Introduced by Christopher Kelly
This fascinating history debunks the notion of a fallow ‘Dark Ages’ following the decline of Rome’s political influence, revealing an Eastern Mediterranean blossoming with theological and cultural innovation.
Rome did not fall; it simply evolved. Gibbon’s age of ‘decline and fall’ was in fact a period of growth and continuity, and the Goths and Vandals borrowed more from Roman culture than they destroyed. Startling in their day, these ideas were made widespread by the historian Peter Brown, who also coined the term ‘Late Antiquity’ to describe the period from the 4th to the 8th century AD. His classic account, first published in 1971, transforms our understanding of what was once known as the Dark Ages.
Beginning with the Emperor Hadrian and ending with the Prophet Muhammed, this lively narrative shows how, although Rome declined as a political capital during Late Antiquity, the ‘cultural power- house’ of the empire in the eastern Mediterranean remained. This was the period when Christianity took hold as the official religion of the imperial court. It was a time of artistic and theological innovation, as well as struggles between old and new ways of thinking. As Christopher Kelly, Fellow of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, writes in his introduction, this book brilliantly shows the human face of the period, with ‘ceremonial emperors, hairy holy men, powerful saints, excitable virgins, charismatic heretics, oppressive bureaucrats and violent barbarians’.
‘The best historians, like Peter Brown, are also excellent storytellers’
Brown is Emeritus Professor of History at Princeton University and the recipient of several international awards. Visual art is central to his book, and this edition features a dazzling selection of images, from the ivory Nicomachi Panel to an Iranian rock carving. The author has written new captions for many of these images. The binding features a striking 4th-century mosaic showing the consul’s procession in Rome, while an eight-page fold-out chronology provides the finishing touch.
The decisive transformation that gives Late Antiquity its coherence is the secure establishment of Christianity as the overwhelmingly dominant faith of the entire Mediterranean world. It can fairly be claimed that Christianity is Late Antiquity’s most important and lasting legacy. Of course, Christianity was also transformed by becoming a popular religion with a well-organised institutional structure devoutly supported by pious emperors. This reformation is at the core of The World of Late Antiquity. Here is a society unimaginable to any roman in the second century: bishops as influential as the grandest civic dignitaries; the brightest minds (such as Augustine’s) engaged in subtle theological debate; emperors publicly parading their own humility by walking barefoot in procession before cheering crowds of the faithful. Gospel texts (many the subject of heated exegetical dispute) provided the benchmarks against which individuals and their actions were to be judged. Late-antique literature brims with biblical scenes and symbols; so too, late-antique art. one of the great pleasures of this book is that it is so generously illustrated with pictures of exquisite ivories, precious manuscripts, golden reliquaries and gem-studded treasures. Like clerestory windows, these rich images illuminate the sensibilities of a society for which the sacred was unashamedly magnificent. Glittering mosaics celebrated gorgeously robed bishops presenting architectural models of churches. The splendours of the imperial court merged with visions of Paradise whose guardian archangels were stylishly envisioned in the purple and gold uniforms of high-ranking state officials.
Peter Robert Lamont Brown was born in Dublin in 1935. Emeritus Professor of history at Princeton university, he is credited with creating the field of study now known as Late Antiquity. His key works include Augustine of Hippo (1967), The Cult of the Saints (1981), The Body and Society (1988), The Rise of Western Christendom (2003) and Through the Eye of a Needle (2012). He was awarded the Macarthur fellowship in 1982, the Mellon foundation’s inaugural distinguished achievement award in 2001, the Kluge Prize for achievement in the Study of humanity in 2008 and the Balzan Prize in 2011.
Christopher Kelly is a classicist and ancient historian. He is a fellow of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge and is currently Chair of the faculty of Classics at the university. His books include Ruling the Later Roman Empire (2004), The Roman Empire: A Very Short Introduction (2006), The End of Empire: Attila the Hun and the Fall of Rome (2009) and Theodosius II: Rethinking the Roman Empire in Late Antiquity (2013). He divides his time between Cambridge and Chicago.
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Review by anon on 12th Jun 2015
"This is a seminal work concisely summarizing a couple of decades of work that led up to the reevaluation of the "Dark Ages." The text is filled with insights in every chapter that will be a revelatio..." [read more]