So, if you want to discover Late Antiquity, there are lots of ways/places to start. You could go thematically — that is, finding topics that interest you (Roman art in the period, or Christology, or epic poetry, or the reception of Vergil, or the rise of monasticism, or The Last Pagans of Rome, or piracy, or Vandals, or…). You could go geographically (Roman Britain, Sassanian Persia, Egypt, the city of Rome, Italy). Or you could get the chronology down. That’s what we’re doing.
So we begin with the third century.
Well, ca. 238 (although some go for 217, with Caracalla’s death; some extremists push for 117 with Trajan’s death as our starting point — we don’t stand for that sort of thing around here) Late Antiquity begins. There is CRISIS.
I really wanted to downplay the whole CRISIS aspect of the Third Century in composing this. I did. I feel like, ‘Really? Such a downer. What a way to introduce a period of history.’ One way of trying to downplay the Third Century CRISIS is to point out that, using the 238 start date, it’s not even quite 50 years long, ending around 284 with The New Empire of Diocletian.
But only 50 years seems a short length of time. However, in human and even governmental terms, that’s a long time. Imagine if your government was relatively unstable for that long. Well, then you’d be 19th-century France. In 238 Rome had five Emperors, according to this list. From 238 to the accession of Diocletian in 284, there were over 50 claimants to the Imperial Purple (I don’t have my good list of emperors to sort out who succeeded at being more than usurpers!). So that’s more than one per year.
A bit unstable, wouldn’t you think?
Also, we can’t ignore Gaul that spends a certain length of time as its own political entity. Or Queen Zenobia of Palmyra who also secedes from Empire.
And then there was the time the Emperor Valerian was captured in battle against Shapur I of Persia:
So — yeah. Political instability.
And then Diocletian comes around from 284-306 and revolutionises everything about Rome, right down to minimum pricing laws. Which is pretty impressive (probably not actually implemented, I’ll admit). The civil service is tightened and reorganised, the power of the emperor grows, and we go from Principate (headed by the princeps, first man) to the Dominate (headed by the dominus, the lord/master).
That’s possibly the worst summary of third-century history ever written. Check out the chronological overview in Volume 12 of the Cambridge Ancient History (it covers 193-337) instead; or the pertinent section of one of the books I recommended.
But the interesting thing about periods of instability, of war, of destructive, is their creative potential. The Third Century Roman Empire brings us:
Plotinus. His vision of Plato basically gave the Roman world a new religion/philosophy. We call it Neo-Platonism. He was highly influential upon Augustine of Hippo, so worth knowing for those into philosophy, paganism, and Christianity. Seriously. Check out his entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
Diogenes Laertius. He’s the source of much of our knowledge of early Greek philosophers, including the biographical details. Useful for the philosophically-minded. He’s online here.
Origen. One of the most influential Ante-Nicene Christian thinkers, whose work was formative on a lot of questions in later Christian theology; here’s a good piece called ‘Origen and the Development of Orthdoxy.’
Cyprian of Carthage. He died in the persecution of the Emperor Decius, but is an invaluable source for early Latin Christian thought on a number of topics, such as church unity and the Eucharist. Here’s his article at the Catholic Encyclopedia.
The city of Dura-Europos. This city, abandoned in the late 250s by both Romans and Persians as part of their conflict, is a gem for its frescoes, found within one of the earliest Christian churches as well as the Jewish synagogue. And there’s a Mithraeum, just to keep it diverse. Check out Archaeology Magazine on the topic.
The Catacombs. Lots of great early Christian art here; here are thoughts on them & controversy.
Hm… it seems that the Late Antique third century, despite the first empire-wide persecutions, and in the midst of a lot political instability, was a good time for Christianity — brilliant thinkers and beautiful art (and liturgical development, although I’ve not mentioned it here).
So. The Third Century. Admittedly, politically unstable. And not really my century of expertise. But still important, probably mostly for some of the Christian guys and what Diocletian set in motion politcally …