Thursday, December 15, 2016


Andrea U. De Giorgi, Ancient Antioch: From the Seleucid Era to the Islamic Conquest. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016. Pp. xvii, 226. ISBN 9781107130739. $99.99.

Reviewed by Michael Blömer, Centre for Urban Network Evolutions, Aarhus University (

Version at BMCR home site


Antiocheia on the Orontes ranked among the most prominent cities of antiquity. It was the primary residence of the Seleucid kings and the capital of the Roman province of Syria. In late antiquity the city turned into one of the world''s largest economic, political and religious hubs. It is therefore not surprising that the city has attracted considerable scholarly attention. Nevertheless, our picture of Antiocheia is still highly distorted. This is due to the fact that most attempts to analyse the city's history and culture draw almost exclusively on the very rich but also very biased literary evidence provided by Libanius and other late antique sources. What is more, the apparent wealth of information on late antique Antiocheia regularly obscures how scarce our sources for the previous centuries are.

It is a major accomplishment that Andrea De Giorgi has chosen a different approach. He has tried to put more weight on the archaeological evidence in order to avoid misconceptions based on the partial views of ancient authors. Furthermore, his narrative of Antiocheia does not focus on the city in a narrow sense, but also takes into account the immense territory it administered. In so doing, De Giorgi provides not only a very useful introduction to the city, its inhabitants and their identities, but also offers interesting perspectives on the interplay between urban and rural social groups

The first chapter gives an account of the archaeological investigations conducted in Antiocheia and its territory. In the 1930s, the French archaeologist Georges Tschalenko explored the southeastern territory of Antiocheia, which today is part of Syria. His focus was on the so-called "dead cities", a stunning ensemble of well-preserved late antique and early Byzantine villages. At the same time, the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago conducted a survey in the Amuq plain north of Antiocheia in order to investigate settlements of the Bronze Age and Iron Age. This project was revived in the 1990s, when the Oriental Institute launched a new project to expand and complete Robert Braidwood's original survey. The research area was extended and much more attention was paid to traces of Hellenistic, Roman and Byzantine occupation. De Giorgi was part of this mission and many of the insights presented in his book build on the results of the survey.

Proper excavations in the city area of Antiocheia were coordinated by a team from Princeton University between 1932 and 1939. De Giorgi elucidates the impetus for and the limitations of the project, the difficult conditions under which the American team had to work, the pressure exerted on the archaeologists by the various stakeholders and sponsors, and not least the difficult political situation in Antakya at that time. Due to these unfavourable conditions, the Princeton excavations ultimately foundered. The rich finds adorn various museums around the world, but their contexts have not been adequately recorded. Accordingly, most books concerned with Antiocheia hardly mention the excavations.

The second chapter sketches the urban development of Antiocheia from its foundation to late antiquity. De Giorgi analyses the formation of the city and the formative impact the hydrological conditions and the physical landscape had on the city's design. Much attention is paid to the myths connected to the city's foundation and to the relation between Antiocheia and its short-lived predecessor, the city of Antigoneia. De Giorgi claims that Seleukos I erected a statue of the Tyche of Antigoneia in Antiocheia and elaborates on the impact of this act. His argument is based on a remark of Malalas and on a rare coin minted under Alexander Severus depicting the Tyche of Antiocheia flanked by another standing Tyche and a king, probably Seleukos I. It seems unlikely, however, that the tychai represent two cities. It is rather the personification of Antiocheia flanked by Seleukos as founder and a Tyche symbolizing the fortuity of the foundation. 1 Moreover, Malalas does not reveal where Seleukos erected the statue after the destruction of Antigoneia; it might have been brought to Seleukeia instead of Antioch. 2

In the second part of the chapter De Giorgi provides a concise survey of Antiocheia's cityscape and its transformation. Since not much original evidence of the Early Hellenistic city has survived, he examines the better preserved remains of Seleukeia on the Tigris as a possible blueprint for early Antiocheia. In general, De Giorgi largely refrains from drawing a neat image of the city and its buildings based on the imprecise literary sources, but focuses on the scarce archaeological data and reconsiders the excavation reports in order to extract as much information about the city as possible. One of his results is the lasting impact of the Seleucid heritage on the configuration of the city.

Chapters 3-6 make up the core of the book. They draw attention to the vast and very diverse territory of Antiocheia, which included the Amuq plain, the Amanus Mountains, the Jebel Aqra, the limestone massif and the Orontes valley. The focus is on settlement patterns, environmental conditions and, not least, human-environment relations. De Giorgi traces the close entanglement of city and countryside and their reciprocal development. Most importantly, he sheds light on the role of the vast Amuq plain, where only inconspicuous scatters of ceramics and tiles indicate the presence of villages and farmsteads built of mudbrick. At first sight, these humble sites seem unrelated to the impressive and well-preserved villages of the limestone massif. De Giorgi, however, convincingly demonstrates how closely both were integrated as parts of one distinct ecosystem.

Intriguing is De Giorgi's suggestion that the increasing occupation of the upland areas that started in the imperial period and culminated in the early Byzantine period was closely connected to detrimental environmental changes in the plain: farming and deforestation of the hillsides fostered the expansion of wetlands, and the resulting seasonal inundation made living in the plains less sustainable. This triggered the relocation of settlements and caused a drop in occupied sites in the plains in late antiquity. This claim, like many others, is based on the results of the Amuq survey. Yet the strong reliance on the survey data causes a major problem for the reader. Since the results of the survey have not yet been adequately published, it is hardly possible to assess the validity of statements made about single sites and their occupation phases. 3 This is a serious problem considering that other researchers affiliated with the survey project have given accounts of the settlement development in the Amuq valley that differ slightly from De Giorgi's interpretation. 4

Chapter 5 is devoted to the lower Orontes valley and the harbour city of Seleukeia Pieria. De Giorgi summarizes the city''s history from its foundation by Seleukos to its slow demise in early Byzantine times. 5 Surprising is a tendency to regard Seleukeia and her territory as part of Antiocheia. This may have been the case in late antiquity, when Seleukeia had lost its former importance, but probably not in the imperial period. Furthermore, Mount Kasios and the cult of Zeus Kasios were not administered by Antiocheia. Certainly, the god played an important role in Antiocheia, but the mountain as the focal point of the Kasios cult was under the control of Seleukeia. De Giorgi himself cites a second-century CE inscription set up by a citizen of Laodikeia, who dedicated a statue for Zeus Kasios after having received permission from the high council of Seleukeia. The allegiance of parts of the population of Antiocheia (and Laodikeia) to Zeus Kasios should therefore rather be seen as an example of the continuity of pre-Hellenistic religious affiliations, which defied new political boundaries.

In chapter 6 De Giorgi combines the individual strands of his survey in order to unravel the character of Antiochene culture. He acknowledges the diverse and often conflicting traditions at play and elucidates how the blend of Seleucid heritage, Greek culture and indigenous traditions eventually morphed into a multi-faceted but distinctive identity. This identity shaped not only the rhythms of life in the city, but also in its vast territory. Special emphasis is put on the resilience of Antiocheia''s Hellenistic, Seleucid heritage throughout the Roman period.

One will not, however, agree with all of the observations made in this chapter. It seems unlikely, for example, that aurei showing a kneeling Tyche in front of the emperor Vespasian were minted with the intention to curb the pride of the people of Antiocheia. Just the opposite might be true—the emperor might in fact be depicted in the act of lifting up the city. The coin would then proclaim imperial support in times of hardship. More caution might also have been advisable in the interpretation of the Antiocheia mosaics. The overwhelming majority of them mirror the catalogue of late antique elite virtues as represented throughout the region and the empire. It is appealing to connect hunting scenes to actual hunts in the Amanus Mountains and to regard the figure of the Ktisis as an implicit reference to the Seleucid foundation of the city, but such interpretations remain speculative.

The book concludes with a general index. The number of illustrations is quite large, but their size is sometimes so small that details can hardly be seen. Moreover, the print quality of some maps is poor. It is also irksome that CUP has failed to print most of the Turkish and Arab special characters in the same font size as the standard text.

To conclude, the critical remarks raised here do not diminish De Giorgi's achievement. He offers a fresh look at Antiocheia and addresses important questions related to urbanism and human-environment relations in ancient Syria in general. The book provides an integrated account of an important micro-region and its development, taking into account the physical landscape and the archaeological remains as well as the changing economic and political factors. The book does not replace the seminal studies on Antiocheia written by Downey, Petit, Festugière, and Liebeschuetz, but this was not the author''s aim. Rather than compiling another description of the city''s history and its monuments, De Giorgi approaches Antiocheia from a more holistic perspective. He successfully explores the formative power of the landscape and the myths inscribed to it for the construction of an Antiochene identity. In doing so, he breaks up the dichotomy of city and countryside and, just as importantly, reconciles research from both sides of the Turkish-Syrian border.


1.   M. Meyer, Die Personifikation der Stadt Antiocheia. Ein neues Bild für eine neue Gottheit, JDI Ergh. 33 (Berlin 2006) 207–209. It is also important to note that the motif recurs on coins of Nicopolis Seleucidis.
2.   Marion Meyer concluded with good arguments that it was carried to Seleukeia, not to Antiocheia: see M. Meyer, Die Personifikation der Stadt Antiocheia. Ein neues Bild für eine neue Gottheit, JDI Ergh. 33 (Berlin 2006) 387 f. Furthermore, as De Giorgi himself concedes, it was allegedly brought to the city of Rhosus after Seleukos'' death.
3.   So far, the most comprehensive publication is K. Yener (ed.), The Amuq Valley Regional Projects, Vol. 1. Surveys in the Plain of Antiocheia and the Orontes Delta, Turkey, 1995–2002, OIP 131 (Chicago 2005). The descriptions of single sites are, however, very superficial. Some of the sites De Giorgi refers to are not even included.
4.   For slightly differing views on the settlement density in the plain during late antiquity see, for example, J. Casana, "Structural Transformations in Settlement Systems of the Northern Levant", AJA 111, 2007, 204–210; J. Casana, "Mediterranean Valleys Revisited. Linking Soil Erosion, Land Use and Climate Variability in the Northern Levant", Geomorphology 101, 2008, 429–442; J. Casana "The Late Roman Landscape of the Northern Levant. A View from Tell Qarqur and the Lower Orontes Valley", OJA 33, 2014, 197–199.
5.   The Isaurian raids mentioned on p. 139 did not affect Seleukeia in Pieria, but Seleukeia on the Kalykadnos.

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