unguarded, the Persians making signs to the fugitives to take courage. Thus the leading men and soldiers got clear off. On the mountain side the Persians scaled the walls without opposition, but for a time remained on the battlements, fearing an ambush on the rough ground within, covered with rocks and precipices. When it was found that all organized resistance was over, they came down into the centre of the city, but still had to face a band of high-spirited youths, of whom some had regular arms, but most only wielded stones. Such was their ferocity that at first they repelled the invaders, and, as Procopius somewhat pedantically expresses it, raised a paean, saluting Justinian as Basileus Callinicus. The Persians soon rallied, and in their rage spared none of their opponents, while Chosroes, indignant at this useless defiance, ordered his men to seize and enslave surviving citizens and to pillage the city.
In Bouchier's retelling the king himself came down from the mountain to the cathedral, and caused to be removed and carried away to his own dominions the gold and silver ornaments with the magnificent marbles. This, however, was regarded as a sufficient ransom for the building, and Chosroes, on the appeal of the ambassadors who were still with him, consented to leave the church standing. The city was set on fire with a few houses in the Jewish quarter of Kerateion surviving, as did the sanctuary of St. Julianus and some adjoining houses which were outside the walls. The city walls were left, probably because their destruction would have been too laborious.
After a visit to Seleucia ad Pieira, Chosroes went to Daphne, where he admired the groves and fountains, offering sacrifice to the nymphs. The only damage done there was the destruction of the Church of St. Michael supposedly due to a misunderstanding. On the day of the fall of Antioch a Persian nobleman was pursuing a young butcher in the vicinity of another St. Michael's in the Tretus quarter. The youth, being overtaken by the horseman, threw a stone at him, and hitting him on the temple brought him down. The fugitive, appropriately named Aeimachus, drew the Persian's scimitar, killed him, took his arms and money, mounted his horse and, being familiar with the district, made good his escape. Chosroes in revenge ordered his men to burn this St. Michael's, but they supposed the better known church at Daphne to be intended.
In the wake of this destruction Chosroes supposedly took the population of the city, in its entirety, off to his kingdom where he built for them a new city, an Antioch lookalike... a subject that we discuss here.