This project analysed urban semantics in patristic texts dealt with the cultural horizons of early Christians, a religious, cultural and social fringe group in the Roman Empire. The special focus was on the considerable distance towards different aspects of ancient urban life of which Christians were accused by the Romans. This subject was approached from various angles, following the assumption that the complex phenomenon of Christian urban semantics and their space-shaping consequences could be studied only through investigating a combination of several factors.


Was this distance founded on a discrete normative basis, an identifiable form of Christian urban semantics? The main issue was to pursue the cityscaping effects of group-defined cultural values that stood apart, even against the main trends of ancient citizen values. What were the cultural and theological origins of patristic city images, metaphors and arguments? Did they change during the several centuries of Christians living side by side with their non-Christian neighbors and the gradual integration of the Christian church into the Roman Empire? And what were the underlying cultural Christian semantics that influenced the rebuilding of Roman cities in late antiquity?

The first step were case studies pertaining to the different cultural circumstances that shaped processes of Christianization in cities like Constantinople, Milan and Gaza. These studies enabled first points of comparison. Was the surprisingly different attitude and behaviour that bishops like Ambrose, John Chrysostom or Stephanus of Gaza developed towards their respective cities motivated only by their personal situation and their personality, or perhaps by the specific cultural atmosphere of these towns? What range did their discursive semantics comprise?

The second step, published in several papers, was the question of how the changing life circumstances of Christians in Roman cities and the steadily growing institutional integration of the church into the framework of Roman society shaped changed perceptions and constructions of the ancient city in patristic texts. A further viewpoint was the often-discussed period of urban transformation in Late antiquity and the role of Christianity within it. The conference “Zur Semantik urbaner Räume in der Spätantike – die Rolle des Christentums“ with archaeologists, historians and philologists held by Jan Stenger and Claudia Tiersch tried to come closer to the importance of Christian values as a driving force for urban transformation within a dense network of changed elites, economic opportunities, power relations and increased considerations of local defense. The aim of the conference was not to get a systematic overview concerning the different aspects of urban life in late antiquity but to ask for the immediate consequences of these conditions. For example, what methods could a preacher like Augustine use to persuade his audience to change their perception and attitude towards ancient cities? Why did the Theodosian era mark a certain highlight in constructing images of the Christian city? What were the literary texts that shaped the urban perception of pagan and Christian intellectuals?

Another question was whether the category of the ‘ancient city’ would be appropriate at all for the analysis of urban semantics. A workshop in 2014, held together with sociologists, supplied first suggestions. A paper, given by Claudia Tiersch at the annual Topoi conference in 2015, turned away from too rigid and static a perception of this category in favour of a more processual and interactional approach. However, it pleaded for retaining the figure of ‘ancient city’ as a category of analysis because of shared characteristics which constituted the mental urban background for all inhabitants of the Roman Empire, whether in an affirmative or negative manner. They comprised things like traditional feasts, games and buildings, but especially the high value of civic engagement for the urban institutions and one’s own city as an exclusive focus of loyalty for every citizen. Being a proud Roman citizen meant thinking in deeply local and mundane spheres, a way of living that Christian theology sharply resisted. Therefore the last step, written as a contribution for the final volume of the research group, was a close analysis of the changing urban semantics that patristic texts developed from the 2nd to the 5th century AD and the reasons for this change. The article follows the somewhat escapist tendencies of early Christian literature with their radically new kinds of space construction through the semantic negotiations of apologetic literature. Its end point is the surprisingly differentiated urban semantics found in patristic texts of late antiquity that even made selective use of Stoic and Philonic concepts, defining cities as embodiments of order and administration, a consequence of their own local power claims.

Related Publications (Selection)

Susanne Muth, Claudia Tiersch, Eva Winter, Christian Freigang, Therese Fuhrer, Felix Mundt, Stephan G. Schmid, Ulrich Schmitzer, Monika Trümper and Ulrike Wulf-Rheidt, “Ancient Studies and the Changing Face of Urbanism. The History of Science and Current Perspectives in Dialogue”, in: Space and Knowledge. Topoi Research Group Articles, eTopoi. Journal for Ancient Studies, Special Volume 6 (2016), 598–633

Claudia Tiersch, “A Dispute about Hellenism? Julian and the Citizens of Antioch”, in: Silke Petra Bergjan and Susanna Elm (Eds.), Intellectual Exchange and Religious Diversity in Antioch (CE 350-450), 2018, 103–136

Claudia Tiersch, “Zwischen Segregation und Akkulturation. Paradoxien christlicher Stadtsemantiken im Römischen Reich”, in: M. Wildt (Ed.), Geschichte denken. Perspektiven auf die Geschichtsschreibung heute, Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2014, 34–51