Tag Archives: peter brown

Coming to grips with late antique Christianity

Fifth-century mosaic from San Paolo fuori le Mura, Rome

I once heard an anecdote about a colleague who (I think) said that Constantine’s revisions of the imperial postal system were more significant than his conversion to Christianity. This may, in fact, be true, depending on how you define your terms. However, it is the case that, overall, coming to grips with Christianity will help you understand late antiquity better than knowing the imperial postal system.

If you begin with the Tetrarchy and Diocletian, you will need to have some grasp of who Christians are and why the Roman government disliked them for understanding the persecution.

If you begin earlier with the Third Century Crisis and are interested in Latin literature, the fact that we have so little Latin literature from the second century will throw you into the arms of Cyprian of Carthage and his letters.

Beginning with Constantine there is a conversion of the upper classes, and these are the people who produce or for whom are produced most of the stuff that survives from antiquity — fancy houses, poems, philosophical treatises. Their religion is thus not inconsequential. And they eventually do become Christians — we can learn about the last pagans of Rome (to cite the title of a book by Alan Cameron)

And if you are interested in Later Latin Literature, Christianity is all over the place. Some of the greatest poets of Late Antiquity write explicitly religious poetry. It would be a shame to study the world of late antiquity (to cite the title of a Peter Brown book) and miss out on Prudentius and the other Christian epicists. Likewise the Greek verse of Gregory of Nazianzus, or the sublime Syriac poetry of Ephrem and his luminous eye (to cite a Sebastian Brock title).

While the rise of western Christendom (to cite Peter Brown again) is a major feature of the study of the Mediterranean world in Late Antiquity (Averil Cameron this time), I admit one should be perspicacious. There is a lot to grapple with.

Consider the realm of texts: Augustine of Hippo is the ancient Latin author with the largest surviving corpus, for one thing. We have more Christian letter collections from Late Antiquity than the non-Christian ones from preceding centuries. Indeed, Christians love books — sermons, letters, poems, long theological tractates, canon law documents, apologies, polemics, biographies, hagiographies, liturgies, and so forth, flow forth in abundance in Late Antiquity in Latin, Greek, Syriac, and Coptic.

Material culture is also a big realm, from Spain and even Britain in the West to Mesopotamia in the East, the Roman Empire and its Persian neighbour has its fair share of physical remains, some of them the large, mosaic-encrusted churches of Ravenna, others the foundations of churches in Salamis on Cyprus. This is not to mention the myriad smaller objects of Christian origin — ivories, icons, Bibles, Bible covers, communion vessels, etc.

Moreover, Christianity is a complex phenomenon. Are we looking at the beliefs and writings and practices of the educated elite? What about the urban poor? What about different modes of belief amongst different Christian bodies? Bishops? Laypeople? Rome? Antioch? Nisibis?

In fact, there’s so much, whether you like Christianity or not, how could you help but take an interest in it if you’re interested in Late Antiquity?

Why Late Antiquity?

So, as it turns out, I am on the way to being a scholar of that growing and ever-more-popular field ‘Late Antiquity.’ As a previous post makes clear, I am especially interested in the Later Roman Empire. As the wee bio on this blog shows, my research lies in the letters of Pope Leo I (‘the Great’).

At one level, it is entirely unsurprising and quite natural that I have chosen to study Late Antiquity. I have two degrees in Classics yet spent much of my childhood and teenage years invested in various aspects of the Mediaeval world, from knights and Crusades to Vikings and epic poems to King Arthur and St. Francis. Late Antiquity is the period that bridges my personal and scholarly interests. No shock that I have landed here, then!

But as a scholar, I evidently need something more than, ‘It’s cool,’ or, ‘Latin is pretty sweet,’ to keep me interested for an extended period of time. The subterranean causes of this scholarly interest are hinted at in this passage from Peter Brown, Authority and the Sacred:

Yet it would be unhelpful to ask which part of the Calendar [of 354] was ‘real’ and which an empty shell, maintained only by unthinking tradition. The more we look at such art, the more we are impressed by the way in which the parts that we tend to keep in separate compartments, by labelling them ‘classical’, even ‘pagan’, as distinct from ‘Christian’, form a coherent whole; they sidle up to each other, under the subeterranean attraction of deep homologies. The classical and Christian elements are not simply incompatible, nor can their relative degree of presence or absence be taken as an indicator of a process of Christianisation … the classical elements have been redeployed. (pp. 12-13)

It is this redeployment of the classical inheritance in Late Antiquity that most interests me. One of Leo’s early modern editors referred to this pope as being ecclesiasticae dictionis Tullius — a Cicero of ecclesiastical oratory. If he is correct, how is Leo Cicero? What things does Leo do that Cicero did? How classical is his oratory — style, Latinity, ornament, composition, etc?

When I look at Leo’s letters, how do they reflect their classical heritage? What is there of Pliny and Cicero and Seneca in Leonine epistolary? And yet, because his redeployment is explicitly Christian, what is there of St Paul in these letters? More to the point, of St Ambrose, St Jerome, and St Augustine?

This redeployment of the classical heritage within the shifting world of Late Antiquity is a fascinating study. We can see it in the use made by Christian Platonists (there’s even an interesting 19th-century volume, The Christian Platonists of Alexandria by Charles Bigg as well as the more recent study by Henry Chadwick, Early Christian Thought and the Classical Tradition). Or what about the shade of the Stoa in which, no doubt, early asceticism spent some time?

The gods become the planets, and the planets take on astrological significance, such that they are syncretised into the Mediaeval worldview, and poetry is written about and to them, roles are given them, personifying them as if they were actually the pagan gods. But given the Mediaeval penchant for allegory, the planets are probably not even allegories for gods nor for astrology but for something else (on the planets, see C S Lewis, The Discarded Image).

Oh, yes. Allegory. Here the Christians of Late Antiquity take up with vigour, most famously in Origen in the 200s but also in Ambrose in the 300s, the allegorising of religious texts, something done by Philo, by the Platonists, by the pagan readers of Homer. I had a professor who scorned the mediaeval monastic culture of allegory; she imagined that they produced these (often admittedly bad) allegories as a way to justify reading things like Ovid. Yet allegory is helplessly classical, part of the Hellenistic heritage she was allegedly a specialist of.

Art historians could go on about art, no doubt. So also architecture historians. And legal historians. And so forth.

To close: I was almost a Virgilian. I love Virgil. I think he is one of the most fantastic poets of the ancient world. One studies Virgil because Virgil is intrinsically interesting as a poet. He does lovely things with words, with metre, with symbol, with images, with narratology.

One also studies Virgil because of his own redeployment of the classical heritage, the redeployment in the Aeneid of classical Homer, Hellenistic Apollonius, Roman Ennius — elsewhere of Hellenistic Theocritus. He takes these poetic epic traditions and refracts them through the lens not only of his own history but of his own self and poetic ambitions. And thus produces for us amazing epic and pastoral poetry.

Late Antiquity — Christian Late Antiquity — gives us Prudentius. Prudentius takes the Latin epic tradition of Virgil and does all the sames sorts of things as Virgil had done with his tradition, and part of his redeployment is a specifically Christian redeployment of the material. I could do so many of the same things with Prudentius as with Virgil, only the playing field is a lot less crowded.

When does ‘late’ antiquity end?

With the purpose of keeping the wider world of Late Antiquity beyond the 21 years of Leo’s pontificate fresh in my mind as well as of becoming abreast of the literature on the field, I recently read Peter Brown’s ‘popular’ cultural history of the period The World of Late Antiquity. I also went to a very interesting day conference on Cities in the Long Late Antiquity that included papers on seventh-century Spain and eighth-century Palestine/Syria.

What this sort of thing — intrinsically interesting as it is — makes me wonder, and especially Brown’s book, is when on earth does Late Antiquity actually end? Are we still living in Late Antiquity?

The World of Late Antiquity cuts off its narrative of the cultural and political landscape of the Latin, Western Roman world in the fifth century. One must, then, assume that western Europe had by the sixth century entered that mysterious land, ‘The Middle Ages.’ Fine and well; I would probably cut off antiquity around the same place.

However, Brown follows eastern cultural and political developments well into the seventh century, into the world of the Caliphate. To be able to maintain that something of Late Antique or ‘Classical’ culture and politics has persisted as far as his book does, he takes up the thread of Sassanian Persia. If books about Late Antiquity had the world of Sassanian Persia as their centrepiece, this would be acceptable practice all around. But they do not, for Late Antiquity is the study of the last centuries of the Graeco-Roman world, the study of the Later Roman Empire (as Bury’s old but useful two-volume history terms it), the study of the later Classical world.

Me and Homer at the Kelvingrove, Glasgow

Classical Studies is consciously Mediterraneo-centric. Indeed, it is consciously Latino-Helleno-centric. It is a field of study that looks at the literature, history, culture, archaeology, languages, and so forth, of the ancient Greek and Roman world(s), conscious of the debt that our culture of the 21st-century ‘West’ owes to them, but also conscious of the intrinsic value of these ancient Classics. To be a Classicist is not to say that Graeco-Roman literature/history/culture is superior to that of Persia or the Germanic Middle Ages or classical China or Sanskrit or the Ojibwe oral tradition (although some might say as much). It is to say that these are interesting and important. We shall focus on them. You do what you like.

Now, sometimes knowledge of the cultures and histories of the surrounding, non-Graeco-Roman world can be useful to the Classicist, such as the mythologies and epics of the Near Eastern world for students of Greek mythology and epic. Or the history of the Persian Empire for the student of Herodotus. Or the world of Sassanian Persia for the student of the Eastern Roman Empire. No doubt about the usefulness of these things.

But Brown’s book spends most of its time focussed on the later Roman Empire, upon the history, culture, and literature of the empire(s) that encircled the Mediterranean Sea as its own lake. To take up the thread of Sassanian Persia to show how long and far Late Antiquity extends is to change focus. Perhaps the Persian Late Antiquity persists into the Caliphate; certainly not the Late Antiquity the book starts with, though.

Another way that Brown extends eastern Late Antiquity as far as he does is by choosing particular cultural traits and following them. This, to my mind, is as arbitrary as any other way of drawing a close to Late Antiquity. Had he chosen certain aspects of Latin literature, not only could he have extended Late Antiquity as far in the West as in the East, following sixth-century authors such as Boethius, Gregory of Tours, and Caesarius of Arles as well as Gregory the Great and the seventh-century Isidore of Seville right up to Bede in the eighth century, he could have followed certain pagan, classical traits throughout the entire Middle Ages and into the Renaissance.

But we would all know that to be foolishness, for something — many things — changed at the end of the Classical world. But when on earth is that end?

Odoacer deposes Romulus Augustulus

I think we can say 476 or 480 for the West. In 476, Romulus Augustulus was deposed by Odoacer who sent the imperial insignia East and ruled as rex — king — of Italy. In 480, Julius Nepos, Romulus’ predecessor, died in Dalmatia. Whichever of these two dates you choose, the Western Roman Empire ceased to exist as a constituted political entity. Many of the resulting changes were slow to transpire, and their velocity varied from region to region. But we no longer have a Roman Empire in Rome herself. As artificial as any other closing date for Antiquity, this one is at least consciously artificial and chooses a particular event. I note, however, that a good history of Late Antiquity should probably have a closing chapter that notes (if ever-so briefly) the continuity and change that transpired in the new ‘barbarian’ kingdoms of the West.

Justinian, mosaic from San Vitale, Ravenna

In the East, I cast a vote in favour of 565. 565 is the year Justinian died. Justinian is the last Eastern Roman Emperor to have spoken Latin as his first language. He also re-edited Theodosius II’s Code and then also produced the Digest, two monumental works of Roman Law. He built the magnificent Hagia Sophia, introducing a new architecture that would influence eastern churches and mosques to this day. He succeeded in alienating the Miaphysite community to such an extent that the Syrian Orthodox Church (‘Jacobite’) was born during his reign; he also caused a schism amongst western bishops. He reconquered North Africa and Italy, maintained the border with Persia, and kept out ‘barbarian’ peoples along the Danube. At the end of his reign, the world was different, there was no going back.

565 is, perhaps, even more arbitrary than 476/480. It is, still, consciously so. Many, many classical inheritances outlived Justinian; some of them, indeed, lasted until 1453. Many things also changed, and the Justinianic changes combined with Classical continuity helped forge the world and culture we think of as Byzantine. It still, therefore, strikes me as a safe cut-off. The Classical world of Constantine was gone by 565.

And what follows Late Antiquity? What comes after the ‘fall’ of the western Roman Empire? We’ll investigate this in my next post.