The Idea of the Ancient Greek Polis in Early Medieval Byzantium: The Ancient City and its Features

While the ancient Greek city saw its physical demise, Christian authors in early medieval Byzantium continued to use the image and concept of the Greek polis to evoke lessons of a Christian life.



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The Idea of the Ancient Greek Polis in Early Medieval Byzantium: The Ancient City and its Features

In the historical development of humankind from hunter-gatherers to agriculturalists and on to diversified societies, the city is a major touchstone. It represents the transition from the small group of the family or clan to a larger social entity of people living in the same locale whose ties were not of blood, but of shared values and interests. The inhabitants of the earliest cities in ancient Mesopotamia in the early third millennium BCE—such as Ur and Uruk—all participated in a common religious cult, and frequented the same temples. The walls that surrounded these cities served as a boundary marker and defensive device, and instilled pride and a sense of identity in the population that was privileged to live within them. In the ancient epic of Gilgamesh, it was the eponymous hero king who instigated the erection of the city walls of Uruk at the beginning of third millennium BCE, walls that became synonymous with a more evolved level of civilization, and also built temples to the gods. The epic begins, as it ends, with a reference to the city:
He built the rampart of Uruk-the-sheepfold,
of holy Eanna [the temple of the goddess Ishtar and the god Anu] ,
the sacred storehouse.
See its walls like a strand of wool,
view its parapet that none could copy! . . .
Climb Uruk's wall and walk back and forth!
Survey its foundations, examine the brickwork![1]
The ancient city of Troy, immortalized in Homeric epic and which—archaeology tells us—was probably destroyed around 1200 BCE, was known for its high and impregnable walls, which contained within them not only the palace of the legendary King Priamos but also a very important temple of the goddess Athena.

City walls and religious rites play a pivotal role in the foundation myth of Rome. According to the account favored by the historian Livy (59 BCE–17 CE), the twin brothers Romulus and Remus disagreed about the future site of the city, each having staked out a different location. In the violent dispute that ensued, Romulus killed his brother in anger after Remus in spite jumped over the trench his brother had dug to delineate the perimeter of the new wall.Romulus' words were to have an oracular ring to them: "Thus shall perish from now on whoever leaps over my walls." [2] Romulus' first act after the completion of the fortifications was to offer sacrifices to the gods. Rome, the city that carried Romulus' name, would in the first centuries of the common era become synonymous with the Empire that it ruled.

Centuries later, walls occupied an equally significant role in the foundation of Constantinople, the second Rome that was to develop into the capital of the Byzantine Empire. When the Emperor Constantine (died 337) decided to expand the ancient site of Byzantium and to transform it into the city that was to bear his name ("Constantinople" = "city of Constantine"), he enlarged the existing territory with a wall and adorned it with pagan temples and Christian churches.[3]

Athens shared with the Mesopotamian cities the distinctive visual and community-defining features of walls and temples. During the archaic period, the Acropolis with its temples was protected by a wall, but it was Themistocles who built the circuit wall that surrounded the urban areas of the city after the end of the Persian Wars in 479 BCE.[4] High up on the Acropolis stood (and still stands) a temple dedicated to the Athena Polias ("Athene of the City"). Every year, the Panathenaic festival brought old and young, men, women, and children out into the streets as they participated in a festive procession, led by the priests, up the hill which culminated in sacrifices in front of her temple. In contrast to the ancient Mesopotamian cities, which were ruled by a monarch, Athens in the classical period was administered as a democracy. Fifth-century Athens can be taken as representative for the Greek polis , an autonomous and self-regulating city-state. Its common affairs were ruled and regulated by the collective of men who enjoyed active citizenship rights, about ten percent of the total population of Athens. Women, foreigners, and slaves had no political rights. This system of self-rule by election and vote was the essence of democracy, was a source of great local pride, and generated a great deal of reflection by philosophers, statesmen, and other thinkers. In the conceptualization of the polis , the three characteristics that were typical for the ancient city—the delineation of its territory by walls, shared participation in religious cults, and the observance of a common set of rules—will remain important principles for centuries to come, even as political circumstances change and cities go into decline.[5] These three characteristics will also form the guiding principles for the inquiry that follows.

The Greek Polis and its Demise

In the archaic and classical period, 1,500 Greek cities were known to have existed, all of them studied by the Copenhagen Polis Center.[6] Just like ancient Athens, they were autonomous city-states, each with its own constitution and with its own set of religious observances. At the time of the Late Roman Empire, in around 400 CE, urbanism had spread throughout the Mediterranean, so that even the Latin West was dotted with cities. There were about 2,000 cities in total, the majority of them in the Greek-speaking East. But three centuries later, at the end of the Early Byzantine period, only a fraction of them survived, and those that did had undergone a stark transformation, both in its internal structure and it its external appearance.[7] The disappearance of the ancient city and its replacement with a ruralized network of villages and towns is one of the great indications for the transition from Antiquity to the Middle Ages. This was a slow process which advanced at a different pace in the different regions of the Later Roman Empire between the fourth and the seventh centuries.

The ancient polis consisted of the city itself, usually surrounded by a wall, and its rural hinterland. It was a self-governed, autonomous political entity. The institutions of government were usually a citizen assembly ( ekklesia ) and a town council ( gerousia , boule ), along with elected magistrates. It had its own legislation and jurisdiction. It maintained its own archives for record-keeping and its own chronological system for reckoning time. It minted its own coins and conducted its own relations in foreign politics.[8] This system continued in the Hellenistic period and for most of the Roman Empire, but began to change in the fourth century CE as the combined result of internal social shifts and external state control. In the course of the fourth to seventh centuries CE, internal politics in the cities in the East began to be dominated by a few wealthy aristocrats, who increasingly monopolized the dealings of the council, rather than a broad basis of citizens. The administrative and economic autonomy of the cities was further undermined when in 518 the Emperor Anastasius instated a new system of tax collection which was no longer organized by each city for its own hinterland, but by an imperial officer appointed by the central administration, the vindex . In the mid sixth century, cities experienced a population decline because of successive waves of the plague that swept the Empire from East to West. The eastern Mediterranean was further impacted in the early seventh century by the Persian invasions which caused many cities in Asia Minor, Syria and Palestine to reduce their territory and protect it with newly constructed or hastily repaired walls. A few decades later, the Arab invasions brought the final collapse of a city-based economy and autonomous structures of governance.[9] But it would take until the very end of the ninth century that the polis as a political entity was finally pronounced obsolete, when the Emperor Leo VI declared that city councils were a thing of the past.[10]

The ancient city ( polis ) was not only a political entity, it was also a settlement with a significant number of inhabitants, in many instances up to several thousand. As an urban center, it boasted civic structures such as colonnades and fountains, baths, temples, theater, hippodrome, as well as a public assembly hall where the city councilors met for their deliberations and voted on the appointment of officers. But starting with the fifth century CE, under the influence of Christianity, the focal point of civic activity within the urban fabric changed. Large churches were built right in the center of cities, often connected to a newly erected palace for the bishop, thus displacing the agora or the forum as the central gathering place. Local aristocrats displayed their patronage to the city no longer by sponsoring games, setting up statues, or erecting baths, libraries or other structures for common and public use, but by giving their benefactions for the construction and adornment of churches, or by donating oil for the lamps or silver vessels for the altar. Bishops joined the foremost citizens in taking responsibility for the functioning and well-being of the city, from the construction of bath houses and repair of the walls—and staffing them in the case of an attack— to organizing the grain supply.[11]

In ancient times, the polis , even if it was part of a larger alliance or subject to a king, traditionally provided the basic framework for the definition of civic identity. One’s city of origin served as an identity marker throughout the archaic, classical and Hellenistic periods and well into the later Roman Empire, with names like Archytas of Tarentum or Basil of Caesarea. This, too, was eroded by the middle Byzantine period, when onomastic designations based on regions, not cities, became common: John the Lydian or George of Pisidia.

Early Byzantine Notions of the Polis: An Inquiry

The purpose of the present paper is to take a mountaintop view from the perspective of the early Byzantine empire and to explore how the idea and ideal of the ancient Greek polis was maintained and adapted under these changed historical circumstances. This takes us to the fourth to seventh centuries of the common era, a time when the entire Mediterranean, including the Greek-speaking regions of Greece and the Levant, was ruled by emperors in the Roman tradition established by Augustus (hence the alternative labels for this period "Later Roman Empire," or "Late Antiquity"). The end of this period is marked by the political collapse of the regional integrity of the Roman Empire when, as the result of the Arab conquests of the seventh century, Syria, Palestine, and Egypt came under Muslim rule. Since the fifth century, this had been preceded by a process of steady erosion in the Western regions of the Roman Empire, where powerful generals and Germanic kings established themselves as local rulers.

The beginning of our period of inquiry, the fourth century, brought a new element to the fore that would shape the daily life of individuals as much as the political agenda of rulers for more than a millennium: the Christian religion. What had begun as a sectarian movement within Judaism, had soon gained followers among the adherents of Greco-Roman religion so that by around the year 300, despite periodic persecutions, about five to ten percent of the population of the Roman Empire were Christians, according to a widely accepted estimate. It was the Emperor Constantine who accelerated the pace of Christianization when he ended the persecutions, granted legal recognition to the new religion, showed favor to its representatives, the bishops, and gave generous donations for the construction of churches in Rome, Constantinople, and the Holy Land.

Byzantine authors looked back to classical Greece with some unease in the early centuries while Christianity was still fledgling, but with unabashed longing and admiration in the middle and late Byzantine periods. Like all historians, modern scholars of Byzantium are fascinated by continuity and change and one of the crucial questions that never ceases to generate great interest is the adaptation and appropriation by Christian authors of classical models which are, of course, pagan. The question is not new. It had already been asked by the Latin theologian Tertullian (ca. 160–ca.220) with reference to two cities that stand as symbolic for two entirely different cultural systems, pagan and Christian: "What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem?" [12]

The Impact of Christianity

These issues also inform the present study. My aim is to discuss how the notion of the ancient polis and related concepts were employed by the Christian authors of early Byzantium. The fourth to the seventh centuries, on which I concentrate here, represents the early Byzantine period. It was also the age of the church fathers. Men like Eusebius of Caesarea, Basil of Caesarea and John Chrysostom were not only bishops, preachers and authors of theological works, they were themselves members of the intellectual elite of their time. As authors, they were far from marginal, and the style of their writing became the gold standard for imitation by later generations, whether clergy or not. These men were themselves the offspring of the polis system: they had grown up in cities or towns, they were the sons of town councilors and thus well acquainted with the mechanisms of city administration, and they had profited from the amenities, including a fine education, that urban life can bring. The Christian authors of the early Byzantine period operated in a world in which Christianity was only gradually taking root. Conversions of adult men and women were the norm well into the fifth century, when infant baptism became common practice. And it would take until the end of the seventh century that the celebration of pagan festivals in public was prohibited for the last time. In this world of shifting religious choices, the polis became a powerful point of reference and a malleable metaphor for authors who wished to impress upon their audiences the need to declare their full and exclusive allegiance to the Christian church.

Three Concepts: Polis, Politeuma, Politeia

The Greek word polis and its derivatives cover a huge semantic field that has been subject to numerous studies. For the sake of clarity and argument, I shall focus on three cognate words that emphasize three different aspects of the Greek city, imposing what is perhaps an artificial distinction between concepts when in actual fact these words were often used interchangeably and with different nuance and emphasis by different authors. polis : the city as a clearly delineated space, marked and protected by a wall, that separates those that are inside from those on the outside; politeuma : a well-organized structured community of people or society; politeia : often referring to the constitution of a city, or more generally to the set of rules that regulate the life of its citizens, either as a community or as individuals. These three aspects of the concept of the Greek city echo the salient features that have been established above as characteristic of the ancient city in general: walls, community, and rules. Christian authors adapted them for their own purpose. In the first sense, the concept of polis can be a applied to establish boundaries, between orthodoxy and heresy, between the Christian inside and the pagan outside (indeed, ta exo "the things outside" is often used by Christian authors to refer to pagan culture and religion). In the second sense of a community, the image of the polis can serve as model for the collective membership of the faithful in the church. This is closely related to the third sense, that of the polis as a group of people who adopt a common way of life—a concept that finds particular application in early monasticism. After a brief introduction into the Scriptural use of the idea of the polis and a perfunctory foray into Greek philosophy, I will treat these three aspects in turn, beginning each section with precedent from ancient authors.

Old and New Testament

The Hebrew Bible imagines Heaven as a city, a place which not everyone is entitled to join. Jerusalem is the city par excellence, the destination of the long Exodus of the Israelites and the central site of their temple cult.

In the Gospels, the word polis is rarely mentioned, and when it is, it occurs almost exclusively with reference to a specific city, or in a structural juxtaposition to towns or the countryside. The only abstract use of the Greek word polis occurs in Matthew 5:14 when Jesus addresses his disciples in the Sermon on the Mount: “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid.” There is perhaps a special resonance with the location where these words are pronounced. The city that Jesus invokes as an ideal for his followers who are themselves gathered atop a mountainside has distinctive and recognizable features that are visible from afar, it represents civilization and illumination, and holds a model function for others.

Paul of Tarsus (ca. 5–ca. 67 CE), who gave intellectual heft to the nascent Christian movement, was the first to explore the image of the polis on a larger scale. For him, God’s promise for the future includes the provision of a permanent homestead for God’s faithful followers, and this home is defined as a city. Paul’s Letter to the Hebrews 11:10 describes how Abraham lived in tents, in a foreign land, in anticipation of the better future that God had promised: “For he looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God.” And indeed, Paul continues, God “has prepared a city" for the many descendants of Abraham (Letter to the Hebrews 11:16).But the followers of Christ still live in anticipation: “For here we have no lasting city, but we are looking for the city that is to come (Letter to the Hebrews 13:14).” Paul's most influential statement in this context, as we shall see below, occurs in his Epistle to the Philippians 3:20: "But our citizenship ( politeuma ) is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ." [13] For Paul, the imaginary and idealized city that is the goal and destination of Christian aspiration stands in stark contrast to the constant, searching movement of the ancient Israelites. It represents permanence, sedentary culture, and all the amenities of civilization—an idea whose deep roots in the ancient world can be traced all the way back to the epic of Gilgamesh.

Within the New Testament writings, city imagery is fully developed in the book of Revelation, supposedly composed by a certain John (who may or may not have been the evangelist) in Patmos, and dateable to the last decades of the first century. The last few chapters of Revelation are occupied with the comparison of Babylon, the great and sinful city—teeming with traders, merchants, and artisans who are bartering their services and offering their wares—and the contrasting promise of the new Jerusalem as a holy city. The juxtaposition of Babylon, depicted as a whore, with Jerusalem, the pure and undefiled bride, calls to mind the idea of the fortified city whose walls provide protection from outside penetration.[14] The holy city of Jerusalem is described in some detail: it has a high wall and twelve gates, is perfectly square in shape, permanently lit up by the glory of God, and has an ample water supply as the “river of water of life” runs through the middle of the street of the city. For the author of Revelation, the juxtaposition of the bad city of Babylon and the good city of Jerusalem serves to drive home the contrast between this world and the next.

These scriptural references to a holy city as a place of future anticipation, longing and perfection provided the church fathers with powerful imagery. Christians were expected to transfer their allegiance from this world to the next, from the polis of their origin to the Heavenly Jerusalem. Such realignment had already been demonstrated by the martyrs of the first three centuries who, when asked to identify themselves, refused to give the name of their father or of their city of origin, and instead declared that “I am a Christian,” and indicated as their city of residence “Jerusalem.”

Equally powerful was the here and now of the concrete experience of life in the early Byzantine city. Christian authors often found it expeditious to invoke the civic structure of the polis in order to convey an understanding of the kind of allegiance that membership in the church required. Even in this transitional period in the history of urban life, the polis remained an apt and convenient metaphor that carried great weight and significance. Within the Christian discourse of identity formation, the polis was an evocative symbol to express ideas about structured and regulated society, about inclusion and exclusion, and about projections of an idealized future. The point of this paper is to show how the attempt by Christian authors to propagate new ideas evolves within the existing context of the socio-political realities of the Later Roman Empire, while at the same time tapping into a long tradition of Greek thought regarding the polis as delineated space, the politeuma as a community, and politeia as a way of conduct.[15]

Greek Philosophy

Plato's (428/427–348/347 BCE) philosophy was intricately tied to his home city of Athens. His Dialogues feature Socrates as he engages in conversation with eager young men or reluctant demagogues in the marketplaces and gardens of the city or in the private houses of prominent Athenians. Socrates' essential question, as Plato puts it in the mouth of his admired teacher, regards the practice of virtue. What is virtue? Can it be known, can it be practiced, and, if so, under what conditions? Plato's thought oscillates between two poles, between the microcosm of the human person and the macrocosm of society. For him, the ideal society was conceived of as a polis , for which the Athens of his time provided the model. The polis is the location where all men share their humanity, where many talents come together, and where justice is established and maintained.[16] This being the case, it is also the only place where virtue can be taught. The practice of virtue is predicated upon the existence of the polis . In Plato's understanding, the polis is much more than an urban territory delineated by a wall, or the total number of city-dwellers who share in the participation of a religious cult, it is a community of citizens who agree on a common set of values that determines their conduct as individuals. Simply put, the polis —in Plato's view—is a politeuma of citizens who practice the same politeia .

Plato's most enduring monument to this set of issues is his dialogue known in English as "Republic." Its Greek title, however, is not polis , but politeia . A derivative of polis ("city," "city-state"), the word politeia covers a wide range of meaning, from the constitution of a city to the conduct of an individual.Many medieval manuscripts give the title in the plural: politeiai , [17] thereby implying that the focus of the dialogue is not the varieties of constitutions that different poleis may have given themselves, but the different ways of conduct that individuals may chose for themselves within the context of a polis .

Aristotle (384–322 BCE), too, gave thought to the polis . Although he was Plato's student, he was less concerned with political ethics, and more interested in observing and analyzing the world around him. His most valuable treatise for the historical scholar is his Constitution of the Athenians ( Athenaiôn politeia ), as it preserves our only systematic and detailed description of the constitution of Athens and the mechanisms of its democracy. Aristotle's Politics , by contrast, offers systematic theoretical considerations for setting up the ideal polis , often drawing on concrete examples of existing city-states.It is in this context that he utters the famous remark that "man is by nature a political being ( physei men estin anthrôpos zôon politikon )." [18] In this work, Aristotle emphasizes the value of the polis as a community of people, but this is understood in a utilitarian sense. He stops short of Plato's insistence that the polis is to the individual what the body is to the mind, an externalization of its essence, and indispensable as the framework within which it can be articulated. Aristotle instead emphasizes the collective aspect of the ideal polis as an organized and structured community of people which exists for the purpose of living a good life [19] and provides the concrete circumstances within which the practice of virtue is both made possible, and a necessity.


The concept of the city as a clearly delineated space has a long tradition reaching back to ancient Athens. When Aristotle in his Politics constructs his hypothetical ideal state, this is a city-state ( polis ). Book VII of this work sets out the ideal location, population size, etc. for this polis . After some deliberation of the question whether a city does or does not need walls, Aristotle concludes that walls, well equipped with towers and guard posts, are clearly preferable in order to strengthen the defense of the city.He emphasizes that the walls should be “suitable both in regard to the adornment ( kosmos ) of the city and in respect of military requirements.” [20] Although for Aristotle the presence of walls was not the essential characteristic of a polis , he nonetheless considered them desirable for aesthetic and protective purposes.

The walls of cities were an integral and praiseworthy feature. The praise of cities was a major part of epideictic rhetoric, as many surviving speeches attest, and in this context, walls were singled out for special comment.[21] The rules for such praise were discussed in the late third century CE by Menander Rhetor who composed an instructional handbook for rhetoricians. Treatise One of his manual is divided into three books, the first one on hymns, the second on how to praise a country, and the third on how to praise a city. Instructions on the praise of cities are already included in the second book of this treatise:
Praises of cities, then, are combinations of the headings discussed in connection with countries and those which relate to individuals. Thus we should select ‘position’ from the topics relating to countries, and ‘origins, actions, accomplishments’ from those relating to individuals. These form the basis of encomia of cities.[22]
In other words, Menander concurs with other thinkers that it is the external features of a city as much as the community of its inhabitants which determine the character of a polis .

The praiseworthy features of a city, according to Menander, consist of its location, terrain, climate, and water supply, as well as the collective accomplishments of its inhabitants in political structure, knowledge, athletics, or religious festivals. He does not single out walls as worthy of comment, but instead refers to the fair treatment of foreigners ( xenous ) as one indication of a city distinguished by dikaoipragia (“fair dealing”).[23] Menander thus differentiates between those who are inside and those who are outside a city by reference not to the physical structure of a wall, but to moral categories embedded in legal custom. Since laws and customs set up boundaries, they are just as effective in giving definition to the community of citizens as walls are in delineating its territory. The aspect of the polis that is being highlighted here is that of a politeuma .

A document that has not received much attention in scholarly discussion of city life in early Byzantium is the Anonymous Byzantine Treatise on Strategy ( Peri stratêgias ) that was composed in the latter part of the reign of Justinian (died 565). The treatise begins with a general disquisition on statecraft and the structure of society, and then moves on to discuss strategy, divided into defense and offense. Under the heading of “defense,” after chapters on guard posts, signal fires, and forts, the author offers detailed instructions on how to build a city. An entire chapter is devoted to the construction of city walls, their thickness, their height, their building method, and so forth. The declared purpose of such massive building is to ensure the protection of the city in a siege.[24] As with any prescriptive or normative text, it is difficult to assess to what degree these recommendations reflect existing practice, but it is tempting to surmise that they originate in the context of the building boom, especially in the border lands, described in Procopius’ On Buildings . Nonetheless, it is striking to find such detailed instructions for the fortification of cities at a time when the construction of new cities is exceedingly rare and existing cities are in many regions suffering decline.

The importance of walls to define and safeguard a city provided Christian authors with an adaptable metaphor. The fortified city that protects those inside and excludes those outside became a powerful way to conceptualize issues of protection and allegiance, and to envisage the presence of the divine within a clearly defined spatial context. The notion of the unassailable city found frequent application with reference to the human body and mind. The protected and fortified city that only allows controlled access at a limited number of entrance points was invoked as an image to explain to fathers why they must be watchful in the education of their children and constantly screen what the little ones see or hear. John Chrystostom explains that the child is like a polis which the father must protect and fortify, while at the same time ensuring that no enemy enters through the five senses, which are the metaphorical entrance gates to the city.[25]

The same imagery of the human mind that must be protected from attack and fortified in the appropriate way often appears in conjunction with the idea of the ideal ruler.Writing in Justinian's Constantinople in the sixth century, the deacon Agapetus offers the following advice to the emperor: “The missiles of your enemies will not vanquish your pious rulership, as long as it is surrounded with the walls of charity and strengthened by the towers of prayer.” [26]

Not only the mind, but also the body can be compared to a city under threat from the outside. The body of the faithful individual as a city protected by walls became a recurrent theme in hagiographical writing, especially in martyrdom literature. The earliest instance occurs in the Fourth Book of Maccabees, a text of the first half of the first century CE that inspired later Christian martyrdom accounts, which describes the Maccabean revolt of the 160s BCE. The old man Eleazar was the first person to be martyred at the hands of the Syrian king Antiochus IV Epiphanes. He is praised as follows: “No city besieged with many ingenious war machines has ever held out as did that most holy man. Although his sacred life was consumed by tortures and racks, he conquered the besiegers with the shield of his devout reason (IV Maccabees 7:4).”

From the body of the martyr that is impervious to the instruments of the torturer because of the strength of his determination it is only a short leap to the body of the holy man that is steeled by vigorous asceticism against the assault of demons or the pangs of temptation. In a further extension of the notion of a Christian "inside" and a pagan "outside" separated by a metaphorical boundary marker or wall, the presence of a holy man or the relics of a dead saint could become the guarantee for the safety of his city, like a rampart or a bulwark. Relics of dead saints, and even holy men while still alive, thus provided protection for the city in which they were located. Take, for example, Symeon the Stylite, who lived on a pillar near Antioch and died in 459.The Syriac Life explains why his body was brought to the city of Antioch for burial: “Because our city has no wall as it fell in anger, we brought him to be for us a fortified wall that we may be protected by his prayer.” [27] Not surprisingly, when the Emperor Leo I a few decades later requested that the body of Symeon be transferred to Constantinople, the Antiochenes refused to part with him, because he had been for their city “a wall and a fortress.” [28] In a the same spirit, it is reported that the Visigothic general Alarich in his famous sack of the city of Rome in 410 desisted from utterly demolishing the entire city out of respect for the relics of Saint Peter.[29] Epigraphy conveyed the same message. An inscription on the church of Saint Theodore in Gerash, in Jordan, proclaims: “I am the undefiled house of victorious Theodore. . . defence and barrier against ill for the town and the dwellers therein and its citizens yet to be.” [30] Sometimes, even living holy men could shield their entire city territory with their protective powers. The Life of Ambrose reports that the city of Milan was safe from any enemy aggression as long as Ambrose resided inside it, but demons descended to attack it as soon as he left it for a journey.[31]

These examples show an interesting move from metaphor to reality in the evocation of the polis as a delineated and protected space. The body of the martyr, holy man, or saint who has stood firm against the torturer’s instruments, against external assaults of temptations, or against demonic attacks is conceptualized as a well-protected city. A holy man’s actual presence in a city—whether as a living, breathing body or in his relics—made it unassailable to hostile attacks from the outside. The city of the saint thus became an extension of his own body. It would not take long until membership in the Medieval city came to be defined in terms of adherence to the common cult of the saint, a prominent feature especially in the Latin West. Thus the city of Tours which in the fourth century was home to the ascetic saint and bishop Martin was soon transformed into the "community of Saint Martin," the civitas Martini .


The second way in which Christian authors invoke the city is as a politeuma , a structured and well-organized community of people that follow a common set of rules and are permanent inhabitants of a polis with its delineated space and controlled access. The word is often translated as "citizenship," although it covers a much wider semantic field. In its earliest use, it refers to the internal administration of a city through its offices, and thus to a city's constitution or the collective of city officials.[32] It can also designate either the entire citizenship of a city, or a distinct part thereof. The Jews in Alexandria, for example, were regarded as a politeuma .[33] In a more abstract sense, politeuma can mean the conduct of members as a collective entity according to generally accepted rules. In the only instance of New Testament use of this word, Paul invoked the image of the city not as a space, but of the collective of the Christians as its rightful inhabitants: “But our citizenship ( politeuma ) is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ (Philippians 3:20:).” This Pauline passage enjoyed enormous resonance among later Christian authors who either quoted it verbatim, or made reference to it in their discussions of the relation between this world and the next and in their exhortations to Christians to conduct themselves in accordance with this prospect.

The concept of the politeuma as a community of fellow-citizens invites application to the Christian church, often with resonances of the anticipation of the Heavenly City. Christian preachers of our period invoked the notion of the city, of city life, and of the citizenry in order to relate their teaching to the concrete experience of their audience. In such use, the polis is predominantly conceptualized as a social and demographic entity in the sense of a politeuma .

The sermons of John Chrysostom (347–407), a popular preacher in late fourth century Antioch and later the Patriarch of Constantinople, abound with references to the daily life and sorrows of the urban dwellers of the city on the Orontes. [34] He depicts the city in the sense of a politeuma as a place of exercise of civic conduct. The city had the right and the obligation to protect its internal peace and integrity by expelling strangers and enemies that threaten it—a measure that could also be applied to heretics.[35] John Chrysostom's writings deserve closer attention, as they are so deeply rooted in the daily experience of the men and women of this large and thriving provincial capital. Most frequently, he invokes the city with reference to the social division into rich and poor with which his listeners in the congregation, mostly “poor” themselves, can identify. But he also goes beyond that, using city and city administration to solicit a visceral reaction in his audience to a point he is making. Most striking are his frequent references to the archôn . This high magistrate is invariably depicted as a powerful, fearsome, larger-than-life figure who parades through the city, accompanied by an entourage, shouts at people in a booming voice, sits on a throne to pronounce justice, arbitrarily administers punishment and torture, and intimidates the people by brutally collecting the taxes. These vivid descriptions in John’s sermons are meant to remind his audience that the obedience and compliance that result from their fear of the archôn ought to be the yardstick by which to measure the obedience they owe to God. For the scholar of early Byzantium, this is a striking passage as it shows that two generations after the reign of Constantine, it was not the idea of the faraway emperor, but the projection of the chief magistrate of one's city that provided the most vivid point of reference for the display of awe and majesty.

The concrete experience of polis life also offered a frame of reference to explain to soon-to-be Christians the significance of membership in the church. Particularly instructive in their application of the notions of polis and politeuma are the catechetical homilies that were delivered by bishops (or priests acting on their behalf) to the catechumens in the period immediately preceding their baptism, which usually occurred at Easter. John Chrysostom and, as we shall see, Basil of Caesarea offer rich material in this regard. As if entering a city gate, it is explained, the men and women preparing themselves for baptism were told that they were about to cross the threshold that separated the true believers from those outside. And as if gaining citizenship rights, they were on the brink of acquiring full membership in the church community.

John Chrysostom refers to Paul’s remark that the citizenship ( politeuma ) of the Christians is in heaven (Phillippians 3:20) in order to remind his audience of catechumens that they should concentrate their thought and their efforts on proving themselves worthy of their re-defined civic identity ( politeuma ) in the new place in which they have been inscribed ( apegraphete ).[36]

In his First Catechesis , John Chrysostom mixes his metaphors quite happily, referring to the catechumens as soldiers of Christ, and comparing the act of baptism to a marriage ritual which is accompanied by the exchange of gifts between bride and groom.The abundant generosity and grace of God (his marriage-gift, as it were), he explains, is evident in the mere fact that “you have been deemed worthy to be inscribed as citizens ( politographêthênai ).” [37]

He uses the same verb in his Fourth Catechesis , when he addresses the catechumens as soldiers of Christ who have today been "inscribed" as citizens in heaven.[38] Later in the same work, he reminds his audience that “we have been inscribed in a different politeia , the Jerusalem above” and therefore should show ourselves worthy of this distinction in our deeds.[39]

These are words loaded with meaning. Politographesthai as well are apographesthai are the technical terms for the inscription of one’s name as a citizen in a specific city.[40] Clearly, Christian authors were well versed in the political language of their day. They used these terms metaphorically to illustrate the significance of joining the church through baptism, which is tantamount to inscription in the figurative citizenship roll of the church with the future option of joining the Heavenly Jerusalem.[41]

John Chrysostom was not the only preacher to invoke citizenship language. His younger contemporary Basil of Caesarea in Cappadocia (330–379) was, like him, a bishop of a large city faced with the challenge of maintaining a high threshold for acceptance into the church for an increasing number of willing recruits. Basil waxes eloquently about this process of enrolment in a homily on baptism, where he encourages the members of his audience to surrender themselves completely to God:
Change over to the side of the Lord. Give yourself the appellation (of being a Christian). Enroll with the Church. The soldier is enrolled in lists, the athlete competes after registering himself, the member of a deme ( dêmotes ) who is enrolled as a citizen ( politographêtheis ) is counted among the members of a tribe ( phyletais ). In all these respects, you are answerable: as a soldier of Christ, as an athlete of piety, and as someone whose citizenship ( politeuma ) is in heaven. Have yourself inscribed, then, in that book, so that your name may be transferred above [i.e. in Heaven]. Learn and be instructed in the conduct ( politeian ) according to the Gospels.[42]
Politographesthai , being inscribed in the citizen list, had very concrete resonances during the lifetime of Basil and John Chrysostom, when adult baptism was the norm and citizenship in a polis was a privilege and a cause of local pride. Under the changed religious and political circumstances of later centuries, when baptism was administered to infants and the polis as a political concept no longer existed, the verb was still in use, but only in this last sense of inscription in the Heavenly Jerusalem. The most elaborate later use I have been able to find was made by Eustathius, archbishop of Thessalonike (ca. 1115–1195). Deeply familiar with ancient literature, he is best known for his account of the capture of his city by the Crusaders and for his commentaries on Homer. But he is also the author of a short martyrdom narrative of Alphaeus, Zosimus, Alexander, and Marcus who perished in the Great Persecution of Diocletian. After explaining that their cult enjoyed great popularity in Thessalonike—another example of civic pride transposed from the forum to the church—Eustathius begins his account in the conventional way, by explaining their geographical origin. They came from Kalyte, a village of Antioch in Pisidia. In a word play that demonstrates the author's awareness of the distinction between different types of settlement, he continues: "This Kalyte brought them forth as good villagers, but they were inscribed like townspeople in the metropolis above. And their inscription [as citizens] ( politographêma ) is as follows"—a segue into the description of their martyrdom. In the thoroughly Christianized world of the twelfth century, it is no longer baptism, but martyrdom that serves as a qualification for entrance into the Heavenly City.[43]

In the early Byzantine period, the application of civic terminology to conceptualize the significance of baptism extends even further, to the role of the baptismal sponsor. In the centuries when adult baptism was still the norm, a baptismal sponsor introduced the future baptizand of the same gender to the bishop and vouched for him or her as his or her name was entered into the list of the catechumens. Being a sponsor was a grave matter since it entailed the personal responsibility for the catechumen’s conduct, as if allowing him shared access to a personal bank account of good deeds. The church fathers who explain this process use the legal term of fideiussio , “standing surety.” The Greek word for fideiussor is anadochos (or engyetês ), the same term that is routinely used for baptismal sponsors and that has no connection with lifting someone up from the baptismal font. The word appears most frequently in financial transactions, when the fideiussor guarantees a loan to a third party with his own property.[44] Interestingly, the term fideiussio also finds application in the context of holding civic office. Several laws in the Codex Iustinianus , under the appropriate title De periculo nominatorum , use this word when they stipulate that office holders must nominate their successors and take full financial responsibility for the resulting expenses incurred by the nominee if the latter proves to be insolvent.[45] This shared terminology by legal authors and theologians is striking. It suggests that the role of the baptismal sponsor was conceptualized in direct analogy to active participation in a city’s self-governance by holding office.

While the right to citizenship in the Heavenly Jerusalem is promised to the catechumens, it is t aken for granted for the baptized. This expectation of hope for God's city as a future dwelling place was already articulated in the apostolic age. The Epistle to Diognetus declares that “[Christians] dwell in their own fatherlands, but as if sojourners in them; they share all things as citizens ( politai ), and suffer all things as strangers. . . .They pass their time upon the earth, but they have their citizenship ( politeuontai ) in heaven.” [46] This is the spirit of internal alienation from one's current city of residence in preparation for the true city of Christian destination suggested already in Paul's Letter to the Philippians.It was counseled also in the Shepherd of Hermas in the middle of the second century: "Know that you, who are the servants of God, are residents in a foreign land; for your city is at a great distance from this city." [47] The contrast between these two cities is expressed in terms of incompatible sets of laws, the laws of the polis vs. God's commandments. It is by observing the latter already in this life that one can hasten and secure one's future arrival in God's city. By the end of the second century, the eschatological expectations of the imminent arrival of the kingdom of God lost their urgency and immediacy. From then on, Christian authors developed the idea that God's polis was already present in this world, however incomplete and faulty, in the form of the church. This notion would eventually become the guiding principle of Augustine's City of God , composed in Roman North Africa after the Sack of Rome by Alarich and his Visigoths in 410, when—as has been noted above—he spared the church of St. Peter out of reverence for the saint's relics.

In the course of the fourth century, as the Christian communities grew in membership and acquired structure and organization, it was increasingly the entire church that was considered a politeuma . Eusebius of Caesarea in Palestine (ca. 263–339)—the learned bishop, innovative theologian and self-appointed biographer of the Emperor Constantine—was particularly eloquent in this regard, frequently declaring the church to be “the godly polity” ( theosebes politeuma ) and “the city of God” ( polis tou theou ).[48] Later in the fourth century, the Apostolic Constitutions addressed the congregation in the same sense as “the holy assembly ( ekklêsia , the Greek word for "church") of God which is listed by name ( apogegrammenê ) in Heaven.” [49]

The city as a structured organization, with its citizenship lists and magistracies, thus offered to Christian authors of Late Antiquity very concrete analogies in their efforts to explain the significance of joining the church. Paradoxically, the conceptualization of the ekklêsia as a new polis was propagated just at the time when the cities of the empire were beginning to lose political relevance. It affirms once more that concepts often outlive the realities that generated them.


Politeia is a complex term with oscillating nuances of meaning.[50] Plutarch (ca. 46–120 CE) lists four possible meanings: "Now the word politeia (citizenship) is defined as 'having a share of the rights in a State.' . . . But the life of a statesman, a man who is occupied in public affairs, is also called politeia (statecraft). . . . And some people even call a single brilliant act for the public benefit a politeia (politic act). . . .Besides all these, politeia is defined as an order and constitution of a State which directs its affairs." [51] It is largely in this latter sense that Aristotle employed the word. In his Politics , he points out that a city is not defined by its walls, but that it consists of a community of citizens who follow the same constitution ( esti de koinônia politôn politeias ).[52] Many centuries later, when the ancient polis was in the midst of transformation, Hesychius, who compiled a dictionary of Greek terms, partly on the basis of classical literature, in fifth- or sixth-century Alexandria, renders politeia as follows: "either city, or life, also conduct; also deeds." [53]

The term politeia took on different shades over time. The epigraphic record shows that inscriptions from classical antiquity, politeia and the verb politeuesthai were applied to an individual who held office within the independent, self-governed polis . As time progressed and membership in the collective body of the curia or boulê was considered in itself an honor, an obligation and a distinction, the words politeia and politeuesthai found more extended application to denote membership in the city council in general. This was the case in the Roman Empire, even during the centuries when Christianity gained a stronger foothold in society. City councilors were public figures, expected to embody civic virtues and to display a certain demeanor.Thus it is not surprising that Christian and Jewish authors employ the noun politeia with preference to denote "personal conduct" or "way of life." [54] This is particularly evident in the hagiographical literature of Byzantium. Numerous Lives of saints—78, to be exact, according to a search in the Thesaurus Linguae Graecae —carry the title bios kai politeia , "Life and Conduct." More than mere descriptive biographies, hagiographical texts are intended as narratives of role models. The precedent for this was set in the very first specimen of hagiography, the Life of Anthony composed by Athanasius, Patriarch of Alexandria. Anthony (died 356) was widely recognized as the first hermit among the desert fathers of fourth-century Egypt and his Vita was circulated under just that title, bios kai politeia .[55]

Stoic philosophy in particular picked up the Platonic notion of the polis as a community of good men who follow the same natural law and thus conduct themselves according to the same politeia . This finds a distant reflection in the Christian idea that monasticism represents an alternative community guided by adherence to the same models of conduct. A powerful theme and an evocative rhetorical trope in the Life of Anthony is the repeated insistence that "the desert was made a city" because Anthony acted as a spiritual father to many disciples who followed his advice and imitated his way of life by setting up their own dwellings in the desert.[56] As the foregoing discussion has shown, this has to be understood not merely in the literal sense of populating inhospitable territory that had until then been believed to be dominated by demons, but especially in the sense of creating a new politeuma . The desert was made a polis because it housed a community of good men (and women) who followed their conscience and the call to asceticism and thus were inevitably led to observance of the same way of life, a shared ascetic politeia . It is in this sense that monastic communities are often compared in Christian literature either to choirs of angels, to the Heavenly Jerusalem, or to the "city on the hill" of the Sermon on the Mount. To give but one example, the Coptic author Besa chides the nun Herai for her intention to leave the monastery and to take her initial donation of property with her. “. . .you have insulted the place into which you were received and where you were honored by saying: ‘your convent is the Heavenly Jerusalem.’ It is truly the Heavenly Jerusalem, and it is the hill which God has blessed!” [57]

The application of "city" language for monasticism differs from that for baptism. Unlike baptism, which is a punctual act, monasticism is the lifelong practice of one's ascetic calling. In a person's life, it follows after baptism. This is reflected in the use of polis imagery. Unlike baptism, the emphasis in the context of monastic life is not on the one-time act of joining the politeuma of the church, analogous to inscription as a member of a polis , but on the continuous exercise of a particular kind of conduct, in other words, in the adoption of a certain politeia . But just as for baptism, the prize for the monastic effort is citizenship in the Heavenly Jerusalem after death. In some spectacular cases, this privilege was believed to have been granted already in this lifetime.Thus Symeon the Stylite, whose presence was—as has been noted above—believed to be a bulwark for the city of Antioch, was called an “angel on earth, the citizen of the Jerusalem above while he was in the flesh.” [58]


The ancient city was characterized by three features: the delineation of its territory by walls, shared participation in religious cults, and the observance of a common set of rules. These correspond roughly to the interconnected concepts in the Greek language: polis , politeuma and politeia . The Christian authors of the early Byzantine empire employed the imagery and symbolism of the polis in order to elucidate for their audience the significance of a dedicated Christian life within the community of the church. The church also encompasses the other two elements that characterize the ancient and post-classical polis : the observance of shared religious rites—in this case the weekly celebration of the eucharist—and the clear demarcation of those who are inside from those who are outside through the presence of boundaries. As long as Christian preachers were engaged in the effort of winning new converts, this aspect of the polis imagery had great purchase in depicting the advantages of crossing that boundary and joining the church. Once the majority of the population had been Christianized, a process that was largely concluded by the late seventh century, the classical connotations of the polis fell into abeyance, and with it the nuanced use of the language of citizenship among Christian authors. What remained was the image of the Heavenly City that would continue to exercise its allure for centuries to come.


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Note 1
Gilgamesh Tablet I:11–19 (trans. George 1999:1–2).

Note 2
Livy History of Rome I 7.

Note 3
Zosimus History II 30–31. Unless otherwise noted, reference to all Greek texts is based on the editions employed in the TLG.

Note 4
Papadopoulos 2008. On the importance of religion within the Greek city, see Scully 1990. See also the insightful comments by Easterling 2005.

Note 5
On the continued importance of walls as defining a city, see Zanker 2000.

Note 6
See the important synthesis by Hansen 2006.

Note 7
Jones 1967:90–92 gives comparison figures between Pliny’s report of the Augustan register and Hierocles’ Synekdemos which was probably based on a register drawn up under Theodosius II and slightly revised under Justinian. For a recent summary of current scholarship on the topic, see Orselli 2009. For a detailed region-specific discussion, see Liebeschuetz 2001.

Note 8
For civic pride as expressed in historical writing, see Schepens 2001.

Note 9
Koder 1986; Haldon 1999. For the socio-economic functioning of cities in the early and middle Byzantine periods, see Dagron 2002:393–405.

Note 10
Leo VI, Novella 46, Noailles and Dain 1944:183–185.

Note 11
On the changes in the physical structure of cities, see Saradi 1988. In the middle Byzantine period, it was neither the collective of the citizens, nor the bishops who initiated new building projects, but powerful local individuals, while the emperors only concerned themselves with maintaining the fortifications: Neville 2004:122–126.

Note 12
Tertullian, On the Prescription of Heretics 7.

Note 13
On this passage, see Cotter 1993.

Note 14
Behlmer 2002:21.

Note 15
Strauss 1964 offers a detailed overview of poleis and their political responsibilities.

Note 16
Plato Republic 2.369b; Plato Protagoras 320c–328d. See also Pradeau 2002.

Note 17
I am grateful to Myles Burnyeat for bringing this to my attention.

Note 18
Aristotle Politics III 1278b.

Note 19
Aristotle Politics III 1281a.

Note 20
Aristotle Politics VII 10.6–8; quotation at VII 10.8, Rackham 1990:591.

Note 21
On the praise of cities in general, see Saradi 1995.

Note 22
Menander Rhetor, Treatise I 346 l. 26–31, ed. Russell and Wilson 2004, translation on p. 33.

Note 23
Menander Rhetor Treatise I 363, l. 4–11.

Note 24
The Anonymous Byzantine Treatise on Strategy , ch. 10–13, Dennis 1985:30–44.

Note 25
John Chrysostom On Vainglory 23–63 passim .

Note 26
Agapetus Ekthesis 58.

Note 27
Doran 1992:194.

Note 28
Evagrius Historia Ecclesiastica I 13, Bidez and Parmentier 1898:23.

Note 29
Sozomenus Historia Ecclesiastica IX 9.9.

Note 30
On this inscription, see most recently Moralee 2006.

Note 31
Paulinus, Life of Ambrose 21, ed. Kaniecka 1928. There are later indications that seem to suggest that not only particular holy men, but indeed any bishop is surrounded by such a safe zone, and thus functions as a sort of “walking asylum.” I have suggested elsewhere that this belief may well be the root of the practice of ecclesiastical asylum that is for the first time recognized by imperial law in the year 392, Rapp 2005:250–260.

Note 32
On the history of the term in Greek literature and epigraphy, see Ruppel 1927.

Note 33
See the very detailed study on the concept of the polis and cognate words in ancient, Jewish and early Christian thought by Strathmann 1957, esp. p. 519. For the papyrus evidence and the Alexandrian Jews, see Engers 1926.

Note 34
Thanks to the work of Pauline Allen and her team at Adelaide, the sermons of John Chrysostom are now searchable for English key words:

Note 35
John Chrysostom In Acta Apost. Hom. 37, PG 60, col. 267.

Note 36
John Chrysostom Catechesis VII 12, ed. Wenger 2005:235, l. 9–12.

Note 37
John Chrysostom Catechesis I 18, ed. Wenger 2005:118, l. 9–10.

Note 38
John Chrysostom Catechesis IV 6, ed. Wenger 2005:185, l. 11–12.

Note 39
John Chrysostom Catechesis IV 29, ed. Wenger 2005:197, l. 4–5. For inscription in the citizen list of the Heavenly Jerusalem, see also John Chrysostom In sanctum pascha , PG 52, col. 771. From TLG.

Note 40
Diogenes Laertius Vitae philosophorum V 84.

Note 41
This raises the question of whether citizenship in a particular polis could at any time be attained by application. In ancient Athens, this was definitely not the case. The detailed study of the epigraphic and literary evidence has shown that in classical and Hellenistic Athens, from the fifth to the late second century BCE, citizenship could not be applied for. It was granted by the Athenian assembly, often in recognition of for benefactions ( andragathia ) shown to the Athenian people. See Osborne 1983:145 (purpose of grants of citizenship). See also Osborne 1981:16, where he notes a significant shift in the phrasing of the inscriptions that record grants of citizenship: the earlier formulation “making a person an Athenian” ( einai Athenaion ) is replaced after 229 BCE by the declaration of “granting a person citizenship” ( didonai politeian ).

Note 42
Basil of Caesarea Homilia exhortatoria ad sanctum baptisma , PG 31, col. 440.

Note 43
Eustathius of Thessalonike Oratio de S.Alpheo et sociis 5, PG 136, 264–284, col. 266d.

Note 44
See the discussion and further references in Rapp 2008.

Note 45
Codex Iustinianus XI 34. The same principle applies also to offices routinely held by two men, who are required to bear financial responsibility for one another, an obligation for which again the term fideiussor is employed ( Codex Iustinianus XI 36.2; Codex Iustininanus XI 36.4) For a concrete example, see Jouguet 1917:311–323. For the phenomenon in general, see Jones 1967:184–188.

Note 46
Epistle to Diognetus 5.5–9.

Note 47
Shepherd of Hermas 50 (Parable 1).

Note 48
Hollerich 1990.

Note 49
Apostolic Constitutions II 26.1, ed. Metzger 1985:234, l. 4.

Note 50
Bordes 1982.

Note 51
Plutarch On Monarchy, Democracy and Oligarchy ( De unius in republica dominatione ) 2–3, 826c–e, trans. Fowler 1969:306–307.

Note 52
Aristotle Politics III 1276b.

Note 53
Hesychius, ed. Schmidt 1965, s.v. Πολιτεία .

Note 54
Wilhelm 1925:78–82. Bauer 1963, s.v. politeia , politeuomai . See also Robert 1994:78. I am grateful to Christopher Jones for pointing out this reference to me.

Note 55
On the hagiographical use of politeia , see Usener 1975:117–118.

Note 56
On this theme and for further references, see Rapp 2006.

Note 57
Behlmer 2002:21.

Note 58
Evagrius Historia Ecclesiastica I 13, Bidez and Parmentier 1898:21.