Founded near the end of the 4th century BC by Seleucus I Nicator, one of Alexander the Great's generals. Antioch eventually rivaled Alexandria as the chief city of the nearer East and was a cradle of gentile Christianity. It was one of the four cities of the Syrian tetrapolis.
According to most of the writers, this is the city that is mentioned in the Quran 36:13.
Alexander the Great is said to have camped on the site of Antioch, and dedicated an altar to Zeus Bottiaeus, which lay in the northwest of the future city. This account is found only in the writings of Libanius, a 4th century AD orator from Antioch, and may be legend intended to enhance Antioch's status. But the story is not unlikely in itself.
After Alexander's death in 323 BC, his generals divided up the territory he had conquered. Seleucus I Nicator won the territory of Syria, and he proceeded to found four "sister cities" in northwestern Syria, one of which was Antioch. Like the other three, Antioch was named by Seleucus for a member of his family. He is reputed to have built sixteen Antiochs.
Seleucus founded Antioch on a site chosen through ritual means. An eagle, the bird of Zeus, had been given a piece of sacrificial meat and the city was founded on the site to which the eagle carried the offering. He did this in the twelfth year of his reign. Antioch soon rose above Seleucia Pieria to become the Syrian capital.
The original city of Seleucus was laid out in imitation of the grid plan of Alexandria by the architect Xenarius. Libanius describes the first building and arrangement of this city (i. p. 300. 17). The citadel was on Mt. Silpius and the city lay mainly on the low ground to the north, fringing the river. Two great colonnaded streets intersected in the centre. Shortly afterwards a second quarter was laid out, probably on the east and by Antiochus I, which, from an expression of Strabo, appears to have been the native, as contrasted with the Greek, town. It was enclosed by a wall of its own. In the Orontes, north of the city, lay a large island, and on this Seleucus II Callinicus began a third walled "city," which was finished by Antiochus III. A fourth and last quarter was added by Antiochus IV Epiphanes (175-164 BC); and thenceforth Antioch was known as Tetrapolis. From west to east the whole was about 6 km in diameter and little less from north to south, this area including many large gardens.
The new city was populated by a mix of local settlers that Athenians brought from the nearby city of Antigonia, Macedonians, and Jews (who were given full status from the beginning). The total free population of Antioch at its foundation has been estimated at between 17,000 and 25,000, not including slaves and native settlers. During the late Hellenistic period and Early Roman period, Antioch population reached its peak of over 500,000 inhabitants (estimates vary from 400,000 to 600,000) and was the third largest city in the world after Rome and Alexandria. By the 4th century, Antioch's declining population was about 200,000 according to Chrysostom, a figure which again does not include slaves.
About 6 km west and beyond the suburb Heraclea lay the paradise of Daphne, a park of woods and waters, in the midst of which rose a great temple to the Pythian Apollo, also founded by Seleucus I and enriched with a cult-statue of the god, as Musagetes, by Bryaxis. A companion sanctuary of Hecate was constructed underground by Diocletian. The beauty and the lax morals of Daphne were celebrated all over the western world; and indeed Antioch as a whole shared in both these titles to fame. Its amenities awoke both the enthusiasm and the scorn of many writers of antiquity.
Antioch became the capital and court-city of the western Seleucid empire under Antiochus I, its counterpart in the east being Seleucia on the Tigris; but its paramount importance dates from the battle of Ancyra (240 BC), which shifted the Seleucid centre of gravity from Asia Minor, and led indirectly to the rise of Pergamum.
The Seleucids reigned from Antioch. We know little of it in the Greek period, apart from Syria, all our information coming from authors of the late Roman time. Among its great Greek buildings we hear only of the theatre, of which substructures still remain on the flank of Silpius, and of the royal palace, probably situated on the island. It enjoyed a reputation for letters and the arts (Cicero pro Archia, 3); but the only names of distinction in these pursuits during the Seleucid period, that have come down to us, are Apollophanes, the Stoic, and one Phoebus, a writer on dreams. The mass of the population seems to have been only superficially Hellenic, and to have spoken Aramaic in non-official life. The nicknames which they gave to their later kings were Aramaic; and, except Apollo and Daphne, the great divinities of north Syria seem to have remained essentially native, such as the "Persian Artemis" of Meroe and Atargatis of Hierapolis Bambyce.
The epithet, "Golden," suggests that the external appearance of Antioch was impressive, but the city needed constant restoration owing to the seismic disturbances to which the district has always been subjected. The first great earthquake in recorded history was related by the native chronicler John Malalas. It occurred in 148 BC and did immense damage.
Local politics were turbulent. In the many dissensions of the Seleucid house the population took sides, and frequently rose in rebellion, for example against Alexander Balas in 147 BC, and Demetrius II in 129 BC. The latter, enlisting a body of Jews, punished his capital with fire and sword. In the last struggles of the Seleucid house, Antioch turned against its feeble rulers, invited Tigranes of Armenia to occupy the city in 83 BC, tried to unseat Antiochus XIII in 65 BC, and petitioned Rome against his restoration in the following year. Its wish prevailed, and it passed with Syria to the Roman Republic in 64 BC, but remained a civitas libera.
The chief events recorded under the empire are the earthquakes that shook Antioch. One, in AD 37, caused the emperor Caligula to send two senators to report on the condition of the city. Another followed in the next reign; and in 115, during Trajan's sojourn in the place with his army of Parthia, the whole site was convulsed, the landscape altered, and the emperor himself forced to take shelter in the circus for several days. He and his successor restored the city; but in 526, after minor shocks, the calamity returned in a terrible form; the octagonal cathedral which had been erected by the emperor Constantius II suffered and thousands of lives were lost, largely those of Christians gathered to a great church assembly. Especially terrific earthquakes on November 29, 528 and October 31, 588 are also recorded.
At Antioch Germanicus died in 19 AD, and his body was burnt in the forum. Titus set up the Cherubim, captured from the Jewish temple, over one of the gates. Commodus had Olympic games celebrated at Antioch, and in 256 the town was suddenly raided by the Persians, who slew many in the theatre.
Edward Gibbon wrote:
Fashion was the only law, pleasure the only pursuit, and the splendour of dress and furniture was the only distinction of the citizens of Antioch. The arts of luxury were honoured, the serious and manly virtues were the subject of ridicule, and the contempt for female modesty and reverent age announced the universal corruption of the capital of the East.
The chief interest of Antioch under the empire lies in its relation to Christianity. Evangelized perhaps by Peter, according to the tradition upon which the Antiochene patriarchate still rests its claim for primacy, and certainly by Barnabas and Paul during Paul's first missionary journey. Its converts were the first to be called Christians. This is not to be confused with Antioch in Pisidia, to which the early missionaries later travelled.
The population was estimated by Chrysostom at about 100,000 people at the time of Theodosius I. Between 252 and 300, ten assemblies of the church were held at Antioch and it became the seat of one of the four original patriarchates, along with Jerusalem, Alexandria, and Rome (see Pentarchy). Today Antioch remains the seat of a patriarchate of the Oriental Orthodox churches. One of the canonical Eastern Orthodox churches is still called the Antiochian Orthodox Church, although it moved its headquarters from Antioch to Damascus, Syria, several centuries ago (see list of Patriarchs of Antioch), and its prime bishop retains the title "Patriarch of Antioch," somewhat analogous to the manner in which several Popes, heads of the Roman Catholic Church remained "Bishop of Rome" even while residing in Avignon, France in the 14th century.
When the emperor Julian visited in 362 on a detour to Persia, he had high hopes for Antioch, regarding it as a rival to the imperial capital of Constantinople. Antioch had a mixed pagan and Christian population, which Ammianus Marcellinus implies lived quite harmoniously together. However Julian's visit began ominously as it coincided with a lament for Adonis, the doomed lover of Aphrodite. Thus, Ammianus wrote, the emperor and his soldiers entered the city not to the sound of cheers but to wailing and screaming.
Not long after, the Christian population railed at Julian for his favour to Jewish and pagan rites, and, outraged by the closing of its great church of Constantine, burned down the temple of Apollo in Daphne. Another version of the story had it that the chief priest of the temple accidentally set the temple alight because he had fallen asleep after lighting a candle. In any case Julian had the man tortured for negligence (for either allowing the Christians to burn the temple or for burning it himself), confiscated Christian property and berated the pagan Antiochenes for their impiety.
Julian found much else about which to criticize the Antiochenes. Julian had wanted the empire's cities to be more self-managing, as they had been some 200 years before. However Antioch's city councilmen showed themselves unwilling to shore up Antioch's food shortage with their own resources, so dependent were they on the emperor. Ammianus wrote that the councilmen shirked their duties by bribing unwitting men in the marketplace to do the job for them.
The city's impiety to the old religion was clear to Julian when he attended the city's annual feast of Apollo. To his surprise and dismay the only Antiochene present was an old priest clutching a chicken.
The Antiochenes in turn hated Julian for worsening the food shortage with the burden of his billeted troops, wrote Ammianus. The soldiers were often to be found gorged on sacrificial meat, making a drunken nuisance of themselves on the streets while Antioch's hungry citizens looked on in disgust. The Christian Antiochenes and Julian's pagan Gallic soldiers also never quite saw eye to eye.
Even Julian's piety was distasteful to the Antiochenes retaining the old faith. Julian's brand of paganism was very much unique to himself, with little support outside the most educated Neoplatonist circles. The irony of Julian's enthusiasm for large scale animal sacrifice could not have escaped the hungry Antiochenes. Julian gained no admiration for his personal involvement in the sacrifices, only the nickname axeman, wrote Ammianus.
The emperor's high-handed, severe methods and his rigid administration prompted Antiochene lampoons about, among other things, Julian's unfashionably pointed beard. In reply Julian was even supposed to have established a Library of Antioch in 361. This may have existed into the sixth century.
Julian's successor, Valens, who endowed Antioch with a new forum, including a statue of Valentinian on a central column, reopened the great church of Constantine, which stood till the Persian sack in 538 by Chosroes.
In 387, there was a great sedition caused by a new tax levied by order of Theodosius I, and the city was punished by the loss of its metropolitan status.
Justinian I, who renamed it Theopolis ("City of God"), restored many of its public buildings after the great earthquake of 526, whose destructive work was completed by the Persian king, Khosrau I, twelve years later. Antioch lost as many as 300,000 people. Justinian I made an effort to revive it, and Procopius describes his repairing of the walls; but its glory was past.
Antioch gave its name to a certain school of Christian thought, distinguished by literal interpretation of the Scriptures and insistence on the human limitations of Jesus. Diodorus of Tarsus and Theodore of Mopsuestia were the leaders of this school. The principal local saint was Simeon Stylites, who lived an extremely ascetic life atop a pillar for 40 years some 65 km east of Antioch. His body was brought to the city and buried in a building erected under the emperor Leo.
In 637, during the reign of the Byzantine emperor Heraclius, Antioch was conquered by the Arabs in the caliphate of al-Rashidun during the Battle of Iron Bridge. The city became known in Arabic as أنطاكيّة Antākiyyah. Since the Umayyad dynasty was unable to penetrate the Anatolian plateau, Antioch found itself on the frontline of the conflicts between two hostile empires during the next 350 years, so that the city went into a precipitous decline.
In 969, the city was recovered for the Byzantine Emperor Nicephorus II Phocas by Michael Burza and Peter the Eunuch. In 1078, Armenians seized power until the Seljuk Turks captured Antioch in 1084, but held it only fourteen years before the Crusaders arrived.
Few traces of the once great Roman city are visible today aside from the massive fortification walls that snake up the mountains to the east of the modern city, several aqueducts, and the Church of St Peter (St Peter's Cave Church, Cave-Church of St. Peter), said to be a meeting place of an early Christian community. The majority of the Roman city lies buried beneath deep sediments from the Orontes River, or has been obscured by recent construction.
Between 1932 and 1939, archaeological excavations of Antioch were undertaken under the direction of the "Committee for the Excavation of Antioch and Its Vicinity," which was made up of representatives from the Louvre Museum, the Baltimore Museum of Art, the Worcester Art Museum, Princeton University, and later (1936) also the Fogg Art Museum at Harvard University and its affiliate Dumbarton Oaks.
The excavation team failed to find the major buildings they hoped to unearth, including Constantine's Great Octagonal Church or the imperial palace. However, a great accomplishment of the expedition was the discovery of high-quality Roman mosaics from villas and baths in Antioch, Daphne and Selecia. One mosaic includes a border that depicts a walk from Antioch to Daphne, showing many ancient buildings along the way. The mosaics are now displayed in the Hatay Archaeological Museum in Antakya and in the museums of the sponsoring institutions.
A statue in the Vatican and a number of figurines and statuettes perpetuate the type of its great patron goddess and civic symbol, the Tyche (Fortune) of Antioch – a majestic seated figure, crowned with the ramparts of Antioch's walls, with the river Orontes as a youth swimming under her feet.
In recent years, what remains of the Roman and late antique city have suffered severe damage as a result of construction related to the expansion of Antakya. In the 1960s, the last surviving Roman bridge was demolished to make way for a modern two-lane bridge. The northern edge of Antakya has been growing rapidly over recent years, and this construction has begun to expose large portions of the ancient city, which are frequently bulldozed and rarely protected by the local museum.