It’s been a while since I contributed to this series of posts about Late Antiquity. Last time, we looked at the third century. Now we move on to the fourth, beginning with religion and literature before considering politics and the visual arts.
Because of the aforementioned reforms of Diocletian (r. 284-305, d. 313), stability returned to the imperial power of Rome in the fourth century. With political stability at the centre came other forms of stability. And, whether the relationship is causal or not, the Roman Empire recovered from the recession of the 200s. The Mediterranean-spanning Imperium of Rome was a powerful, stable entity.
As a result, this is the century to which a great many people turn when they look into the Later Roman Empire. It was an age of change and reform, of strengthening and stability. Many important and interesting realities of Late Antique civilisation emerge and transpire in this century.
For example, religion alone draws many people to this century — witness the website Fourth Century Christianity! We see the legalisation of Christianity (310s), its adoption as the emperor’s religion (first under Constantine), and then the formal banning of pagan rites (ultimately 381) — this is the century of the Councils of Nicaea (325; Jesus is God, consubstantial with the Father) and Constantinople I (381; Jesus is God — by implication, so is the Holy Spirit), the century of the four ‘great’ doctors of the eastern Church (Athanasius [d. 373], Basil of Caesarea [d. 379], Gregory of Nazianzus [d. 390], and John Chrysostom [d. 407]) as well as three of the four of the western Church (Ambrose [d. 397], Jerome [d. 420], and Augustine [d. 430]). It saw the rise of the holy man and monasticism in figures such as Antony (d. 356), Pachomius (d. 348), Martin of Tours (d. 397), as well as the development of mystical theology in Evagrius Ponticus (d. 390).
And we mustn’t forget Emperor Julian ‘the Apostate’ (r. 361-363) or Symmachus vs. Ambrose over the Altar of Victory (384). However we view the encounter between Graeco-Roman polytheism and Christianity in this century, it was game-changing.
We could also go into the battle over orthodoxy between various shades of ‘Arian’ and Nicene that raged from the 320s to the 380s, but we won’t. Suffice it to say, the fourth century is a big deal in the history of religions, shaping much of future Christianity and also laying low Graeco-Roman polytheism — or, at least, beginning to. Structurally.
But maybe religion isn’t your thing. Maybe you’re into poetry.
In which case, you’re in luck. After what Michael Roberts, in The Jeweled Style: Poetry and Poetics in Late Antiquity, calls the ‘third-century hiatus’, fourth-century Latin literature goes through what Peter Brown calls its last ‘golden age’ (in The World of Late Antiquity). The Christian poet Prudentius wrote an allegorical epic as well as the hymn sung today at Christmas, ‘Of the Father’s Love Begotten‘; the ‘pagan’ Claudian wrote panegyrics in epic verse as well as the unfinished De Raptu Proserpinae; other famous Latin poets of the century include Ausonius and Paulinus of Nola.
I am less well-acquainted with Greek literature, but there is a chance that the poet Quintus Smyrnaeus, author of the Posthomerica (a continuation of the Trojan War after Homer), lived in the fourth century; of the late fourth century comes Nonnus, author, interestingly enough, of a poem about Dionysus as well as a verse paraphrase of the Gospel of John.
Latin prose was not idle. If you want to get to know the nitty-gritty of later fourth-century imperial history, look no further than the Tacitean historiographer Ammianus Marcellinus (320-390; blogged about him here and reviewed vol. 1 of the Loeb here). Also of note is Ammianus’ fellow-‘pagan’ Symmachus, who left us both his letters and orations. Don’t forget the high literary quality of the three Fathers mentioned above, Ambrose (who also wrote hymns), Jerome, and Augustine.
Greeks also continued to write prose. The four ‘great’ doctors of the Greek church mentioned early, like their Latin counterparts, all had a rhetorical education that shows in their writings; Gregory of Nazianzus went so far as to also write poetry in Homeric verse. Libanius, the ‘pagan’ teacher of rhetoric at Antioch (whose pupil John Chrysostom was) left behind a number of orations and a multitude of letters. Eusebius of Caesarea’s Ecclesiastical History invented the genre, as did his Chronicle (as far as I can tell; no longer extant, much preserved by Jerome’s Chronicle as well as in Syriac and Armenian). Eusebius also gives us important information about the emperor Constantine and his reign.