Book Review: The World Of Late Antiquity

The World Of Late Antiquity, by Peter Brown

In many ways, this book is the inverse of another book I have read about the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, and deliberately so, in that both books seek to attack the central thesis of the other book on their weakest ground and this book, at least, largely ignores its own weakest ground [1]. At its best, this book echoes the concerns of the late Roman and early Byzantine world with constant warfare and the need for adroit diplomacy [2] as well as the fragility of civic culture in the face of crisis [3], the subject material of much better books. All too often, though, this book seeks to make a case for the vitality of late Roman society and tends to downplay the very real troubles that happened to ordinary people in the course of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire and its replacement by a set of much harsher successor states, whether one looks at the barbarian kingdoms of the West, the Byzantine Empire in the Balkans and Anatolia, or the Islamic Caliphate that took over the Near East. If you want a book that celebrates underrated neoplatonic philosophers and the art of Late Antiquity, this is a good book. If you want a book that provides us with a way to cope with the similarity between our age and the fall of Rome in terms of the crisis of culture and the declining legitimacy of civic responsibility, this is not a worthwhile book unless one aspires to be part of the surviving elite.

In terms of its contents, this is a short book, about 200 pages in length, many of them filled with pretty pictures of mosaics and bas-reliefs and coins and the like, divided into a few large chapters with several subsections within them. Part One of the book, which takes a bit more than half of its pages, discusses the late Roman Revolution. The first chapter talks about society, looking at the boundaries of the classical world, the new rulers in the third and fourth century who came from a largely military background, and the apparent restoration of the Roman empire after Constantine and his successors. Then the book discusses the contentious issue of religion, looking at the new mood of religious thought found in early Hellenistic Christianity, gnosticism, elite paganism, and various oriental cults, before looking at the crisis of the towns, the last pagan Hellenes, the conversion of Christianity into a midbrow Hellenistic faith, and the rise of monasticism. The second part looks at divergent legacies in the late Roman world and is split into three parts. The first part looks at the apparent Western revival between 350 and 450 and the price of survival in subjugation to barbarian kingdoms after that thanks to the collapse of civic participation among the senatorial and religious elite in Western Europe. The second part looks at Byzantium, examining the early history of the Eastern Empire, Justinian and his successors and the collapse of power due to plague and having too many enemies, the relationship between the Eastern Empire and Persia, and the death of the classical world. The final, and shortest section of the second part of the book looks at new participants, namely the Arabic world under Islam and the post-Islamic Abassid Caliphate.

At its heart, this author is a wannabe elitist Hellene. With the sort of arrogant disdain that intellectual elites have for accessible middle brow culture today, the author sniffs at the success of Hellenized Christians in appealing to a wider degree of people than were being granted status as civilized people in late classical society. He seems far more comfortable with the neoplatonic philosphers who replaced the koine Greek with a very rigid and recondite attic dialect, and sees much of the educated Christian world as being made up of semi-literate semi-barbarians, pointing out that where the civic culture was least robust, the rise of monasticism and the power of the Church led to division and fracturing within an area, but overall the author is not particularly concerned with the fate of the ordinary peasants or towndwellers, but is more concerned with the sort of elites that served as regional “big men,” or that were responsible for the creation and patronage of art. Small wonder, then, that as an art historian with very little concern about the lives of ordinary citizens that he would prefer to think of Late Antiquity, because decline and fall has such a harsh and unpleasant ring about it.




About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in Book Reviews, Christianity, Church of God, History, Military History and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Book Review: The World Of Late Antiquity

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