Controlling Contested Places

Late Antique Antioch and the Spatial Politics of Religious Controversy

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Christine Shepardson
Joan Palvesky Imprint in Classical Literature
  • Oakland, CA: 
    University of California Press
    , April
     312 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Antioch has long been considered an important center for the early history of Christianity in the Mediterranean world, and its image as base for the expansion of the faith continues to resonate around the globe today with, for example, missionary movements based in South Korea or Singapore branding their home fields as “Antiochs of Asia.” Important early manifestations of the long history of Christian territorial imaginations are traced in Controlling Contested Places, Christine Shepardson’s study of late antique Antioch. Working creatively across a diverse range of primary source material, the author demonstrates “not only the power that place can wield, but also the ways in which leaders shaped those places and thus manipulated the authority associated with them” (26). Shepardson provides a series of critical spatial readings of texts authored both Church leaders like John Chrysostom and Theodoret who preached that Christian saints had the power to convert both places and people, as well as by Libanius, who lamented the destruction of rural pagan temples and shrines where traditional rituals were still observed.

Through a series of chapters focusing on distinct yet overlapping fields of contestation, Shepardson traces the spatial politics of religion in the transformation of Antioch into an emerging center of Christianity. The chronology of these developments is furthermore periodized with a focus on the pivotal period of the 380s. Shepardson also highlights the temporal dimension of spatial contestation n its cyclical aspects in enlightening ways, such as when she interprets the timing of Chrysostom’s homilies around the time of Jewish holidays as particularly potent moments for his campaigns to restrict the presence and participation of Christians at local synagogues.

The sense of struggle to command symbolically charged spaces and the attention of an urban population with a range of options as to where to spend their time and direct their devotion had intra- as well as inter-communal dynamics in play. We see this, for example, in Shepardson’s tracing the translation of relics  between pagan and Christian sites while negotiating topographies of schism in a city that was the seat of three bishops, as well as in her stimulating discussion of the impact of imperial legislation on the religious map of Antioch. Beyond ritual contexts, she also explores venues of preaching and education as arenas of complex spatial politics of the city with sophists teaching venues as comparative to competitive centers of Christian preaching.

The book makes a significant spatial intervention into late antique studies, and the ways in which the diverse literary source material can be read innovatively to shed new light on the history of the city at the time. Shepardson, for example, draws productively on Yi-Fu Tuan’s concept of topophilia to develop its antithesis with the term topophobia .This concept is then deployed effectively to interpret the fear of certain places manifested in John Chrysostom’s depiction of synagogues as sites of moral danger, while arguing for a conception of proper Christian identity and orthodoxy as marked as much by avoidance of  some places as by attendance at others. Aside from that, however, engagement with literature beyond late antique studies is rather limited here—touching only very lightly on literature in other related and potentially relevant fields.

In terms of the broader academic study of religion, there is relatively little attempt to connect to recent work in expansive literature of this expanding subfield. No mention is made at of potentially illuminating comparative cases of state-directed interventions into the mapping of religious space beyond the Mediterranean world, such as  the work of Nile Green on Sufis and settlers “Making Space” in early modern India. With more specific reference to late antique studies, even while considering Dijkstra’s note of caution and citing other recent scholarship in the area of the consideration of archaeological evidence (192), Shephardson presents relatively little engagement with archaeological material herself. There are very few concrete references to the coordinates of identified late antique sites in and around the city, and archaeological data does not seem to have factored into the drawing of the only map of the city presented in the book (there is, though, one broader map of the eastern Mediterranean littoral showing the location of Antioch in relation to other historic cities of the region).

For a monograph seeking to make a critical intervention into the history of this city, the presentation of only one map of the city itself is curious. That map is, moreover, rather sparse on details, with only one church (St. Babylas) depicted outside the city walls to the west, and without the location of a single church plotted within. There is also a confusing choice of framing so that significant rural sties mentioned in the main text (such as Daphne and Mount Amanus) are not visible. Shepardson notes at one point that the mapping of 4th-century Antioch was constrained by limited archaeology but does mention the important work that has been done by Bowes, De Gioirgi, and Liebescheutz on settlements, shrines, and temple sites outside the city walls. None of the actual excavation sites areplotted here. Likewise, there is no date on this map, which again seems odd given the importance the author places on the temporality of shifting spatial politics in the main text of the book. It would have added significantly to the book if a series of maps could have been published illustrating the configurations of religious space presented in some of the dated texts that Shepardson discusses so extensively, including Libanius’ Oratio 11, Chrysostom’s homilies, and Theodoret’s description of Julian Saba’s itinerary in the Historia Religiosa.

Looking broadly at ritual sites, preaching venues, and imaginations of a broader sacred geography that extended outside the city walls to suburban and pastoral shrine sites, Shepardson presents a remarkable study of the spatiality of religious discourse and practice. In its exploration of literary texts to reconstruct diverse imaginations of the city as a museum, a monastery, and an arena of competition for the attention of potential audiences, this book presents readers with both a wide-ranging overview of diverse spatial dynamics at play in Antioch and some productive new insights on the development of early Christianity in the eastern Mediterranean. It is my hope that this may inspire future work to take on more empirical dimensions of the spatiality of religious contestations of other Late Antique cities in the region.

About the Reviewer(s): 

R. Michael Feener is professor of cross-regional studies at Kyoto University.

Date of Review: 
July 15, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Christine Shepardson is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.


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