Late Antiquity

From Academic Kids

Late Antiquity is a rough periodization (c. 300-700/800 AD) used by historians and other scholars to describe the interval between high Classical Antiquity and the Middle Ages in Europe and the Mediterranean world - between the decline of the western Roman Empire from the 3rd century AD onward, to the re-forming of the West under Charlemagne, of the Middle East under the Baghdad caliphate, and of Eastern Europe under the Byzantine Empire. The term, used in German history (Spätantike) since the early 20th century , was made famous in part by the writings of Peter Brown.

The continuities between imperial Rome and the Early Middle Ages are stressed by writers who wish to emphasise that the seeds of medieval culture were already developing in the Christianized empire, and indeed continued to do so in the Eastern, or "Byzantine" Empire, while 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 "Early Middle Ages" emphasizes a break with the classical past, and the term "Migrations Period" emphasizes the disruptions in the same period of time.


Features of Late Antiquity


If there was a single feature of Late Antiquity that is most important, it is the formation and evolution of the Abrahamic religions Christianity, post-diaspora Judaism, and eventually, marking a decisive end to Late Antiquity wherever it reached, Islam.

The rise of Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire, starting with the conversion of Emperor Constantine the Great in 312 clearly marked an end to the Classical world. By the late 4th century the "Christian revolution" had almost completely reversed over a millenia of pagan culture, transforming the Classical Roman world "rustling with the presence of many divine spirits" (Brown, Authority and the Sacred). In addition we see the birth of Christian monasticism in the 4th century, which initially while operating outside the authority of the main Church and secular rulers, would by the 8th century penetrate the Church and become the primary Christian rule within.

Islam appears in the 7th century and the Arab conquests fundamentally changes both the Eastern and Western empires in different ways. See also Pirenne Thesis

Late Antiquity marks the decline of Roman state religion, circumscribed in degrees by edicts inspired by Christian advisors 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.

Roman society

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 worldly ones, as servants and representatives of a geographically distant Emperor. After Constantine centralized affairs in Constantinople in the early 4th century, the Late Antique upper class was 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 was no longer the path to success, rather it was one of access, privileged and often corruption in the centralized and bureaucratic state. Room at the top of Late Antique society was smaller and more status competitive, the plain toga that had identified all members of the ruling class indifferently was replaced with silk gowns, court vestments and massive jewelry.

Within the recently legitimized Christian community of the 4th century, a division could be seen between the laity and a celibate male leadership, who were removed from the traditional Roman motivations of public and private life marked by pride, ambition and kinship solidarity, and who were wholly unlike the married pagan leadership. Unlike later strictures on priestly celibacy, celibacy in Late Antique Christianity tended to take 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 their admirers, to the traditional prestige of urban notables, the potentes (Brown 1987 p 270).

This period saw the decline of the Western Roman empire into city-states (Rome, Ravenna, Triers, etc) and independent units (Francia, Britannia, Hispania). Concurrently, the continuity of the eastern Roman empire at Constantinople meant that the turning-point for the Greek East, came later, not until Constantinople turned its back on the lost Middle East in the 8th century and looked toward the Balkans.

In the cities the strained economics of Roman over expansion stopped 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 of the great man, from Africa to Britannia, functioned in the 4th century as a substitute for the stoas and public basilicas associated with forums and traditional outdoor public life. In the Christianized 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.

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, in some cases, 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 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).


  • 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 0393958035 (
  • Averil Cameron et al. (editors), The Cambridge Ancient History, vols. 12-14, Cambridge 1997ff.

External links

fr:Antiquité tardive he:שלהי_העת_העתיקה lb:Spéitantikitéit fi:Myöhäisantiikki


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