Friday, March 21, 2008

Sink of Iniquity?

Was it conceivable that they would ever give up
their beautiful way of life, the range
of their daily pleasures, their brilliant theatre
which consummated a union between Art
and the erotic proclivities of the flesh?

Immoral to a degree—and probably more than a degree—
they certainly were. But they had the satisfaction that their life
was the notorious life of Antioch,
delectably sensual, in absolute good taste....

Julian & the Antiochians: C.P. Cavafy

Antioch, if one can believe commentators writing from Rome and other points
west, was a combination of 1890s Paris and 1920s Berlin in its decadence and pursuit of the pleasures of life.

It certainly was a party town. As Maurice Sartre writes " Its holidays were famous. The calends of January brought an annual three-day holiday; the Olympic Games, begun under Augustus and renewed under Commodus, were held every four years and lasted 45 days in July and August; other holidays honoring Artemis and Calliope drew artists and athletes. In addition to these Greek holidays, there was the maiouma, the May holiday in celebration of water, in which Antioch combined ceremonies honoring Dionysos and Aphrodite that lasted 30 days, while the Adoneia (honoring Adonis) took place from the seventeenth to the nineteenth of July. The Jewish holidays, which attracted audiences with their resounding trumpets, were equally lavish.....To visitors, however, Antioch seemed to live in an atmosphere of perpetual holiday, as Julian observed in 362."

Of course the Romans themselves were no slouches at celebrations and parties. It was quite easy to blame all the ills of the world (in Rome) upon flute players and mimes that drifted to the metropolis from points east.
Martial wrote, "Orontes in Tiberem defluxit!" ("The Orontes empties into the Tiber") and he wasn't commenting on a geographical phenomenon. Frankly our response would be that the quality of the flow was all one way.

Antioch was an eastern city. Its weather was by all accounts most congenial (Libanius rhapsodises
about its beneficial breezes). This was conducive to lots of outdoor activities over a much longer period of the year than elsewhere. The city also was an important administrative center to which powerful people were sent to keep an eye on the Eastern borders. This class had ample resources and thus a lively culture of partying developed and with it all the requisite festivities. The many mosaics found in the 1930s gave the impression that tricliniums (dining rooms) were the key part of every household and that their furnishing was a key factor in status and diversion. That the city was also economically well-positioned and could supply itself with food meant that the local grandees were well padded financially.

Reports indicate that the city also was enormously polyglot. Not only did it attract enterpreneurs and fortune hunters but also the artists and flaneurs who usually flutter around such flames. It was a major soruce of luxury goods with perfumes and textiles being major exports to the West. In this respect Antioch was the Paris of the Roman Empire. The numerous ethnic groups bought skillsets but also exotic costumes and behaviour. It is interesting that we have Chinese accounts (see Hirth) of the Roman East but no Chinese accounts of Rome. The old adage may have been "see Paris and die" but the even older one was "see Antioch and head back East".

Antioch also was head and shoulders above Rome on the social front. Rome was infamous for its squalor, urban chaos and poverty while Antioch was well-planned, well watered, clean and seemingly better balanced from the social standing point of view. While the "poor will always be with us" Antioch seemed to have not an oppressive number.

This does not mean the city was without its travails. We have mentioned elsewhere the hippodrome factions and Browning writes in detail of the theatre claques that rioted in the "Revolt of the Statues" and so upset the decorum of the city in the eyes of Libanius and Chrysotom.

Then there was political turmoil. It seems the Antiochenes could get up a full head of steam over a good philosophical argument but murder and mayhem did not figure highly in the local persona. While Rome was a regular bloodbath the only dubious despatching we can think of linked to Antioch was the demise of Germanicus, the potential rival for the imperial purple that Tiberius faced.

The best source for all things social in Antioch is George Haddad's 1948 thesis on the social life of the city which really gives the most thorough round-up of the myths and realities of the decadent metropolis of the East.

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