About Late Antiquity


The division of the history of Europe and its near neighbours into Antiquity, a ‘Middle Age’ and a New – or Modern – period goes back to the early Italian Renaissance. By about 1700, this tripartite division had become established in historical thinking. It can still be found today in the structures that shape many learned academies and societies, university departments and professorships, and learned journals.

But in the twentieth century, two developments in particular blurred this tripartite structure. First, in the earlier 1900s, historical research on the transition from the Middle Ages to the Modern world saw the delineation of an ‘Early Modern’ period, from roughly 1500 to roughly 1750. This period was decisively different from the Middle Ages, marked by such developments as the Reformation, the Enlightenment and the Age of Discovery. But it was still, crucially, a pre-industrial world.

Secondly, particularly in the decades after World War Two, research on the transition from Classical Antiquity to the Middle Ages became much richer and more complex. That transition had once been viewed as a sad tale of deterioration and collapse – of the décadence that followed Rome’s grandeur, of the empire’s ‘decline and fall’. But on closer inspection, it has turned out to be an age of great creativity and evolution as well as, in some ways, collapse. As a result, we have seen the rooting of ‘Late Antiquity’ as a distinctive broad period, from about AD200 to about AD600 in Western Europe, and to about AD700 in those other areas ruled by the Byzantine and Sasanian Empires, and by the Rashidun and Umayyad Caliphates. This was a world that was markedly postclassical and yet also pre-medieval.

What Makes Late Antiquity Distinctive?

Long-term Roman dominance of the Mediterranean world and its neighbouring landmasses, coupled with the long-term continuity of the Parthian and Sasanian regimes in Central Asia, had a number of broad consequences.

One is that economic opportunities were transformed. There was a maturing of commercial and specialized production, bound up with long-distance trade and market economics, of a degree (and in some respects, of a kind) that had never characterized the more fragmented economies of the classical world.

Another effect, propelled both by relative political stability and by the qualitative shift in economic complexity, was a growing complexity of social life. The commercialization of agriculture triggered profound changes in rural social structures. Relations between town and country had become more complex, after cities had taken wider root in the West, and continued to evolve in the East. Patterns of life within cities, and networks between them, became more variegated.

A further, profound effect was the unprecedented diffusion of ideas and beliefs. Not only did a variety of philosophies and religious cults travel more easily than ever before, with a rising emphasis on personal salvation. But also, especially from the third century onwards, came an unpecedented focus on the role of human agents (holy men and saints) as the joining points of Heaven and Earth; and a rise to dominance, from the fourth century onward, of monotheistic thought and belief.

This social complexity and religious transformation was accompanied by new cultural forms in architecture, art, craftsmanship and literature; and the emergence of whole new literary traditions beyond Persian, Greek and Latin – most notably in Syriac and Coptic.

Ultimately, too, the empires that had fostered these developments were largely displaced. The Roman and Persian empires were forever fragile internally; they were exposed to changing patterns of climate and disease; and their very existence transformed the behaviour of their ‘barbarian’ neighbours. The relative unity that they had once brought to the western end of the Eurasian landmass, and North Africa, was replaced by the dominance of Christianity and Islam.