In his later years, the humorist Robert Benchley was in the habit of blaming the paucity of his visual imagination on the fact that he had grown up in Worcester, Massachusetts. A mind nourished from youth on the prospect of Front Street, Worcester, he affirmed, found it impossible to conjure up more stirring scenes, such as occurred in The Adventures of Ivanhoe or in the murmurous Paris of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables. In the exhibition Antioch: The Lost Ancient City, organized by the Worcester Art Museum, the humorist might have found, in Worcester itself, a little something with which to reinvigorate his sadly stunted faculty. In four cool and airy rooms on the second floor of the museum, the visitor could find a collection of carefully arranged fragments of artifacts of all kinds from Antioch, supplemented by elegant and instructive models, from which the visual imagination is challenged to conjure up the life of what was once the fourth greatest city of the Roman world.

The subtitle of the catalog of the exhibition, edited by Christine Kondoleon, speaks rightly of Antioch as “The Lost Ancient City.” Although the fourth great city of the Roman world, Antioch has achieved little or no purchase on the modern imagination. The ancient past remains an overpowering presence in Rome and in Istanbul. For Alexandria, we like to think that we can conjure up the ancient city from the poems of Cavafy and the Alexandria Quartet of Lawrence Durrell. Carthage, at least, inspired Flaubert’s Salammbô. Antioch, though, in its time, an equally vibrant presence, a city of some 200,000 inhabitants situated at the joining point of Asia and the Mediterranean, has always remained strangely out of focus. It is the purpose of the exhibition to remedy this oversight.

What needs to be stressed, at the outset, is how extremely difficult it is to do so. After the end of antiquity Antioch became a non-place. The Arab conquests of the seventh century left the once-great city a messy frontier town, perched on the war-numbed edge of an Asia-wide empire. Armies came and went. Water buffalo taken all the way across the Middle East from the Punjab came to wallow in the once-famed Orontes River. Beside them, ancient Antioch slowly sank into the mud. For Antioch had always nestled elegantly against the neighboring Mount Silpios. Over the centuries, the torrents from the mountain slopes washed down piles of silt that settled in deep layers over the classical city. All that has survived is the trace of the central colonnade, clearly visible from the air, like a scar line drawn from one end to the other of the huddled modern city. A French-Levantine avenue of the 1920s, with palm trees and diminutive traffic circles reminiscent of Babar’s Célesteville, covered the area of the imperial palace and of the great octagonal Golden Church founded by Constantine the Great.

More significantly, by becoming part of the Turkish Republic, Antioch, modern Antakya, has come to lie on the frontier between Turkey and Syria. In the modern Middle East, the frontiers between states do not coincide in any way with the geographical divisions of the ancient Roman Empire. As a result, the former agrarian hinterland of classical Antioch is now separated from the city. It lies across the frontier in what today is the very different, Arabic-speaking world of modern Syria. For that reason, readers of the catalog should pay special attention to the pages devoted to this hinterland by Clive Foss. Some seven hundred ancient villages, built in “elegant solid stone,” still cover the hillsides of Syria between the Turkish frontier and Aleppo. Their sheer numbers and the unpretentious solidity of their buildings continue to amaze the archaeologist. Here was the silent, ever-present source of the prosperity of ancient Antioch and, in Christian times, as the vivid article by Susan Ashbrook Harvey in the exhibition catalog makes plain, the source of much of the spiritual energy of the region.

In this respect, Antioch resembles Trieste, another sad frontier city whose present state gives little hint of the immense complexity of its past, when the city drew upon a hinterland that reached far to the north of modern Italy, across the Alps to Austria, and far to the east, into the Balkans. Cut off, like Trieste, from its hinterland by a modern frontier, classical Antioch can appear to the visitor as somewhat paper-thin.

The best that a modern visitor can do, perhaps, is to take the bus to the Turkish town of Harbiye, ancient Daphne, some nine kilometers to the south of ancient Antioch. There, at least, the water so highly praised by the ancients splashes out of the rocks. It is now led in channels, across a tree-shaded park, in such a way that the eaters of shish kebabs can sit at iron chairs and tables in the middle of the stream, with rolled-up trousers, their bare feet dangling in the water still provided so deliciously by the timeless nymphs.


With ancient Antioch cut off from its original hinterland by a modern political border, and its downtown long washed into the Orontes, the effort to conjure it up as it really was suffers most, however, from a paradoxical turn of fortune. The nymphs of Daphne played a joke on us. They allowed the archaeologists of the late 1930s (whose photographs we could see as we entered the Worcester exhibition from the Renaissance stairway) to discover only the material evidence that confirmed the upper-class Antiochenes’ view of their own city as a thoroughly fun place. For what came out of the ground around Daphne were a series of mosaics of haunting beauty, ranging from the second to the sixth centuries AD, associated almost exclusively with the suburban villas of the rich. What has been “discovered” in the lost ancient city of Antioch, in effect, are the gentrified outer suburbs—the quarter of Daphne, named after a nymph unsuccessfully chased by Apollo, which we had long known from the ancient sources to have been famous for its water and its idyllic setting. The life of the inner city, by contrast, continues to tease the imagination of the historian because there survives hardly a trace of archaeological evidence for that once brash and turbulent world.

Let us begin with a brief account of the discoveries in Daphne. Between 1932 and 1939 a Princeton University expedition to Antioch-on-the-Orontes, funded also by subscriptions from the Worcester Art Museum and the Baltimore Museum of Art, and conducted in collaboration with the Louvre, explored the ancient city and took from it, above all, the rich harvest of mosaics for which ancient Antioch has, ever since, been famous; they can be seen not only in the splendid Hatay Museum in Antakya but in many other places, Paris, London, and Princeton among them. The archive of this expedition is now preserved in the Department of Art and Archaeology at Princeton University. It consists largely of the correspondence of various participants in the expedition with its chairman, Charles Rufus Morey. The letters of the field director, William Campbell (known as “Sandy”), then a professor of art history at Wellesley College, are the most important element in the file. These are equaled only by the letters sent to Campbell by the secretary (and general factotum) of the Antioch base of the expedition, Adib Ishak, a Palestinian from Ramallah. Like the distant sounds of a busy city that waft up to the top of the mountain towering above it, the noise of hard decision-making and the grinding of egos that always accompanies a major archaeological enterprise in foreign lands has come to rest, peacefully, in the well-stocked files of the expedition.

First, of course, we encounter the hopes of the principal subscribers. There is no doubt what those hopes were. In November 1931 T. Leslie Shear of Princeton wrote to reassure Henry Taylor of the Worcester Museum:

When a city [is] large and rich we know that in general excavation will produce the streets and buildings of the city, some of the statues which were there, many inscriptions of great historical interest.

In keeping with such hopes, the Worcester Daily Telegram of January 15, 1932, announced the launching of the expedition with an upbeat headline: “May Disclose Era of Luxury.” Little of this luxury was ever found in ancient Antioch itself. The silt was too deep; the funds were insufficient; the expedition found itself slowed down by its own stunning success among the villas and the private bathhouses which were immediately uncovered outside the city.

Next we meet the young Princetonians making their first encounter with the region and its inhabitants. Unlike many Middle Eastern sites that were obligingly situated in the desert, Antioch lay in a zone of intensely cultivated land, owned by tenacious small farmers. For the excavations to begin, plots of land had to be purchased or leased from the locals. Aided by a no-nonsense Frenchman, M. Prost, the team’s negotiators set to work. One of them, George Elderkin, wrote to Morey in April 1932:

The interpreter told us that the grain growing in this little field was not even worth fifty Syrian pounds, and that the demand of the [owner] was exorbitant…. It is very interesting to observe that the…owners have no interest whatever in our mission,…as a scientific undertaking…and that the whole proposition for them is a matter of money.

Sometimes they met their match. A farmer asked Elderkin to make trenches, and then raised hell, seeking compensation for the disturbance to his property.

We were all mighty fooled by the gentle old man…. Believe me these…proprietors are the most slippery eels ever in and about the Orontes.

But the rewards, also, came quickly:


Prost wants to go to Daphne and show me where a villa is located. We never refuse a proposition like this. A good mosaic for each museum would be an auspicious beginning!

From that time on, mosaics never ceased to appear. When Sandy Campbell (a more sympathetic figure) replaced Elderkin, he had to struggle against the lure of Daphne. Some of the most spectacular of its mosaics (such as the famous Menander mosaic lent by Princeton to this exhibition) turned up as late as 1939, in the last, stormy days of the expedition’s stay at Antioch. In June 1939, Campbell wrote to Morey that he was less than pleased:

I hope that you and the Princeton Committee will forbear with me on the extent of the Daphne dig. The damn thing just doesn’t stop producing.

In any case, time was running out. Given its ambitious aims, this was not a well-financed expedition. America was still suffering from the effects of the Depression. Rich donors were not available. Blake-More Godwin of the Toledo Museum of Art wrote to Morey on June 9, 1939, about his failure to attract one such potential patron:

Our friend got back from Bermuda the other day…. Apparently, in common with all captains of industry, he is feeling poor.

There is a note of hurry and enforced stinginess in the files of the expedition which makes the whole affair very unlike the consistently funded, decades-long excavations of today. To do justice to so large a city as ancient Antioch, the expedition seems, in retrospect, to have been a somewhat quixotic affair.

In Europe and the Middle East, war was looming. Jean Lassus, the young representative of the Louvre, appears throughout these years in a series of letters that alternate between real affection for Campbell and moments of spectacular high dudgeon, expressed at length, first in French and then in near-impeccable, steely English. On holiday in the French Alps in 1937, he wrote to Campbell in a calmer mood:

I try with all my remaining energy to forget everything about archaeology as well as “political disturbances.” It is not awfully difficult among green things and quiet minded people. There are some moments when it is uneasy to realize that there are such places in the world where machine guns or armoured cars can be a necessary item in the landscape.

It is strange to meet these young men, in the files, so unaware of their own future. In 1944, Lassus would spend a year in Dachau for his activities in the French Resistance.

The most immediate crisis, however, came from the region, the Hatay, in which Antioch was placed. In 1932, the Hatay had been a distant, northwesternmost corner of the French Mandate of Syria. The moment this mandate ceased, the Hatay, in rapid succession, became first an autonomous republic under Turkish control (in September 1938) and then was annexed to Turkey on July 23, 1939. The secession of the Hatay from Syria occurred, wrote Campbell in June 1938, “with cataclysmic suddenness.” It had come as no surprise, however, to Adib Ishak, the ever-observant Palestinian. As secretary of the excavation he had sent regular reports to the committee, which Morey passed on to the Department of State. The Department was unimpressed. It wrote to Morey in May 1938:

His fears for the future of Alexandretta [an earlier name for the Hatay] appear to be principally the fears of an Arab rather than of a scientist.

It is not as if Campbell and Morey had not had warning. In January 1936 Adib had written to them:

I would have preferred if the museums in America shall try to send more money to ship the mosaics, especially the Princeton University share. Who knows what will happen to this world, perhaps a new war may come.

Ultimately, it was Adib who got the mosaics out of Antioch. The expedition had begun under the lax rules of the French Mandate of Syria. As a worldly-wise French collector, Eustache de Lorey, wrote to reassure Morey back in 1932,

One should never lose sight of the fact that in the “Mystic Orient” there are always des arrangements avec le ciel—ways of fixing things—and that divisions of finds between the State of Syria and the excavators are generally not disadvantageous to the latter.

Turkey was quite another matter. It was a modern nation-state with strict laws on the export of antiquities. Campbell had a difficult enough time extracting for Princeton and the other foreign contributors the 50 percent share of the excavated objects which they had originally negotiated when Antioch was part of the French Mandate in Syria. But they still had to be taken to Beirut to be shipped abroad. This began in September 1939. Now it was up to Adib Ishak. The mosaics could pass the frontier. But the trucks that carried them needed supplementary tins of gaso-line with which to make the twenty-nine-hour journey south to Beirut. And gasoline could not be taken out of Turkey. In October 1939, Ishak wrote to Campbell:

I had already loaded the trucks with 18 tins each, 9 trucks imagine. I woke at 3 a.m. and depended on God and thanks to God money fixed it out.

He arrived exhausted at Beirut:

I stopped loading and went down to the office, dead tired with [no] food, no sleap [sic] for the last 4 days; imagine, the iron Adib became like a piece of cloth and like a shadow of a dead man.

And so the mosaics waited for shipment on the campus of the American University of Beirut—large, heavy slabs, backed by plaster and wrapped in straw and canvas. They caused endless trouble to Adib. They were exposed to rain. They got in the way of the hockey team. In November he wrote Campbell:

In spite of their being covered in canvas, students careless through [sic] cigarettes and many holes take place.

Next year, Adib received the long-inevitable telegram:


“Fortunately,” wrote Bayard Dodge, the president of the American University of Beirut, to Campbell, “Adib has a considerable bank balance and some property in Palestine, so that he will not be embarrassed by having the work end.”

Indeed, when Campbell next heard of him in January 1941, Adib was still in Beirut. He had become a “manager of Belfante and Catoni, our former shipping agency.” After the war, he was still in Beirut, as the director of the American Levant Shipping and Distribution Company. But so now was Sandy Campbell. The field director of the Antioch expedition had become head of the Beirut office of the Trans-Arabian Pipeline Company. For a moment, at least, Beirut was the place to be. In December 1946, when Campbell was approached by a new chairman of the Princeton Department of Art and Archaeology over an uncleared-up detail in the finances of the expedition, Bayard Dodge wrote back: “It is a very good job and he is so busy that I guess he neglected his correspondence.” Campbell looked forward to resuming his work in Antioch after he retired, but he died of cancer in 1964.

Meanwhile, back at Princeton, in March 1948, with Olympian indifference to the political and personal dramas that had brought the mosaics all the way from Antioch to America in the first place, the treasurer of the university had written to the chairman of the department concerning those mosaics which had not been placed on exhibition or distributed to interested museums. They were taking up space on campus:

I had better he had a heart to heart talk about the whole mosaic situation because they are becoming something of a white elephant for us.

White elephants or not, for stirring the visual imagination, mosaics are what Antioch has to offer. They were rightly acclaimed at the time of their discovery, and were treated as documents of unique importance for the light that they cast on the evolution of ancient art. They showed how, over the centuries, the classical art of Greece and Rome had changed into the abstract and “Oriental” art of Christian times. The mosaics stretched without a break from the second to the sixth century AD. They provided “a missing link in art history”; they were, as The New York Times put it in April 1934, “one of the finest series of pictures which antiquity has left.” Through them it became possible to trace a mutation in the aesthetic culture of an entire civilization. They formed a bridge between the classical world and the early Middle Ages.

We should not forget this fact. The files of the Princeton expedition give us a uniquely vivid view of the participants in an archaeological venture. In the correspondence, the letters of protest and the reports of success are inevitably what catch the eye. They bring into almost uncomfortable close-up the foibles and limitations of an expedition—the touchiness of individual members, their moments of high-handedness, their imperturbability bordering upon insensitivity in a foreign environment, and, always in the background, perpetual, dreary conflicts over the allotment of scarce resources. Much of what we read in these files is not to modern taste. But what does emerge is the courage and the capacity for friendship shown in the course of a venture where, in the long run, the odds were stacked against an expedition that was dismally short of money during the Depression years.

Yet we can relive the thrill of the discoveries that were made. As Morey wrote to Garrett of the Baltimore Museum of Art in September 1935, the expedition had been slow in establishing the topography of ancient Antioch, but the mosaics “constitute the finest collection of paintings of the first six centuries of our era that is in existence.” This is what Antioch had yielded, and yielded so abundantly. The Antioch mosaics show classical mythological scenes in brilliant, pointilliste technique, brooding emblematic figures from the later empire, grapevines heavy with exotic birds, high, blood-soaked moments of the chase—all this and much more. Whenever one’s eye catches a familiar “Antioch” mosaic in many a museum (and even in many public buildings), one has reason to be grateful to the men who brought such scenes to us.


That was over sixty years ago. The layout of the Worcester exhibition and the articles of the contributors to the catalog show that interests have changed since the 1930s. What we wish to find, nowadays, is a hint of the living social context of this art. To the historian of ancient Antioch, the mosaics are precious not only because they illustrate so vividly one of the grandest themes in the history of the arts—the end of the classical world and the onset of the Byzantine Middle Ages. They are valuable as well because they allow us to glimpse the studied commitment to the dolce vita of the handful of great families who, as landowners, controlled the wealth of the city’s agrarian hinterland and, as members of the town council of Antioch, ran the city and its region on behalf of the Roman emperors. The surprise is that they did this so successfully for so long: the mosaics take us without a break from the days of the emperor Hadrian, in the second century AD, into the very different Christian empire of Justinian, in the sixth. Seldom can we see a governing class maintain its grip on a city from classical times into the early centuries of the Byzantine Empire. Seldom, also, have such a formidable and resilient group of persons managed to face down a changing world with such apparently effortless charm.

It is on this aspect of the life of Antioch that the catalog has concentrated most effectively and with most evident enthusiasm. A serious attempt is made to set the mosaics in their architectural context, as in the articles entitled “The Houses at Antioch” by John Dobbins and “Baths and Bathing in Roman Antioch” by Fikret Yegül. Dobbins, in particular, shows how mosaic pavements worked within a Roman house. Like shimmering carpets, they led the eye from room to room. They were the discreet visual equivalent of the classical chamber music to whose accompaniment the great of Europe in the ancien régime went about their daily life. To enter a dining room, in such a villa, was to be invited to succumb a little to the magic of the scenes that decorated its floor. Here Hercules, for all his strength, begins to totter ominously under the influence of drink. Over there, by contrast, Dionysos takes his liquor with divine aplomb. Facing the master of the house, at the head of the U formed by three low couches—the triclinium, the “three-couched” space favored for dining—Aphrodite and Adonis linger “in a moment of languid repose” before parting, after love, for the further joys of the hunt. When diners looked down upon such a floor, they did not see (as modern persons tend to see) scenes from a long-dead classical mythology frozen in stone. For they themselves made the myths live. They saw in such scenes their own life raised to a heroic pitch, touched for a moment by the bubbling energy of fun-loving gods.

As Christine Kondoleon points out, the mosaics have a floating quality. The skill with which they were set “effectively denies the solidity of the floor.” They lead the eye toward the Mediterranean vista beyond, over a still plain ringed with mountain peaks. Time stands still, in the long late summer’s afternoon of “what must have seemed to be the eternal tradition of Greco-Roman culture.” The villas seem infinitely distant from the events of the inner city of Antioch, among them the spread of Judaism and Christianity, described, respectively, by Bernadette Brooten and by Susan Ashbrook Harvey, and the fierce “culture wars,” cogently narrated by Michael Maas, that accompanied Antioch’s painful adjustment to the status of one provincial city among others under Christian autocrats ruling from the upstart city of Constantinople.

The emphasis in the exhibition on the living context of the mosaics (combined with the reconstruction of an entire triclinium at the center of the exhibition) results in a real advance in our understanding of the families who once ruled Antioch. When first discovered, the mosaics of Daphne and similar sites were treated exclusively as “paintings in stone.” They were hauled out of the earth with little attention to the walls and doorways that had framed them. The mosaics were then divided up and sent throughout the world like pretty postcards. In 1932, when a mosaic in five parts with twelve panels was discovered, Elderkin wrote to Morey:

I hope that this will prove something that can be removed and possibly divided up for the benefit of the subscribing museums; but I have to rely on your judgement and tact in presenting the idea to M. Seyrig [the French director of the Syrian Department of Antiquities].

To take one instance: the panel that had flanked the Worcester Hunt, a splendid late Roman piece which grips the attention of any visitor to the exhibition, is known as the Honolulu Hunt. Transported to the middle of the Pacific, it appears only as a photograph in the catalog, where it is reunited, through photomontage, to the mosaic complex to which it had originally belonged.

Such lighthearted dispersal of “paintings in stone” to the four corners of the globe seemed quite acceptable in the late 1930s. It was not, however, a practice calculated to help interested people make their way back to a lost city. The principal intention of Christine Kondoleon, the organizer of this exhibition, was to reverse this process for a moment—to gather together a few, at least, of the dispersed fragments of ancient Antioch. She has succeeded as well as the limitations of such a project permit. The material thus reunited comes almost exclusively from American museums. Not all of it is specific to Antioch. Rather, it is deliberately gathered from all over the ancient world, bringing together stuccos of elegant little rams from the Iranian plateau, funerary reliefs of heavily bejeweled ladies from Palmyra, genre scenes from Italy, tableware from all over the eastern Mediterranean, and, of course, many objects traditionally associated with Syria. They are skillfully arranged to provide a visual commentary on what remains inevitably (given the near-total disappearance of the center of ancient Antioch and the serendipitous nature of the rediscovery of the mosaics of its suburban villas) a modest core of objects that can be certainly ascribed to Antioch itself. Only occasionally, in the gallery devoted to analogues, many of them of somewhat fuzzy provenance, do we come up against a vivid flash of truly “local” material. Not surprisingly, it is the evidence of the poor man’s art of sorcery (found in situ in wells and in the hippodrome, and skillfully expounded in a catalog essay by Florent Heintz) that speaks most clearly of a precise time and place. Spells carefully inscribed on strips of lead, which were then rolled up and “posted” to the demons, express the wish that the greengrocer Babylas might “sink like lead”; they pray that Hekate and her demons might “bind, lay waste, and overturn” thirty-six named horses of the chariot-racing faction of the Blues.

To anyone acquainted with the classical and late antique galleries of America, one’s reaction to the objects collected in the Worcester exhibition is rather like that of entering a party where one is pleasantly surprised to find so many old friends. One is grateful that the search for Antioch should have provided them with an occasion for a happy reunion. But there are few surprises. Visitors to this exhibition must be aware that they still have interesting journeys ahead of them if they wish to see all of Antioch. Many of the very finest mosaics can only be seen where they were first discovered, thousands of miles away, in the southeasternmost corner of modern Turkey, opulently displayed in room after room of the Hatay Museum of Antakya. The creation of a “virtual Antioch” in Worcester, through the skillful rearrangement of well-known local fragments, can only be regarded as the first, necessary step in the long search for this (as for any other) lost ancient city.

Yet the most formidable block to the modern imagination may not come, after all, from the paucity of the material evidence and from the great distances over which this evidence has come to be dispersed. It is, rather, the amiable self-satisfaction of the upper class of Antioch itself. This self-satisfaction has proved infec-tious throughout the ages. Antiochenes wished people to know that they lived in Fun City. They had ready tongues and a chirpy, Cockney wit. In the first century AD, they were the first to call the followers of Jesus Christ “Christians.” The choice of a joking nickname—roughly, “Christ-freaks”—was typical of Antiochenes. It is one of the ones that have stuck. They were still at it four centuries later. When visited by the bearded philosopher-emperor Julian the Apostate in 362, they fastened on that beard. What, for the pagan emperor, was the privileged sign of deadly earnestness, appropriate to a man of wisdom, was, for the Antiochenes, so much face fungus. They sang him ditties in praise of depilation. They suggested that he weave it into rope.

Nor was the Christian Church spared. The soulful Christian ladies who clustered around monks and clergymen (and who were fussed over by their male spiritual guides) were called Syneisaktai, “Call-in-Girlies.” Antiochenes took their ready tongues with them when they traveled. When an Antiochene, John Chrysostom, was appointed bishop of Constantinople, solemn members of the upper clergy were by no means amused to find themselves cheerfully addressed by their new patriarch as “Greedy-Guts,” “Fatso,” and “Mr. Money-Bags.”

Even those who answered back found themselves contributing to the carefully maintained myth of Antioch as a city of superlative frivolity. This happened, most notably, to the emperor Julian in 362. Thwarted in his religious and financial reforms by the town council, ingeniously mocked in the theater and on the streets of Antioch in the explosion of Mardi Gras naughtiness that marked the passing of the year associated with the festival of the Kalends of January, the Emperor lashed back. Instead of an edict, he solemnly posted an extensive lampoon against the city on the monument called the Tetrapylon of the Elephant outside the imperial palace (somewhere near the site of the present Hatay Museum).

When we consider what a Roman emperor might have done on such an occasion—which was, quite bluntly, to round up the town councilors and behead them all for profiteering at a time when the presence of the imperial army had caused the price of provisions to soar—Julian’s counter-lampoon, “the Beard-hater,” was a mere slap on the wrist. He wanted to show that he was capable of making an appropriate retort, as one cultivated Hellenic gentleman among others. No wonder, he wrote, the Antiochenes dislike him and his rude Western soldiers:

They are naturally resented by a prosperous and gay and crowded city in which there are numerous dancers and flute players and more mimes than ordinary citizens, and no respect for your betters.

“Rather than be virtuous,” wrote the Emperor, posing as a hairy nerd, proud of his inkstained fingers, “you actually prefer fancy clothing and warm baths!”

As for the Antiochenes, the Emperor’s elephantine spoof made their day. From then onward, the Antioch we choose to remember is the jolly Antioch of Julian’s “Beard-hater.” A city of pleasure such as Julian described Antioch to be (in what, at the time, was a somewhat creaky and old-fashioned caricature that may not have had much relation to reality) has been seized upon by modern commentators as far too good a thing not to be true. The contributors to the catalog are not untouched by this amiable affectation. They present throughout a somewhat bijou city, marked by “hectic and energized quality of life” and by “meaningful engagements,” altogether a city that “serves as a mirror for the cities of today…, a vivid model of an ancient metropolis that invites dialogue about ideas of civic community and diversity.”

All the sober historian can do, when faced by the prospect of a city that appears to be so deliciously unlike the Worcester of Robert Benchley, is to urge the visitor to the exhibition and the reader of the catalog to think a moment before admiring ancient Antioch for its quality of life.

They should know, in the first place, that the owners of the charming villas would have had almost total control of the city’s food supply. The mosaics on the villa floors show the land producing wealth with magical ease, as the solemn procession of the seasons, depicted as great guardian angels, effortlessly offered the fruits of the earth throughout the year. In fact, the wagons of the great fanned out in a hurry across the countryside between Antioch and Aleppo to snatch the landlord’s share of the harvest as early as possible so as to sell high on an urban market, where prices had been pushed up by the winter months of scarcity. Only the intervention of the occasional holy man could protect the villagers from losing the best of their crop each year, through a curse that immobilized the piled-up wagon before it made its way back to town.

Within the city itself, as John Chrysostom said in one of his homilies, gray crowds of the destitute gathered around the churches and sprawled in the classical colonnades:

Wandering about like dogs in the alleys, [they] haunt the corners of the streets, they enter into the courtyards of the great houses, they cry from their cellars, calling for charity…and all this in Antioch, Antioch where men were first called Christians, Antioch wherein are bred the most civilized of humankind.

Well-to-do Christians regarded it as a work of special piety to go out at night and collect the corpses left lying in the street, so as to give them decent burial.

Occasionally, it was all too much. In 354 AD, goaded by the fear of scarcity, the Antiochenes seized the provincial governor, “belabored him with feet and fists, and then finished the wretched man off by tearing him in pieces.” Forty years later, the town councilors still looked back on the grisly incident with a shudder of fear. It could have happened to any of them.

For long months in every year, much of the population simply hung around, listless with malnutrition. Empty time had to be filled somehow. Antioch was a city notorious for its love of shows. The games and the open-air theatrical performances that the upper class prided themselves on providing for Antioch’s citizens were moments of glory, showing the life of the city at its most magical. The theater was less a place of culture than a place of miracle. In the theater and in the hippodrome, the gray laws of nature were suspended for a few blessed days. Dancers defied gravity in their stunning pirouettes. Naked girls splashing in pools of water brought the magic of the nymphs of Daphne into the heart of a sweltering Near Eastern city. The world of the wild was set loose in the middle of urban space, as hunters armed with pikes—the matadors of late antiquity—braced themselves to take the charge of lions, panthers, and bears on the floor of the Kynegion, the amphitheater of triumphal hunts.

At the hippodrome, charioteers careened around the course at headlong speed. Their vertiginous maneuvers and their occasional lethal collisions had an ominous quality about them (a fact which the magicians described in the catalog by Florent Heintz understood only too well). For these dizzy turnings acted out, in front of the assembled populace, the deadly serious play of skill and Lady Luck (of Machiavelli’s virtùand fortuna) on which the city and the empire itself depended. The crash of a charioteer sent a shudder through the entire audience. It might be the premonitory sign of the crash of the Tyché, the Fortune of the City, itself. The Tyché of Antioch, the goddess of fortune, was famous. She is frequently to be seen, in the exhibition, embodied in the form of elegant statuettes (see illustration on page 45). Predictably, Tyché decorated the official letterhead of the Princeton expedition. Such a Fortune meant as much to Antiochenes as does the Statue of Liberty to New Yorkers; but, unlike the Statue of Liberty, this stately lady, the guardian angel of an entire community, was a lady at risk. She was staked in public, at regular intervals, on the gigantic roulette machine of the hippodrome.

Such shows, we must remember, were not paid for by the public, as modern spectator sports and the theater have come to be. Like the precious food supplies gathered from the countryside, the shows of Antioch came only from the great. They were ruinously expensive. Noblesse oblige could only go so far to stir the villa owners to maintain them. By the fourth century, the most regular and the most spectacular shows depended on imperial funding. Stony-faced bureaucrats in Constantinople turned on and off the spigot of public fun.

In any case, these occasions happened less and less frequently. Most of the people made do with rougher fare, provided by their own efforts, in the public squares. Here one could find the humble amusements that would outlast the circus, the theater, and the hippodrome (those spectacular and highhanded gifts of the great that enlivened the life of classical cities) to reemerge, little changed, in the Muslim cities of the Middle East. In wintertime, beggars would roll in the frozen puddles, in an eye-catching form of break-dancing. They would drive nails into their heads and through their cheeks. They would chew on old shoes. A lady giant from the Taurus Mountains wandered through the booths, collecting coins from the artisans. A performing dog came all the way from Italy:

His master would stand in the marketplace, and when a crowd had collected to watch he used to take rings from the bystanders—without the dog seeing—and put them on the ground, covering them with earth. Then he would order the dog to pick up and return their rings to each of them…. The dog would also give back a large number of coins from different emperors according to the emperors’ names. He could, when asked, point out pregnant women, brothel keepers, adulterers, misers, and [most important of all for a dog of the people] big spenders.

Best of all, in the courtyard outside the great cathedral church of Antioch, the crowds would be held spellbound by a man with a parrot who shamed the leaders of the established church by squawking liturgical invocations to Christ in their correct (Monophysite) version. A poem in Syriac was written to celebrate the occasion: would that all Christians shared the theological views of that learned and intrepid bird! The life of Antioch, if not always fun, at least was colorful.

Ultimately, Lady Fortune turned against the city. The bubbling waters that were the pride of so many Middle Eastern towns exacted a terrible price, for such springs were the result of unstable tectonic formations deep in the earth. In 526 and, again, in 528, the city was shaken to the ground in a series of quakes. In the collapse of law and order that followed, refugees from the catastrophe were systematically robbed and murdered as they passed through the villages they had once controlled. Looking back, it was the end of an age.

Yet Antioch might have risen again if it had not paid the price, also, of being a little too much part of Asia for its own safety. The article in the catalog by Anna Gonosová, “Exotic Taste: The Lure of Sasanian Persia,” brings this fact home to us. In late antiquity, the luxury of the villa owners drew on a repertoire of Persian royal art that stretched, without a break, from Kermanshah to the Mediterranean. Antioch even lay within the Asia-wide horizons of the emperors of China. As the faraway country of Ta-Ts’in, the city wavered, improbably, on the furthest edge of visibility. There was much water there, wrote the imperial Chinese Gazeteer of the Western Lands, spraying the face of the imperial palace:

There are many jugglers…. [Unlike the dynastic rulers of China], they have no permanent rulers, but when an extraordinary calamity visits the country, they elect a new king…. When the king goes out he usually gets one of his suite to follow him with a leather bag, into which petitioners throw a statement of their cases; on arrival at the palace, the king examines the merits of each.

One wonders how many famosi (significantly, the Latin word, “letter of ill-fame,” passed into Greek), how many witty lampoons disguised as petitions addressed to the emperor, came out of that leather bag each day. This had been the custom among the Antiochenes when they baited their emperors, as they did the long-suffering Julian the Apostate. Had he known of it, one wonders what our Chinese observer would have thought of such cocky behavior.

This distant link between Antioch and China is not surprising. For what we call the Silk Route from China to the West was known, to the Chinese, as the Glass Route from the West. Glass products from Syria, such as those we see in the exhibition, made their way across Iran and Central Asia to end up in China. They can even be seen in the Sho¯so¯in Treasury in Nara, Japan.

What was less reassuring, however, was the constant presence of Iran. The Sasanian Empire was the only superpower capable of challenging the Roman Empire for the control of Western Asia. It lay only a week’s ride to the east, along the edge of the Euphrates. Every Antiochene knew that the Persians had come once and that they could come again. A century after the event, this is how the arrival of Shapur I in 260 AD was remembered:

One day at Antioch, while a comedian and his wife were on the stage performing some scenes from common life before a hushed and admiring audience, the woman looked up [to the crest of Mount Silpios, above the theater] and said: “Unless I am dreaming, the Persians are here.” The spectators all turned their heads and then fled in confusion to escape the missiles raining down upon them.

Such an event had a sobering effect on the elites of the city. For all their bravado, their witty lampoons, and their loyalty to the myth of Antioch as an oasis of Hellenic good taste in the midst of a cultural dust bowl, they felt more comfortable when they had emperors to hand. However much the purists might object, in the name of the Hellenic traditions of their city, there was room in Antiochene high society for the top brass, for strong and silent men of German origin sent down from Constantinople to command the Roman armies in the East. They brought security and money to the city. Among the monuments shown on the mosaic strip that illustrated the streets of Antioch, one of the most prominent was the private bath built by Ardabur the Alan, a generalissimo from a tribe famous for its riders, originally drawn into imperial service from the eastern steppes of the Ukraine.

At last, in 540, the Persian monarch Khusro I Anoshirwan rode swiftly all the way across Syria. He entered Antioch after a short siege in which the Antiochenes once again tried out their famous wit (with little effect, it appears, on the solemn Persians) from on top of their city wall. The King of Kings systematically emptied the city. He even took with him the marble facings that encrusted the walls of its great churches and palaces. A dismal convoy of prisoners made their way to Mesopotamia. They were resettled in a city near the Tigris, known as Veh-Antiukh-Khusro, which meant “Khusro’s Better Antioch.”

It was a gulag city, a sort of Middle Eastern Magnetogorsk, thrown up in a hurry, like Magnetogorsk, by prisoners of war, to show the West what Persia could do. We learn from a miracle described in a later life of a Persian saint that this transplanted population had included families of charioteers. Generations later, a charioteer known as Kalotychos, “Mr. Good Luck,” was still performing, now in return for an official salary granted by the King of Kings. When he went to the palace to ask for his pay, he was told that there was no money left in the treasury for such exotic extravagances. As he turned away, he was lucky enough, thanks to his prayers to the saint, to find a coin lying in the dust; and, a little later, because of the power of the saint, he was reinstalled as official charioteer to the King of Kings, complete with salary.

Thus, in the late 630s, at a time when the two great empires of Byzantium and Iran were tottering in their last, most fatal crisis, before both were swept out of the Middle East by the armies of Islam, Kalotychus and his family had kept playing his old Antiochene shtick in the middle of Iraq. It is, perhaps, the resilience of such hardy survivors as Kalotychus, rather than the cheery self-satisfaction of their betters, which truly endear one to ancient Antioch, and make us hope to hear more of this and similar lost ancient cities.

This Issue

April 12, 2001