Two chapters out of thirty in Rubies of the Viper take place in the city of Antioch, which—as part of Syria (in Asia Minor) in the first century A.D.—lived under the thumb of the Roman legions. This so-called “Queen of the East” was a fascinating place to set a pivotal part of my novel. I enjoyed researching that very different culture and want to share some of my discoveries, including a few that didn’t make it into the book.
Centuries before the birth of Christ, two major cities arose on the eastern edge of the Mediterranean. Alexandria was founded by Alexander the Great, while one of his generals, Seleucus, established Antioch. After Alexander’s death in B.C. 312, as Seleucus I, the general ruled Syria, built towns all across the land, and established a dynasty (called the Seleucidae) lasted until the Romans arrived in B.C. 64.
Antioch lay 20 miles from the seaport of Seleucia Pieria, between Mount Silpius and the Orontes River. As happened with start-up towns throughout history, the winding river gave Antioch both a beneficial location (fertile land with easy access to the sea) and a unique physical layout. By A.D. 54, the time of its appearance in Rubies of the Viper, Antioch was a large and impressive city. Eventually, it would grow to be the third largest city in the world, boasting a population of about 1 million people; only Rome and Alexandria were larger.
The Catholic Encyclopedia has an excellent article that describes Antioch this way:
The Seleucidæ as well as the Roman rulers vied with one another in adorning and enriching the city with statues, theatres, temples, aqueducts, public baths, gardens, fountains, and cascades; a broad avenue with four rows of columns, forming covered porticoes on each side, traversed the city from east to west, to the length of several miles. Its most attractive pleasure resort was the beautiful grove of laurels and cypresses called Daphne, some four or five miles to the west of the city. It was renowned for its park-like appearance, for its magnificent temple of Apollo…
The population included a great variety of races. There were Macedonians and Greeks, native Syrians and Phænecians, Jews and Romans, besides a contingent from further Asia; many flocked there because Seleucus had given to all the right of citizenship. Nevertheless, it remained always predominantly a Greek city.
This Syrian/Greek/Roman city was known as Antioch-on-the-Orontes (its official name) and Antioch-near-Daphne (an informal moniker given to it by the Romans who had carved out their own exclusive residential enclave in nearby Daphne). I intend to follow this post with a separate one on Daphne, because that lush-and-luxurious area was quite unlike the teeming, polyglot metropolis nearby.
Here’s a portion of Rubies of the Viper’s presentation of a newcomer’s first day in the gritty underbelly of that sprawling metropolis:
It was much too early for that miraculous afternoon wind to bring relief from the Antiochian furnace. Heat radiating from the paving stones blurred the corners of buildings and tents that sprawled along the river.
Despite the torrid air, Antioch was beginning to stir. An aroma of goats and lambs grilling in street-side cook shops had begun to engulf the old city. Boys with lamps jostled with men selling camels, donkeys, tents, and other merchandise…
He turned into the warren of alleyways, elbowing his way into the throng… The market was a mass of multicolored burnooses; never in his life had he felt so out of place.
Both moved and repulsed by the open sores and empty eye socket of a beggar who plucked at his sleeve, he slipped a couple of coins into the man’s grimy, four-fingered hand.
Immediately, he saw his mistake. Out of the crowd came a dozen more—lame, blind, diseased, unwashed, and lice-infested—who clung to his arms and tugged at his tunic… a smelly cloud that pursued him down the street, pleading in loud, incomprehensible whines.
Here’s a spectacular modern-day photo of this beautiful region.
—except as credited above to The Catholic Encyclopedia, text copyright © Martha Marks—