- Controlling Contested Places: Late Antique Antioch and the Spatial Politics of Religious Controversy by Christine Shepardson
Controlling Contested Places: Late Antique Antioch and the Spatial Politics of Religious Controversy
Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2014
Pp. 312. $95.00.
In this timely book, Christine Shepardson shows how the field of late ancient Christian studies stands to benefit from the “Spatial Turn.” Shepardson’s book traces the development and contested space of late antique Antioch by shifting our focus away from theological debates alone and asks us to consider physical landscape as well. Admittedly, Shepardson notes, one of the limitations historians run into when attempting to study the built landscape of Antioch is that very little material evidence remains. What does remain is the literary afterlife [End Page 141] and rhetorical descriptions of spaces long lost that attempt to control and manipulate the past.
In an interesting move, Shepardson skirts the more familiar field of sacred space led by thinkers such as Kim Knott, Thomas Tweed, and Jonathan Z. Smith. Instead, she incorporates the work of geographers, memory theorists, and those scholars who have studied maps as political tools. And while Edward Soja—a geographer with whom the book begins—has recently felt some pushback from Religious Studies scholars, Shepardson’s intentional departure helpfully reorients and guides us to ask different questions when assessing topographical details that occupied many diverse thinkers. The city of Antioch was never a neutral territory but always already infused with meaning—sacred or otherwise.
Each of Shepardson’s chapters provides new insights into the characters that thought in and outside the immediate territory surrounding Antioch. She also convincingly shows why its mythical development, fantastical views, and theologically significant shrines make it a fascinating space to examine. For example, in her chapters on the martyr Babylas (Chapters Two and Five), she showcases how sacred spaces are controlled through the memory-making process. According to several ancient historians (Sozomen, Socrates, and Theodoret), the relics of the martyr were used to eclipse the authority, and tourist trade, of the temple of Apollo in the neighboring territory of Daphne. The consequence of moving the bones of the martyr from the center of the city of Antioch to a martyrium near the temple became the source of intense criticism from non-Christian authors such as Libanius and the infamous Emperor Julian. It appears that after the martyr was moved, the oracle of the temple was silenced. John Chrysostom and Theodoret of Cyrus, however, point to the fallout of this move as evidence of the superiority of Christianity. Here we see how religiously charged sites were pitted against one another as a way to control religious and civic identity.
These various sites of contestation not only housed so-called pagan versus Christian conflict, but also intrareligious disputes. As many familiar with Antioch’s history will note, the city held anywhere from two to four competing bishops at a time in the fourth and fifth centuries. Shepardson convincingly argues that one response to this struggle for episcopal control was worked out in the battle over control of churches. In Chapters One and Four, Shepardson shows how one such bishop, Meletius of Antioch, played a significant role in John Chrysostom’s reconstruction of orthodox spaces. Meletius’s expulsion from the city was a difficult detail to reconcile, but John insisted that a community of believers and her rightful bishop were more significant than the official building they inhabited inside or outside of the city walls.
Even after Meletius’s death, John Chrysostom continued to define Christian authenticity with the help of spatial rhetoric. In Chapters Three and Six, Shepard-son contributes to an important intervention made by other scholars such as Dayna Kalleres and Susana Drake, who explore the various ways John Chrysostom’s anti-Judaizing homilies and other similarly themed texts were reliant upon the demonization of both Jews and the spaces they touched. For instance, Shepardson examines John’s frequent frustrations with congregants who failed to recognize the differences between those spiritually safe and dangerous places throughout the [End Page 142] city. According to John, the synagogue, in particular, posed an ongoing threat to Christians...