Antioch        

 
A story about Antioch, that famous city

Established by the Seleucid kings

On the banks of the Syrian Orontes

As their western capital,

When they ruled from India to the Hellespont.

 

Here were Greek mathematics at work:

The streets running in parallels,

And the ever-repeated colonnades.

But what made it marvellous,

Spoken of throughout the world,

Was the way those streets

Were lighted all night -

Miles and miles of artificial brilliance,

With the bronze torches flaring

Between the statues of the illustrious

Whom it was politic to praise.

 

Antioch was a pleasure-loving city,

Somewhat like Sybaris.

But built on a grander scale.

The Wood of Daphne, an extra-urban resort,

Was notorious as an amusement place

For those with money

And the will to enjoy themselves

Without troubling about the next day.

 

Nearly everyone came to Antioch.

Anthony lorded it here for a time.

Augustus presented the city

With monuments to his own magnificence.

Saint Peter taught here,

And with some success,

Before he went on to Rome:

It was at Antioch that the word ‘Christian’

First was used.

Here Hadrian composed a poem in Greek,

Which still survives -

Graceful, but it lacks the poignancy

Of his later work.

 

And here Julian the Apostate sacrificed

A great many very carefully chosen cows

To the gods he had reinstalled

In the disused temples -

This before his disaster in the desert

Under the Persian arrows.

The Antiochenes mocked him

Because he disapproved

Of the licentiousness in the Wood of Daphne:

He believed that pagans should be well-behaved.

 

Antioch was renowned for its astrologers,

As also for its school of theologians.

Many eminent heretics lectured here

To all that was finest and best

In the religious thought of the times,

Who received them with learned delight

And revelled in every new error

Which made middle-age worthwhile

By giving a brio to life.

Saint John Chrysostom preached

To these people,

But the laoi he spoke to -

Soldiers and sailors and suchlike

Spiritual riff-raff-

Were not so mature as the rest

And are said to have kept the Faith.

 

There were others who visited Antioch:

Barrack-emperors, wondering how long they would last;

The rich, busy at their obligatory pleasures;

And the poor, searching for food.

 

A story about Antioch, a story

Which not everyone seems to know.

Yet it might be of interest - now

That the imperium is returning

Once more to the West.

 

On a day made brilliant by the Syrian sun,

The citizens thronged to the marble theatre

For a performance of one of the classic plays.

Was it, perhaps, the Persae

Of Aeschylus -

That play which the Athenians had watched, expectant,

As Darius spoke, his spirit hovering by his grave,

Of hubris, how the proud bring on their overthrow?

Possibly. We cannot be sure.

We know only that the marble theatre,

Crowned on its heights with the works

Of Phidias, Polyclitus and Scopas,

Statues of such beauty

That the world has not seen their like -

We know only that the theatre was crowded,

That vast theatre filled with the people of Antioch,

Important ones well to the front -

Connoisseurs of Attic metres,

Critics prepared to enjoy

The actors’ misplaced accents,

And those who felt that the paraskenion

Should have been painted in a different style:

The usual devotees of the religion of art -

Along with those who did not matter,

All come together

To enjoy themselves for the afternoon.

 

They watched and listened as the chorus

Danced and spoke its incantatory verses –

Strophe - antistrophe - catastrophe –

Prophesying to the players on the stage.

Suddenly the protagonist moved

To the front of the proskenion

And lifted his right arm

So that his himation fell

In the ritual sacrificial folds.

He pointed to the heights of the theatre

And cried through his tragic mask:

‘Am I dreaming?

Or are those Persians there?’

 

Impelled by his soaring gesture,

The whole audience turned to look.

 

Then from between those incomparable statues

That crowned the epitheatron,

With ‘The Fortune of Antioch’ at their centre

Sped the bright arrows.

 

The great city preserves its famous name.

And there is a Patriarch of Antioch still –

Though he lives at Damascus now;

Or is it Beirut?

And the Syrian Orontes still flows

In wide s-shaped curves

Past those hillocks which cover the site

Of Daphne and that marble theatre

And the streets which were lighted all night.