Late Antiquity

Late Antiquity

Late Antiquity (c. 300-600) is a periodization used by historians to describe the transitional centuries from Classical Antiquity to the Middle Ages, in both mainland Europe and the Mediterranean world: generally from the end of the Roman Empire's Crisis of the Third Century (c. 284) to the Islamic conquests and the re-organization of the Byzantine Empire under Heraclius.

The Roman Empire underwent considerable social, cultural and organizational change starting with reign of Diocletian, who began the custom of splitting the Empire into Eastern and Western halves ruled by multiple emperors. Beginning with Constantine the Great the Empire was Christianized, and a new capital founded at Constantinople. Migrations of Germanic tribes disrupted Roman rule from the late fourth century onwards, culminating in the eventual collapse of the Empire in the West in 476, replaced by the so-called barbarian kingdoms. The resultant cultural fusion of Greco-Roman, Germanic and Christian traditions formed the cultural foundations of Western Europe.


The term "Spätantike", literally "late antiquity", has been used by German historians since its popularization by Alois Riegl in the early twentieth century. [A. Giardana, "Esplosione di tardoantico," "Studi storici" 40 (1999).] It was given currency in English partly by the writings of Peter Brown, whose survey "The World of Late Antiquity" (1971) revised the post-Gibbon view of a stale and ossified Classical culture, in favour of a vibrant time of renewals and beginnings, and whose "The Making of Late Antiquity" offered a new paradigm of understanding the changes in Western culture of the time in order to confront Sir Richard Southern's "The Making of the Middle Ages". [Glen W. Bowersock, "The Vanishing Paradigm of the Fall of Rome" "Bulletin of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences" 49.8 (May 1996:29-43) p 34.]

The continuities between imperial Rome, as it was reorganized by Diocletian (r. 284-305), and the Early Middle Ages are stressed by writers who wish to emphasize that the seeds of medieval culture were already developing in the Christianized empire, and that they continued to do so in the Eastern, or "Byzantine" Empire. Concurrently, some migrating Germanic tribes such as the Ostrogoths and Visigoths saw themselves as perpetuating the "Roman" tradition. While the usage "Late Antiquity" suggests that the social and cultural priorities of Classical Antiquity endured throughout Europe into the Middle Ages, the usage of "Early Middle Ages" emphasizes a break with the classical past, and the term "Migrations Period" de-emphasizes the disruptions in the former Western Empire caused by the creation of Germanic kingdoms within her borders. [A recent thesis advanced by Peter Heather of Oxford posits the Goths, Hunnic Empire, and the Rhine Invaders (Alans, Suevi, Vandals) as the direct causes of the Western Empire's crippling; The Fall of the Roman Empire: a New History of Rome and the Barbarians, OUP 2006.]


If there was one important transformation in Late Antiquity, it was the formation and evolution of the Abrahamic religions: Christianity, rabbinic Judaism, and eventually Islam; the latter marking a decisive end to Late Antiquity wherever it reached.

A milestone in the rise of Christianity was the conversion of Emperor Constantine the Great (r. 306-337) in 312, as related by his panegyrist Eusebius of Caesarea, although the sincerity of his conversion is debated. Constantine legalized the religion through the Edict of Toleration in 313, jointly issued with his rival in the East, Licinius (r. 308-324). By the late 4th century, Emperor Theodosius the Great had made Christianity the state religion, thereby transforming the Classical Roman world, which Peter Brown characterized as, "rustling with the presence of many divine spirits" (Brown, "Authority and the Sacred").

Constantine I was a key player in many important events in Church History, as he convened and attended the first ecumenical council of bishops at Nicaea in 325, subsidized the building of churches and sanctuaries such as the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, and involved himself in questions such as the timing of Christ's resurrection and its relation to the Passover (see Eusebius of Caesarea, Vita Constantini 3.5-6, 4.47).

The birth of Christian monasticism in the deserts of Egypt in 3rd century, which initially operated outside the episcopal authority of the Church, would become so successful that by the 8th century it penetrated the Church and became the primary Christian rule within. Monasticism was not the only new Christian movement to appear in Late Antiquity, although it had perhaps the greatest influence. Other movements notable for their unconventional practices include the Grazers, holy men who ate only grass and chained themselves up like barnyard animals Fact|date=December 2007; the Holy Fool movement, in which acting like a fool was considered more divine than folly; and the Stylites movement, where one practitioner lived atop a 50-foot pole for 40-years.

Islam appeared in the 7th century and spurred Arab peoples to invade both the Eastern Roman Empire and the Sassanian Empire of Persia, destroying the latter. [For a thesis on the complementary nature of Islam to the absolutist trend of Christian monarchy, see Garth Fowden, Empire to Commonwealth: Consequences of Monotheism in Late Antiquity, Princeton University Press 1993] See also Pirenne Thesis.

Late Antiquity marks the decline of Roman state religion, circumscribed in degrees by edicts likely inspired by Christian advisors such as Eusebius to 4th century emperors, and a period of dynamic religious experimentation and spirituality with many syncretic sects, some formed centuries earlier, such as Gnosticism or Neoplatonism and the Chaldaean oracles, some novel, such as hermeticism.

Many of the new religions relied on the emergence of the parchment "codex" (bound book) over the papyrus "volumen" (scroll), the former allowing for quicker access to key materials and easier portability than the fragile scroll, thus fueling the rise of synoptic exegesis, papyrology.

Laity vs clerical

Within the recently legitimized Christian community of the 4th century, a division could be more distinctly seen between the laity and an increasingly celibate male leadership. [Jerome of Stridon wrote in c. 406 the polemical treatise Against Vigilantius in order to, among other disputes concerning relics of the saints, promote the greater spiritual nature of celibacy over marriage] These men presented themselves as removed from the traditional Roman motivations of public and private life marked by pride, ambition and kinship solidarity, and differing from the married pagan leadership. Unlike later strictures on priestly celibacy, celibacy in Late Antique Christianity sometimes took the form of abstinence from sexual relations after marriage, and it came to be the expected norm for urban clergy. Celibate and detached, the upper clergy became an elite equal in prestige to urban notables, the "potentes" or "dynatoi" (Brown (1987) p. 270).

Political transformation

The Late Antique period also saw a wholesale transformation of the political and social basis of life in and around the Roman Empire.

The Roman citizen elite in the 2nd and 3rd centuries, under the pressure of taxation and the ruinous cost of presenting spectacular public entertainments in the traditional "cursus honorum", had found under the Antonines that security could only be obtained by combining their established roles in the local town with new ones as servants and representatives of a distant Emperor and his traveling court. After Constantine (re-)centralized the government in his new capital of Constantinople (dedicated in 330), the Late Antique upper classes were divided among those who had access to the far-away centralized administration (in concert with the great landowners), and those who did not—though they were well-born and thoroughly educated, a classical education and the election by the Senate to magistracies was no longer the path to success. Room at the top of Late Antique society was more bureaucratic and involved increasingly intricate channels of access to the emperor: the plain toga that had identified all members of the Republican senatorial class was replaced with the silk, court vestments and jewellery associated with Byzantine imperial iconography. [Cf. the compendious list of ranks and liveries of imperial bureaucrats, the Notitia Dignitatum] Also indicative of the times is the fact that the imperial cabinet of advisors came to be known as the "consistorium", or those who would stand in courtly attendance upon their seated emperor, as distinct from the informal set of friends and advisors surrounding Augustus.


Concurrently, the continuity of the eastern Roman empire at Constantinople meant that the turning-point for the Greek East came later, as the Eastern, or Byzantine, Roman Empire centered around the Balkans and Asia Minor. In Europe there was also a general decline in urban populations. Rome went from a population of 800,000 in the beginning of the period to a population of 30,000 by the end of the period. A similar though less marked decline in urban population occurred in Constantinople. As a whole, the period of late antiquity was accompanied by an overall population decline in Western Europe, and a reversion to more of a subsistence economy. Markets disappeared, and there was a reversion to a greater degree of local production and consumption, rather than webs of commerce and specialized production. [See Bryan Ward-Perkins, The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization, OUP 2005]

Public building

In the cities the strained economies of Roman over-expansion arrested growth. New public building in Late Antiquity came directly or indirectly from the emperors and their representatives, and the privileged supplies of grain and oil, available only to the citizen class, needy or not, was unbroken until the 5th century. But the elite appeared less often in the forums; they withdrew in the cities to an opulent "domus" but more frequently to the private luxuries of the villa. The basilica, which often functioned as a law court or for imperial reception of foreign dignitaries, now functioned in the 4th century as a substitute for the stoas and public basilicas associated with forums and traditional outdoor public life. In one of the many forms of the Christian basilica, the bishop took the chair in the apse reserved in secular structures for the magistrate—or the Emperor himself— as the representative here and now of Christ Pantocrator, the Ruler of All, his characteristic Late Antique icon. These ecclesiatical basilicas (e.g. S. Giovanni in Laterano, St. Peter's) were themselves outdone by Justinian's Hagia Sophia, a staggering display of later Roman/Byzantine power and architectural taste. Not to say that the former Western Empire had no grandeur in buildings: witness the mausoleum and Arian baptistry in Ravenna built by King Theoderic.

culpture and art

Roman art during Late Antiquity served as a monumental transition from classical idealized realism introduced by the Greeks to the more iconic, stylized art of the Middle Ages. Unlike classical art, Late Antique art does not emphasize the beauty and movement of the body, but rather, hints at the spiritual reality behind its subjects. Additionally, mirroring the rise of Christianity and the collapse of the western Roman Empire, painting and freestanding sculpture gradually fell from favor in the artistic community. Replacing them were greater interests in mosaics, architecture, and relief sculpture.

As the Soldier Emperors such as Maximinus Thrax (r. 235-8) emerged from the provinces in the 3rd century, they brought with them their own regional influences and artistic tastes. For example, artists jettisoned the classical portrayal of the human body for one that was more rigid and frontal. This is markedly evident in the combined porphyry portraits of the four Roman tetrarchs. With these stubby figures clutching each other and their swords, all individualism, naturalism, the verism or hyperrealism of Roman portraiture, and Greek idealism diminishFact|date=March 2008. In nearly all artistic media, simpler shapes were adopted and once natural designs were abstracted. Additionally hierarchy of scale overtook the preeminence of perspective and other classical models for representing spatial organization.

Nearly all of these more abstracted conventions could be observed in the glittering mosaics of the era. Although the pebble mosaics had been used for centuries in Asia Minor, a new technique employing tesserae rose as the method of choice by Christians. The glazed surfaces of the tesserae sparkled in the light and illuminated the basilica churches. Unlike their fresco predecessors, much more emphasis was placed on demonstrating a symbolic fact rather than on rendering a realistic scene. As time progressed during the late antique period, art become more concerned with biblical themes and influenced by interactions of Christianity with the Roman state. Within this Christian subcategory of Roman art, dramatic changes were also taking place. Jesus Christ had been more commonly depicted as a suffering servant, teacher or as the “Good Shepherd,” resembling the traditional iconography of Hermes. Now, Jesus was increasingly given Roman elite status, and shrouded in purple robes like the emperors with orb and scepter in hand.

As for luxury arts, manuscript illumination on vellum and parchment emerged in the late sixth century as a display of beauty and spiritual authority in gilded text. Also, ivory carvings were greatly desired by Roman generals (for illustrating their victories in processions) and the Church (usually for creating religious imagery on diptyches and triptyches).

*Arch of Constantine


In the field of literature, Late Antiquity is known for the declining use of classical Greek and Latin, and the rise of literary cultures in Syriac, Armenian, Arabic, Coptic, vulgar Latin and, eventually, Romance dialects. It also marks a shift in literary style, with a preference for encyclopedic works in a dense and allusive style, consisting of summaries of earlier works (anthologies, epitomes) often dressed up in elaborate allegorical garb (e.g. "De Nuptiis Mercurii et Philologiae" (The Marriage of Mercury and Philology) of Martianus Capella, and the "De Arithmetica", "De Musica", and "Consolatio Philosophiae" of Boethius—both later key works in Medieval education). The fourth and fifth centuries also saw an explosion of Christian literature, of which Greek writers such as Eusebius of Caesarea, Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nazianzus and John Chrysostom, and Latin writers as Ambrose of Milan, Jerome and Augustine of Hippo are only among the most renowned representatives.


Greek poets of the late antique period included Antoninus Liberalis, Quintus Smyrnaeus, Nonnus, Romanus the Melodist and Paul the Silentiary.

Latin poets included Paulinus of Nola, Claudian, Rutilius Namatianus, Sidonius Apollinaris and Arator.

ee also

* Byzantine Empire
* Decline of the Roman Empire
* Early Middle Ages
* Migration Period
* Roman-Persian Wars
* Roman relations with the Parthians and Sassanids



*Peter Brown, The World of Late Antiquity: from Marcus Aurelius to Muhammad (AD 150-750), (London: Thames and Hudson) 1989, ISBN 0-393-95803-5
*Peter Brown, 1987. "The World of Late Antiquity Ad 150-750" in "A History of Private Life: 1. from Pagan Antiquity to Byzantium," Paul Veyne, editor, ISBN 0-393-95803-5
*Peter Brown, Authority and the Sacred : Aspects of the Christianisation of the Roman World, Routledge, 1997, ISBN 0-521-59557-6
*Peter Brown, The Rise of Western Christendom: Triumph and Diversity 200-1000 AD, Blackwell, 2003, ISBN 0-631-22138-7
*Averil Cameron, The Later Roman Empire: Ad 284-430, Harvard University Press, 1993, ISBN 0-674-51194-8
*Averil Cameron, The Mediterranean World in Late Antiquity Ad 395-600 (Routledge History of the Ancient World), 1993, ISBN 0-415-01421-2
*Averil Cameron et al. (editors), "The Cambridge Ancient History", vols. 12-14, Cambridge 1997ff.
*John Curran, Pagan City and Christian Capital: Rome in the Fourth Century, Clarendon Press: Oxford, 2000.
*Peter Dinzelbacher / Werner Heinz: Europa in der Spätantike. Primus, Darmstadt 2007.
*Tomas Hägg (ed.) "SO Debate: The World of Late Antiquity revisited," in Symbolae Osloenses (72), 1997.
*A.H.M. Jones, The Later Roman Empire, 284-602; a social, economic and administrative survey, vols. I, II, University of Oklahoma Press, 1964.
*Fred Kleiner, Christin Mamiya, & Richard Tansey, Gardner's Art Through the Ages, 11th edition, Harcourt Publishers, New York, 2001, pp. 292-323.
*Bertrand Lancon, Rome in Late Antiquity : AD 313 - 604, Routledge, 2001.
*Lee, A.D., Pagans and Christians in Late Antiquity: a Sourcebook, Routledge: New York, 2000.
*Noel Lenski (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to the Age of Constantine, Cambridge University Press, 2006.
*Sam N.C. Lieu and Dominic Montserrat (eds.), From Constantine to Julian: Pagan and Byzantine Views, A Source History, Routledge: New York, 1996.
*Maas, Michael, The Cambridge Companion to the Age of Justinian, Cambridge University Press, 2005.
*Ramsay MacMullen, Christianizing the Roman Empire A.D. 100–400. New Haven, CT; London: Yale University Press, 1984.
*Stephen Mitchell, A history of the Later Roman Empire. AD 284-641, Blackwell, London 2006.
*Barbara Rosenwein, A Short History of the Middle Ages, 2nd edition, Broadview Press, New York, 2004, p. 30-39.
*Rostovtzeff, Michael Ivanovitch, (rev. P. Fraser), The Social and Economic History of the Roman Empire, Clarendon Press: Oxford, 1979.

External links

* [ New Advent — The Fathers of the Church] , a Catholic website with English translations by J.-P. Migne of the Early Fathers of the Church.
* [ ORB Encyclopedia's section on Late Antiquity in the Mediterranean] from [ ORB]
* [ Overview of Late Antiquity] , from [ ORB]
* [ Princeton/Stanford Working Papers in Classics] , a collaborative forum of Princeton and Stanford to make the latest scholarship on the field available in advance of final publication.
* [ The End of the Classical World] , source documents from the Internet Medieval Sourcebook
* [ Worlds of Late Antiquity] , from the University of Pennsylvania

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