This introduction sets the stage for three essays that each address different crises in the late antique history of Antioch. The essay considers some of the difficulties presented by various methodological lenses for “reading” the urban experience of a city such as Antioch and provides a framework for understanding the cultural meaning of the late antique urban landscape and the modern discourse concerning the role of cities in the Roman Empire. The essay also considers the rhetoric of Antioch in late antique sources and the intersection of that rhetoric with the centrality of cities in the maintenance of the Roman Empire. The essay suggests that the complicity of the cityscape in modern narrative frameworks for the fall of the Roman Empire has produced teleologies that inflect the understanding of disaster and crisis at Antioch and elsewhere in the Roman Empire.

In March of 2019, the thirteenth biennial meeting of Shifting Frontiers in Late Antiquity convened at Claremont McKenna College in Los Angeles to present papers organized around the general theme of communal responses to local crises. With a scope of over five hundred years, the various topics ranged across the spectrum of economic, environmental, military, political, and religious crises that impacted late antique communities from roughly 200–700 CE. Of interest to this volume was a cluster of papers that examined crises shaping the longue durée cultural and political history of Antioch in Roman Syria. These papers, presented here as a special volume for Studies in Late Antiquity, each represent unique moments and discrete themes in the history of one of the great urban centers of the late antique Mediterranean.

Antioch is well known for crises. Indeed, one of the earliest full-length histories of Antioch describes the late antique phase of the city as a concatenation of primarily military, religious and environmental crises.1 At the same time, Antioch in many ways represents what may be thought of as the epitome of the late antique urban experience. Intimately connected to an expansive hinterland of robust rural economic resources, Antioch’s grandeur was attached also to empire-wide restructuring in the imperial administration that had been completed over the course of the late third and early fourth centuries. Prominent in the Christian ecclesiastical landscape, Antioch was also home to a substantial Jewish population and to a vocal pagan community. The city’s population was legally Roman, predominantly Greek speaking, and representative of the diverse cultural mélange of the greater region of Syria and the Levant. Attachment to imperial administration and the presence of a numerous, if troubled, curial class ensured the preservation of many of the quintessential features of Roman urban civic life, while a traditional educated class linked key citizens to participation in the imperial theater of the wider Mediterranean.

As an introduction to a volume dedicated to the topic of crises in late antique Antioch, this essay provides framework for understanding how three papers, each examining unique Antiochene crises (unique in terms of cause, consequence, chronology in the late antique history of the city, and by virtue of circumstances particular to Antioch itself), participate in modern discourse concerning the role of cities in the later Roman Empire. The essay also considers the extent to which assumptions about the late antique city, and Antioch in particular, are representative of trends and conditions throughout the later Roman Empire.

Cities have had an enduring appeal in late antique studies. The urban landscape is the primary setting for our understanding of cultural aesthetics, diverse panoplies of social interaction and religious life, and the dynamics of law and political power. Economies were produced in the countryside but anchored in the urban landscape by redistributive policies, competitive spending habits, euergetistic investment, etc. And as centers where education flourished in the service of political and religious life, the greater cities in particular were often represented by a constellation of literary luminaries. The archaeology of urban sites similarly produces far more coherent and complex narratives than their counterparts in the countryside. As a result, recent decades of scholarship have produced an increasingly rich profile of monographs dedicated to plotting the late antique lifespan of specific urban centers.2 Other recent studies have structured explorations of late antique society through either the regional or thematic framework of groups of cities,3 and the edited volumes dedicated to late antique urban culture have not been wanting.4 A recurring theme in this literature is the tension between the particularity of individual late antique cities, on the one hand, and the relative uniformity of social, political, and religious structures consistent throughout the late antique urban experience of the Roman Empire, on the other. Another important lens for the study of late antique cities has been the typification of essential differences between the classical and the late antique city. Too often the late antique city has been thought of in terms of an older (sometimes less vibrant) version of its classical forebear. As Mark Humphries astutely notes, the impact of Christianity and imperial administration made cities uniquely late antique, but more may be said about cities as loci of supraregional and imperial identity that are far more complex than earlier classical versions.5 One of the fundamental characteristics of Late Antiquity is the dispersion of some form of romanitas (as it is described by modern scholarship as self-identification with some level of Roman culture and political tradition), the not infrequently uncomfortable relationship of romanitas to other more pervasive forms of local identity, and the impact of romanitas (or its rejection) on the behaviors of urban populations. Although Roman imperial institutions (particularly law, administration, and taxes) anchored cities in a superficially homogeneous social matrix, local populations such as the Antiochenes could be tenaciously un-Roman, conditioning their responses to contact with imperial authority and imperial interventions. At the same time, individual citizens of a city such as Antioch participated in regional, and what may be thought of as supraregional, identities in ways that simply could not have been imagined without the umbrella structure of the Roman Empire knitting communities together. The career and network of Libanius of Antioch is a principal example of this, as are elite networks that linked cities as historically divergent as Athens and Alexandria.6 Understanding the balance and tension between urban particularity and urban universality in Late Antiquity provides a context for appreciating the implications of narratives rendered in the three papers to follow, especially in light of how individuals and populations variously responded to the storied crises that populated the history of Antioch.

Another important framework for the modern study of late antique cities is the definition of what constitutes a city. Current scholarship quite understandably has adopted an ecumenical perspective for the startling diversity of scale and configuration among urban centers in the ancient and late antique Mediterranean. Rural towns of dispersed settlement and the more familiar cosmopolitan heavyweights (Rome, Constantinople, Antioch, Alexandria, Carthage) provide equal opportunities for scholars to explore a host of interests that may be defined as urban experience—the interaction of social groups, patterns, and developments in political and religious life, the scale and trends of economic life, or modes of engagement with built space and fabric. Of course, the ideation of the city in the ancient world was never as ecumenical as is the case in modern scholarship. The relative status of cities held a place of special significance in the ancient world, and competition for that status among cities was endemic, aggressive, and not infrequently violent. The urbanization of the wider Mediterranean world developed in tandem with the flowering of cultural plurality. Prior to inclusion in the Roman Empire, cities provided their citizens with a form of distinctive identity akin to nationality or ethnicity. As cities developed their own combination of political, religious, legal, and cultural institutions, these institutions reified the traditions by which each city would claim to be a unique place, a polity with a unique history capable of differentiating its citizens from even their closest neighbors in other cities. These urban strategies of distinction, to borrow a phrase used in ethnographic studies, often included competitive monumentality that would proclaim the status of a city within a regional setting—city walls, temples, particular urban amenities (theaters and baths), and spaces allocated for the assembly of citizens (the forum or agora).7 In as much as the monumentality of a city was a representation of its institutional development, and thus its own unique historical trajectory, features such as city walls, colonnades, and temples were not simply sources of urban pride but also markers for the historical process by which the citizens became a group distinctive from others within a region. Naturally, the euergetistic habit by which local elites contributed to the monumentalization of the urban landscape made them guardians of local civic identity and elided elite family identity with the historical development of a distinctive urban space. Thus, the authors of those sources for urban history most privileged by modern scholarship (i.e., texts and architecture), both before and during the Roman Empire, were urban elites who used cities as stages to project the rationale by which they exercised agency within a community. This means that for people of the ancient Mediterranean, the city was not simply a place; the city was an idea, the embodiment of the antiquity of traditions, institutions, and communal identities that could serve to include, and also exclude, membership.

The vast majority of the cities of the Roman Empire had well-developed histories and identities prior to incorporation in the imperial state. The history of the Roman Empire, at its most essential, is a history of the Roman state acquiring these loci of very unique identities (cities) and knitting the participation of their elites into the fabric of a larger project: the Roman Empire. The elites who advertised the rationale of their agency on the urban setting through euergetism became the agents through whom the Roman imperial state came to depend upon cities to govern vast territories. Thus, one way of understanding the Roman Empire is as a history of its cities and a history of how the Roman state subsumed the particularity represented by each city within a more universalized role in the Empire. During the Roman Empire, cities became subject to a scaling of status, partially formalized by administrative definitions for individual communities (urbs, civitas, municipium, castrum, etc.) that would determine the amount of prestige one community might hold over another. As such, the Roman state came to exercise a role as the arbiter of status, and cities came to depend on their elites not only as guardians of local civic identity but also as entrepreneurs in representing the community to this wider imperial network of urban ideation—the Roman Empire. Thus, the Roman Empire depended upon cities to rule, and for that reason promoted their growth and development, but imperial authority also flattened many distinctions between cities, in part neutralizing the more aggressive forms of competition between them (especially warfare), while also challenging the particularity of urban identity.

This is perhaps nowhere better illustrated than on the Tabula Peutingeriana, an itinerary of the network of Roman imperial highways (the cursus publicus) of the fourth or perhaps early fifth century CE.8 The dimensions of the map attract particular attention: at 22 feet long and just over a foot high, this illustration of the Roman highway system had more symbolic than practical value. Geographical dimensions are compressed beyond anything recognizable as real cartographical representation, and all Roman highways are rendered with unrealistic, ruler-straight linearity to match the compression of territories. Prominent topographical features that might be of concern to real travelers, such as mountain ranges, when represented at all, are given as significantly reduced symbols. However much the Tabula may fail as an accurate geographical representation of the Roman world, it amply illustrates the Roman state’s perspective of the many towns and cities that intersected Roman highways. The cities and towns represented on the map are depicted uniformly with either twin-towered icons or with basilica-like icons. The regional, topographical, and cultural distinctiveness of each city has been flattened in a manner congruous with the uniform administrative role that each served within the network of the Empire. Great cities of the Mediterranean such as Syracuse, Carthage, Jerusalem, and Alexandria are visually indistinguishable from the host of other cities that the map recognizes on the basis of their administrative placement. Only three cities on the Tabula have been accorded a level of distinction by portrayal with enthroned personifications: Rome, Constantinople, and Antioch.

Even a work of literature such as Ausonius’s ranking of cities (in Ordo urbium nobilium) retains a measure of this flattening of identity. Of the twenty cities mentioned, only four represent the teeming urban centers of the eastern Mediterranean, clearly revealing Ausonius’s familiarity with (and bias for) the western provinces. But even with cities more familiar to him, Ausonius reduces their treatment to commonplace statements of rivalry for rank, neighboring cities eclipsed in rank, and more or less generic features, little that would mark a city as having a culturally or historically unique personality. With Narbonne, for example, Ausonius mentions basic neighboring cartographical features (Quid memorem portusque tuos montesque lacusque? 19.12), Narbonne’s attachment to Roman imperial history under Caesar, and even what was apparently a culturally diverse population (Quid populous vario discrimine vestis et oris? 19.13), but Narbonne’s diversity is given as a generic statement, not with specificity. In fact, Ausonius offers little more concerning Narbonne and the other cities of his list than could be gleaned by glancing at the Tabula Peutingeriana. Indeed, Rome, ranking first among cities on the list, receives the least attention—one line (Prima urbes inter, divum domus, aurea Roma, 1.1). The only exception to this profile is Ausonius’s hometown of Bordeaux, last in rank among the prominent cities listed but treated at greatest length and in greatest detail (20.1–41). The feature to make note of with the Tabula Peutingeriana and Ausonius’s Ordo urbium nobelium is that in the perspective of the imperial state and also elites connected to the state, such as Ausonius, cities had begun to lose their distinctiveness as ideas—as places with histories, institutions, and monuments that could generate unique identity. The challenge to this, of course, comes from Ausonius’s treatment of his own city, which for him still existed as a unique idea, enough so that his treatment of Bordeaux (the least among famous cities on his list) could eclipse Rome in its richness of description.

The attention that cities received by the ancient authors of our sources, and the substantial material evidence that remains of cities (itself largely a part of the euergetistic habit by which ancient elites projected the importance of these places, and by extension their own roles of importance), has become the primary means by which modern scholarship thinks about ancient history, ancient life, and its cultural products. Only recently has the archaeology of material cultures and places outside of city walls encouraged scholarship to consider the ancient Mediterranean with more dimension than the linearity of the Tabula Peutingeriana. Thus, the majority of scholarship concerning the ancient Mediterranean and the Roman Empire is scholarship concerning cities and their cultural environments.

Among the many rich and varied literary sources available for Antioch, perhaps none trumpets the unique particularity of the city as the Antiochikos of Libanius, the duly famed orator and professor of rhetoric from the late fourth century. It should be noted at the outset that the Antioch portrayed by Libanius was singularly adapted to his particular vision of Antioch’s identity, and therefore his vision of the identity of Antiochene citizens. The Antiochikos, however, provides an example for how citizens of urban communities contributed to the manufacture of the city as a genuinely unique idea, particularly through effacing those features of Antioch that Libanius wished to deemphasize (in this case, the relationship of Antioch’s prominence to Roman emperors and its involvement in the wider imperial and Christian history of the Roman world). Libanius wrote the Antiochikos (hereafter Ant.) as an oration for the Olympia of 356 CE, a festival sanctioned and sponsored by the Roman state at which Antiochenes presented their urban community (at the suburban site of Daphne) to a wider regional audience.

The oration is in many ways a stock piece of panegyric celebrating a city, but it also intersects with several themes addressed in this volume: Antioch as a locus of identity, Antioch’s experience of crisis relative to prosperity, and a demonstration of how the projection of the idea of Antioch was carefully groomed and selective, and particular to its author, not necessarily historical reality. Libanius opens his oration with a celebration of how the present abundance of the city has never been inferior to its past (Ant. 10, “the present fortune of the city … its past glory”).9 The rich prosperity of the city, according to Libanius, owes first to its placement in the natural world: the abundance of water and richness of soil allows the production of every kind of crop almost without effort; the diverse topographies of production (plains, hills, forests, pasturage) prevent scarcity; and unseasonable weather never produces discomfort or want (Ant. 12–33). Libanius clearly relishes how, unlike the seasonal constancy of Antioch, “the rest of mankind” is continually in a state of war and then peace with the passage of seasons (Ant. 32). What may be thought of as Antioch’s historical personality is poised to present the city as the perfection of Hellenic antiquity thriving in the present. Libanius traces the founding of the community from the heroic age when mortals mingled with the gods to the gradual accretion of Argives, Cretans, Cypriots, and Athenians as Antiochene citizens (Ant. 44–58). The rule of subsequent Assyrian and Persian monarchs harmonized with these earliest foundations until Alexander could pave the way for the noble line of Seleucus, who undertook the foundation of a new capital city that combined the region’s Hellenic colonists, and from whose successors the city would acquire the dedication of new gods, the acquisition of new peoples, and embellishment of new institutions with temples, theaters, aqueducts, and colonnaded streets (Ant. 59–130). It is noteworthy that Libanius, as a Greek of the later Roman Empire, would dwell so affectionately on the illustriousness of the pre-Roman foundations of Antioch. Even the founder of the new capital, Seleucus, is presented as an alternative to the Roman conqueror of the region, Pompey the Great, by drawing attention to Seleucus’s conquest of Silician pirates (Ant. 115). Libanius presents the transition to Roman power not only as peaceful but also unremarkable, “It is as if there was no difference between the founders of the city and those who had come to control it, and as if the Romans possessed something they had originally built” (Ant. 130). Indeed, the absence of attribution to the Roman contribution to the city is startling. The very occasion of Libanius’s oration, the Olympia festival, owed to a long tradition of sponsorship by Roman emperors extending from Caligula and was renewed, at stages, by Commodus, Diocletian, and Valens. Antioch had also served as the residence of numerous Roman rulers—Lucius Verus, Diocletian, Constantius II, Gallus, Julian, and Valens—several in Libanius’s own lifetime, but they received no recognition. Instead, Libanius moves very quickly from briefly acknowledging the transfer of Antioch to Roman power (Ant. 130) to attributing subsequent urban developments to the patriotic zeal of Antioch’s city council (Ant. 133–49). Although Antioch received benefactions either through the sponsorship of building projects or through the extension of financial privileges from Roman emperors of every generation (Caligula, Claudius, Vespasian, Titus, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius, Commodus, Caracalla, Valerian, Probus, Diocletian, Constantine, Gallus, Valens), it was the enlightened education of the counsellors that prevailed in the city’s aggrandizement (Ant. 139–49). In fact, because Antioch was now a capital of education (and for Libanius, this was a traditional, Hellenic education), the city counsellors “acquired a magic stronger than the governors’ power,” thus directly eclipsing the governance of the Empire (Ant. 141). This miraculous grace of the city leaders not only translated to a harmonious relationship with the commons, a group that Libanius describes as a uniform “chorus following an even better leader” (Ant. 150–62), but it set the stage for the openness of the city and its citizens to immigration, “Citizens do not claim to be superior to foreigners, but the state welcomes the virtues of the newcomers” (Ant. 167). Like Aelius Aristides’ celebration of Rome generations earlier (On Rome), Libanius points to the teeming growth of the urban population and confidently claims that Antioch was a pars pro toto representation of the world, where anyone interested in learning the ways of people elsewhere need only visit the city’s marketplace (Ant. 163–73). Because of the enlightened nature of the city’s local leadership, Antioch had always tended to the needs of the population (Ant. 174–80) and, indeed, was capable of providing the tutelage necessary for those who would go on to govern other provincial cities and the courts of imperial officials (Ant. 181–92).

The epitome of this celebration of Antiochene urban rule and the resultant harmonizing of Antiochene citizens is an enumeration of the elements of urban fabric supported by local elite benefaction (Ant. 196–239). Once again, emperors and their high officials (three of whom resided in the palace described by Libanius) never claim laurels for the monumentalization of the city, even though it was through emperors that Antioch had been, and would continue to be, rebuilt after successive disasters beyond Libanius’s lifetime. Imperial attention to the welfare of Antioch obviously owes to considerations beyond the welfare of Antiochenes: the strategic importance of the city as a staging center for eastern legions, the fiscal importance of the largest urban center in the Roman Levant, the ecclesiastical importance of a significant center of Christian leadership, and the connections of imperial patronage (several emperors received early military training attached to or commanding Syrian legions) all come into view in other sources. But for Libanius, the idea of Antioch was that of a classical city at the height of a prosperity that it had inherited undiminished from earliest antiquity. In its own way, the Antiochikos offers a holistic view of the city. Even the hinterland, its constellation of attendant villages and the attraction of regional commerce receive attention (Ant. 230–69). Libanius’s oration ties Antioch to a uniquely Antiochene identity that denies the participation of the city in a wider world of imperial politics, cultural transmission, and religious life. The traditionalism of the Antiochikos portrays the idea of a city that stopped changing with the last Seleucid ruler, and the denial of a Roman past contradicts Libanius’s own vocation as a careerist spokesman with imperial authorities as much as its denial of a Christian present contradicts Libanius’s vocation as a teacher of some of the most outspoken Christian leaders of his own day (John Chrysostom and Basil of Caesarea). But for all its seemingly blind disconnect from the wider late Roman world, the Antiochikos illustrates how Antioch typifies the urban experience of the late antique Roman Empire. As is well known, our understanding of Antioch is informed by a formidable cohort of sources (Libanius, John Chrysostom, Julian, Ammianus Marcellinus, Theodoret, Sozomen, Procopius, and John Malalas), and through a composite reading of these sources it is possible to view Antioch as a cosmopolis connected to the major political, social, economic, intellectual, religious, and even geoclimatological trends of the Mediterranean. However, at the same time, the Antiochikos illustrates what is absent from the Tabula Peutingeriana, the tenacity of particularity that replicated itself in nearly every urban environment across the Roman Empire. While Antioch may be visible participating in the pageantry, and even in the fall of Empire, as a locus of unique meaning in the minds of its inhabitants, it resists reduction to the simplistic charting of the course of rise and fall matching that of the Roman Empire.

As mentioned, our understanding of Antioch is informed by an impressive array of authors. At the same time, archaeological data for the city is relatively slight by comparison to the other great cities of Late Antiquity. This binary of source material, both literary and archaeological, is increasingly under revision and reconciliation.10 The current scholarly literature is a composite perspective with high granularity at the level of individual topics and compelling models on the level of structural theory, but the two do not always map onto one another to produce a high-resolution lens that may be focused and dilated in synchronous proportion. One example of this kind of disconnect between a particular historical moment and longer-term consequence is understanding the role of individual urban crises in the long-term history of Antioch. Given the importance of cities as the locus for the manufacture of an urban population’s identity, ancient authors direct much attention to episodes of crisis and disaster impacting cities. The dread of disaster shaped the late antique psyche and, in some ways, the cultural landscape of communities. Local communities developed daily and seasonal rhythms to mitigate vulnerabilities and fragility. Crises of various kinds had a wide range of impacts, depending on severity and the scale of communal resilience. And the susceptibility of cities to disaster, the means by which they coped, and the factors that increased resilience and facilitated recovery from disaster have all become topics of serious interest in modern scholarship. Unfortunately, the attention given to these events in the late antique sources is almost never sustained beyond the moment of occurrence, meaning that modern audiences have strained to gain perspective of the long-term consequences (if any) of a given crisis or disaster moment. This and the natural tendency to collocate trends found in other late antique cities have produced a number of pronounced teleologies, especially those that link the history of cities to a trajectory of decline and fall with the Roman Empire.

Antioch plays an interesting role in this historiography. As one of the greatest urban centers of the eastern Mediterranean, Antioch also experienced both crisis and destruction many times over in the region of the Roman Empire that endured the longest. Compared to Rome, which endured far fewer disasters and yet experienced a far greater proportionate reduction of population and urban fabric in a shorter span of years, when the western provinces were governed by the Empire, one marvels at what must be a testimony of resiliency in the historical record of Antioch’s lifespan. Indeed, it must have been the overall prosperity of the Eastern Roman Empire (as measured by population levels, relative levels of urbanization and the integrity of economic redistributive systems) that allowed Antioch to outlive its crises and disasters and the Eastern Roman Empire to outlive its western counterpart. Even Libanius, in the Antiochikos, while celebrating the many centuries of unbroken prosperity enjoyed by the city, acknowledges disasters in the history of the city (Ant. 227–29). According to Libanius, however, the three famous earthquakes to strike the city (148 BCE, 37 CE, and 115 CE) were unexpected boons, which allowed new construction to build on former ruins, construction that otherwise would have expanded the city to four times its current dimensions, thereby obliterating cultivated lands. Libanius’s bald hyperbole pales in comparison to the record of urban crises that he leaves unmentioned. From the time that Antioch came under Roman control until Libanius’s lifetime, the city endured three earthquakes (37, 41–54?, and 115 CE), four periods of famine or intense food shortage (44–46, 354, 360–62, and 382–84 CE), at least one major fire (sometime between 138 and 161 CE), one epidemic (165 CE), two Persian sacks (253 and 260 CE) and censure by four emperors (175 CE, Marcus Aurelius; 194 CE, Septimius Severus; 371–72 CE, Valens; and 387 CE, Theodosius I). After Libanius’s lifetime, disasters would continue with seven earthquakes (458, 526, 528, 551, 557, 577, and 588 CE), one major fire (525 CE), the advent of the bubonic plague (542 CE), and two Persian sacks (540 and 611 CE). In spite of the dramatic record, the city maintains its reputation for greatness and prosperity in the modern historiography. This may indeed have to do with Antioch’s connectedness to the wider prosperity of the Eastern Roman Empire, but there is also a tendency in the modern historiography to equate the estimation of urban vitality with the overall health of the state (or its lack), as has especially been the case with studies of urban centers in the Western Roman Empire. And eastern cities, such as Antioch, that eventually fell away from eastern imperial control during the course of the seventh century have a very problematic tendency to be viewed through a lens of the end of Greco-Roman civilization. Of course, cities could rise and fail irrespective of the grand narrative of the Roman Empire. The thriving coastal Italian city of Cosa failed during what many scholars would regard as the high tide of the Roman Empire—the reign of Marcus Aurelius. And more recent studies have duly acknowledged the high degree of variability in the “prosperity” or “decline” of cities irrespective of the overall fate of the Empire.11 Major urban centers, by their nature, would invite commentary and for that reason seem to attract disproportionate attention to crises and disasters. Of course, not all crises were rhetorical. As hubs of political administration and military mobilization, as epicenters for populations of diverse religious groups, as nexuses for the exchange of goods and human mobility, and as bases for networks of social elite, cities such as Antioch would, again by their nature, attract the conditions for human-based crises, and even in the case of environmental disasters, the demographic concentration of humanity would make the effects of disaster far more pronounced. At the same time, it was precisely communities such as Antioch that could muster the resources (human, material, and economic) to resist and recover from crises.

If anything, the complexity of Antioch’s history and the variable circumstances of different crises should warn us away from comfortable teleologies. Given the sheer litany of disasters faced by the city in its late antique phase, it would be easy to assume a Gibbonian perspective and wonder not that Antioch fell (which it did not) but that it lasted as long as it did. Despite the perspective of Glanville Downey, who viewed the abandonment of Antioch by Heraclius in 636 as the end of the city’s Greco-Roman heritage, Muslim conquest was not the end of Greco-Roman prosperity at Antioch. As the historical narrative of Al-Baladhuri (Kitab Futuh al-Buldan [Book of the Conquest of the Lands]) attests, the new Islamic rulers of the Levant recognized Antioch’s importance as a city. It did not become a wasteland of toppled colonnades (once beloved by Libanius), and although Antioch would adopt different proportions and cultural rhythms during the seventh century, those changes were not necessarily caused by the absence of a Greco-Roman urban spirit. The same Antioch that Libanius celebrated for its Hellenic heritage was very different from the capital of Seleucus (despite Libanius’s portrayal of continuity), and the same Antioch that recovered from repeated disasters and thrived in the sixth century, before Muslim conquest, would have been unrecognizable to Libanius as a center of Hellenic heritage. In other words, the Greco-Roman urban spirit that some teleologies conjure when characterizing cities of the Roman Empire is an utter shibboleth.

“Roman” Antioch certainly came to an end in 636, but only in terms of the city’s obedience to Roman imperial rule. The daily lives of Antiochenes did not cease, either as a result of Muslim conquest or as a result of the many storied disasters that impacted the city in the preceding century. The idea of Antioch projected by the city’s elites, much like Libanius’s fantasy of an Antioch detached from Roman masters, had never been a complete representation of the city’s lived reality. Antioch became part of the imperial project of first the Rashidun Caliphate and then Umayyad Caliphate, but that was in no way a caesura with a Greco-Roman Antioch. Some elements of Greco-Roman Antioch would persist in Antioch’s Islamic iterations while other Greek elements had only been imagined as part of Antioch’s identity, but in reality the former had probably ceased with the arrival of Pompey the Great. In other words, the terminal dates for Roman Antioch map onto neither the city’s incorporation into the Roman Empire nor the end of the Roman Empire. To ask when, where, or how Roman Antioch ended is to entertain a quixotic query. It would be far closer to lived historical experience to ask for whom Antioch ceased being Roman. For a city of Antioch’s complexity, and perhaps for any city of the Roman Empire, residents of differing circumstances would offer varying answers. It is hardly likely that Antiochenes would collate the end of a Greco-Roman urban culture as the end of the city, as none had experienced that culture for much of Late Antiquity (that is, for centuries). And if the same Antiochenes could not relate to the experience of the Roman Empire, would they concede that the experience of being an Antiochene had ended?

The studies presented in this volume position themselves at the nexus of urban history, the history of crises, and the historiography concerning the relative prosperity of Antioch in relation to the wider Roman Empire. Each paper posits open-ended questions concerning the interconnectedness of Antioch to the Empire (especially the possible disconnect between the city’s role in the lives of Antiochenes and its role within imperial structures) and concerning the perspective of modern scholarship on late antique urbanity as a barometer for the vitality and efficacy of the Roman state. In the process, each essay calls into question the very terms by which we designate an event either a crisis or a disaster, and in the process it adds dimension to what we know about the life of Antioch as a representative idea and Antiochenes as real people.

Jamie Marvin’s contribution examines the emperor Julian’s account of the food crisis in Antioch in 362/63. By considering the perspective of Julian’s satire, the Misopogon, Marvin reconstructs both the expectations of the Antiochenes concerning imperial intervention with their food crisis and also the emperor’s idealized, philosophy-based theory of crisis management. Marvin’s analysis reveals how the food crisis, as a real event, becomes a rhetorical moment fashioned by the emperor, a moment in which he contrasts the virtue embedded in his own handling of the crisis with the vices of the Antiochenes, who found fault with his efforts. At the heart of the debate is an emerging late antique definition of civic participation that is activated by crisis and crisis management strategies. Additionally, as Marvin argues, the Misopogon allows us to appreciate how a form of traditionalism, as seen in Julian’s respect for Plato’s De legibus, can be used as a framework for something as crucial to imperial governance as disaster response. This is important because it illuminates, on the one hand, the intersection of actual urban crisis and the rhetorical response of imperial government to the real needs of a community and, on the other hand, how a decidedly late antique culture of intellectual heritage could be mobilized to reinvent a material crisis as one of failed civic ethics.

With the contribution of Kathryn Langenfeld, the volume shifts to the crises attending the censure of Antioch by the emperor Valens. Langenfeld’s paper examines the political communication between the emperor’s administration and leading citizens of Antioch during the treason and magic trials of 371–72. The primary focus is the account of Ammianus Marcellinus, who portrayed the urban population of Antioch as innocent victims to the corruption and vice of Valens’s officials. In essence, Ammianus casts this episode of Antioch’s history as the failure of virtue in the emperor. Langenfeld questions Ammianus’s report by analyzing in high granularity how imperial officials executed law enforcement in relation to the trials. The result revises our understanding of the role of imperial administration in the “crisis” that attended these public trials. The article illustrates how local elites mediated the brunt of judicial investigations and arrives at a more balanced, and positive, assessment of the actions of imperial officials sent by Valens to Antioch. In doing so, the essay provides a landscape for understanding the human resources that a community could muster to prevent human-manufactured crisis, and the responsiveness of the imperial administration to those human actors. Additionally, Langenfeld’s work draws attention to the modes of judicial interaction between imperial officials and Antiochenes, exploring both the latter’s emotional resources to cope with an imperial threat to individual citizens and the resources of the state to cope with the threat of urban unrest.

Where the work of Marvin and Langenfeld focus on interactions of citizenry and imperial authority, Jonas Borsch’s paper examines the impact of, and response to, natural disasters with the earthquakes of 526 and 528 CE. Of particular interest in this piece is the longer historiographical perspective of Antioch as a city succumbing to natural disaster and slipping into irrevocable decline. The article focuses on two contemporary witnesses to Antioch in the sixth century: Procopius and John Malalas. Here, Borsch notes that while both Procopius and Malalas acknowledged the near total destruction of the city, these authors were also capable of portraying these events not as the beginning of the end but rather as moments of inception that would commence restoration of Antioch’s vitality. In other words, the perspectives of Procopius and Malalas serve as reminders of the incredible optimism that inhabitants of the late antique world could sustain in the face of what we now, perhaps anachronistically, regard as emplotment points in a narrative of “decline and fall,” an interpretation that was simply not part of the lived cultural experience of Antiochenes at the time. Arguing against the grain of the modern historiography that has characterized Antioch’s resilience in the face of these two events, Borsch calls into question the notion of Antioch’s so-called decline in the sixth century.

In summary, the three papers of this volume each work within the framework of a well-established historiographical scaffolding that supports how we imagine late antique Antioch. Julian’s tempestuous contest with the citizens of Antioch, the terrors of Valens’s censure of the city, and the concatenation of natural disasters that the city endured in the sixth century are all very familiar to modern scholars as events informing how we think about the role of central imperial authority, the vitality of the great cities of Late Antiquity, and the challenges that attend the construction of an histoire événementielle. The interventions in these papers emerge from reading these events through a lens of communal and authorial responses to crisis. These new approaches to familiar events expand our understanding of how late antique actors perceived the nature of crisis and disaster, and how the perception of crisis and disaster conditioned their interactions within communal settings.


Glanville Downey, A History of Antioch in Syria: From Seleucus to the Arab Conquest (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1961).


Clive Foss, Ephesus after Antiquity: A Late Antique, Byzantine and Turkish City (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979); Gilbert Dagron, Constantinople imaginaire: Études sur le recueil des Patria (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1984); Bertrand Lançon, Rome in Late Antiquity: Everyday Life and Urban Change, AD 312–609 (New York: Routledge, 2000); Christopher Haas, Alexandria in Late Antiquity: Topography and Social Conflict (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997); Linda Jones Hall, Roman Berytus: Beirut in Late Antiquity (New York: Routledge, 2004); Deborah Mauskopf Deliyannis, Ravenna in Late Antiquity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010); Frank Riess, Narbonne and Its Territory in Late Antiquity (Burlington: Ashgate, 2013); Douglas Boin, Ostia in Antiquity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013); Carlos Machado, Urban Space and Aristocratic Power in Late Antique Rome (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019); Michele Salzman, The Falls of Rome: Crises, Resilience and Resurgence in Late Antiquity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2021).


J. H. W. G. Liebeschuetz, The Decline and Fall of the Roman City (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001); Michael Kulikowski, Late Roman Spain and Its Cities (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004); Neil Christie, From Constantine to Charlemagne: An Archaeology of Italy, AD 300–800 (Burlington: Ashgate, 2006); Edward Watts, City and School in Late Antique Athens and Alexandria (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006); Raymond Van Dam, Rome and Constantinople: Rewriting Roman History during Late Antiquity (Waco: Baylor University Press, 2010); Adam Rogers, Late Roman Towns in Britain: Rethinking Change and Decline (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011); Anna Leone, The End of the Pagan City: Religion, Economy and Urbanism in Late Antique North Africa (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013); Hendrik Dey, The Afterlife of the Roman City: Architecture and Ceremony in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015); Noel Lenski, Constantine and the Cities: Imperial Authority and Civic Politics (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 2016); Mark Humphries, Cities and the Meanings of Late Antiquity (Leiden: Brill, 2019).


John Rich, ed., The City in Late Antiquity (New York: Routledge, 1992); G. P. Brogiolo and Bryan Ward-Perkins, eds., The Idea and the Ideal of the Town between Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages (Leiden: Brill, 1999); G. P. Brogiolo, Neil Gauthier, and Neil Christie, eds., Towns and Their Territories between Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages (Leiden: Brill, 2000); Thomas Burns and John Eadie, eds., Urban Centers and Rural Contexts in Late Antiquity (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2001); Michael Burrows and Michael Kelly, eds., Urban Interactions: Communication and Competition in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages (Brooklyn: Punctum Books, 2020); Andre Carneiro, Neil Christie, and Pilar Diarte Blasco, eds., Urban Transformations in the Late Antique West: Materials, Agents and Models (Coimbria: Coimbria University Press, 2020).


Humphries, Cities and the Meanings of Late Antiquity.


Watts, City and School.


Walter Pohl and Helmut Reimitz, eds., Strategies of Distinction: The Construction of Ethnic Communities, 300–800 (Leiden: Brill, 1998).


Richard Talbert, Rome’s World: The Peutinger Map Reconsidered (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010); Emily Albu, The Medieval Peutinger Map: Imperial Roman Revival in a German Empire (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014).


Translated here and throughout in A. F. Norman, Antioch as a Centre of Hellenic Culture as Observed by Libanius (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2000).


For example, Isabella Sandwell and Janet Huskinson, eds., Culture and Society in Later Roman Antioch (Havertown: Oxbow, 2004); Andrea De Giorgi, Ancient Antioch: From the Seleucid Era to the Islamic Conquest (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016); Silke-Petra Bergjan and Susanna Elm, eds., Antioch II: The Many Faces of Antioch: Intellectual Exchange and Religious Diversity, CE 350–450 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2018), as among the most recent additions.


Humphries, Cities and the Meanings of Late Antiquity.