Religious and Intellectual Movements of Late Antiquity

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

Late Antiquity is characterized by the ambiguity of identity and fluidity of political alliances. One might think that these frequent shifts between cultural and political interactions are indicators of chaos and confusion, but this is what happens in periods of change, which forms new institutions and ideas. A lot of institutions were created during Late Antiquity that lasted for a long time. One of them is religion.

The picture shows an Old Bible in a church.
It was only during Late Antiquity that such core concepts as the nature of Christ and his relationship with God were hammered out through a series of long, and frequently acrimonious debates among popes, bishops, and Christian intellectuals. (Image:1000 Words/Shutterstock)

Christianity originated during classical antiquity and was established as the main religion in the ancient Mediterranean, but it took a long time until an agreement formed over its ultimate doctrines and structure. After a series of long and violent debates, central ideas like the nature of Christ and his relationship with God were determined.

The various interpretations and theological positions became the center of debates among popes, bishops, and Christian intellectuals, who met in councils, exchanged letters and wrote elaborate treatises.

This is a transcript from the video series The Roman Empire: From Augustus to the Fall of Rome. Watch it now, Wondrium.

The Great Monastic Movement

A portrait of Saint Augustine by Philippe de Champaigne.
Saint Benedict developed a set of rules to regulate the lives of monks. (Image: Philippe de Champaigne/Public domain)

Saint Antony started the great monastic movement that further developed in the Middle Ages. After leaving all his relationships and earthly possessions behind, he went to the Egyptian desert and spent his time praying. His way of life became widely popular, leading to one of the most significant social and religious phenomena of history.

The idea of monkhood developed by Antony emphasized seclusion and retreat to lonely mountains, deserts, or caves. Then, monkhood developed into a communal notion. Saint Benedict developed the rules of behavior for monks in the 6th century.

Benedict established the monastery of Monte Cassino in Italy. The Rule of Benedict controlled every minute of monks’ lives, including their diet, their daily plans for prayer, and other activities. Medieval Christianity had monasticism as its central feature that further influenced social and religious aspects.

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Prominent Religious Figures of Intellectual Movements

Christian theology was defined by the writings of the prominent Fathers of the Church, who lived in Late Antiquity. Eminent intellectuals like Origen, Lactantius, Eusebius, Ambrose, Augustine, and Jerome established the doctrines of Christianity through their texts, interpretations, and debates. Their biographies show how they combined the cultural and intellectual features of Late Antiquity to create a unified whole out of the disparate parts of the old society.

Born in the 4th century AD in a Roman Province of North Africa, Augustine was the son of a minor local nobleman and a Christian mother. His education was classical Roman, just like his origins, but he got involved with different contemporary spiritual and philosophical movements such as Manichaeism and Neoplatonism. Finally, he adopted a more conventional type of Christianity. He lived as a hermit for several years before becoming a bishop. He devoted his life to fighting Donatism and other heresies. As a prolific writer, he has many surviving letters, sermons, and treatises. The Confessions and City of God are among the most prominent ones.

Jerome was also born in the 4th century. He came from a wealthy Christian family, living on the northern Roman frontier in Stridon. His classical Roman education included rhetoric and Latin literature, which led to his fascination with the works of Cicero, the eminent Roman statesman and orator. The turning point in his life was when Christ appeared to him in a dream and said, “You are a Ciceronian, not a Christian!” After that incident, he redirected his efforts toward Christianity, using his linguistic skills in writing religious texts. After learning Hebrew, Greek, and Latin, he translated the Old and New Testaments into Latin. During the Middle Ages, this version of the Bible, which was called the Vulgate, became the standard one in Europe.

Women also had prominent roles in religion. One of these women was Melania the Elder, who belonged to an affluent Roman family. After selling her estates, she devoted the proceeds to the church and the poor. Then she went to Jerusalem and established a monastery and nunnery. The church called her a saint to recognize her efforts.

Another woman was Hypatia of Alexandria, who was famous for her intellectual achievements in the classical traditions in Alexandria. Lecturing on philosophy, mathematics, and astronomy, and serving as an advisor to the city council were some of her intellectual efforts. But after she got involved in local politics, a Christian mob murdered her.

The lives of these people show that the traces of the classical world continued to live in the Late Antiquity, took on new forms, and paved the way for the progress of energetic and creative individuals.

Learn more about Christianity among world religions.

Common Questions about Religious and Intellectual Movements of Late Antiquity

Q: Who started the monastic movement in Christianity?

The great monastic movement that would flourish in the Middle Ages began during Late Antiquity in the 4th century with Saint Antony. After leaving all his relationships and earthly possessions behind, he went to the Egyptian desert and spent his time praying.

Q: What were the ideas of monkhood as developed by Saint Antony?

During Late Antiquity in the 4th century, Saint Antony established the initial paradigm of monasticism. He emphasized on monks quite literally isolating themselves from other humans, often going off to live alone in deserts, on mountain tops, or in caves.

Q: Did women achieve prominence as Christian mystics, martyrs, and role models during Late Antiquity?

During Late Antiquity, a number of women achieved prominence as Christian mystics, martyrs, and role models.

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