Saturday, May 17, 2008

Sources: Product of a Golden Age or mere Surviving Shreds

When it boils down to it, the sources on one of the great metropoli of the Classical Age are extraordinarily thin. We see frequent references to the Fourth Centry being the "Golden Age" of the the city but we will persist in putting the term in inverted commas as we are not persauded that this is so. Certainly that age is where the best sources are, but does that mean that the 600 years of the city's existence before that time were lesser in their prosperity, creativeness or sheen?

Let us briefly look at the reasons the 4th century gets this title. We have the commentaries of Libanius, Chrysostom, Malalas, Ammianus Marcellinus and Procopius either from this period or commenting backwards upon it. Earlier centuries scarcely have one committed commentator let alone five of them. Works of earlier authors, such as Posidonius have been lost and others such as Strabo dealt with Antioch as part of far larger works, so by necessity Antioch was limited in its coverage. Most of the rest of the sources are scrappy with commentary on the city only as much as it was relevant to larger events (such as Dio Cassius commenting of Trajan's escape from the earthquake of 115 AD or reports of the poisoning of Germanicus).

Tis true that Antioch was well recounted in the 4th century but is this just a case that Christian authors (excepting Libanius) better withstood the "bonfires of the vanities" of later interlopers like Jovian? How many histories of previous centuries' events went up in flames when Jovian looted the Traianeum? History is written by the winners, and as long as Jovian could hold a torch to the scrolls, he was a winner. All of us, since, have been the losers.

How "Golden" was the "Golden Age"? The constructions of this period were chiefly ecclesiastical. The myriad temples of previous eras were in abandon or hastened on the process by zealots. The Museum was converted to a Praetorium. The circus and theatre were looked at askance and the Olympic Games were leading a tenuous existence being seen in some quarters as a pagan decadence. The military and social aspects of the gymnasium culture were already out of favour and their days were numbered.

The population had surged to its peak and the borders to the East were not as secure as they had been leaving the city as an "edgy" place. Famines also occurred regularly and riots were a common phenomenon linked to hunger, prices and other grievances.

If the age was not "golden" then it was certainly "purple". The emperors of this age had a great soft spot for Antioch and some appear to have spent more time in Antioch than in Constantinople and definitely the city was more favored than Alexandria (or Rome). It is no wonder that so many tales exist of the deeds (and constructions) of the emperors from this time. This also helps to achieve more print lineage for the 4th century over those that preceded it. However, we would note that the most serious chance that Antioch would become the capital of the empire was in the days of Geta (the son of Septimius Severus) who ruled from 209-211 AD when it is said he was planning to move the imperial seat from Rome.

Clearly Antioch's weather, position and lifestyle appealed mightily to the "powers that be" or rather "powers that were". But culturally we are left with little from the earlier centuries. Antioch has no great playwrights, poets, sculptors or other plastic artists in the annals of great literature and art. A surfeit of mimes scarcely count as a lasting legacy, and this author is one of the many who can't stand 'em!

Downey has been critical of the Antiochene intellectual output of the 4th century referring to it as a sterile debate. Of the five names we mentioned before we have the accomplished rhetorician, Libanius, but that role is scarcely a great contribution to thought or philosophy. It should be recalled that rhetorical schools were mainly breeding grounds for lawyers in those days. Libanius also had an aggrieved grumpy aspect to him that detracts from potential greatness. Chrysostom was beyond the pale as far as we are concerned and generally a sourpuss and a barely disguised harbinger for the "Dark Ages" of unilateral thinking to come for the next 1,000 years. The historians, Malalas, Procopius and Ammianus, are very useful in putting together some physical details of the topograhy and urban fabric and its history. The first two though were not especially renowned for their accuracy.

Thus we feel that the 4th century was definitely not a glittering age, it was just a well-documented period. Maybe lurking in some dusty repository (most probably in the Arabic or Turkic world) lies some record of the earlier centuries, though alas, most probably not. Until such time that more is known, we shall probably have to keep alive our skepticism that the period just before the city went into its steep decline was some sort of "Golden Age" and not just an Indian summer.

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