Peter Brown has been a leader in the study of the late Roman / Early Medieval world for 50 years. His works in the 1960s and 70s are credited with bringing a new coherence to the study of the period, and a new attitude which sees it not as a story of inevitable decline and fall, but as a period of surprising vigour and innovation – as a much more complex, rich and fascinating period. He helped to bury the term ‘Dark Ages’ – which is now generally deprecated – and bring about the renaming of the period as the ‘Early Middle Ages’, generally defined as 500 to 1000 AD.
The World of Late Antiquity was published in 1971 as an extended essay or meditation on the earlier part of this period, from roughly 250 to 750 AD. It was published by Thames and Hudson under the umbrella of their Library of European Civilisation series. It is some 220 pages long, in a large format paperback, with 130 illustrations, a chronology and map – adding up to a well-written, visually stimulating and beautifully packaged book.
And it is extraordinarily accessible and interesting right from the start, throwing out ideas and insights on every page.
The structure tells the overall story:
Part One: The Late Roman Revolution
Part Two: Divergent Legacies
I The West
III The New Participants (Islam)
Society Between 245 and 270 every border of the Roman Empire was breached by its enemies, the Persians in the east, Goths in the north. Communication between provinces broke down and the army produced up 25 emperors in 47 years. The prolonged crisis gave rise to a military revolution which remodelled the leadership of the Empire: the old aristocrats were banned from military service and leadership of the Empire became more militarised, taken from the new men who had risen through the ranks.
Thus the Emperor Diocletian, who set his stamp on the Empire from 284 to 305, came from a lowly family from modern Yugoslavia. The Army almost doubled in size, to 600,000, making it the largest organisation in the world, and more than doubled in cost (one of the dominant themes of surviving documents from the period is everyone complaining about the high tax burden: land tax had trebled in living memory by 350 AD). Emblematically, the new emperors aren’t depicted wearing the flowing toga of the leisured aristocracy of the early Empire, but wearing military outfits, generals’ costumes.
The old view was that these new men, these arrivistes, represented a decline from the leisured aristocratic class of the 1st and 2nd centuries, with its balanced prose style, its exquisite classical monuments etc. The modern view is that the late 3rd century re-organisation of the Empire led to rejuvenation and a burst of creativity in the 4th. The new style in art and mosaics is not a ‘decline’ from earlier classicism – it is a new, more expressive mode. On coins and monuments artists refer to this age as Reparatio saeculi, the Age of Restoration.
The greatest example of this comprehensive re-organisation of the Empire was the Emperor Constantine’s decision to divide the Empire in two, the West to continue being ruled from Rome, the East from the new capital city he built over the existing Greek town of Byzantium and named after himself, Constantinople. The new city was officially consecrated in 330 AD. This division of the Empire into East and West, along with Constantine’s Edict of Milan decriminalising Christianity in 313, were the two greatest legacies of the late Roman Empire to the rest of European history.
Religion Perhaps the biggest embodiment of this new creativity was the surge in religious thought. Brown points out that Christianity didn’t experience steady growth from Jesus’ death to the conversion of the Emperor Constantine (312). It simmered underground before undergoing a surge in growth during the troubled late 3rd century, alongside other exotic beliefs, such as the popular Mithraism, and varieties of Gnosticism.
Again, conservative historians used to see the spread of these eastern religions as a falling-off from the purity of classic Roman paganism: the modern view is to see them as creative responses to the new political and social conditions. And Brown points out that a new generation of arrivistes – ie men who didn’t hail from the close-knit traditional Roman families – changed the intellectual world as much as the military: Plotinus from Upper Egypt, Augustine from North Africa, Jerome from Stridon, John Chrysostom from a clerk’s office in Antioch.
Provincialisation The Age of Restoration, in the West especially, saw a social movement towards the rise of enormously wealthy landowners: the dominance of super-rich, provincial patrons who indulged in a more private lifestyle (Brown points out the abrupt falling-off in public dedications of buildings after 260). This new leisured class lived in big villas, decorated with fine mosaics which indicate the presence of wall paintings, tapestries and hangings.
For those lower down the scale, the petit bourgeoisie, businessmen and merchants, the Age of Restoration offered a world of new stability and greater mobility: I never cease to be amazed by the breadth of the empire and the tremendous cultural uniformity across such a vast area: Brown has a lovely paragraph describing how bureaucrats working at the border with Scotland in the rainy north or at Dura on the Persian border, both lived in villas built to the same plan and decorated with the same images, drinking from goblets, eating off plates produced to the same styles.
The new religious beliefs offered:
a) a framework of belief and living and practice for people below the level of the provincial aristocracy, of the big landowners
b) continuity and stability – bishops and their congregations became increasingly well organised for the collection of alms, the distribution of charity, for helping in difficult times
Brown is insightful about how the new popular religions, especially Christianity, offered ‘instant wisdom’, without the lengthy and intensive study required by the traditional training of the aristocratic class. The processes of ‘revelation’ and ‘conversion’ offered quick access to new mind-sets, complete with pithy practical ethical guidelines.
Angels and demons Pagans believed the world was alive with spirits operating under a variety of gods and demi-gods. Brown claims the biggest intellectual change in this era was the arrival of demons, angels and demons, and the master of demons, the devil. Although historians range far and wide in their analysis of the rise of Christianity, Brown points out that almost all contemporary accounts claim the new holy men, the saints and martyrs, had the ability to perform exorcisms and cast out evil demons. This more starkly black and white view of the universe, and the notion of the earth as a battlefield between God and his army of saints and the devil and his legions of demons – this sounds like the start of the Middle Ages right there, so it’s striking to have it located so early.
Monasteries Brown makes an issue of demons as representing an intellectual turning point, but I’d have thought the invention of monasteries was as much or more important, certainly in terms of social organisation. The first monk (from the Greek μοναχός, ‘monachos’, meaning ‘single, solitary’) is generally considered to have been Anthony, who around 270 left his village in Egypt to go into the desert and live by himself. Word of his piety spread and villagers brought him food if he would pray for them. Others followed his example, some living in very loose communities of solitaries and anchorites. Within two generations the movement was widespread across the East and went on to become one of the dominant forms of social organisation throughout the Middle Ages.
And it is in the East that all this takes place: the new Christian movements, the most radical Christian thinkers, the most important frontiers, the new capital city Constantinople, all this happens around the Eastern Mediterranean where passionate Greek-speakers are reviving pagan traditions, spinning them out into new neo-Platonic mysticisms, conducting ferocious intellectual battles against the newly invigorated and confident Christians: all of this happens east of Rome.
The turning point
Into what, by now, Brown has convincingly portrayed as a complex balance of numerous social, political, economic and military, religious and cultural forces, came a generation of military disasters. It started with the Battle of Adrianople in 378, in which the Roman Army was soundly thrashed and its emperor, Valens, killed by the Goth army led by Fritigern. In 406 other Goths crossed the Rhine border and spread throughout the thinly defended Gaul and into Spain. In 410 Visigoths led by Alaric sacked Rome itself.
Brown points out that the sack of Rome in 410 was caused by the blinkered chauvinism of the old Roman aristocracy. They had earlier given Alaric and his Vandals permission to cross the Rhine frontier to escape from marauding Huns; but they then allowed them to be mistreated by provincial governors and when Alaric marched towards Rome, haughtily refused to buy him off with subsidies.
The Imperial government had already moved to Milan before the sack of Rome and now moved to the more easily defended Ravenna – but having lost so much territory and tax revenue, it was virtually bankrupt between 410 and the dismissal of the last emperor in the West in 476. Brown points out how the growing sense of threat and then the advent of catastrophe, is linked to a wave of religious fervour: at the end of the 4th century there was a wave of anti-pagan repression (eg in 382 Gratian disestablished the Vestal Virgins, in the 390s the Emperor Theodosius effectively banned pagan religion and made Christianity the official religion of the empire). This new chauvinism included an ominous new development – attacks on Jewish communities for deliberately rejecting Christ’s revelation.
The decadent West
The Western Empire fell because it was decadent. If the East was made up of hundreds of coastal cities and towns in a tight web of maritime commerce, and similar webs of fierce philosophical and religious argumentation, the vast areas of Gaul and Spain and Britannia were only thinly defended and, in the century preceding the collapse, had become the playgrounds of a handful of fabulously wealthy landowning families. Their ideal was otium, a life of leisured scholarship, inviting each other to stylish dinner parties or recommending each others’ sons or nephews for posts in the powerful Catholic hierarchy. When the Goths invaded in the 400s, they found huge expanses of lightly defended territory, ideal for seizing and settling.
Brown makes the point that it was the very snobbery of the Latin landowners which helped isolate the incoming barbarians and ensured they would set up their own free-standing kingdoms. He compares and contrasts with the Chinese who were comprehensively invaded by Mongol barbarians yet within a few generations had completely assimilated them so that the new rulers were almost indistinguishable in style and culture from the conquered.
Roma aeterna is a creation of the heady but impotent patriotism of this age, created by the writers and senatorial poets of the late 4th century. In the same way, the growing cult of St Peter in Rome was a conscious Christian counterblow to the survival of paganism and the triumph of the barbarians. Together, nostalgic pagans and Christians helped to create the myth of ‘the grandeur that was Rome’.
Attila the Hun 434-453
Attila ruled a vast confederation of Hunnish tribes from 434 to 453. They formed the first barbarian empire the Romans had to confront the Romans learned they couldn’t be withstood by full frontal military attack. Instead the Huns forced the emperor in the East to devise cunning strategies for buying other barbarian allies to forms alliances against them.
The ongoing tribulations of the fifth century saw a significant shrinkage in the Latin cultural domain: fewer schools or libraries or centres of learning, Latin shrank to become the badge of a small aristocratic elite. Local ties and local affections became steadily more important, replacing the distant emperor in Ravenna, let alone the immeasurably distant emperor in Constantinople. Thus local saints and the chief local organiser, the bishop, grew in importance.
After the last emperor was removed from Rome in 476, coins continued to be minted in Rome but no longer showing an emperor’s head, instead showing symbols of Roma invicta. This represented the dawning of a romantic ideology of Rome, a nostalgia for old power. The Catholic Church in the West became increasingly beleaguered outposts of learning in seas of barbarism, transforming its officials into an isolated oligarchy. The privileged libertas of the old aristocracy, the confidence to bestride the vast territory of the empire, passed to the new cosmopolitan elite, the bishops.
The Emperor Justinian emerges as one of the most fascinating figures in the book. He had been eastern emperor for a few years when the Great Nika Riot broke out in Constantinople, the masses sacking the city, burning and looting. It appears to have spurred Justinian to carry out sweeping reforms, improving city morals, raising the emperor and his entourage to semi-divine status, cutting away dead traditions, focusing power on himself and his advisers. This far more centralised administration, characterised by poisonous and intricate palace politics, was his chief legacy to his successors, and gives its meaning to our modern usege of the word ‘byzantine’, referring to a formidably complex bureaucracy.
Hand in hand with the reforms in the Eastern Empire went aggressive military campaigns: against the Aryan heretics in the West, then in 533 he sent an army to Africa which conquered it in one quick campaign. Thus emboldened the army proceeded to Italy where in 539 it drove the Ostrogoths out of Rome and in 540 his general, Belisarius, entered Ravenna.
However, events in the east brought this progress to a grinding halt. In 540 the ruler of the Persian empire, Khosrow I Anushiruwān, broke his truce with Rome and attacked into Roman territory, sacking Antioch, then strolling home, devastating towns and cities as he went. In response Justinian stopped the Western campaign in mid-flow, stripped the Danube of its defences and undertook a punitive attack in the East. But the campaign was hampered by severe setbacks: 542 saw the outbreak of a devastating plague which recurred throughout the decade and, having denuded the Danube defences, he left them exposed to attack, so that in 548 Slavic tribes carried out their first invasion across the river into the Balkans until they threatened Constantinople itself.
His conquest of the West was left unfinished, while his defence of the East split his forces and required permanent attention. For the rest of his long reign Justinian was tied up in endless struggle to keep the barbarians at bay. His general, Belisarius, was accompanied on his campaigns in the West by the historian, Procopius of Caesarea (500-554), who went on to write a history of The Wars. But it is symptomatic of the times that Procopius is better known for his scandalous Secret History, which gives a lurid account of Justinian and his court. (It was these copious sources which the novelist and poet Robert Graves used to create his historical novel, Count Belisarius.)
The start of the Middle Ages
The disasters of the mid to late 500s saw a hardening of borders. For the first time Constantinople began to seem the isolated, beleaguered beacon it would remain for the next 900 years. This was accompanied by an inner, cultural hardening, with increasing persecution of ‘heretics’ and Jews. Brown says it was now, in the late 500s, that you see the emergence of the Total Christian Society which characterises the Middle Ages.
In the West the secular élite vanished. The Book stops being a workaday manuscript and becomes a precious Codex, highly decorated and valued in itself. The classical past becomes perceived as irreparably separate and gone. One aspect of this is it was a great age for fakes and forgeries as authors filled in blanks in the Christian record, creating the documents, the histories and letters which ought to be there, which Paul ought to have written and Peter should have dictated.
In the East Christ rises above being a mere human to become Christ Pantocrator, the All-Powerful, his image overshadowing the emperor in increasingly hieratic iconography. Throughout Christendom, the relic and the holy grave oust the living holy man. There is a great turn to a large and authoritative Past. Part of this was the continuing rise of the bishops; as the old secular landed aristocracy vanished, it left bishops in every urban centre as the focal point of their dioceses, as the main organiser, as the sponsor of literacy and learning. It was they who rallied populations against the barbarians and when, in the 630s, the Muslims conquered, it was the bishops who emerged as representatives of their populations.
In the early 600s Khosrow’s grandson, Khosrow II ‘Aparvēz’, took advantage of the weakness of the Eastern Empire to attack and seize Antioch (613), Jerusalem (614), Egypt (619), and got as far as the walls of Constantinople itself in 620. At Jerusalem he had seized a relic of the True Cross. The Emperor Heraclius (ruled 610 to 641) responded aggressively, buying alliances with neighbouring nations then counter-attacking deep into Persian territory, defeating the Persians at the Battle of Nineveh and marching south along the Tigris to sack Khosrow’s great palace at Dastagird. After this humiliation, Khosrow was murdered in a coup led by his own son. But the damage was done – this Persian War devastated territories around the Eastern Mediterranean, the populations and economies of Antioch and Alexandria were decimated. Though nobody knew it at the time this made them ripe for attack a generation later by the rampaging Muslims.
Brown’s brilliant, thought-provoking, vivid and insightful account ends with 20 pages on the rise of Islam, the eruption of Arab war bands into the Middle East and then a sophisticated account of how the Arab/Bedouin version of Islam was co-opted by the Persian empire under the rule of the Abbasid dynasty, which reached its height in the rule of Harun al-Rashid (786-809) and the establishment of Baghdad as a centre for art and learning. It is an important part of the story, heralding the end of the Mediterranean as ‘our’ lake and, in coming centuries, pushing the surviving Christian kingdoms into the north and west of Europe, creating the geographic concept of ‘Christendom’ which – in the secular form of the European Union – arguably lasts until this day.
A Late Antique chronology
Living in England and being interested in English history from the Roman through the Saxon and Viking periods, I tend to think of the Dark Ages in North European terms. This book is a powerful reminder of the Eastern-ness of the Roman world. It hardly ever mentions Gaul, Britain only once or twice. Instead, by the 500s and the rule of Justinian, the barbarian kingdoms in Gaul, Burgundy, Spain, north Africa and Italy were well-established and ‘Late Antiquity’ means the Eastern Empire. Thus Brown doesn’t mention the Vikings, Charlemagne or Alfred, heroes of the north, because they are outside and after the era of Late Antiquity. Late Antiquity is a lot earlier, and a lot more eastern.
284 to 305 Emperor Diocletian, typical new man of the period, rises through the ranks to become emperor and reorganise the Roman Empire.
313 Edict of Milan, the Emperor Constantine decriminalises Christianity
325 Constantine calls the Council of Nicaea to define Christian doctrine
346 The first Christian monastery was founded in Egypt by St Pachomius
376 Visigoths under King Fritigern appeal for permission to cross Danube into Roman territory and settle
378 Visigoths forced into revolt by famine and excessive taxation, leading to –
378 The Battle of Adrianople (9 August) Eastern Roman Army led by Valens destroyed by Gothic forces led by Fritigern
379-395 Theodosius, the last emperor to rule over West and East, institutes reforms which include the banning of pagan religion ie Christianity becomes the official religion of the Empire
395 Partition of Roman Empire into West Roman Empire (Honorius) and East Roman Empire (Arcadius), ruled by a Tetrachy of four rulers (an emperor and assistant for each half)
410 Sack of Rome by the Visigoths under Alaric
434-453 Attila ruler of the Huns and an empire which stretched from Holland to the Caucasus
455 Vandals raided Rome
476 September 4 – Odoacer (a Germanic leader in the Roman army) deposes the last western Roman emperor, ruling the Western Roman Empire as King in his own right
486 Franks conquered the Seine and Loire valley
507 Frankish King Clovis converted to Catholicism taking his people with him
524 Execution of philosopher and statesman Boethius at the order of Ostrogoth King Theoderic
526 Death of King Theodoric
529 Saint Benedict founded his monastery at Monte Cassino, Italy
529 Justinian closed the Academy at Athens, founded by Plato in 347 BC
535-553 The Gothic War – Byzantine invasions, and finally conquest of the Ostrogothic Kingdom
568 The Lombards leave their homeland in the western Pannonian plain and, under King Albion, arrive in Italy
600s Persian armies under Khosro I seize Antioch (613), Jerusalem (614), Egypt (619)
620s The Emperor Heraclius counter-attacks forcing the Persians to an exhausted truce
622 Mohammed and his followers migrate to Medina, the event known as the Hijra marking the beginning of the Islamic calendar
632 Death of Mohammed
635-38 Middle East falls to the Arabs
670-95 Africa falls to the Arabs