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] ,
See its walls like a strand of wool,
its parapet that none could copy! . . .
Climb Uruk's wall and
walk back and forth!
Survey its foundations, examine the
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
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." 
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
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
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.
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.
characteristics will also form the guiding principles for the inquiry that
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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:
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?" 
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
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;
: a well-organized
structured community of people or society;
: 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
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
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
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
) is in heaven, and it is
from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ." 
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.
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
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
space, the politeuma
as a community, and
as a way of conduct.
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
is the location where all men
share their humanity, where many talents come together, and where justice is
established and maintained.
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
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
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
, 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
In this work, Aristotle emphasizes the value of the
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 
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
) 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.
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.
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.” 
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
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
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
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
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.
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.” 
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.
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
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
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
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
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. 
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.
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
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
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
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
He uses the same verb in his Fourth Catechesis
he addresses the catechumens as soldiers of Christ who have today been
"inscribed" as citizens in heaven.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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]
) 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
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
), 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.
Interestingly, the term fideiussio
also finds application in the
context of holding civic office. Several laws in the Codex
, under the appropriate title De
, 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.
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
) in heaven.” 
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." 
The contrast between these two
cities is expressed in terms of incompatible sets of laws, the laws of the
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
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
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.” 
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.
is a complex
term with oscillating nuances of meaning.
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." 
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
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." 
The term politeia
took on different shades
over time. The epigraphic record shows that inscriptions from classical
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
was considered in itself an
honor, an obligation and a distinction, the words politeia
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
preference to denote "personal conduct" or "way of life." 
particularly evident in the hagiographical literature of Byzantium. Numerous
of saints—78, to be exact, according to a
search in the Thesaurus Linguae Graecae
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
under just that title, bios kai politeia
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
. 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
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.
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
. 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!” 
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
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.” 
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
. 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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Zosimus History II 30–31. Unless
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employed in the TLG.
Papadopoulos 2008. On the importance of religion within
the Greek city, see Scully 1990. See also the insightful comments by
On the continued importance of walls as defining a city,
see Zanker 2000.
See the important synthesis by Hansen 2006.
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.
For civic pride as expressed in historical writing, see
Koder 1986; Haldon 1999. For the socio-economic
functioning of cities in the early and middle Byzantine periods, see
Leo VI, Novella 46, Noailles
and Dain 1944:183–185.
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
Tertullian, On the Prescription of
On this passage, see Cotter 1993.
Strauss 1964 offers a detailed overview of poleis and their political
Plato Republic 2.369b; Plato
Protagoras 320c–328d. See also Pradeau
I am grateful to Myles Burnyeat for bringing this to my
Aristotle Politics III 1278b.
Aristotle Politics III 1281a.
Aristotle Politics VII 10.6–8;
quotation at VII 10.8, Rackham 1990:591.
On the praise of cities in general, see Saradi
Menander Rhetor, Treatise I 346
l. 26–31, ed. Russell and Wilson 2004, translation on p. 33.
Menander Rhetor Treatise I 363,
The Anonymous Byzantine Treatise on Strategy ,
ch. 10–13, Dennis 1985:30–44.
John Chrysostom On Vainglory
23–63 passim .
Evagrius Historia Ecclesiastica
I 13, Bidez and Parmentier 1898:23.
Ecclesiastica IX 9.9.
On this inscription, see most recently Moralee
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.
On the history of the term in Greek literature and
epigraphy, see Ruppel 1927.
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
Thanks to the work of Pauline Allen and her team at
Adelaide, the sermons of John Chrysostom are now searchable for English
key words: http://www.cecs.acu.edu.au/chrysostom/history.php.
John Chrysostom In Acta Apost.
Hom. 37, PG 60, col. 267.
John Chrysostom Catechesis VII
12, ed. Wenger 2005:235, l. 9–12.
John Chrysostom Catechesis I
18, ed. Wenger 2005:118, l. 9–10.
John Chrysostom Catechesis IV
6, ed. Wenger 2005:185, l. 11–12.
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.
Diogenes Laertius Vitae
philosophorum V 84.
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 ).
Basil of Caesarea Homilia exhortatoria
ad sanctum baptisma , PG 31, col. 440.
Eustathius of Thessalonike Oratio de
S.Alpheo et sociis 5, PG 136, 264–284, col. 266d.
See the discussion and further references in Rapp
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
Epistle to Diognetus 5.5–9.
Shepherd of Hermas 50 (Parable 1).
Apostolic Constitutions II 26.1, ed. Metzger
1985:234, l. 4.
Plutarch On Monarchy, Democracy and
Oligarchy ( De unius in republica
dominatione ) 2–3, 826c–e, trans. Fowler
Aristotle Politics III 1276b.
Hesychius, ed. Schmidt 1965, s.v. Πολιτεία .
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.
On the hagiographical use of politeia , see Usener 1975:117–118.
On this theme and for further references, see Rapp 2006.
Evagrius Historia Ecclesiastica
I 13, Bidez and Parmentier 1898:21.