Late Antiquity: Opposing Views of Decline and Prosperity

From the Lecture Series: The Roman Empire: From Augustus to The Fall of Rome

By Greogry S. Alderete, P.h.D., University of Wisconsin, Green Bay

After the end of the Golden Age of Rome, until the beginning of the dark Middle Ages, there is a long period of 400 years, a grey area that has been a mystery to historians. It used to be dismissed as the age of substantial decline in all aspects of social, military, and economic realms, which served as a prelude to the abyss of barbarism in the Middle Ages. However, other views have emerged that are not so negative.

The photo shows the aqueduct of Segovia, Spain.
The historians view Late Antiquity as a period of both decline and prosperity of the Roman Empire. (Image: LucVi/Shutterstock)

The Negative and Positive Views of Late Antiquity

There are two opposing views regarding the period between AD 200 and 600. Edward Gibbon, in his book, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, has described this era as a period of decline. With some variations, this has been the dominant basic interpretation throughout history.

The scholars believed that in the Mediterranean world, barbarians attacked the Roman Empire and savagely looted and killed people. These invasions led to the destruction of everything the Roman civilization had achieved in cultural, technological, and artistic aspects. All the achievements in philosophy, law, government, and refinement disappeared. Prosperity turned into abyss that took 1000 years and threw Europe in the squalor of the Dark Ages.

The portrait of Edward Gibbon by Henry Walton.
Edward Gibbon described Late Antiquity as a period of decline in his book. (Image: Henry Walton/Public domain)

Another perspective sees the Mediterranean world between AD 200 and 600 experiencing fundamental transformations through novel ideas and innovations in the cultural and intellectual realms. Different cultures lived together, which created new religions, states, and social forms. The foundations for the modern world were laid in this era by creating new borders, religions, and legal systems.

The second view is more recent and goes back to the 1970s. Some historians started giving totally different accounts of this period, and other historians followed them in the next decades. They believed that the era was both positive and negative, witnessing both growth and decline.

Learn more about religion, politics, and war in Rome.

Scholarly Views on Late Antiquity

Before the 1970s, this era had not received the attention that the eras before and after it had enjoyed. Moreover, this period is not clear in terms of the beginning and end. Some historians stretched the medieval years backward and labeled it as the Early Middle Ages. But others associated it with the Roman Empire and called it the Later Roman Empire.

The first historian who suggested this era of 400 hundred years had to be studied on its own right was Peter Brown. In his book, The World of Late Antiquity, he calls this period “Late Antiquity” and suggests that this time period was a distinct and vital time that was neither a prelude to the Middle Ages nor a postscript to the Roman Empire.

After the book was published, Late Antiquity took center stage in historical studies. It is now generally recognized as a separate and important time, which was neither stagnant nor simple. Instead, the developments of Late Antiquity are vital to understanding the world that emerged from it, and which, in many respects, continues to exist today. 

Brown’s perspective shifted the focus from destroyed aspects of Roman culture to the new cultures that emerged. The clashes between barbarians and Romans were now less significant than the intricate relations between them.

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The Innovations in Cultural and Political Aspects

Peter Brown and other scholars particularly highlighted the innovations that took place at that time. Historians have focused on religious developments in Late Antiquity. Some of the intellectual giants of the Christian tradition emerged in this religiously flourishing era.

During this time, the classical world underwent massive transformations due to the settlement of Germanic and other barbarian tribes. They founded their own ruling systems and introduced their own cultures in the Mediterranean world. The Roman civilization, in turn, influenced them. The most significant manifestation of these cultural changes is that the pagan tribes gradually converted to Christianity. Monotheism introduced by Christianity replaced the ancient gods of the north, and Christianity slowly took over the Mediterranean world and Europe.

Political structures and institutions and even titles that belonged to the Romans did not disappear and were adopted again. The fields of law, the Church, diplomacy, and government kept using Latin as their official language. In the east, the Greek language continued to live as a strong language.

So, the Romans and barbarians did not fight to grab the pieces of the Roman civilization from each other. Instead, the Romans invited the barbarians inside the borders of the empire because they hoped barbarians would turn into their allies. There were negotiations among them, documented by treaties between the two groups. According to these treaties, the barbarians would offer military service to the Romans, and in exchange, they would receive money and territory.

Learn more about barbarians overwhelm the Western Empire.

Common Questions about Late Antiquity: Opposing Views of Decline and Prosperity

Q: What is Edward Gibbon famous for?

Edward Gibbon was an 18th century English historian and the writer of the book The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. His ideas in this book introduce Late Antiquity as a period of major downfall and decline of the Roman Empire.

Q: What is the time period of Late Antiquity?

Late Antiquity spans the period between AD 200 and 600.

Q: What religious changes took place during Late Antiquity?

During the era of Late Antiquity, the pagan tribes gradually converted to Christianity. Monotheism introduced by Christianity replaced the ancient gods of the north, and Christianity slowly spread in the Mediterranean world and Europe.

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