Thursday, July 23, 2009


The Maiuma was a festival that existed in a number of cities, but Antioch, as was typical, managed to turn a mere religious event into something very special. Antiochenes had a touch of the Gatsby about their party-going.

Chrysostom spoke on the subject on the Maiuma: "For tell me, if anyone offered to introduce you into a palace, and show you the king sitting (there), would you indeed choose to see the theatre instead of these things? … And you leave this and run to the theatre to see women swimming, and nature put to open dishonour, leaving Christ sitting by the well? … But you, leaving the fountain of blood, the awful cup, go your way to the fountain of the devil, to see a harlot swim, and to endure shipwreck of the soul. For that water is a sea of lasciviousness, not drowning bodies, but working shipwreck of souls. And while she swims naked, you, as you behold, are plunged into the depths of lasciviousness. … For in the first place, through a whole night the devil takes over their souls with the expectation of it; then having shown them the expected object, he has at once bound them and made them captives … If now you are ashamed, and blush at the comparison, rise up to your nobility and flee the sea of hell and the river of fire, (I mean) the pool in the theatre … And you, when there is a question of precedence, claim to have priority over the whole world, since our city first crowned itself with the name of Christian; but in the competition of chastity, are you not ashamed to be behind the ruder cities?"

Bouchier (quoting Malalas) reports that Commodus funded a number of building programs and also " "... the triennial nocturnal festival of Bacchus and Aphrodite called the Maiuma. For the lamps and candles with which the city was illuminated on the latter occasion certain revenues were set aside."

George Soane in his book on ancient festivals notes: "This festival was celebrated with much splendour, banquets and in offerings, as we are told by the Emperor Julian, in his satirical address, the Misopogon, to the people of Antioch, and in time it appears to have degenerated so deeply into licentiousness that it was suppressed, so far as laws could suppress it, in the reign of Constantine, together with the feasts of Pan and Bacchus. Under the united rule of Arcadius and Honorius, it was restored, though with caution, the imperial mandate declaring, " clementiae nostrae placuit ut Maiumae provincialibus laetitia reddatur ; ita tamen ut servetur honestas, et verecundia castis moribus perseveret." Imp. Cod. lib. xi. tit. 45.

The admonition, however, in regard to decency and sobriety, does not seem to have produced any very desirable effect upon the minds of the people, for in the same reign it was once more forbidden on the plea of licentiousness by a rescript to the prefect Aurelian, which is still extant in the Theodosian Code, (lib. xv. tit. vi.) It is, however, plain, that though the Maiuma might be condemned by the edicts of emperors and the fulminations of saints (i.e. Chrysostom), it persisted."

Gerald Rendall claims that Libanius declared that the essence of the Maiuma was ' not to abstain from any kind of abomination.'
It is suggested that the theatre unearthed at Daphne was inundatable so that the aquatic frolics that accompanied the Maiuma could be presented there. Some have suggested that the representation of a boating basin in the Megalopsychia Mosiac represents, possibly, the theatre at Daphne in its flooded state. 
The worship of Adonis was also of great importance in Antioch. The festival associated with the commemoration (and seeming resurrection) of Adonis was called the Adonies. No evidence of a temple complex or sanctuary has been found but that is not surprising as Adonis was not a god himself but one of the favorites of Aphrodite. The festival though seems to have taken to the streets of the city. It consisted, perversely, of weeping and wailing rather than whooping it up. The main participants were women, an interesting antecedent to the public displays of mass grief that are still a feature in the Middle East. 
Sir James Frazer in his book "The Golden Bough" (1922) refers to some of the festivities: "One of the earliest seats of the worship of the new god (i.e. Christianity) was Antioch, and at Antioch, as we have seen, the death of the old god (i.e. Adonis) was annually celebrated with great solemnity. A circumstance which attended the entrance of Julian into the city at the time of the Adonis festival may perhaps throw some light on the date of its celebration. When the emperor drew near to the city he was received with public prayers as if he had been a god, and he marvelled at the voices of a great multitude who cried that the Star of Salvation had dawned upon them in the East. This may doubtless have been no more than a fulsome compliment paid by an obsequious Oriental crowd to the Roman emperor. But it is also possible that the rising of a bright star regularly gave the signal for the festival, and that as chance would have it the star emerged above the rim of the eastern horizon at the very moment of the emperor’s approach. The coincidence, if it happened, could hardly fail to strike the imagination of a superstitious and excited multitude, who might thereupon hail the great man as the deity whose coming was announced by the sign in the heavens. Or the emperor may have mistaken for a greeting to himself the shouts which were addressed to the star. Now Astarte, the divine mistress of Adonis, was identified with the planet Venus, and her changes from a morning to an evening star were carefully noted by the Babylonian astronomers, who drew omens from her alternate appearance and disappearance. Hence we may conjecture that the festival of Adonis was regularly timed to coincide with the appearance of Venus as the Morning or Evening Star. But the star which the people of Antioch saluted at the festival was seen in the East; therefore, if it was indeed Venus, it can only have been the Morning Star". 
The most important source on this event is Jean-Francois Vieslet of the University of Louvain in Belgium. His chapter "Les Adonies d'Antioche au IV siecle apres J.C." in his thesis "Les fastes d'Antioche et le crepuscule du paganisme. Analyse des fetes paiennes d'Antioche au IVe s. ap. J.C." was submitted in 2004-5. The chapter in question is available here. His study covers the whole gamut of the Adonis festival, its origins, its manifestations (including the use of dolls to represent Adonis and the growing of mini-gardens in pots that were then cast into the ocean), the historical record and the way in which the festival was "celebrated" in Antioch.  

A missing manuscript

The pool of original sources on Antioch is shallow to say the least. By a very roundabout hunt (for something else) I stumbled upon an 1866 article in a French journal (Bibliothèque de l’École des chartes) in which Leopold Delisle discusses a collection of manuscripts that Lord Ashburnham bought from a Mr Barrois. More sleuthing revealed that this collection was auctioned of in 1897 in a spectacular series of auctions. Amongst the documents that the author mentioned is one that caught my eye, seemingly a manuscript copied by the Benedictines. This document (numbered 6755) had the following subject matter in Delisle's words:
1. Une partie du manuscrit a ete copie en 1267
2. Il y a des extraits de saint Bernard et de saint Augustin
3. Il y a un traite de musique commencant par los mots Quoniam circa artem, et occupant neuf feuillets.
4. Un feuillet renferme au recto la description des environs de Jerusalem (Si quis ab occidentalibus), et au verso une court description d'Antioche (Haec urbs). Le feuillet suivants contient une liste des villes conquises en Espagne par Charlemagne.
5. Le traite de Methodius commence au verso d'un feuillet et occupe les quatre feuillets suivants.
The catalogue of Mr Barrois has an entry relating to the manuscript that says: 11. Descriptio nobilissime urbis Antiochie. Fol 61 verso. - " Haec urbs Antiochia valde et pulcra et honorabilis". So the description is short but might appear to be a pre-12th century description of the city.

Some sleuthing revealed a book called "Catalogue des manuscrits des fonds Libri et Barrois" in Google Books. This is in the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris. The catalogue describes 180 manuscripts. Concordances on . [264]-273 indicate the correspondence of their numbers in the Bibliothèque Nationale with those in the Fonds Libri and fonds Barrois at Ashburnham Place.
Fol. 61 v°. » Descriptio nobilissime urbis Antiochie "Нес urbs Antiochia valde est pulcra et honorabilis, quia intra muros ejus sunt quatuor montanee maxime et nimis alte... "

Its location would be an interesting addition to the pool of reports on the city. Now to find out where the manuscript went in the library auction so long ago...

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Decline and Fall

When to write off Antioch? Well, the most obvious time to look for would be to identify when the city ceased to be Antioch the Great and instead became an also ran amongst cities. Some may care to differ but you can't get much more of a fall from greatness than effecting a name-change to reduce the threat of earthquakes. Thus I would be sorely tempted to date the "end" of the city's greatness to just after 528 AD when the name change to Theopolis was effected. We stand ready however to also plump for 540 AD when Chosroes devastated the city and carried off its population to his ersatz Antioch on the banks of the Euphrates.

We keep coming back to our simile of Berlin in the 20th century. The period 528-540 AD was very similar to 1933-45. The creative element was shipped out, scared away or destroyed while the physical nature of the city was transformed by destruction of the urban fabric of the metropolis. Rebuild and repopulate as one might the elements that came together to make, however flawed, the shining moments of the city's history could never be replaced in the former combination. Antioch went from metropolis or Weltstadt to provincial humdrum. The sole consolation was that the stupid Theopolis name went the way of all things and today's Antakya still harks back to the founding in 300 BC while Theopolis just looks like superstitious mumbo jumbo.

Even Berlin's travails pale into insignifigance compared to Antioch's. Warsaw or Konigsberg might be better simile. The 6th century was an unremitting litany of disaster.
  • A devastating fire in 525
  • the massive earthquake of 526 that destroyed the Island
  • the quake of 528 with even wider damage
  • the burning and looting by Chosroes in 540 with the wholesale transhipment of the population
  • bubonic plague in 542
  • another earthquake in 551
  • a cattle plague in 553
  • another earthquake in 557
  • more bubonic plague in 560
  • Persians burned the suburbs in 573
  • another earthquake in 577
  • a more damaging earthquake in 588
  • a drought killed the olive trees in 599
  • a weevil infestation ruined the crops in 600
Frankly with all this in prospect after 540 the lucky ones were the locals who were shipped off to "Better-than-Antioch" for there could scarcely be anywhere worse than the old Antioch!
These tribulations must have left the city massively denuded of population with the attendant collapse in services and output. I discussed elsewhere tha "big mistake" of abandoning the Island and focusing on building the Walls of Justinian which were promptly proved to be useless. 
There is very little information on what the city was like by the time it fell to the Arabs in 638 AD (after a series of passing back and forth between Byzantine and Persian control). There can scarcely have been much of the classical city left or even of the later Christian establishment. The Domus Aurea never recovered from the 588 AD quake when the structure, damaged in 526 AD, finally collapsed. Swathes of other churches and civic buildings must have been destroyed and the retreat of the city from occupying the limits of the Walls of Justinian must have begun. The inhabited area seems to have not stretched much beyond the Parmenios when the Crusaders arrived in 1098. Water supply must have been compromised, the Island was clearly stripped to provide building material after the earthquakes of the 520s when it was left outside the reduced circuit of the Walls. The acropolis and temples had their building materials "recycled" for other uses in the city. The population might have fallen by 2/3rds via these various ravages and certainly cutting of the aqueducts or reduction in their capacity would have made the city less able to carry as much population as it once did.
The city was intellectually and culturally denuded by the events between 536 AD and 540 AD. It may have been repopulated with peasants from elsewhere (the Byzantine version of Lebensraum as related by Cyril Mango) but they just weren't the cheeky, saucy, inspired popluation of the past. No wonder the city scarcely warranted a mention ever again for its intellectual or cultural output.
The city went from being a "city" to being a provincial town and a rapidly declining and peripheralised one at that. The Crusaders gave it a new burst of political life and presumably some artistic revival (as much as could be managed in the medieval context) but that was shortlived and then the really Dark Ages from Baibars victory through to the 20th century fell upon the town like an impenetrable fog. 

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Abandoning the Island - The Fatal Mistake

Small things change the course of history. A large event though prompted a decision in the history of Antioch that might very well have been the fatal flaw that sealed the city's fate and cast it into 1,500 years of obscurity.

In 526 AD a massive earthquake devastated the city but most severely damaged was the Island. The colonnades were thrown down, the palace damaged and the Domus Aurea was nearly toppled. 

The upshot of this damage was that, seemingly, a decision was made to abandon the Island. The area was used as a quarry for stones to build the Wall of Justinian around the main part of the city. The Golden Octagon lingered on (now outside the city walls) until it eventually collapsed later in the century.

What if, however, the Island had not been the worst hit part of the city? What if the decision was made to fortify the Island instead of the mountainous  part of the city? What might have been an alternative outcome?

The Island was the easiest part of the city to defend. If a strategy to strengthen the Island and use it as the fortress in time of extremis have been adopted then there might have been a chance that the city may have more effectively resisted the onslaught of Chosroes in 540 AD, and devastation from which the whole city went into terminal decline. As the reports of the seige make clear the Sassanid invader gained access to the city via the walls on the southern heights. These were the walls that had only just been built. 

Frankly despite the enormous effort of constructing the Justinian Walls, the city was essentially indefensible in the new layout, it was too extended and the high parts of the city were too vulnerable. These encompassed, quite literally, two mountains. Defenders could not easily race to the walls. 

With time the branch of the river that separated the Island from the main city became silted up, thus making the Orontes less of a moat and more of an access point. While still swampy the Crusaders in 1098 found the flatlands on the river-side of the city the most suitable place to make camp and sally forth against the Dog Gate and the Duke's Gate. 

Why was the Island not chosen as the safe haven for the city? One earthquake decided its fate? We suspect though that the factors were twofold. Firstly, the Island was a sector of villas, baths and palaces. Maybe it also had stables (associated with the hippodrome) and garden areas. This implies low density. This also implies the bulk of the population that needed defending were in the other parts of the city. Thus the focus fell there with a priority of defending the majority, even if the task was well-nigh impossible. The imperial palace had not been used much by the emperors as a residence since the days of Valens over 140 years beforehand. 

Then second factor is more prosaic. We have dwelt elsewhere on the possibility that the Island was supplied with its water from an aqueduct that came from the mountains to the north of the city rather than from the system geared to the springs at Daphne that supplied the rest of the city. While the Daphnetic aqueducts contained long surface and underground sections, an aqueduct from the northern mountains would have been elevated across the plain. It also could have been a prime victim of any earthquake. While not mentioned anywhere, it could very well be the case that the Island was left waterless by the earthquake of 526 AD and thus it was a "no-brainer" to rebuild the "mainland" part of the city and cede the Island to the limeburners and scavengers of stone and bricks.

Of course the builders of the Wall of Justinian did not imagine that plague, earthquakes and wars would reduce the city of over 500,000 in the 6th century to little more than 50,000 by the time the Crusaders appeared. The latter number would have easily fitted in a well-defended fortified Island instead of being sprawled across the existing fortified area with its gardens and farms because the walled area by the 11th century was way too large for practical defense. 

When one considers the massive task of demolishing the Island walls, all its remnant buildings (including the hippodrome) and redeploying all this material into the construction of the city walls (so strong they lasted until the mid-19th century), then rebuilding the Island and creating a fortified city on the Island (and part of the mainland) and an unfortified portion for the rest (which seemingly was rather unfortified as evidence for the walls of Tiberius being of much substance are scance) would seem in retrospect to have been a more sensible strategy.  

The road not taken by Justinian was to defend the defensible (i.e. the Island) and instead a grandiose wall-building campaign ultimately left the city more vulnerable, not less.