« Prev Chapter XII. Foundation of the Church of Antioch. Next »



The new faith was spread from place to place with marvellous rapidity. The members of the church of Jerusalem, who had been dispersed immediately after the death of Stephen, pushing their conquests along the coast of Phœnicia, reached Cyprus and Antioch. They were at first guided by the sole principle of preaching the Gospel to the Jews only.

Antioch, “the metropolis of the East,” the third city of the world, was the centre of this Christian movement in northern Syria. It was a city with a population of more than 500,000 souls, almost as large as Paris before its recent extensions, and the residence of the Imperial Legate of Syria. Suddenly advanced to a high degree of splendour by the Seleucidæ, it reaped great benefit from the Roman occupation. In general, the Seleucidæ were in advance of the Romans in the taste for theatrical decorations, as applied to great cities. Temples, aqueducts, baths, basilicas, nothing was wanting at Antioch in what constituted a grand Syrian city of that period. The streets, flanked by colonnades, their cross-roads being decorated with statues, had more of symmetry and regularity than anywhere else. A Corso, ornamented with four rows of columns, forming two covered galleries, with a wide avenue in the midst, traversed the city from one side to the other, the length of which was thirty-six stadia (more than a league). But Antioch not only possessed immense edifices of public utility; it had also that which few of the Syrian cities possessed—the noblest specimens of Grecian art, beautiful statues, classical works of a delicacy of detail which the age was no longer capable of imitating. Antioch, from its foundation, had been wholly a Grecian city. The 118Macedonians of Antigone and Seleucus had brought with them into that country of the Lower Orontes their most lively recollections, their worship, and the names of their country. The Grecian mythology was there adopted as it were in a second home; they pretended to show in the country a crowd of “holy places” forming part of this mythology. The city was full of the worship of Apollo and of the nymphs. Daphne, an enchanting place two short hours from the city, reminded the conquerors of the pleasantest fictions. It was a sort of plagiarism, a counterfeit of the myths of the mother country, analogous to that which the primitive tribes carried with them in their travels—their mythical geography, their Berecyntha, their Arvanda, their Ida, their Olympus. These Greek fables was for them an antiquated religion, scarcely more serious than the Metamorphoses of Ovid. The ancient religions of the country, particularly that of Mount Cassius, contributed a little seriousness to it. But Syrian levity, Babylonian charlatanism, and all the impostures of Asia, mingling at this border of the two worlds, had made Antioch the capital of all lies, and the sink of every description of infamy.

In fact, besides the Greek population, which in no part of the East (with the exception of Alexandria) was as numerous as here, Antioch counted amongst its population a considerable number of native Syrians, speaking Syriac. These natives were a low class, inhabiting the suburbs of the great city, and the populous villages which formed a vast suburb all around it—Charandama, Ghisira, Gandigura, and Apate (chiefly Syrian names). Marriages between the Syrians and the Greeks were common: Seleucus had made naturalization a legal obligation binding on every stranger establishing himself in the city, so that Antioch, at the end of three centuries and a half of its existence, became one of the places in the world where race was most blended with race. The degradation of the people was awful. The 119peculiarity of these centres of moral putrefaction is to reduce all the race of mankind to the same level. The depravity of certain Levantine cities, which are dominated by the spirit of intrigue and delivered up entirely to low cunning, can scarcely give us an idea of the degree of corruption reached by the human race at Antioch. It was an inconceivable medley of mountebanks, quacks, buffoons, magicians, miracle-mongers, sorcerers, false priests; a city of races, games, dances, processions, fetes, revels, of unbridled luxury, of all the follies of the East, of the most unhealthy superstitions and of the fanaticism of the orgy. By turns servile and ungrateful, cowardly and insolent, the people of Antioch were the perfect model of peoples devoted to Cæsarism, without fatherland, without nationality, without family honour, without a name to guard. The great Corso which traversed the city was like a theatre, where rolled, day after day, the waves of a trifling, light-headed, changeable, insurrection-loving populace—a populace sometimes witty, occupied with songs, parodies, squibs, impertinence of all kinds. The city was very literary, but literary only in the literature of rhetoricians. The sights were strange; there were some games in which bands of naked young girls took part, with nothing but a mere fillet around them; at the celebrated festival of Maiouma, troops of courtesans swam in public in basins filled with limpid water. It was like an intoxication, like a dream of Sardanapalus, where all the pleasures, all the debaucheries, not excluding, however, some of a most delicate kind, were unrolled pell-mell. The river of filth, which, making its exit by the mouth of the Orontes, was invading Rome, had here its principal source. Two hundred decurions were employed in regulating the religious ceremonies and celebrations. The municipality possessed great public domains, the rents of which the decemvirs divided amongst the poor citizens. Like all cities of pleasure, Antioch had a lowest class living on the public or on sordid gains.


The beauty of works of art, and the infinite charm of nature, prevented this moral degradation from sinking entirely into hideousness and vulgarity. The site of Antioch is one of the most picturesque in the world. The city occupied the space between the Orontes and the slopes of Mount Silpius, one of the spurs of Mount Cassius. Nothing could equal the abundance and limpidness of the waters. The fortified portion, climbing up perpendicular rocks, by a master-piece of military architecture, enclosed the summit of the mountains, and formed, with the rocks at a tremendous height, an indented crown of marvellous effect. This disposition of ramparts, uniting the advantages of the ancient acropolis with those of the great walled cities, was in general preferred by the generals of Alexander, as one sees in the Pierian Seleucia, in Ephesus, in Smyrna, in Thessalonica. The result was astonishing perspectives. Antioch had within its walls mountains seven hundred feet in height, perpendicular rocks, torrents, precipices, deep ravines, cascades, inaccessible caves; and, in the midst of all these, delightful gardens. A thick wood of myrtles, of flowering box, of laurels, of evergreen plants —and of the richest green—rocks carpeted with pinks, with hyacinths, and cyclamens, gave to these wild heights the aspect of gardens suspended in the air. The variety of the flowers, the freshness of the turf, composed of an incredible number of delicate grasses, the beauty of the plane trees which border the Orontes, inspire the gaiety, the tinge of sweet odour, with which the fine genius of Chrysostom, Libanius, and Julian was, as it were, intoxicated. On the right bank of the river stretches a vast plain bounded on one side by the Amanus, and the oddly-shaped mountains of Pieria; on the other side by the plateaus of Cyrrhestica, behind which is concealed the dangerous neighbourhood of the Arab and the desert. The valley of the Orontes, which opens to the west, puts this interior basin into communication with the sea, or rather with the vast world, in the bosom of which 121the Mediterranean has constituted from all time a sort neutral highway and federal bond.

Amongst the different colonies which the liberal ordinances of the Seleucidæ had attracted to the capital of Syria, that of the Jews was one of the most numerous; it dated from the time of Seleucus Nicator, and enjoyed the same rights as the Greeks. Although the Jews had an ethnarch of their own, their relations with the Pagans were very frequent. Here, as at Alexandria, these relations often degenerated into quarrels and aggressions. On the other hand, they afforded a field for an active religious propagandism. The official polytheism becoming more and more insufficient to meet the wants of serious minds, the Grecian philosophy and Judaism attracted all those whom the vain pomps of Paganism could not satisfy. The number of proselytes was considerable. From the first days of Christianity, Antioch had furnished to the Church of Jerusalem one of its most influential members, viz. Nicholas, one of the deacons. There existed there promising germs, which only waited for a ray of grace to cause thorn to burst forth into bloom and to bear the most excellent fruits which had hitherto been produced.

The Church of Antioch owed its foundation to some believers originally from Cyprus and Cyrene, who had already been much engaged in preaching. Up to this time they had only addressed themselves to the Jews. But in a city where pure Jews—Jews who were proselytes, “people fearing God”—or half-Jewish Pagans and pure Pagans, lived together, exclusive preaching restricted to a group of houses, became impossible. That feeling of religious aristocracy on which the Jews of Jerusalem so much prided themselves, did not exist in those large cities, where civilization was altogether of the profane sort, where the scope was greater, and where prejudices were less firmly rooted The Cypriot and Cyrenian missionaries were then constrained to depart from their rule. They preached to the Jews and to the Greeks indifferently.


The dispositions of the Jewish and of the Pagan population appeared at this time to have been very unsatisfactory. But circumstances of another kind probably subserved the new ideas. The earthquake, which had done serious damage to the city on 23rd March, of the year 37, still occupied their minds. The whole city was talking about an impostor named Debborius, who pretended to be able to prevent the recurrence of such accidents by silly talismans. This sufficed to direct preoccupied minds towards supernatural matters. But, be this as it may, the success of the Christian preaching was great. A young, innovating, and ardent Church, full of the future, because it was composed of the most diverse elements, was quickly founded. All the gifts of the Holy Spirit were there poured out, and it was easy to perceive that this new church, emancipated from the strict Mosaism which erected an insuperable barrier around Jerusalem, would become the second cradle of Christianity. Assuredly, Jerusalem must remain for ever the capital of the Christian world; nevertheless, the point of departure of the Church of the Gentiles, the primordial focus of Christian missions, was, in truth, Antioch. It was there that for the first time, a Christian Church was established, freed from the bonds of Judaism; it was there that the great propaganda of the Apostolic age was established; it was there that St. Paul assumed a definite character. Antioch marks the second halting-place of the progress of Christianity and in respect of Christian nobility, neither Rome, nor Alexandria, nor Constantinople can be at all compared with it.

The topography of ancient Antioch is so effaced that we should search in vain over its site, nearly destitute as it is of any vestiges of the antique, for the spot to which to attach such grand recollections. Here, as everywhere, Christianity was, doubtless, established in the poor quarters of the city and among the petty tradespeople. The basilica, which is called “the old” 123and “apostolic” in the fourth century, was situated in the street called Singon, near the Pantheon. But no one knows where this Pantheon was. Tradition and certain vague analogies would induce us to search the primitive Christian quarter near the gate, which even to-day is still called Paul’s gate, Bâb-bolos, and at the foot of the mountain, named by Procopius Stavrin, on which stands the south-east side of the ramparts of Antioch. It was one of the quarters of the town which least abounded in Pagan monuments. There, are still to be seen the remains of ancient sanctuaries dedicated to St. Peter, St. Paul and St. John. These appear to have been the quarter where Christianity was longest maintained after the Mohammedan conquest. There, too, as it appeared, was the quarter of “the saints,” in opposition to the profane Antioch. The rock is honey-combed, like a beehive, with grottoes which seem to have been used by the Anchorites. When one walks on these sharp-cut declivities, where, about the fourth century, the good Stylites, disciples at once of India and of Galilee, of Jesus and of Cakya-Mouni, disdainfully contemplated the voluptuous city from the summit of their pillar or from their flower-adorned cavern, it is probable that one is not far from the very spot where Peter and Paul dwelt. The Church of Antioch is the one whose history is most authentic, and least encumbered with fables. Christian tradition, in a city where Christianity was perpetuated with so much vigour, must possess some value.

The prevailing language of the Church of Antioch was the Greek. It is, however, very probable that the suburbs where Syriac was spoken, furnished a great number of converts to the sect. Hence, Antioch already contained the germ of two rival, and, at a later, period, hostile Churches; the one speaking Greek, and now represented by the Syrian Greeks, whether orthodox or Catholics; the other, whose actual representatives are the Maronites, who previously spoke Syriac and guard 124it still as if it were a sacred tongue. The Maronites, who under their entirely modern Catholicism conceal a high antiquity, are probably the last descendants of those Syrians anterior to Seleucus, of those suburbans, pagani of Ghisra, Charandama, &c., who from the first ages became a separate church, were persecuted by the orthodox emperors as heretics, and escaped into the Libanus, where, from hatred of the Grecian Church and in consequence of deeper sympathies, they allied themselves with the Latins.

As for the converted Jews at Antioch, they too were very numerous. But we are bound to believe that they accepted from the very first a fraternal alliance with the Gentiles. It was then on the shores of the Orontes that the religious fusion of races, dreamed of by Jesus, or to speak more fully, by six centuries of prophets, became a reality.

« Prev Chapter XII. Foundation of the Church of Antioch. Next »
VIEWNAME is workSection