BMCR 2001.01.07

Antioch: The Lost Ancient City

, Antioch: The Lost Ancient City. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000. xiii, 253 pages: illustrations (some color), maps. ISBN 0691049327 $29.95.

The Committee for the Excavation of Antioch and Its Vicinity, chaired by Princeton University’s Charles Rufus Morey and made up of representatives from the Louvre, the Baltimore Museum of Art, the Worcester Art Museum, the Fogg Art Museum, and Dumbarton Oaks, formed in 1932. The excavations undertaken between 1932 and 1939 failed to locate the monuments mentioned in the texts of Libanios and the sixth-century historian Malalas: the palace and hippodrome, the Forum of Valens, the Golden Church of Constantine, and the round Church of the Virgin of Justinian. Sediment had covered them to such a depth that retrieval was impossible.

What the expedition did find were approximately three hundred mosaic pavements decorating the floors of houses and villas on higher ground in Antioch and in the suburbs of Antioch, such as Daphne (9 km. south of the city). These shallowly-buried mosaics helped keep the excavations going, since they were attractive items to sell to museums around the world. Fifty years ago, the three-volume publication of the excavations, and Doro Levi’s Antioch Mosaic Pavements, seemed sufficient documentation of the international team’s work.1 The seemingly comprehensive scope of Levi’s study had the peculiar effect of discouraging further scholarly research on the mosaics; Antioch seemed to be a closed chapter in the history of the ancient world. Occasional articles on individual mosaics appeared in the intervening fifty years, but no one sought to rethink the meaning of the mosaics in their original context, nor indeed the place of Antioch within the cultural production of the first six centuries of the common era. If meters of silt had covered Antioch, it was scholarly neglect that sealed its fate as a “lost city.”

Kondoleon’s ambitious exhibition and catalogue seek to retrieve Antioch from oblivion and to expand the discourse beyond the limited optic of the Princeton Antioch volumes. Her task as curator of the exhibition and editor of the catalogue was a complicated one; finding funding was a herculean task. What is more, both funding agencies and the museums they support require that serious attention be paid to the education of the public at large. In some lamentable instances the requirements of public instruction result in the dumbing down of exhibition catalogues; it is to her credit that Kondoleon has found a way in her catalogue to engage both the layperson and the scholar-specialist.

For one thing, Kondoleon’s catalogue addresses a unusually broad range of questions, from the expected topics (history of the excavations, history of the city, discussions of the mosaics) to unexpected ones (the small finds, the Jewish presence, Persian influence). For another, the fifteen scholars she engaged to write brief essays have for the most part deftly negotiated the requirements of explaining things Antiochene to the public without diminishing their scholarly insights. Although specialist readers will want much more from some essays than the constraints of space allowed, all readers, both general and specialist, will leave the catalogue enlightened about this magnificent yet neglected ancient city.

The essays in the first part of the catalogue provide a context for understanding the history, people, and material culture of Antioch. Michael Maas, “People and Identity in Roman Antioch,” considers the city’s history from the establishment of Roman control in 64 B.C., with observations on Antioch’s role as a military and civilian administrative center, its urbanization, and the ferment wrought by the city’s embrace of Christianity. Clive Foss’s essay looks at Late Antique Antioch, beginning with the sixth century and ending with 610, the year the region fell to the Persians. Two essays on the role of religion among Antioch’s citizens follow. Bernadette J. Brooten considers the Jews of ancient Antioch, providing a history of the Jewish community there. She outlines the scholarly debate surrounding the worship and theology of the Antiochene Jews, and provides an overview of their relations with early rabbinic sages in Roman Palestine and elsewhere. Susan Ashbrook Harvey looks at Christianity, beginning with a history from the times of the apostles to legalization in 313. The second part of her essay, on Christian Antioch and its people, is filled with entertaining accounts drawn from colorful hagiographies, including unkillable virgin-martyr Thecla, the two pillar-dwelling Simeons, and the cross-dressing former harlot Pelagia.

If these first four essays rely on textual evidence, the authors of the five remaining ones address the material evidence. Yet even that is lacunose. John J. Dobbins’ essay on the houses of Antioch stresses that much of the information an archaeologist would need to reconstruct the domestic world of Antioch is simply not available; critical features, such as the boundaries of individual houses and the placement of walls and doors, are uncertain. Since many of walls were robbed away by later builders in search of stone, no plan is entirely reliable. Working with three of the best-preserved houses, Dobbins looks for views that relate rooms with architectural features. His arguments for the arrangement of the privileged views within the houses he considers are convincing. Strangely, he does not cite the scholarly literature on such privileged views in ancient Roman houses.2

In the minds of most scholars, the Antioch mosaics define the pictorial arts of the Roman East. Christine Kondoleon’s essay explains what is characteristic about the Antioch workshop throughout its long production, from the early second century to the earthquake of 526. The Antioch mosaics display consistent features: continuation of the elaborate framing of center pictures derived from the emblemata, or portable mosaic inserts; emphasis on the illusions of three-dimensionality and polychromy; use of Greek inscriptions to label figures and to title scenes. Kondoleon cites parallels for these characteristics from other Syrian sites, and notes that Antiochene mosaics were slow to expand their repertory to include the subjects of Spanish and North African mosaics, such as life on agricultural estates, game hunting, and scenes from the arena. Compared with other Near Eastern sites, at Antioch there is a preference for scenes of Dionysos over those of Aphrodite. There is a similar preference for female personifications (such as κτίσις”Foundation” and βίος”Life”) over those of the Muses.

In the absence of any completely excavated house, Kondoleon limits her remaining remarks to three well-preserved domestic spaces: the triclinium in the Atrium House, the core of the House of the Boat of Psyches, and the House of the Menander. She illustrates the pavements of the Atrium House with a computer-generated photocomposite that combines the surviving figural panels with their geometric settings, the reconstructed whole measuring 7.20 x 4.80 m; 23’6″ x 15’9″. Whereas a single geometric pattern denotes the U-shaped space beneath the triclinium couches, the mosaicists provided three framed pictures facing the entering guest on the cross-bar of the resultant “T” formation, with two square pictures facing the rear of the room, oriented toward the reclining guests. Viewing pictures that show the protagonists within illusionistic space requires a suspension of disbelief, since, after all, the floor is a flat plane that a viewer walks upon. Kondoleon prefers to see the contradiction between the floor’s real space and the illusionistic space of the mosaic pictures in metaphysical terms, following Jas Elsner and Norman Bryson; earlier scholars, like Irving Lavin and myself, have emphasized the formal aspects of this contradiction.3

The heart of Kondoleon’s argument, however, rests in her attempt to find meaning in the three myths represented on the floor. Are they rhetorical exempla—lessons on how to behave? Did diners discuss the different outcomes of the “contests”: the Drinking Contest between Herakles and Dionysos that faced entering guests and the Judgment of Paris, the outer panel of the pair oriented toward the rear wall? Then what of the third panel, the enthroned Aphrodite seated beside her mortal lover Adonis? Kondoleon appeals to the ancient literature on ekphrasis, to records of the cult of the dying Adonis in the Near East, and to the physical proximity of the guest of honor to explain the Aphrodite and Adonis mosaic. Whether one agrees with her interpretations or not, the merits of her discussion lie in her very attempt to see the mosaics as the ancient viewer would. Rather than trying, as Doro Levi did, to fix a specific subject matter in isolation, Kondoleon emphasizes the ancient experience of seeing different subjects juxtaposed within a single architectural space.

James Russell’s essay on household furnishings considers the instrumenta domestica from Antioch: jewelry, furniture attachments in bronze and bone, locks and keys, lighting instruments, pins, belt buckles, toilet articles, gaming pieces, scales and weights, and statuettes and cult instruments used in domestic worship. Russell attempts to explain the place of these mostly undocumented finds within the house by describing their functions.

In his essay “The Sculptures of Roman Syria,” Cornelius Vermeule laments the loss of examples from Antioch’s Hellenistic period, but finds echoes of that tradition in the Worcester Museum’s Hygeia (first or second c. A.D.), from a public bath at Antioch. The exhibition includes a small bronze bust of Julia Domna (36.2 cm; 14 1/4 in) reportedly from Salimiyeh, Syria, and now in the Harvard University Art Museums (cat. no. 17) that conveys the high quality that must have characterized the many sculptures produced for domestic display at Antioch. In addition to portraits of the emperors and empresses, domestic sculpture collections included genre figures represented in the exhibition by a fragment of the thorn-puller ( spinario) now in Baltimore (cat. no. 61).

William E. Metcalf’s essay rapidly guides the reader through the vicissitudes of the nine centuries during which Antioch minted coins. His essay provides the occasion to publish a recent gift by Emily Townsend and Cornelius Vermeule of magnificent gold and silver coins struck at Antioch. He fills out the discussion of Antioch’s coinage with illustrations of the collection of the American Numismatic Society.

Part Two of the catalogue follows the exhibition’s thematic installation. Short essays introduce each theme: “City and the People”; “Water”; “Entertainment”; “The Roman House”; and “Religions: Pagan, Jewish, Christian.”

The one-page essay introducing “City and the People” discusses the facing color plate (p. 114, and p. 8, fig. 6) showing details from the border around the Megalopsychia Hunt mosaic, actually in the museum in Antakya and found in the village of Yakto near Daphne. This late fifth-century mosaic provides a kind of tour of the ancient city. It pictures (among other subjects) veiled women approaching a workshop labeled “Martyrion,” private houses with the names of the owners above them, people engaged in various activities (including dice-playing), the hippodrome, and the famous octagonal Church of Constantine. Figurines representing the Tyche of Antioch and related city personifications address the theme of the city. A mix that includes the mosaic of a funerary symposium (the only mosaic found in Antioch’s necropolis), a Palmyrene grave slab, jewelry, and several portraits in bronze and marble (including the abovementioned head of Julia Domna) follow, addressing the theme of “people.”

If this array of objects seems random, Anna Gonosová’s essay, “Exotic Taste: The Lure of Sasanian Persia” introduces a sharply delineated thesis: that the appearance of beribboned lions, rams’ heads, and parrots in fifth and sixth century mosaics documents the influence of Sasanian art. Just as the Hellenistic-Roman tradition appears in mosaics at Sasanian sites such as Bishapur, so Sasanian motifs appear in late Roman and early Byzantine mosaics and textiles. Two Sasanian stucco reliefs (cat. nos. 21 and 22) provide convincing comparisons.

Fikret Yegül introduces “Water” with an essay on baths and bathing in Roman Antioch that provides a clear picture of the formal characteristics of the six excavated baths while examining the meaning of bathing in Antiochene culture. He notes two features special to Eastern baths: the absence of the palaestra and the diminished importance of the frigidiarium. He proposes that Antioch played a role in the creation of the Late Antique bath type. The two catalogue items that follow are not from baths but rather have water as their theme: the mosaic bust of the Pyramos River from Seleucia (cat. no. 38) and the Tethys mosaic from the House of the Boat of Psyches at Daphne (cat. no. 39).

In section III, “Entertainment,” the mosaic of Menander, Glykera, and Comedy from the House of Menander stands for theater, a gladiator’s helmet from Orvieto for the arena, and the Worcester and Honolulu pavements represent the hunt. A mosaic of a gaming board, and several actual game counters demonstrate the popularity of board games. Florent Heintz’s essay, “Magic Tablets and the Games at Antioch,” creates a rich and suggestive context for metal curse tablets from Antioch. Two were designed to lay low a greengrocer; another two, found in the hippodrome at Antioch and dating to the late fifth or early sixth century, were designed to overturn the horses of the Blue faction.

Section IV, “The Roman House,” showcases the pride of the exhibition, a recreation of the triclinium of the Atrium House and its adjacent nymphaeum, made possible by bringing together the five mosaics that paved the triclinium, dispersed among four museums. Sandra Knudsen’s essay, “Dining as a Fine Art: Tablewares of the Ancient Romans,” describes the culture of the Roman banquet by way of introducing the fascinating array of tableware gathered together for the exhibition. She errs in reporting that the Tomb of Vestorius Priscus at Pompeii had “masonry couches on which comfortable cushions could be arranged;” the tiny tomb is actually standing-room-only.4

In Section V, “Religions: Pagan, Jewish, Christian,” appears Sarolta A. Takács’ essay on pagan cults at Antioch, preparing the viewer for the many statuettes of pagan deities found in domestic contexts displayed in the exhibition. Three brief essays on the Church Building at Seleucia Pieria, by W. Eugene Kleinbauer, Susan Boyd, and Kondoleon amplify the Christian objects in the catalogue, accompanied by three fine computer reconstructions of the church by James Stanton-Abbott.

The catalogue concludes with a glossary, a bibliography, and a useful index.


1. George W. Elderkin, ed., Antioch-on-the-Orontes I: The Excavations of 1932 (Princeton, 1934); Richard Stillwell, ed., Antioch-on-the-Orontes II: The Excavations of 1933-1936 (Princeton, 1938); Richard Stillwell, ed., Antioch-on-the-Orontes III: The Excavations of 1937-1939 (Princeton, 1941).

2. Lisa Bek, Towards Paradise on Earth: Modern Space Conception in Architecture, Analecta roman Instituti danici, supplement 9 (Rome, 1980), 168-170; Franz Jung, “Gebaute Bilder,” Antike Kunst 27 (1984), 71-122; John R. Clarke, Houses of Roman Italy, 100 B.C-A.D. 250 (Berkeley, 1991), 17-23.

3. Jas Elsner, Art and the Roman Viewer (Cambridge, 1995), 74-87; Norman Bryson, Looking at the Overlooked: Four Essays on Still Life Painting (Cambridge, MA, 1990), 45; Irving Lavin, “The Antioch Hunting Mosaics and their Sources: A Study of the Compositional Principles in the Development of Early Medieval Art,” Dumbarton Oaks Papers 18 (1963): 8; John R. Clarke, Roman Black-and-White Figural Mosaics (New York, 1979), 5-7.

4. Stephan T. A. M. Mols and Eric M. Moormann, ” Ex parvo crevit : Proposta per una lettura iconografica della Tomba di Vestorius Priscus fuori Porta Vesuvio a Pompei,” Rivista di Studi Pompeiani 6 (1993-1994): 15-52.