Podcast episode

Episode 95: The Third Century and (the Long) Late Antiquity

[Corrigendum: Gentle listeners, we speak about the massive military and social reforms of the emperor Diocletian as a crucial marker for the change to late antiquity; this is quite right, but unfortunately we kept mixing up Diocletian (r. 284-305 CE) with the much-earlier and quite-irrelevant Domitian (r. 81-96)! Forget about Domitian: it’s Diocletian!]

The podcast is pulling back from the nitty-gritty of history for a moment to discuss an important concept in historiography: late antiquity. When we approach western esotericism as a whole phenomenon across a broad sweep of history – see pretty much all the reputable ‘Introduction to Western Esotericism’ books on the market – there is always a mention of something more-or-less along the lines of ‘… religious and philosophical movements of late antiquity like (fill in the blank: Neoplatonism, Hermetism, theurgy, esoteric Christianity or ‘Christian mysticism’, etc.).’ But what do we mean by ‘late antiquity’?

It may be that different scholars mean different things. We have thus written this episode to lay down some of what we here at the SHWEP mean by late antiquity. Viz: the period when classical antiquity was progressively transformed into something recognisably new, but something not yet ‘mediæval’. Can we be more specific?

Yes: firstly, major political and social changes occurred in the Roman empire, not least of which were the so-called ‘crisis of the third century’ and the institution of the Dominate, the later period of imperial rule wherein the empire was transformed into an increasingly-absolutist military/ideological machine of control. Secondly, late antiquity saw transformations in the ways people thought about things – what it was to be a human being, how the human being should relate to other human beings and to god(s), and so forth. We discuss what we see as three crucial developments occurring in the late-antique thought-worlds of the Mediterranean world:

  • the rise of totalitarianism (both political and ideological),
  • the interiorisation and privatisation of religion (sometimes called the ‘inward turn’), and
  • the rise of the individual.

Enjoy your (individual) self, it’s later (antiquity) than you think.

Works Cited in this Episode:

  • Glenn Bowersock. The Vanishing Paradigm of the Fall of Rome. Bulletin of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 49(8):29–43, May 1996. We cite pp. 42-3.
  • Brown 1971 and Brown 1978: see below. Brown on the Late Pagan Holy Man: Peter Brown. The Rise and Function of the Holy Man in Late Antiquity. JRS, (61): 80–101, 1971b.
  • Gill 2006: see below.
  • Smith 1993: see below. [Note that, in the work of Smith and of other scholars of religion, the term ‘Hellenistic’ is often used in a way quite different from the narrow definition usually given it by Classicists: thus, many religious developments which Classicists would consider typically late antique are discussed under the rubric of ‘Hellenistic religion’. These often are things (like, for example, the move away from temple-cult or sacrifice) which indeed begin in the Hellenistic period, but which really take over in late antiquity.]
  • Tatian (c.120-180 CE): ‘There should be one code of law for all mankind, and one political organisation’, citing Brown 1971, p. 60.

Recommended Reading:

A comprehensive bibliography on just the concept of late antiquity would run to thousands of titles; the following list is just a brief indication of a few works which are especially relevant to this episode. Some argue for a long late antiquity, while others (esp. Ward-Perkins and Marcone) argue that, in essence, we need to re-instill some crises and hard cultural breaks into our historiography.

On Islam, see the corpus coranicum project at the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences, which is seeking to realign our understanding of the Qur’ân into late antiquity.

  • G. W. Bowersock. Hellenism in Late Antiquity. University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, MI, 1996b.
  • Glen W. Bowersock, Peter Brown, and Oleg Grabar, editors. Late Antiquity: A Guide to the Post-Classical World. Harvard University Press, Cambridge,MA, 1999.
  • Peter Brown. The World of Late Antiquity. Thames and Hudson, London, 1971a.
  • Idem. The Making of Late Antiquity. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 1978.
  • Alexander Demandt. Der Fall Roms. Die Auflösung des Reiches im Urteil der Nachwelt. Munich, 1984.
  • G. Fowden. From Empire to Commonwealth: The Consequences of Monotheism in Late Antiquity. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 1993.
  • Idem. Before and After Muhammad: The First Millennium Refocused. Princeton University Pres, Princeton, NJ/Oxford, 2014.
  • Lloyd P. Gerson, editor. The Cambridge History of Philosophy in Late Antiquity, 2 vols. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2010.
  • Christopher Gill. The Structured Self in Hellenistic and Roman Thought. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2006.
  • A. Heuss. Antike und Spätantike. In J. Kunisch, editor, Spätzeit. Studien zu den Problemen eines historischen Epochenbegriffs, pages 27–90. Berlin, 1990.
  • Arnaldo Marcone. A Long Late Antiquity? Considerations of a Controversial Periodization. Journal of Late Antiquity, 1(1):4–19, 2008.
  • H.-I. Marrou. Décadence romaine ou Antiquité tardive? IIIe–VIe siècles. Seuil, Paris, 1977.
  • Arnoldo Momigliano. Christianity and the Decline of the Roman Empire. In idem, ed. The Conflict Between Paganism and Christianity in the Fourth Century, pages 79–99. Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1963.
  • J.Z. Smith. Map Is Not Territory. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL/London, 1993b.
  • Bryan Ward-Perkins. The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2005.
  • Edward J. Watts. City and School in Late Antique Athens and Alexandria. University of California Press, Berkley/Los Angeles, CA/London, 2006a.


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