Tag Archives: the world of late antiquity

Was Late Antiquity an age of spirituality?

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 The monuments were no longer maintained.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.

Post-Script

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?

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.