Urban Violence in Fifth Century Antioch: Riot Culture and Dynamics in Late Antique Mediterranean Cities

Urban Violence in Fifth Century Antioch: Riot Culture and Dynamics in Late Antique Mediterranean Cities

By David A. Heayn

CONCEPT: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Graduate Studies (2009)

Introduction: In the early fourth century, during the reign of the first Christian emperor, Constantine the Great (AD 324-337), Antioch was one of the largest and most important political, cultural, and religious centers of the Greco-Roman and Christian world. Christians, Jews, Pagans, Greeks, Syrians, et al, vied for control within the city. This form of internal urban violence and armed revolt were common in the Greek East. Antioch was a city attempting to transition from a Greco-Roman Pagan society to an orthodox Christian society in a recently Christian empire. The Persian invasion and a deficiency of source material hinder further historical inquiry of this period until the later writings of John Chrysostom and Libanius in the mid-fourth century. Until the natural disasters of the early sixth century AD and the subsequent Persian and Arab invasions, Antioch flourished as the jewel of the East, and its people fought for domination and control of its wealth, power, and authority.

During the fifth century, riots erupted in the city due to the transition towards becoming a truly Christian empire. Questions surrounding Christian doctrine and authority across the empire and region fueled the rhetoric, while economics and politics fed the violence. The rivalries that existed, and incited these popular displays of violence, must be understood in an interdisciplinary and broader manner than previous scholarship has provided. By integrating the most recent scholarship on the region with the social sciences, a picture of combined political and religious hostility emerges – one that illustrates the uses, character, and motives behind late antique urban riots. The religious foundation and justification for violence is an important feature. However, it should be viewed as existing in the environment of a pre-modern world devoid of any separation between religion and state. The most prominent and influential political leaders were those who grounded their authority in faith and a connection with a religious ideology. Religion is then a means by which communities organize their world. Any division between religion and secular authority is artificial and a misunderstanding of the connection between these features of society.

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