Before I launch into this post, I’d like to make it clear that I greatly admire the work of Kurt Weitzmann and have enormously profited from the book Age of Spirituality, which the Metropolitan Museum Art has available as a free download. Now, onto the show.
Sometimes, when I read titles of articles and books about Late Antiquity, and sometimes even the content, I get the impression that there are people out there who imagine Late Antiquity to have been uniquely religious, or particularly “spiritual” — that there was a spiritual ferment in the years 284-641 (or earlier, if you take on the timeline of Peter Brown, The World of Late Antiquity).
I am not sure that this is true. (And I hope I’m not constructing a strawman. Hopefully my academic colleagues are aware of this. It’s mostly just an impression.)
When I say that, I am not saying that Late Antiquity is not an age of spirituality. I mean that the designation is misleading. When we talk about this as an age of spirituality, there is an unspoken assumption that “classical antiquity” was not. Allow me to articulate, first, why we might think this, and second, why I think “classical antiquity” was as “spiritual” as Late Antiquity.
Why might we think that Late Antiquity was more spiritual?
The nature of the evidence for religious activity in Late Antiquity leads us to think this way, I believe. One of main cultural events of Late Antiquity was the Christianisation of the Roman Empire, and hot on its heels came the rise of Islam. Cultural historians have to deal with these two facts, and, since Islam and Christianity are both still lived religions, the evidence for each in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages is still available.
I know Christianity a lot better than Islam, and its history in the period is better documented, anyway. Two things about evidence for late antique Christianity give it an edge over other ancient religious traditions. First, it neither went underground nor ceased existing. The traditional Roman priesthoods all died out in Late Antiquity. No more sacrifices were made. No new hymns were written. The monuments were no longer maintained. Christianity, on the other hand, kept going.
Second, in the Early Middle Ages, the gatekeepers of knowledge were monks. Now, as anyone who has read Jean Leclercq, The Love of Learning and the Desire for God, knows, monks loved them some Virgil and Ovid. They read and copied the “pagan classics.” But, by and large, given the expense involved in making a book, they read and copied Bibles, liturgical books, ascetic/mystical treatises, and the Church Fathers. As a result, we simply have more knowledge about the religious experience of Late Antiquity because people were copying it down.
Related to this is the fact that, although many things about Late Antiquity are foreign to us (very few people have any desire to live on a pillar in the Syrian desert, for example), because of Christianisation, the spiritual texts of Late Antiquity seem familiar to us. Their religious experience looks like what we expect religious experience to look like because, even if fewer and fewer of us in western academia are professing Christians, we frame our religious language and experience in these same terms — or in an explicit rejection of them.
Ancient pagans, on the other hand, don’t fare nearly as well. Most surviving ancient Latin texts are Late Antique in the first place. More Augustine survives than any other ancient Latin author. I believe St Jerome comes in second place. Late Antique Latin texts dwarf their classical predecessors for quantity. As a result, even if pagan religious experience were not foreign, we simply have less of it to deal with.
Another reason, however, has to do with our own prejudices, Christian on one hand and Enlightenment on the other. Neither position does justice to non-Christian religious experience in antiquity. The Christian prejudice, for example, explains the relatively rapid Christianisation in Late Antiquity because paganism was empty and dead, just a bunch of formal rituals and such. Now, not only is this untrue of late antique paganism (consider the Neo-Platonist experience), it is untrue of classical religion as well.
The Enlightenment, on the other hand, discounts the religious element of classical antiquity. My first-year philosophy professor completely disregarded the religious elements of Plato, downplaying them as having any real bearing upon his philosophy. We like talking about people who challenged traditional religion without acknowledging that perhaps they have their own distinct religious experience from which their challenge arises. Instead, we imagine the Greeks and Romans as a bunch of Enlightenment rationalists (E R Dodds has put this to rest in The Greeks and the Irrational).
It is my contention — and it certainly needs more research to be proven and publishable in an academic forum — that classical antiquity, and archaic antiquity, had its own meaningful, distinct religious experience. It was every bit as spiritual as Late Antiquity.
Another angle is: What about unspirituality in Late Antiquity? What do we say of authors who seem largely secular such as Ammianus? Or Christians like Sidonius who write verse populated by pagan deities?