Emperors and cities: The transformation of sacred space in late antiquity

Bradford Andrew Kirkegaard, University of Pennsylvania


This study examines the transformation of sacred space from pagan to Christian during the period of late antiquity focusing on the critical role that emperors played on the self-determination of cities. When Constantine declared Christianity an acceptable religion within the Roman empire, he inaugurated a process of transformation of the religious landscape of the ancient world. For all of Constantine's dramatic role in cities like Rome, Jerusalem and Constantinople, the transformation of sacred space in the empire from pagan to Christian was a gradual and complex process from the fourth through the sixth centuries CE. How that process happened, how long and in what forms paganism remained vital, and the role of emperors in the midst of this transformation all remain open-ended questions. Arguing for the importance of cities as the essential loci of transformation and the critical role of emperors in the treatment of sacred space, this study reexamines the religious policies and actions of five emperors (Constantine, Julian, Theodosius, Theodosius II and Justinian). A case-study of Aphrodisias employs archaeological evidence to explore the complex transformations of one city's civic and religious identity over time. This examination of the transformation of sacred space in late antiquity clarifies the pivotal role of emperors in creating, preserving, and transforming both pagan and Christian sacred space. Through a mixture of action and inaction that were consistent with earlier imperial roles of benefaction, piety and pragmatism, these emperors adapted their individual policies and actions to specific locations and occasions. Cities, for their part, retained considerable autonomy, gradually transforming their own landscapes according to their own purposes and within the contexts of their earlier distinctive Greco-Roman religious identities. The transformation of sacred space in late antiquity occurred gradually as a highly localized and varied process, with emperors playing important roles that were balanced against, and within, the highly distinctive situations of individual cities.

Subject Area

Religious history|Archaeology|Ancient civilizations

Recommended Citation

Kirkegaard, Bradford Andrew, "Emperors and cities: The transformation of sacred space in late antiquity" (2007). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI3292041.