What is Late Antiquity Anyway?

28 Oct

I need a tidier definition. I was eating lunch with some friends a couple of days ago and in the process of resolving all of the world’s problems my hobby came up, as it does from time to time, mainly because I look for ways to interject it whenever possible. I made the mistake of mentioning Late Antiquity rather than saying I tend to focus on Early Medieval. 1

The obvious followup was, Friend: “What’s Late Antiquity?”

Me: “The period from around 250 to around 700.”

Friend: “That’s when it is – what is it?”

Uh-oh. I like it when people are perceptive, except for those times when I don’t. I gave him some sort of explanation which included a period which contained elements from classical and medieval society, monotheistic state-sponsored religion, changing patterns of land tenure, etc., etc. I quit before I threw in retaining classical literature, government administrative systems, etc., from Rome. I think I was close to discovering a new method of hypnosis.

OK, so that didn’t work and I’ll never do it again. For now I’m going to remember not to use Late Antiquity in this sort of conversation. That doesn’t mean I want to throw the term in the dustbin, only to be trotted out when I go to a conference, happen to run into folks with some knowledge, or post to this blog. I think it has some utility and it should, even when talking to people who know even less about history than me.

I’m pretty comfortable with about 250-700 as the period (of course there’s overlap with other periods). I have the “whenness” piece of this down fairly well and have no problem justifying it for Western Europe. For details you can see this discussion on Magistra et Mater.

What I need is a better description/explanation. I’ve got a bunch of Peter Brown’s stuff and ran through it to see what he has but he’s short on shallow definitional terminology – he seems to want to actually explain things. I thought maybe the Oxford Centre for Late Antiquity would have something. Websites tend to be pretty useful for mining short summary phrases from – people tend to spend less time on them. Though maybe not when you’re an Oxford student. Oxford briefly describes some of what happened, not a definition. 2

Maybe the best I can do is a combination of period/characteristics. One statement I try to stay away from is, “Late Antiquity was a period of change.” Every time in history was a period of change. LA may have had a bit more than some periods but it’s pretty hard to find any 500-year chunk of time where things were pretty much the same at the end of it as at the beginning. And I definitely won’t say that Late Antiquity was, “The period where the Roman World transformed into the Medieval World,” since this tells my lunch-listeners nothing.

Anyway, if someone has a useful phrase defining Late Antiquity in 20 words or less, I’d appreciate it. Lacking that, I think I need to go back to explaining my interest as, “the early part of the Medieval Period and the later years of the Roman Empire.” That hasn’t caused me much trouble.

1 I should note that long before I started thinking about things like Late Antiquity I considered the Middle Ages to be from 312-1517. I thought (and still think) that the existence of Christianity as the single largest social institution in Western Europe was a pretty important defining characteristic and figured the period between Constantine at the Milvian Bridge and Luther worked pretty well (at the time 1517 made sense – I have no trouble with anyone saying it should be 1519, 1520, 1530, etc. – or anyone who wants to use 1492, 1453, etc.). Once I figured out what piece of Medieval History was most interesting to me, I decided that Late Antiquity did a pretty nice job of covering that same time (at least based on the years used by some). My About this Blog page gives a bit more detail on how my thinking progressed.

2 Since humor doesn’t always translate on the internet I figure I should note that this is a good thing. We get enough shallow “pithy” phrases imposed on us by society – it would be troubling if historians and universities ever start promoting them. And while I enjoy talking about the artificiality of modern periodizations, I usually don’t take lunch conversations there.


Posted by on October 28, 2011 in Historiography


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2 responses to “What is Late Antiquity Anyway?

  1. Historian on the Edge

    October 28, 2011 at 6:34 pm

    I guess I tend to think about what the periodisation of Late Antiquity *does* rather than what (or when) it *is*. [Incidentally I have difficulty with LA going much beyond 600, but there you go; I'm in a minority.] It is a way of breaking the old artificial division between the 'ancient' and the 'medieval' periods, avoiding a sharp 5th-century break focused on the end of the western empire and the barbarian migrations. This allows late Roman historians to look at how stories play out and early medievalists to look at what went first, thus avoiding the still all-too-common view that anything in the early Middle Ages is new and 'Germanic'. It allows the whole Mediterranean and its divergent trajectories to be studied, rather than dividing the barbarian West from Roman Byzantium. It has allowed a concentration on religious and cultural history slightly obfuscated by the old division, and it has (less usefully in the long term) fostered an obsession with continuity and a negation of change. Any attempt at shared or defining characteristics comes hand in hand with the issue of 'when' and (in my view) founder if the periodization chosen is too long.

  2. Curt Emanuel

    October 29, 2011 at 2:19 am

    The argument for 600 as an end date is pretty strong. There isn't a lot of recognizably Roman/Classical stuff left going on by the 7th century. My reasoning is much more elementary, from a consumer perspective, and likely not very historically sound – it lets me plug the Merovingians and Visigoths completely in LA instead of breaking them up into two periods (not sure what we do with the Lombards). I certainly couldn't argue against someone who has a different opinion, particularly since yours comes from a much larger knowledge base.I've argued that one of the main values in the term Late Antiquity is to get people away from thinking about the end of the Roman Empire, at least in the West, as a fall but rather as a transition period. Then again, when I tried to incorporate LA into casual conversation it didn't go so well so maybe I'm overestimating its possible impact.Minimizing change has gone too far in some cases IMO – Everett's book on the Lombards seems to be an example of that. The pendulum keeps swinging though. I need to dig up a statement of Edward James – it was something to the effect of, "The barbarians were barbarians and different from Romans – you don't need to make them Romans with Germanic names to explain their taking over Western Europe."


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