Dimitris Stamatios | May 10, 2023
Late Antiquity is an expression used to designate a period of European and Mediterranean history that begins at the end of the third century but whose term is much more vague. It is only used in reference to the countries that belonged to the Roman world: the regions of Western, Eastern and Southern Europe, Asia and Africa around the Mediterranean basin, but extends well beyond the end of the Western Roman Empire in 476.
Late Antiquity is characterized by a mixture of ancient traditions, what historians call “Romanity”, Christian contributions and “barbarian” influences. Theological debates, difficulties in the relationship between the emperor and the Church and the development of early Christian architecture characterize the period. Late Antiquity is an essential period for the transmission of culture, science and, more generally, of all the knowledge accumulated by the various ancient civilizations. It is therefore of great interest to historians who initially saw it as a period of decadence, but now consider it as a pivotal period between Antiquity and the Middle Ages.
Late Antiquity begins with the advent of Diocletian (r. 284-305), when the Roman Empire, while keeping its unity, is ruled by four emperors (“Tetrarchy”) in order to better face invasion threats. Indeed, the Empire was then governed by two Augustinians, one of whom was the head of the Pars Occidentalis (improperly called the Western Roman Empire) and the other of the Pars Orientalis (improperly called the Eastern Roman Empire), and two Caesars who assisted and succeeded their respective Augustinians.
At the beginning of the 5th century, the Germanic invasions lead to the creation of ephemeral barbarian kingdoms in the ancient Pars Occidentalis of the Empire, but the ancient economic and social structures remain. In the east, the Pars Orientalis was maintained by profound cultural, religious, political and military reforms, which gradually brought the Late Antiquity to an end. These reforms began discreetly during the reign of Justinian the Great (527-565). They accelerated from the reign of Heraclius (610-641) and culminated at the beginning of the reign of Leo III the Isaurian (717-741), on the eve of the outbreak of the first iconoclastic crisis in 723. It is the result of several centuries of transition, by which the old Pars Orientalis of the Lower Roman Empire loses its proper Latin character following the Arab and Slavic invasions which force it to withdraw to the Hellenic civilization area. This Pars Orientalis thus acquired a Greco-Oriental character, and brought the Christian East into the medieval period: it was called the “Byzantine Empire” from 1557 onwards.
In the traditional division of history into periods, Antiquity ended with the Germanic invasions and the destitution of the last Western emperor, Romulus Augustus, in 476. The High Empire, considered as the apogee of Roman civilization, was followed from the 4th century by the Low Empire, considered from the 18th century to the middle of the 20th century as a period of decadence. From this point of view, the Germanic invasions in the 4th and 5th centuries brought about a decisive change, sweeping away Roman society and establishing a new social system.
In the mid-nineteenth century, the French historian Fustel de Coulanges was the first to see a continuity between the fifth century and the following centuries. In 1901, in a book studying the craftsmanship of the late Roman Empire, the Austrian art historian Alois Riegl rehabilitates the period by stating that it is not decadent and has its own unity. In the twentieth century, historians continue to revisit the centuries marking the transition from classical antiquity to the Middle Ages. In a book published in 1937, the Belgian medievalist Henri Pirenne (1862-1935) defended the thesis of a continuity in the Mediterranean from the fourth to the seventh century. This thesis was first criticized by the majority of historians of Roman antiquity. These remain indeed very attached to the idea of decline and decadence and still see in the High Empire an ideal age corrupted by the imperial absolutism of the fourth century, Christianity and the barbarian invasions. The course of Henri-Irénée Marrou (1904-1977) illustrates, however, the evolution of historians on the subject: in 1937, he supports the idea of a decadence of ancient culture, thus molding himself into the schemes of his time; after the Second World War, in a new edition of his thesis, he questions the notions of decadence and even the end of ancient culture. His posthumous book, Roman Decadence or Late Antiquity, takes stock of the ruptures and continuities of the Roman world. Today, the study of Late Antiquity requires the intersection of various disciplines in order to better understand its constituent elements: the establishment of major legal codes such as the Theodosian Code and the Justinian Code, the permanence of ancient culture and the development of Christianity as a state religion.
If historians agree for the most part that Late Antiquity begins with the end of the crisis of the third century and the advent of Diocletian, different theses clash on the date of its end. Historians agree that the Germanic invasions were not the radical rupture that many had believed to see. As the historian Peter Brown has shown, certain features of ancient culture continued beyond the fifth century. The Lombard invasion of Italy in 568 is sometimes remembered. It corresponds to the end of the reign of Justinian (565), which for a long time marked for specialists in Byzantine history the transition from the Roman Empire (of the East) to the Byzantine Empire. However, the Greco-Romans of the East never identified themselves as “Byzantines” (this term is a neologism introduced by Hieronymus Wolf in 1557) but as “Romans” (Βασιλεία Ῥωμαίων = Empire of Romans), and this even beyond the capture of Constantinople by the Turks in 1453 since, in the Ottoman Empire, they formed the Milliyet of the “Rum”, thus the Romans, until 1923.
According to contemporary specialists, the Roman tradition continued fairly well in the Eastern Empire until the seventh century, when it was amputated of a large part of its territory under the blows of the Lombard, Slavic, Bulgarian and especially Arab invasions. After the seventh century, local situations vary greatly in what was the Roman Empire: in the East, the Empire folded on Helladia and Anatolia becomes more and more a medieval Greek state: the Byzantine Empire; in the West, the foundations of ancient civilization remain in the continental part of the old Empire, while the British Isles plunge into the “Dark Ages” (in English) from the fourth century. Recent geonomic studies have shown that climatic variations played a major role in these developments, causing the agricultural productivity of northern Europe to decline and pushing many populations towards the Mediterranean basin. In Northern Gaul and the British Isles, the forest regained ground following depopulation and it was not until the improvement of the year 1000 that roads and irrigation canals, wheat and vines returned (often under the impetus of monasteries)…
Diocletian: the establishment of the Dominate, the Late Empire and the Tetrarchy (284-324)
Historians usually start the Late Empire with the reign of Diocletian (284-305). His action is certainly in the line of the emperors Aurelian and Probus, these energetic emperors of the third century, but he laid with Constantine the foundations of a strong monarchy (“Dominate”), characteristic of the period.
A few months after his arrival in power, Diocletian understands that he cannot direct the Empire alone and entrusts Maximian with the care of the West as Caesar, then Augustus. In 293, he gave Maximian a deputy who bore the title of Caesar, Constantius Chlorus, and chose one himself, Galerius. This is how the needs of the Empire gave birth to the tetrarchy, that is to say the power of four where Diocletian, first emperor of the East, retains the preeminence. The stability of this team during twenty years allows the recovery and the deep reform of the Empire. There was no territorial division of the Roman Empire, but the four men shared the command of the troops and their areas of intervention. They abandoned Rome as the capital in favor of various “imperial residences”, closer to the borders to be defended. Thus, under the tetrarchy, the traditional imperial residences were Nicomedia and Antioch for the Eastern Augustus Diocletian, Sirmium for the Eastern Caesar Galerius, Milan for the Western Augustus Maximian and Trier for the Western Caesar Constantius Chlorus.
This new organization made it possible to eliminate the usurpers who were causing trouble in Gaul, to push back the Franks and Alamanni, the Moors in Africa, the Iazyges and the Carps on the Danube, and the Persians in the East. The victory over the Sassanids strengthened the Roman presence in Mesopotamia with the constitution of five new provinces.
The internal policy of Diocletian is in the line of that of the emperors of the 3rd century. Like Aurelian, he reinforced the divinization of the imperial function. Like Valerian, he wanted to encourage the return to traditional polytheistic religions whose gods had always protected the Empire, even if he was personally a follower of the cult of Mithras. At the end of his reign, in 297, he launched a persecution against the Manichaeans, then in 303 the last of the great persecutions against the Christians.
In 305, the two Augustinians abdicated on the same day to make way for their Caesars, Galerius and Constantius Chlorus, who in turn became Augustinians. Before retiring to his palace in Split, Diocletian chose two new Caesars, Maximin II Daia (or Daza) and Severus, thus deliberately excluding the sons of Maximian and Constantius Chlorus from the succession. In doing so, he revived the Antonine practice of choosing the best as heirs, but by going against the grain of hereditary logic, he actually caused the ruin of his system.
The second tetrarchy clashed with the ambitions of Maxentius and Constantine, the respective sons of Maximian and Constantius Chlorus. A period of instability followed, with up to seven Augustinians at the same time. In 313, two emperors remained in the running, Constantine and Licinius. The latter was defeated a first time in 316. A compromise is found between the two men, seeming to give birth to a new tetrarchy with two Augustinians and three Caesars. But the Caesars were the sons of two Augustans, which brought back the principle of heredity that Diocletian wanted to avoid. The two Augustinians were opposed on the religious question. Constantine was the first emperor openly favorable to Christianity, while Licinius, without resuming persecution, defended the traditional religion. This one is definitively eliminated in 324. Constantine then remained the only sovereign.
The Constantinian dynasty: the adaptation of the Tetrarchy to a dynastic reasoning (324-363)
In 324, Constantine the Great chose the ancient Greek colony of Byzantium, located on the European shore of the Bosphorus Strait, to found a new capital that would bear his name, Constantinople. Organized on the model of Rome, it was inaugurated in 330.
When Constantine died in 337, he had not settled his succession. His three sons proclaimed themselves Augustus after having murdered their uncles who could have been competitors. They shared the Empire but ended up having a falling out. Finally the Empire was reunited under the authority of Constantine’s second son, Constantius II (337-361), who appointed two Caesars with very limited powers. The long reign of this emperor perpetuated the policy of his father. His cousin Julian, Caesar in Gaul, was proclaimed emperor in 360. The death of Constance II, the following year, avoided a civil war. Julian, who had broken away from Christianity for love of Greek thought, hence his nickname of apostate, tried to restore the old religions. His death after 18 months of reign, in 363, made this attempt futile.
The Valentinian dynasty: from peaceful migrations to invasions (363-378)
His successors, Jovian (363-364), the last representative of the Constantinians, then Valentinian I in the West (364-375) and Valens in the East (364-378), all Christians, returned to religious neutrality. Valentinian I had to face up to the troubles on the borders of the Empire: the Alamanni in the Rhine regions, the Quads and Sarmatians on the Danubian limes. Persia also remained a threat despite the wars waged by the emperors Julian and Jovian. In addition, from the beginning of his reign, the Eastern emperor Valens, brother of Valentinian I, had to face the difficulties caused by the presence beyond the Danube of the Goths, converted to Arian Christianity. On the death of Valentinian I, power fell to his two young children Gratian (367-383) and Valentinian II (375-392). Too young to really govern, they left power in the hands of their entourage, the imperial family and the great figures of the state.
In age to govern, Gratien adopts a policy resolutely hostile to the pagans. It endeavours, among other things, to release from the public life any polytheist influence. He thus suppresses any public assistance to the pagan cults, but must face the hostility of the nobilitas of Rome attached to the traditional religion.
In 376, the Huns, driven out of Central Asia by a prolonged drought and very hard winters, pushed back the Goths who asked for asylum in the Roman Empire. Two hundred thousand of them are thus peacefully established south of the Danube, in Mesia, in exchange for recruits. The failure of the integration of this immigration, exploited by the Roman civil servants, incited the Goths to revolt and to ravage Thrace. Attempting to re-establish order through arms, the Eastern emperor Valens was defeated by the Goths at the battle of Andrinople and died there in 378.
The classical vision of the end of the Western Roman Empire is now being challenged by some historians. They put forward the idea that these “invasions” in the Danube region were primarily massive migrations due to climatic causes: the Goths, pushed by the Huns, arrived in too large numbers and too quickly for the Empire to integrate them. However, even in Gaul and Africa, the migration and settlement of Germanic peoples was only destructive at first. Bertrand Lançon, drawing on the history of the Boers in South Africa, speaks of a “trek” and emphasizes the Goths’ desire to integrate. Indeed, the establishment of barbarian nations was based on a Roman principle in use since the fourth century, that of two distinct nations – the Romans and a Germanic people – established on the same soil with different laws applied to each people.
Theodosian dynasty: the weakening of the West and the strengthening of the East (378-454)
After the death of the Eastern emperor Valens in 378, Gratian, who could not administer the Empire alone, chose a new colleague for the East, Theodosius the Great (379-395). This one succeeds in concluding a new fœdus with the Goths in 382, restoring temporarily the peace in the Empire. By virtue of this fœdus, the Goths had the right to settle in Thrace while keeping their own laws, having their own chiefs and not being subjected to Roman taxes. They were thus almost independent even though they committed themselves to serve in the Roman army as federates, i.e. under the command of their own leaders. In fact, the frontier was modified to the benefit of the Goths, but the treaty disguised the reality.
Gratian having been assassinated by Maximus in 383, this last one is recognized Augustus for the Occident but is defeated by Théodose after having invaded Italy devolved to Valentinien II, the young brother of Gratian. The young man remains then only Augustus of the Occident under the protection of the Frankish general Arbogast, magister militum set up by Théodose. Valentinian II is found strangled in 392 and Arbogast proclaims the pagan rhetorician Eugene as emperor. In 394, Theodosius defeats this usurper at the battle of the cold river, where both armies lose most of their forces. While the barbarian danger is more and more pressing, the defenses of the Empire are weakened by these civil wars.
In 395, Theodosius the Great, the last emperor to rule the Roman Empire alone, died after dividing the Empire between his two sons. Arcadius, the elder, became Augustus of the East (395-408) and Honorius, the younger, that of the West (395-423). But the Pars Occidentalis knows a long period of “agony”, weakened militarily and economically by the various usurpations and the disorders generated by the barbarian invasions, while the Pars Orientalis, it, preserves a flourishing economy which will allow him to survive by means, at the beginning of the VIIth century, of deep reforms which will see it transforming itself into Byzantine Empire
This explains in part why the date of 395 has remained symbolically that of the division of the Roman Empire. However, it is rather towards 408 that one can date the definitive “partitio” of the Empire: this year, Stilicho, tutor of the two young emperors, dissuades Honorius from taking the head of the Eastern part of the Empire at the death of his brother Arcadius, and it is the son of this last one, Theodosius II, who reigns on the East from 408 to 450.
To explain the end of imperial unity, the historian Paul Petit returns, in the conclusion of his Précis d’histoire ancienne, to two historiographical trends. The first trend, with Ferdinand Lot, argues that the Empire would have died in short order, even without the barbarian invasions. The second trend, with André Piganiol, defends the thesis of a brutal end to the Empire as a direct consequence of the barbarian invasions. This importance of the barbarian peoples bordering the Empire raises the general question of the real weight of the invasions in the fall of the Western Roman Empire. Thus, if the role of the Great Invasions is undeniable for Paul Petit, it is not enough to explain the disappearance of the Pars Occidentalis. In 395, the division between the sons of the emperor was not a novelty and, in 410, the capture of Rome by Alaric I was certainly a significant event, but it did not lead to the end of Honorius’ reign nor to the fall of the Empire. For Paul Petit, the real rupture took place in 408, with the death of Stilicho, since this led to a new phenomenon: the partitio imperii.
Thus, this “imperial partition” is translated concretely for Demougeot by several important elements which open the history of the fifth century. Firstly, there is the partition of 395 which is a reminiscence of the partitions carried out under the Tetrarchy; it is a continuity with the IVth century. Secondly, the institutions within the so-called Western and Eastern Roman Empires will begin to diverge and thus herald the fifth century and especially the early Middle Ages. Third, the character of Stilicho is rehabilitated, showing the loyalty of the Italian elites to the emperor (p. 210), but also the complexity of the relations between the members of the court and the Italian Roman patricians and those from the provinces. Finally, fourthly, the turning point defended by a majority of historians is that of the years 406-410 with the passage of the frozen Rhine by the Goths and the conflict between Alaric and Honorius leading to the sack of Rome. The phenomenon of the Great Invasions, particularly that of the Huns, begins with this transitional period.
In spite of the words stipulating the division of the Roman Empire into two other Roman Empires (West and East), this division between the two sons of Theodosius is not a division and is in line with the continuity of the previous reigns. This division is purely administrative and the theoretical, legal and political unity of the Empire is preserved. As an illustration, any legal act of the Roman Empire required the signature of both emperors and came into force on the whole Roman Empire and not on only one of its parts.
Thus, like the previous divisions and until the emperor Justinian (527-565), this one hardly seems irremediable, an emperor being able to always become the only master of the whole Roman Empire.
In 395, not being any more bound to the person of Théodose, the Visigoths of Alaric Ier plunder Macedonia, Thessaly and Greece. To get rid of them, the emperor of the East Arcadius negotiates at gold price their withdrawal towards the West and prevents Stilicon from fighting them there. In 402, while the Ostrogoths invaded the Danube provinces, the Visigoths penetrated Italy. In 410, they sacked Rome. This episode was felt as a catastrophe by the Romans. Some polytheists saw it as the consequence of the abandonment of the traditional gods, while Christians, such as Jerome of Stridon, saw it as the punishment for the sins of men. Augustine of Hippo asserted that there was no link between salvation and the Empire, as salvation could only come from Christ. The definitive establishment of the Visigoths in Aquitaine and Spain put an end to their raids.
But in the meantime, on December 31, 406, the Vandals, Sarmatians, Suevi, Alans and Alamanni crossed the Rhine, soon followed by the Burgundians. They ravaged Gaul and threatened the island of Brittany. In 410, the latter was definitively abandoned by the Roman troops who left to defend Gaul. The powerful anti-Burgundian party present at the imperial court obtained a purification of the army and the administration in Italy, depriving it of effective and faithful defenders, including Stilicho. The emperor of the West Honorius, installed in Ravenna, is forced to accept the installation of new “federated barbarian kingdoms” in Gaul.
In 429, the Vandals invaded Africa, which they conquered in 10 years. They deprived Italy of one of its granaries, their fleet controlling the western Mediterranean. They were also fanatical Arians who persecuted the orthodox Romans. In 435, the Vandals obtained the status of federates in East Africa. The Suevi king Hermeric created a real kingdom around his capital, Braga, by obtaining a fœdus in 437-438.
In the Roman West, in this chaos, the Pars Occidentalis is reduced henceforth to Italy, Dalmatia, a part of Gaul and Tarraconaise (current Catalonia). The Danubian provinces, all of which remained faithful to the Empire, came under the authority of Constantinople.
At the same time, in the 5th century, the Roman East experienced a long period of economic prosperity. The imperial treasury abounds in gold coins. Under the Eastern emperor Theodosius II (408-450), the city of Constantinople continued to expand and received a new wall, the Theodosian Wall. A legal code is published, the Theodosian Code, applicable in all parts of the Roman Empire. Nevertheless, the Pars Orientalis was destabilized by violent religious conflicts between Orthodox and Arians, and then, from 430, between Orthodox, Nestorians and Monophysites. Moreover, from 440, the Huns threaten directly the Pars Orientalis. A tribute and the granting of a Roman dignity to Attila made it possible to move away the danger.
Aetius, general of Valentinian III, continued to fight against the Barbarians. He pushed back the Franks towards the North, the Visigoths towards the South of Gaul and Spain. He defeated the Burgundians thanks to his Hun contingents and transferred them to Sapaudia where, in 443, Valentinian III authorized them to settle as a federated people. In 451, thanks to an army that was more barbaric than Roman – it included a strong Visigothic contingent, Franks and Alans – he managed to push Attila back at the battle of the Catalaunic Fields, near Troyes.
The end of the Roman West (454-518)
In spite of its successes, Aetius is cut down in 454 by Valentinian III himself, rightly jealous of these successes. But the emperor was in turn assassinated by former officers of Aetius, marking the disappearance of the Theodosian dynasty in the West. From this moment, while remaining formally indivisible, the unity of the Roman Empire is damaged by the disappearance of the last two representatives of Theodosians, the emperor of the West Valentinian III (425-455) and the emperor of the East Marcian (450-457). But this event, which generates a definitive distance of the two parts of the Empire and ratifies the differences of economic and demographic evolution previous, results especially from a continuous disagreement between the two imperial courts.
Thus, while in the Roman East the Thracian dynasty acceded to the throne on the occasion of the coronation of Leo I the Thracian (457-474), becoming the first emperor of the East crowned by the patriarch of Constantinople, the Pars Occidentalis experienced political instability with emperors powerless to cope with barbarian pressure, usurpation and disorder. In this context, Rome was pillaged in 455 for more than a month by the Vandals of Genseric, while the Barbarians spread irresistibly in Gaul despite the defense of Ægidius, then his son Syagrius (who managed to resist until 486).
In such a context of crisis, the legality of the imperial dignity resting on the recognition by the co-emperor, the emperors of the East do not recognize any more the title of Augustus to the “last emperors of Occident”, all usurpers. This state of affairs incited the emperors of the East Leo I and Zeno (474-491) to intervene directly in the affairs of the Pars Occidentalis in order to support their own candidates for the title of Augustus of the West respectively Anthemius (emperor of the West 467-472) and Julius Nepos (emperor of the West 474-480).
In 476, the Herulian Odoacre took Ravenna and deposed the young emperor-usurper Romulus Augustulus (475-476), then sent the imperial insignia to Constantinople in sign of submission. During this same year, Syagrius and Odoacre send both delegations to Constantinople in order to be recognized as patrice of Italy.
Finally, Zeno will privilege Odoacre. Thus, the king of Heruli becomes patrice of Italy, that is to say that he is recognized as representative of the imperial authority in Occident, which defines him as a kind of vassal viceroy of the emperor of the East Zeno. Nevertheless, in return, Odoacre found himself in a situation of dual allegiance not only to Zeno but also to the Western emperor Julius Nepos (who had taken refuge in Salone, in Dalmatia, since 475). This recognition of Odoacre as patrice of Italy generated two reactions. The first was the transfer by the federated barbarian peoples (e.g., the Salian Franks of Childeric I) of their fœdus to Odoacre in order to preserve the theoretical unity of the Roman Empire; the second was the formation of an autonomous Roman state that broke with Odoacre’s Italy (although it was the representative of imperial authority in the West), but which recognized the authority of the Western emperor Julius Nepos and maintained effective Roman authority in northern Gaul.
In 480, following the assassination of Julius Nepos, the last emperor of the West, the emperor of the East Zeno became the last and only emperor of the Roman world and was recognized as such by his vassals, namely the patrice of Italy Odoacre, the federated barbarian rulers and the Roman authorities persisting in the West, mainly the Berber-Romans, the Britto-Romans and the Gallo-Romans of Syagrius. The disappearance of the last Western emperor nevertheless allowed Odoacre to exercise absolute authority in the West, despite his simple status as a representative of imperial authority, which allowed him to annex the former Roman Dalmatia, previously governed by Julius Nepos. Having broken in 476 with the Italy of Odoacre, Syagrius finds himself henceforth in a position of quasi-independence whereas he continues to behave like a simple governor maintaining the effective Roman authority in northern Gaul. What is perceived as a “secession” from Constantinople will be solved in 486 when the Salian Frank Clovis, theoretical vassal of Odoacre and Zeno, crushes him during the battle of Soissons with the assent of Constantinople.
In short, Roman authority over the West was purely theoretical, exercised mainly through the patrice of Italy Odoacre who represented imperial authority in the West, to the great displeasure of the persistent Roman authorities. But Odoacre’s power in Italy soon became a potential threat to the Roman East. Consequently, in 488, Theodoric, king of the Ostrogoths, conquered Odoacre’s Italy with a mandate from Zeno who considered himself the sole master of the Empire. After the capture of Ravenna in 493, the power of the Ostrogoths extended over Italy, Sicily and Dalmatia.
As the new representative of imperial power in the West, Theodoric tried to extend his power over the other barbarian kingdoms, both Arian. For Theodoric, the Goths were the protectors of the Romans. A Roman administration therefore remained, but subordinate. The Roman culture and way of life kept a great influence on the Goths. The Roman emperor even gave Theodoric the title of king. The Ostrogothic kingdom of Italy is an excellent example of the relationship between the emperor of Constantinople and the barbarian kings: fake mandate and real independence. Thus, the barbarians struck a solidus with an imperial effigy, but the gold content was manipulated as they wished.
The war against the Persians resumed under the reign of Anastasius (491-518). Having to devote himself to it, the latter made Clovis the representative of the Roman authority on the old prefecture of Gaul by appointing him, around 500, patrice of Gaul and consul.
The Justinian dynasty: the Roman East reconquering the West (518-602)
The Senate chooses then a Macedonian officer, Justin (518-527), whose nephew Justinien climbs all the steps of the administrative career.
Henceforth Augustus, Justinian the Great (527-565) devoted a large part of his reign to take back from the Barbarians the lands of Romanity (Italy, Dalmatia, Africa, Corsica, Sicily, Sardinia, Balearic Islands and Betica). He thought that any land that had been Roman remained inalienably Roman by virtue of the uniqueness and indivisibility of the Roman Empire. The West is the first objective of Justinian. First, he conquered Africa from the Vandals in a few months (533-534). Then, he took advantage of the weakening of the Ostrogoths of Italy, after the death of his vassal Theodoric, to intervene in the peninsula in 535. The conquest is more difficult than expected and is final only after a devastating war between 552 and 554, during which Provence escapes him in an alliance with the Franks, supporters of Christian orthodoxy and representatives of Roman authority in Gaul. Finally, in 554, the Romans conquered part of Visigothic Spain as far as Cordoba. Justinian’s conquests were very costly and led him to neglect the Persian threat (which he momentarily dismissed by paying a tribute) and the Slavic threat (which appeared on the Danube). He thus sacrificed the future of regions vital to the Roman Empire (soon to be Byzantine) in order to pursue the dream of a universal empire. In addition, it does not manage to reconcile the supporters of orthodoxy and the monophysites.
This reconquest exhausted the Empire and did not prove to be sustainable: in Italy, the Lombards took over two thirds of the peninsula and, in 568, only the islands, the regions of Ravenna, Rome and Venice and the extreme south of the peninsula were still in Roman hands. The rest of Italy was divided into Lombard principalities, and Italy was divided up for more than a thousand years. The last Roman territories in the West were organized into two exarchates: Ravenna (Italy and Sicily) and Carthage (Africa, Sardinia, Corsica and the Balearics).
At the same time, in the West, Roman political and administrative structures weakened as Christian structures, whether episcopal or monarchist, were consolidated. In the sixth century, the bishops exercised the administrative, financial and political powers that had previously been held by lay magistrates. This transformation of the city, with the bishop at its head, is at the origin of the medieval city.
The Heraclian dynasty: the Byzantinization of the Roman East
Process started discreetly under Justinian, the “Byzantinization” of the Roman Empire took place from the beginning of the 7th century. This process consists in the progressive loss of the Latin character of the Roman Empire in favor of a rather Greco-Oriental character. Thus, from the beginning of his reign, Heraclius (610-641) abandoned the Latin title of Augustus for that of Basileus, made Greek the official language and transformed the provinces into themes. Finally, at the end of his reign, the “Byzantinization” accelerates under the pressure of Arab-Muslim conquests, which snatch the rich eastern provinces of the Empire: following the battle of Yarmouk in 636, Syria, Jerusalem, Egypt and Mesopotamia are definitively lost after six centuries of Romanity. It was then the turn of Roman Africa to come under Arab-Muslim domination after the fall of Carthage in 698. From then on, the Roman Empire lost most of the Latin-speaking territories of its Empire and had to refocus on the traditionally Greek-speaking territories, such as Greece and Anatolia mainly, but also southern Italy and Sicily.
On the eve of the outbreak of the first iconoclastic crisis in 723, the arrival in power of Leo III the Isaurian (717-741) marked the end of a century of transition. From then on, in the East, Romanity was only represented by the Eastern Romance languages, with the Greek-Orthodox world (known as “Byzantine”, which would continue and develop the Roman heritage), South Slavic and Arab-Muslim definitively replacing the Roman world. The Byzantine Empire, medieval, was born.
Ideology and power
The crisis of the 3rd century transformed the imperial power, which became absolute. The Senate has no more influence. One passed from the Principate to the Dominate. The emperors of late antiquity also benefited from an ideological construction which, little by little, assimilated the emperors to living deities and thus justified their absolute power. For Constantine as for Diocletian, the imperial authority is of divine nature. Diocletian and Galerius, his adopted son, claimed to be descendants of Jupiter. They took the nickname of Jovian, his colleague Maximian as well as his co-caesar Constantius, that of Herculian. This sacralization of the imperial power also aims to remove any legitimacy to the possible usurpers, since only the emperor is elected by the gods and that only his successor is legitimate. This ideology does not prevent Constantine and Maxentius, sons of Augustus but removed from power, to challenge the new tetrarchy after the death of Constantius in 306.
Constantine, although affiliated with the herculean lineage of the tetrarchs, deviated from it as soon as he got rid of Maximian in 310, in favour of the solar theology of Apollo and Sol Invictus. This one implies a unique and supreme power and has the favour of the Western armies, which helps its ambitions. The coins of Constantine testify of this solar ideology during some years (see the image of the solidus). In 312, Constantine integrated Christianity into his ideology and the two monotheistic solar and Christian principles coexisted until 324, when Constantine became the sole master of the Empire. According to Paul Petit, the persistence of solar symbols on Constantine’s coins and the neutral but monotheistic vocabulary of the pagan panegyrics of 313 and 321, independently of an imperial attitude that was very favorable to the Christians, responded to the concern to spare all factions as long as the victory over Licinius had not been achieved. After his victory in 324, Constantine changed the INVICTUS in his title to VICTOR, while a coin of this date represents him with the emblem of Christ piercing a serpent.
Because of his conversion, Constantine does not seek to assert a divine filiation. Rather, he claimed to have been invested by the God of the Christians to rule the Empire. Coins from 330 show a hand reaching up from heaven to give him a crown. The conversion of Constantine also raises the problem of Caesaropapism. The emperor acted like a cleric in his way of exercising power. In Constantinople, he built his palace as if it were a church; he claimed to have received a vision of Christ as if he were an apostle, and like the emperors who followed him, he bore the title of isopostle, equal to the apostles; he presented himself as “the bishop of those outside” (i.e. those who were not clerics) at the Council of Nicea, but he did not have the status of bishop. Constantine affirms that he is the representative of God on earth. In his intelligence is reflected the supreme intelligence. He surrounds himself with an incredible pomp to exalt the greatness of the imperial function. Henceforth Romanity and the Christian religion are linked. Eusebius of Caesarea, taking again the theses of Meliton of Sardis, elaborates the theology of the Christian empire in several works, of which his panegyric of 335. For him, the political unification allowed the religious unification. The emperor is, in this framework, the servant of God and as the image of son of God, master of the universe. The emperor also received the mission of guide to salvation and the Christian faith. His growing intervention in religious matters is thus legitimized, as well as Caesaropapism.
In the West, spiritual power is moving towards greater autonomy in relation to political power. Ambrose lays the foundations of the medieval theory of the separation of the two powers, even sketching the idea of a subordination of political power to spiritual power. He thus forced Theodosius to do penance and to walk barefoot in ashes to atone for the massacre of ten thousand people after the revolt of Thessalonica in 390. In the East, the emperors oscillated between Caesaropapism and subordination to the spiritual power. Thus, in 450, the emperor Marcian was crowned emperor by the bishop of Constantinople Anatolius. His successor Leo did the same. It is thus the bishop who in the name of God makes the sovereign. One of the consequences of this ideology is the submission of the king to the dogmas of the Church. The emperors do not however give up intervening in the affairs of the Church. In 482, Zeno published the edict of Henotikon, which was doctrinal in nature and aimed at calming religious conflicts over the nature of Christ. This will of the sovereign to say the dogma raises an opposition in the East as in the West. Justinian, in the 6th century, went so far as to kidnap and sequester Pope Vigilus for seven years in order to force him to subscribe to the positions defended by the 2nd Council of Constantinople condemning monophysitism. Constantine II in 653 made apprehend and judge the pope Martin Ier, and Justinian II tries the same action against Serge Ier in 692 to impose the canons of the council in Trullo. But this time, the Roman militia defended the pope.
The dynastic principle set up by Constantine resulted in a weakening of imperial power. Indeed, on several occasions, children came to power at the death of their father. This is the case of Gratian and Valentinian II, Arcadius and Honorius, Theodosius II and Valentinian III in 423. The mothers of these young emperors then occupied an important political role as well as certain prefects of the prétoire.
The number of soldiers per legion went from 6,000 to 5,000 during the High Empire to probably 2,000 at the beginning of the reign of Diocletian. He increased the number of units. It is assumed that the Roman army of the 4th century numbered between 250,000 and 300,000 men. A major novelty was the recruitment of soldiers of barbarian origin to guard the limes, the borders of the Empire. They completed the army of maneuver.
The maneuver legions were smaller in size – 1,000 legionnaires – but more numerous than in the previous period. They pass from 39 to 60. They were in charge of intercepting the Barbarians who had managed to cross an increasingly fortified border. The need to defend the Empire justified the abandonment of Rome as the imperial residence in favor of cities closer to the borders: Trier, Milan, Sirmium, Nicomedia. Constantine completed the transformation of the army and set up the comitatus, the field army. Its command was entrusted to a magister peditum for the infantry and a magister equitum for the cavalry. If necessary, masters of the militia could be created for a particular region as in Illyria. In exposed provinces and dioceses, the troops may be led by a comes or a dux. This army is particularly cared for by the emperors.
To mitigate the difficulties of recruitment, Diocletian imposes new rules. From then on, landlords had to provide recruits to the Roman army. During the fourth century, they obtained the right to replace the recruits with a sum of gold, the aurum tironicum. This system was abolished in 375, but only for the East. A significant number of citizens tried to escape from enlistment in the army by leaving for the desert, cutting off their thumbs or becoming a cleric. The heavy sentences against deserters, the heredity of the profession of soldier do not avoid the difficulties of recruitment, which pushes the emperors to appeal to the barbarians.
In addition to the soldiers of the army of maneuver, Diocletian and Constantine I recruited auxiliaries of barbarian origin to take care on the limes, the limitanei. They have little to do with the Roman spirit. The distinction between comitatus and limitanei gave birth to the Roman army of the Lower Empire. Under Theodosius, the barbarian presence was strengthened, including in the high command positions, exercised by Romanized barbarians such as Arbogast, Stilicho and Gaïnas. At the beginning of the fifth century, the army of the West theoretically included 200,000 men at the borders, almost all of barbarian origin, and 50,000 men in the army of maneuver. The borders were then defended by soldiers from peoples who sought to invade the Empire.
In the fifth century, the Eastern Roman Empire experienced several anti-Germanic reactions which led to the elimination of barbarian leaders (Gaianas in 400, the assassination of Aspar in 471) and to the exclusion of Germans from the army. At the same time, in 466, the Eastern emperors replaced them with a source of indigenous recruitment, with the Isaurian mountain people, subjects of the Empire, commanded by Zeno, who became the son-in-law of Emperor Leo I and succeeded him. The last federates in the East, led by Theodoric, were sent to Italy in 489, which freed the East from their pressure.
Nevertheless, the Germans remained an important part of the imperial army until the seventh century, but they were recruited individually as mercenaries and supervised by imperial officers. The abandonment of the federate system and the regaining of control of the armed forces allowed the survival of the Eastern Empire.
At the beginning of the 7th century, the financial crisis of the Eastern Empire and the occupation of the Balkans by the Slavs and of Eastern Anatolia by the Persians dried up the capacity to recruit mercenaries. Heraclius then reorganized the recruitment by the institution of peasant-soldiers. The territories still under imperial domination are gradually organized in military districts, commanded by a strategist, and receive the name of the themes, of the Greek name of the unit which stations there (thema). Military properties were created, which were attributed on a hereditary and inalienable basis to families, in exchange for military service which was also hereditary. This institution recalls and generalizes that of the old border limitanei, finally gives the means of a powerful indigenous army and dispenses with the recruitment of foreign mercenaries, expensive and not very sure. The peasant-soldier equipped himself with a horse and received only a minimal salary, which further reduced the army’s expenses. The army does not miss soldiers any more, the resistance of the Byzantine reduction is ensured for the centuries to come.
Under Diocletian, the distinctions between senatorial and imperial provinces were abolished. In 297, the emperor divided them into smaller entities, increasing them from 47 to more than 100. These new provinces were grouped into 12 dioceses headed by vicars-equestrians who obeyed the emperors directly. This multiplication of administrative districts and administrative levels is perceived as being more effective to fight against the evils of the Empire. In 312, there were 108 provinces, 116 in 425. Constantine reformed the Prefecture of the Praetorium, which no longer dealt with central administration. He divided the Empire into large districts with fluctuating boundaries, the regional prefectures, headed by a prefect of the praetorium. The prefects had great civil and judicial prerogatives. Each administrative level – regional prefecture, diocese, province – had its capital, its offices, its officials. The imperial power was thus more present at each level, but the payroll of civil servants was multiplied by four and the great powers they possessed were factors of autonomy and corruption.
Constantine also transformed the organization of the central power which had remained more or less the same since the High Empire. The prefect of the praetorium was replaced by the quaestor of the sacred palace, who wrote the edicts. The latter directed the sacred consistory, which replaced the emperor’s council. The master of the offices directed the administrative staff, the arms factories and the scholæ of the guard; the master of the militias, the infantry and the cavalry; the count of the sacred largesse, the tax office; the count of the private fortune, the res privata, i.e. the private coffers of the emperor, the personal incomes of the latter being essentially derived from the income of his immense domains. The great novelty, however, was the great increase in the number of officials working in the central offices. A host of notaries, missionaries and secret agents (the agentes in rebus also called curiosi), nearly 1000 civil servants in the 5th century, and various employees made the Roman Empire a real bureaucracy. This plethoric central administration contributed to the isolation of the emperor from the rest of society. The venality of the offices, combined with the practice of evergetism, of what we would call today “fictitious jobs”, and the real “racket” organized by the administration, both towards the citizens and within the administration (from the superiors to the inferiors), leads the historian Paul Veyne to reject the image of an Empire as a “marvel of organization, of a state of law and order”, and to evoke instead an empire “of baksheesh and clientelism”.
All these institutions remained more or less the same until the beginning of the 7th century. For a long time, the emperors tried to maintain the separation of the civil powers, entrusted to a governor, and the military powers entrusted to a comes or a dux, this last one being in charge of several provinces. But at the time of Justinian, the reforms carry in germ the meeting of the civil and military powers in the topics or the exarchates of the Byzantine period. Justinian regrouped the provinces, only for fifteen years, it is true, in the hands of proconsuls or proprefects by giving them military, civil and sometimes fiscal powers. His objective was to curb the growing power of the nobility.
The tax system
The finances are above all intended to support the army. The military annum was gradually put in place from the Severan dynasty onwards. To cope with the increased expenses, the emperor ordered in 298 that all the resources of the Empire, men, livestock and other wealth, be counted. This census, which took place every five years, served as the basis for a new tax, the capitation. In addition, they had to pay the jugatio on landed property. The payment was made either in kind or in cash according to a pre-established regional price scale. This tax on landed property weighed mainly on the inhabitants of the countryside. It was completed by an agrarian reform, by the forced allocation of abandoned land to private individuals, who became taxable settlers.
Constantine increased the expenses of the State by his numerous administration, his multiple constructions, the gifts to his protégés and to the Church, the luxurious expenses of the court. He obtained the necessary gold by taxing those who were spared by capitation: the chrysargyre was levied every five years on merchants and craftsmen, the curiales were obliged to offer coronary gold (gold crowns) every five years, the senators had to pay the gold oblatice (aurum oblaticium, gold offered at each imperial birthday) and the collatio glebalis every four years.
These reforms aligned the public finances on the circulation of gold, and restored them for all the IVth century in spite of the considerable increase of the expenditure, at the price of a collusion between the power and the higher classes, hoarders of gold, and the ruin of the lower classes.
Under the reign of Theodosius, the tax system was further tightened, provoking revolts (Antioch in 387). In theory, the revenues of the res privata should support the court and the imperial family, but a growing part of this fund is devolved to the immense needs of the State. Anastasius detaches a part of the fields of the res privata whose incomes join those of the tax office. He abolished the chrysargyre which struck the trade and the industry of the cities, and entrusted the collection of the tax of the cities to civil servants, relieving the ruined curiales.
While the monetary circulation slows down considerably in the West because of the great invasions, it increases in the East: Anastasius definitively imposed on the countryside the payment of the annone (capitatio and jugatio) in cash, and bought the supplies necessary to the State at prices imposed by the government. The fiscal severity caused popular revolts, but at the death of Anastasius, the imperial coffers contained a considerable reserve of 320 000 pounds of gold.
The cost of the conquests of Justinian causes a new turn of screw tax until 550. The discontent is great. Indeed, the emperor levies in the eastern countryside weakened by the ravages of the plague very heavy taxes. The newly reconquered provinces had lost the habit of paying heavy taxes under the barbarian administration unable to collect them regularly. They had to submit themselves again to this obligation while they came out completely ruined from the wars of conquest. After 550, due to the increase in population in Justinian’s Empire, the tax levies tend to decrease.
The questions raised by the Christianization of the Roman Empire
The progression of Christianity in the Empire is subject to new debates. Indeed, the sources available to historians make it difficult to quantify the development of Christianity. For a long time, the idea prevailed that at the beginning of the fourth century, the Eastern provinces were predominantly acquired by Christianity. In the West, the Mediterranean provinces were more affected by the new religion than the others. But everywhere in this part of the Roman Empire, the countryside remained deeply polytheistic. From this point of view, Constantine’s conversion in 312 was only a crowning achievement, not a turning point in the history of the Empire. Today, the extent of the Christianization of the Empire is questioned. Robin Lane Fox believes that paganism was still very well established at the beginning of the fourth century and that Christianity was still a very small phenomenon. According to him, in 312, Christians represented only 4 to 5% of the total population of the Empire. The debate is all the more delicate because, behind the figures, there is a strong ideological stake.
Certain points seem nevertheless established. The inequality of Christianization according to regions and the delay of Gaul in particular are admitted by all. To a lesser degree, the situation is the same in Spain and Italy, but with strong regional differences. It is thought that in Rome, the most Christianized city in Italy, perhaps a little less than 10% of the inhabitants were Christians in 312. The study of Egyptian papyri allows the figure of 20% Christians in 312 in Egypt. In Asia Minor, a proportion of 1
The question of the development of Christianity has long been posed in terms of a confrontation with ancient culture. In this perspective, the Lower Empire is seen as a period of triumph of the new faith over traditional religions or mystery cults. Today, the examination of sources leads to a modification of this point of view. Christianity was nourished by ancient culture and used it to develop: it did not destroy ancient culture. G. Stroumsa explains the passage from paganism to Christianity in the Roman Empire by a process of internalization of the cult. A significant part of the Empire’s inhabitants no longer recognized themselves in ritualistic religions and sought a more personal belief. The rise of the religions of the book thanks to the generalization of the codex serves as a gas pedal to a new concern for the self present in asceticism and reading, to the passage from civic religion to community and private religions. This thesis is not unanimous among historians.
Christianity, by becoming the religion of the Roman Empire in the fourth century, served to justify an authoritarian political order that was exercised in the name of God. It also allowed, in the eyes of the emperors, to ensure the cohesion of the Empire. It became an essential element of the civilization of late antiquity. The consequence is the exclusion of all other religious beliefs. The non-Christians are henceforth disassociated from the Roman ideal.
For the Church, Romanity and Christianity were so inseparable that the bishops found it normal to defend the Empire against the barbarians.
The great persecution
At the beginning of the fourth century, with the Tetrarchy, the fight against the religion of the Christians, which was expanding but still very much in the minority, gave rise to a final generalized persecution. In 303, Diocletian and his colleagues issued several edicts against the Christians, giving rise to the “Great Persecution”, after the forty or so years of relative tranquility that had followed the reign of Gallian (260-268) and his edict of tolerance of 260, which constituted the first official legitimization of Christianity by the Roman authorities.
The governors and municipal magistrates had to seize and burn the furniture and books of worship. At the beginning of 304, an edict ordered all citizens to make a general sacrifice for the Empire, on pain of death or condemnation to forced labor in the mines. The persecution was very unevenly applied throughout the Empire, quickly abandoned in the West after 305, and more long and severe in the East. In 311, just before his death, Galerius decreed an end to the persecution, asking Christians to pray for his salvation and that of the Empire. This appeal is in line with the Roman religious tradition, and recognizes the civic usefulness of Christians.
One of the consequences of the great persecution for the Christian world is the Donatist schism from 307 onwards. The Donatists refused the validity of the sacraments delivered by the bishops who had failed during the persecutions of Diocletian, a position condemned in 313 at the Council of Rome. The schism continued in Roman Africa until the end of the century.
This last persecution marks the Eastern Christian tradition more than the others: hagiography situates during the persecution of Diocletian and his successors the martyrdom of fictitious saints. Another trace of the significant impact on Christian memory is the choice of the Coptic era or “era of the Martyrs” which begins on the date of the advent of Diocletian.
The Christian emperors
Constantine, initially a follower of Sol invictus (the Undefeated Sun), may have converted to Christianity during his campaign against Maxentius in 312. However, some historians believe that Constantine, between 312 and the early 320s, went through an intermediate phase in his personal beliefs and tried to reconcile Christianity with the belief in a deity from which all gods would emanate, The Divinity, identified from the mid-third century with the Sun. Indeed, in the period 312-325, coins represent the Sun, the emperor’s companion, or confuse his image with hers. Few coins show Christian symbols (monogram, labarum) at the end of this period. One may wonder why Constantine converted to a religion that was still a minority in the Empire: for personal reasons, or for ideological reasons. In 313, the Edict of Milan proclaimed freedom of worship and provided for the return to Christians of the property that had been confiscated from them during the great persecution of Diocletian. This conversion posed the problem of relations between the Church and the authorities. Solicited by the African bishops on the Donastic quarrel, Constantine organized in 313 (or 314) the first council so that the bishops could decide among themselves. He convened and presided over the Council of Nicaea in 325, which unanimously recognized Christ as both God and man, with even Arius agreeing to this doctrine. But Arius continued his preaching and was excommunicated. Constantine had him exiled, then recalled a few years later. The Arians adopted positions very favorable to the imperial power, recognizing its right to decide religious questions by authority. Constantine eventually became close to this form of Christianity and was baptized on his deathbed by an Arian bishop, Eusebius of Nicomedia. Today, this conversion to Arianism is disputed by the Catholic Church and by some historians. His son, Constance II, is as for him an Arian convinced. He did not hesitate to persecute the orthodox Christians even more than the polytheists. Despite his interventions in many councils, he did not manage to adopt a creed that would satisfy both Arians and Orthodox. With the exception of Valens, his successors, concerned with civil peace, observed a strict religious neutrality between the Arians and the Orthodox. The defeat of Andrinople in 378 against the Arian Visigoths allowed the Orthodox to go on the offensive. Ambrose of Milan, wanting to defend the Nicene creed against the Arians, described Arianism as “heresy” and “double treason”, against the Church and against the Empire.
Gratian ends up moving towards a condemnation of Arianism under the combined influence of his colleague Theodosius I and Ambrose. The emperor of the pars orientalis had, in 380, in the edict of Thessalonica, made Christianity a state religion. As his colleague, he promulgates anti-heretic laws. He convened in 381 the Council of Aquileia, led by Ambrose. Two Arian bishops were excommunicated. By this time, the Trinitarian Church had become strong enough to resist the imperial court. After Gratian’s death, the Arian party regained influence at court. At its instigation, a law was promulgated on January 23, 386, which provided for the death penalty for anyone who opposed freedom of conscience and worship. Ambrose, strong of the support of the people and the high spheres of Milan, refused to concede a basilica extra muros to the Arians. The imperial court was obliged to give in. Thanks to men like Ambrose, the Church could thus emancipate itself from imperial tutelage, especially in the West, and even claim the primacy of spiritual power over temporal power by reminding the emperor of his Christian duties. However, the Christians also needed the public force to make their point of view prevail. Thus Porphyry of Gaza obtains from the empress Eudoxia, that she makes close by her husband Flavius Arcadius the polytheist temples of Gaza.
Polytheists and “heretics” became second-class citizens, burdened with legal and administrative incapacities. In a law, Theodosius specifies: “We take away from them the very faculty of living according to Roman law”. Judaism was the only non-Christian religion to remain legal in 380, but in public opinion, the sporadic Greco-Roman Judeophobia turned into a systematic anti-Judaism, properly Christian, which accused the Jews of being “deicides” and of having rejected the Gospel message. This did not prevent Theodosius from wanting to impose on the bishop of Kallinikon in Mesopotamia to rebuild, at his own expense, the synagogue that his followers had destroyed, to the great indignation of Ambrose of Milan.
Christianization and Romanity
After the conversion of Constantine, Christianity progressed rapidly in the Roman Empire, but always in an unequal way according to the provinces. In many cases, it was also a superficial Christianization in which a large number of pagan practices were mixed in. Egypt was not considered Christian until the end of the fifth century. The evangelization of the Western countryside progressed only very slowly. In Gaul, the action of determined missionaries played a significant role in the adoption of the religion of Christ. Martin of Tours remains the figurehead of the evangelization of Gaul. Latin replaced Greek as the liturgical language at the same time, a sign of the loss of the use of Greek in the Western Church, the future Roman Catholic Church. Romanity (in the East on the other hand, it disappeared from the liturgy (Greek, Armenian, Egyptian or Slavonic) and also from the institutions (henceforth Byzantine) to survive only through the Eastern Romanic languages, purely vernacular.
The Church was organized according to the administrative model of the Empire. The diocese where the bishop officiates corresponds to the city, except in Africa and Egypt. The bishop was appointed by the members of the community and the neighboring bishops. The Christianized aristocracy often held the office of bishop, and these patrician bishops became the leading figures in the city in the fifth and sixth centuries. In the East, they thus became partners of the imperial power. They took over for the Church a part of the decurion’s evergency to help the poor and the sick. In case of need, they set themselves up as defenders of their city threatened by the barbarians. In Rome, they took precedence over the urban prefects. In Egypt, on the other hand, bishops were most often chosen from among the monks. Some combined the role of bishop and monastery superior, such as Abraham of Hermonthis, around the year 600. Many Coptic popes come from the monastery of Saint Macarius located in Wadi El-Natroun. Today, the hierarchy of the Coptic Church is still recruited among the monks.
From the fourth century onwards, a new character emerged from the bishop: the priest. He gradually obtained the right to baptize, to preach and to teach. While the cities of the West were emptying of their population because of the difficulties of supply and insecurity, a new rural religious cell developed in the 6th century, the parish in which he officiated. The parish ended up forcing the basic administrative network of the Middle Ages. The priest could still be a married man with a family, unless he was a monk.
Above the bishops is the metropolitan bishop who sits in the capital of the province and whose authority extends to the whole province. From the Council of Constantinople in 381, primates appeared who grouped several provinces under their authority; in the West, Rome and Carthage; in the East, Constantinople, Alexandria and Antioch. During the fourth century, the see of Rome had primacy over the whole Empire, but it was still only an honorary primacy, with no temporal power and no more authority than another primate. It was Emperor Valentinian I, who in 370, declared the decisions of the pope in the city of Rome “irrevocable”. The Roman Pope Damasus (366-384) was the first prelate to call his diocese an apostolic see because it was created by the Apostle Peter, considered the head of the apostles. However, the pontifical authority of the bishops of Rome did not become truly sovereign until Leo the Great around 450, which did not prevent the emperors (now of the East) from using their political authority to bring several popes of Rome back to orthodox theology (which admitted neither Purgatory nor that the Holy Spirit could proceed from someone other than God himself). During late antiquity, the Church is not a homogeneous whole. Each city had its own rites, its own saints, its own liturgical language, reflecting the diversity of the Empire, and the Popes (or Patriarchs) of Jerusalem, Rome, Aquileia, Carthage, Antioch, Alexandria or Constantinople directed it in a collegial manner.
The emperors gave the members of the clergy many privileges. They were exempted from taxes imposed on citizens. The bishops were granted powers of civil jurisdiction. The persons pursued by the power benefit from the right of asylum, which allows them to escape from the imperial justice. Finally, the clerics gradually escaped the ordinary jurisdictions and were thus placed above the common law. Constantine gave the Church a legal personality which allowed it to receive donations and legacies. This allowed it to increase its material power. In the 5th century, it possessed immense domains, some of which depended on the Church’s charitable institutions. The development of its institutions allowed it to fill a void left by the polytheistic systems of redistribution, by taking an interest in the poor as such and not as citizens or clients. In the East, as in the West, the Church was confronted with a paradox: it advocated poverty as an ideal, but was rich, its clerics were often aristocrats, and the churches were overflowing with gold, silver, precious woods, shimmering fabrics and perfumes.
During the late Antiquity, monasticism, born in the third century, experienced a first boom. The first monks appeared in Egypt, south of Alexandria. The radical withdrawal from the world advocated by the first hermits, Anthony and Pachomius, was a real political and social break with the Greco-Roman ideal of the city. This does not prevent eremitism and then cenobitism from developing in the deserts of the East. However, it seems that the true founder of the cenobitic way of life was Pacomius. At the beginning of the fourth century, he established a first community at Tabenesis, an island on the Nile halfway between Cairo and Alexandria. He founded eight other monasteries in the region during his lifetime, totaling 3,000 monks.
Western clerics who went to the East propagated the monastic ideal on their return. The first religious establishments appeared in the West of the Empire from the end of the 4th century: the abbey of Saint-Martin in Marmoutier, the abbey of Lérins and numerous foundations from the 6th century onwards. From these early experiences, many monastic rules were developed. Among them, the rule of Saint Benedict was destined to a great future in the West.
With the support of Justinian I, monasticism takes a great importance in the East. As a moral refuge, its power of attraction was such that it diverted a part of the Empire’s forces from taxes and public functions, and became a real counter-power that would manifest itself during the crisis of iconoclasm. In the West, monasticism will receive a decisive impulse under the Carolingian dynasty. In all the former Roman regions, monasteries played a valuable role as conservators of ancient culture.
It is during the late antiquity that the organization of the Christian calendar is fixed. Constantine chose to celebrate the birth of Christ, Christmas, on December 25, the day of the celebration of the god Sol Invictus, the Undefeated Sun. Easter remains a mobile festival like Pesach. Its date of celebration is different from one Christian community to another. During the Lenten fast that precedes it, the catechumens, adults, prepare for baptism celebrated on Easter night. Constantine also forbade many activities on Sunday, the day dedicated to Christian worship. The Christian calendar with its Christian feasts and the division of time into weeks definitively supplanted the Roman calendar at the end of the fifth century. On the other hand, during the whole of late antiquity, the counting of years is done from an ancient criterion: the foundation of Rome (753 BC), the first Olympic Games (776 BC) or even the era of Diocletian. In the 6th century, Dionysius the Lesser developed a Christian count based on the year of Christ’s birth. This new count did not come into use until the 8th century.
In terms of mentalities, Christianity introduced a great change in the vision of the divine world. The Romans had always accepted non-Roman deities without much resistance. Christianity, a monotheistic religion, asserts itself as the only true faith that professes the only true God. The other divinities and religions are reduced to the rank of idols or errors. The corollary of this position was the rise of Christian religious intolerance in the fourth century, which was due to the apocalyptic speeches of certain Christian communities and their eschatological expectations, as well as to imperial political power. The Church multiplies adjectives to define itself: katholicos, i.e. universal, orthodoxos, i.e. professing the only true faith. As a result, the Christian Church had to fight not only pagans, but also Christians who professed a faith contrary to the assertions of the councils, who were considered heretics from the fifth century onwards.
Historians are asking the question of the moral changes brought about by Christianity. The Christian morality of late antiquity focuses above all on sexuality and charity and does not question the family hierarchy in place, insisting on the contrary on the necessary respect of the authority of the pater familias. The religious discourse is therefore generally conservative. Gregory of Nyssa is the only Christian author to have condemned slavery, but not because of the sad fate of slaves. He was in fact concerned about the salvation of slave owners, guilty, according to him, of the sin of pride. Augustine denounced torture because of its inefficiency and inhumanity.
The first centuries of Christianity are those during which the Christian doctrine is elaborated. This development was not without divisions and conflicts. In addition to the conflicts of primacy, dogmatic quarrels are numerous. African Donatism, Arianism, Priscillianism, Pelagianism, Nestorianism and Monophysitism were all doctrines condemned as heresies by the first Ecumenical Councils. Against Arianism, two councils met. In 325 at the end of the first council of Nicaea, the Symbol of Nicaea, which the Latins call credo is written. It is the first solemn expression of orthodoxy. It defines God as a unique being, in three eternal persons, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. It is the affirmation of the dogma of the Trinity, reiterated at the Council of Constantinople in 381. Jesus Christ is defined as: “the only son of God, begotten of the Father, light of light, true God of true God, begotten, not created, of the same substance (homoousios) as the Father”. Arians believe that the Father is prior to the Son and the Holy Spirit and is therefore their creator. Arianism has many supporters in the East and in the West. The Arian missionaries converted the Goths and the Vandals. This posed problems of religious cohabitation with the Romanized peoples, who were mostly Nicene. This is why the Catholic Church gave such weight to the conversion and baptism of Clovis, king of the Franks, at the end of the 5th century. He was the first barbarian king to embrace the Catholic faith and thus enjoy the support of the Roman Church.
In the fifth century, theological disputes focused on the nature of Christ, human and
In spite of progressive restrictions, during the whole of the 4th century, traditional polytheistic cults continued to be practiced, as well as initiatory cults of Egyptian, Oriental or Pythagorean origin, the most practiced of which were those of Mithra, Cybele, Isis and Serapis. The Christian texts that violently denounce them, the dedications, the ex-votos, the attestations of work in the temples are all testimonies of this. Chenouté, who died around 466 and was abbot of the White Monastery in Upper Egypt, reports in his works his struggle against the polytheists, whom he calls “the Greeks”. The polytheist historian Zosimus also tells us that the new religion was not yet widespread throughout the Roman Empire, paganism having been maintained for quite a long time in the villages after its extinction in the cities.
Constantine intervened only to prohibit rites that were superstitious, that is, private religious rites, such as night sacrifices, private haruspice rites and other practices identified with witchcraft and magic. In general, he showed the greatest tolerance towards all forms of paganism. In 356, Constantius II forbade all sacrifices, night and day, closed isolated temples and threatened all those who practiced magic and divination with the death penalty. The emperor Julian, who had been won over by paganism, promulgated an edict of tolerance in 361, allowing people to practice the cult of their choice. He demanded that the Christians who had seized the treasures of pagan cults return them. His successors were all Christians. In 379, Gratian gave up the office of Grand Pontiff. From 382, at the possible instigation of Ambrose, bishop of Milan, the altar of Victory, its symbol in the Senate, was torn away from the Curia, while the Vestals and all the priesthoods lost their immunities. On February 24, 391, a law of Theodosius prohibits any person to enter a temple, to adore the statues of the gods and to celebrate sacrifices, “under penalty of death”. In 392, Theodosius forbids the Olympic Games related to Zeus and Hera, but also because of the nudity of the body of the competitors, the worship of the body and the nudity being denigrated by Christianity. Little by little, the abandoned temples fell into ruins. In 435, a decree renewing the ban on sacrifices in pagan temples added: “if any of these still exist”. The renewal of the decree proves that the sacrifices certainly did not disappear. Ramsay MacMullen thinks that the pagans remain nevertheless very numerous. In Egypt, in Anatolia, the peasants clung to their ancient beliefs. Certain Christian communities sometimes show destructive fanaticism towards paganism. They are disavowed by the great minds of their time, like Saint Augustine. The most striking example is that of the Neoplatonist philosopher Hypatia, who was torn to pieces in a church and then burned by a crowd of fanatics, perhaps led by the patriarch Cyril, in Alexandria in 415. Temples were destroyed, such as the Serapium in Alexandria in 391, and the temple of Caelestis, the great Carthaginian goddess and heir of Tanit, in 399. However, the state did not systematically destroy pagan temples and their artifacts. On the contrary, official decrees testify to the State’s desire to preserve this artistic heritage. Several edicts of Justinian’s reign remove the right of pagans to exercise civil or military functions and to teach, which has as a consequence the closing of the philosophical school of Athens. An edict of 529 further aggravated their situation by requiring them to convert to Christianity.
In addition, Christianity itself is impregnated with ancient pagan rites. Some traditional Roman festivals were still celebrated at the end of the fifth century, such as the festival of Lupercalia, dedicated to fertility and lovers. To eradicate it, Pope Gelasius I decided in 495 to celebrate the feast of St. Valentine, February 14, a day before the feast of Lupercalia to celebrate lovers. It is therefore an attempt to Christianize a pagan rite. The Africans continue to celebrate banquets on the anniversaries of the dead directly on the tombs. In the 6th century, Caesarius of Arles denounced in his sermons to his followers the pagan practices that remained among the people. The wearing of amulets and the worship of trees and springs did not disappear from southern Gaul. The complaints of the clerics are numerous until the end of late antiquity. In the East, the expectations of the Council in Trullo (Constantinople, 691-692) criticize customs that still exist: celebrations of ancient pagan festivals, songs in honor of Dionysus during the harvest, bonfires lit at the new moon, etc.
For the Christianized populations, the lack of efficiency of ancient medicine favored beliefs in the miracles produced by the saints. Pilgrimages multiplied throughout the Roman Empire. In the 6th century, the tomb of Martin of Tours attracted considerable crowds. This faith in a miraculous cure corresponded well to the mentalities of the countryside and favored their adherence to Christianity. The bishops saw it as a way to ensure the influence of their diocese. The miraculous healings are used as an argument to convince the simple crowds of the truth of the Nicene faith. The miracles supposedly performed by the saints after their death were therefore carefully recorded and disseminated as an instrument of conversion. Around the cult of the saints, a whole series of beliefs developed. People seek to be buried near the saints because they believe that their sanctity spreads through the earth under which they lie. The cult of the saints gave rise to pilgrimages that brought prosperity to the host cities.
The Roman economy is essentially agricultural. The Mediterranean trilogy dominated production: wheat, vines (wine), olives (oil). Sicily, Africa, Egypt, Gaul and Spain produced the cereals that supplied the great cities of the Empire. Horse breeding, essential for games and the army, was concentrated in Spain, Africa, Syria, Thrace and Asia. At that time, two sectors of the economy could be described as industrial. These were mining and the production of sigillated ceramics. The latter is linked to the export of agricultural products. It is therefore in the major production regions that the main ceramic workshops are found. About forty weapon factories are scattered throughout the Empire. They are part of the state’s industries, as are armor factories, clothing factories for soldiers and dyeing factories.
The trade routes are the same as since the beginning of the Roman Empire. Only the creation of Constantinople created a new transport axis. The Roman Empire forbade the export of products that could favour the economy of enemy powers. The export of metals, weapons and foodstuffs to the Germans or Persians was forbidden. International trade was not very important: slaves, incense from Yemen, spices from the Indian world, perfumes and silks from China. It benefited above all the cities situated at the limits of the Empire: Antioch, Carthage in relation with the caravaneers of Africa. Domestic trade became very active again after the crisis of the 3rd century.
For a long time, historians have presented the economy of late antiquity as being in decline. However, great technical innovations spread in the fourth century, such as the wheel plow and the Gallic harvester. Craft techniques did not decline. What gave this impression of economic crisis was the increase in abandoned land, especially in the West but also in the East. Recent excavations and a rereading of ancient texts allow us to believe that the phenomenon of deserted lands and abandoned villages is, in the end, less than we thought. According to Pierre Jaillette, the regression, caused in particular by invasions, civil wars and raids of plunderers, is not as generalized, nor as continuous as historians previously thought.
In the 4th century, the great metropolises of the East and the West regained their dynamism lost during the crisis of the 3rd century. The great trade in luxury goods was still very prosperous. The continental traffic seems to have somewhat withered. Trier on the Limes, which had become the imperial residence, experienced unprecedented prosperity. However one can note that the monetary policy of Constantine digs the inequalities between the rich and the poor. He maintained the price of gold coins, the solidus, which only the wealthiest could hoard, but allowed the devaluation of copper coins necessary for daily exchanges, which reduced the purchasing power of the masses. The creation of a third of solidus does not allow to fill the gaps.
In 395, while the definitive division between the East and the West begins, the economy of the West remains fragile. Only a few imperial workshops and some ceramic production centers still retain a real dynamism. Trade is held by colonies of Jewish and Syrian merchants. The countryside depended for its survival on the establishment of Germanic populations, particularly in northern Gaul and Illyricum. The economy of the East, on the other hand, is flourishing. It is the economic and commercial center of the Roman world. Agriculture is prosperous there.
The barbarian invasions in the West hardly transformed the economic structures. They slowed down the great commerce and the urban economy but affected little the rural world. On the other hand, Justinian’s reconquest upset the economic and social structures of the areas affected by the military campaigns. The Byzantine armies ravaged the conquered regions. The land was devastated and did not produce anything for several years. In the East, next to the small property, the rural economy is in the hands of the big estates. The great families, in particular the senatorial families of Constantinople, owned lands scattered throughout the East. The state and the emperor managed vast estates which came from former state property, the property of successive royal families and confiscations. Finally, the bishoprics and the Christian charitable establishments received considerable donations which made them latifundiaries. But there was a great difference in income between the bishoprics. After 500, the economy of the large estates was weakened by the scarcity of labor, especially slave labor. The large estates therefore lost importance to the benefit of the small estates.
The dominant classes
From the fourth century onwards, the differences in law between honestiores and humiliores increase. The dominant classes widen and become structured. In the IVth century the prefectures of the city and the praetorium are added to the consulate as offices allowing to enter the nobilitas. In the first part of the 4th century, the nobilitas underwent a sudden enlargement. Constantine takes the decision to abolish the equestrian order whose members enter almost all in the senatorial order. The number of senators increased from 600 to 2,000 members. The Senate created in Constantinople also had 2,000 members. The Eastern senatorial order was recruited from the notables of the Greek provincial cities. It knew a fast growth under the reign of Constance II. The higher stratum of the Senate adopts then the name of clarissime to distinguish itself from the mass of the nobility. The clarissimes are above all large landowners. They often showed a refined culture and participated in the literary renaissance of the time. For a long time historians and archaeologists believed, in view of the existence of large and richly decorated villas in the countryside, that the nobilitas had returned to the land in the 4th century. Recent research shows that most of the clarissimos lived most of the year in the city and only occasionally went to their domains. Around 370, in the legal vocabulary, the nobilitas is confused with the senatorial status. The importance of bureaucracy is such that in the 4th century, the administrative career replaced the army as a means of social promotion.
The Roman nobilitas was also characterized by its resistance to the adoption of Christianity. Attached to the cult of ancestors, to Greco-Roman culture, to philosophy, it spread a lot of anti-Christian literature. However, in the middle of the 4th century, the great Roman families gradually converted to Christianity.
The barbarian invasions do not prevent the senatorial aristocracy from keeping its land wealth and its influence until the 8th century. It monopolized the offices of count and bishop. In Gaul and Spain, it slowly blended with the Germanic aristocracy in the 6th and 7th centuries, gradually giving rise to the medieval nobility.
The degradation of the status of the citizens of the Empire
The decurial order underwent significant changes. The role and status of the curiales seem to have deteriorated. The erosion of the incomes of the order does not allow any more the decurions to face their obligations. The cities thus suffer from the decline of private evergetism and of their own resources. The decurions become responsible on their own goods for the heavy taxes which the emperor requires and which they must collect. This obligation made them particularly unpopular. The creation of a body of tax collectors by Valentinian I was not enough to relieve them of this difficult task. As a result, the citizens fled from the municipal magistracies. To recruit new decurions, Constantine changed the local right of citizenship. The residents of a city who could afford it had to become decurions. In addition, the decurion office became hereditary. This did not prevent the financial situation of the cities from continuing to deteriorate. Many decurions sought to escape their heavy hereditary burdens, either by becoming monks or priests, or by being recruited into the provincial, diocesan or prefectural administrations, or by retiring to rural domains. The threats of confiscation of their property did not change much.
The corporations underwent the same evolution. Under Constantine I, the State intervened directly to impose constraint and heredity. The naviculars were obliged to carry the military annum under penalty of serious penal sanctions. Once their service for the State was assured, they had the right to engage in the transport of goods for their own account. The obligation for a son to take over his father’s trade was also established for the imperial workshops. Convicts and vagrants were also forcibly recruited. This forced employment status brought the workers of these workshops closer to the condition of slaves, even though they were theoretically citizens.
The small property continues to regress in the IVth century. Indeed, small landowners found it increasingly difficult to meet the fiscal requirements of the Empire. The status of settler became common in the rural world. Here too, settlers were no longer allowed to leave their land and their sons were obliged to take over their father’s business. As with the guilds, this social immobility was linked to the concern for secure tax revenues. Little by little, the peasant became attached to his land. Under Theodosius, when the master sold the land, he sold the settler with it. The condition of farmers was already close to medieval serfdom. But here again, there are notable differences between the eastern and western parts of the Empire. The more populated East is less subject to colonization. A peasantry of small and medium-sized landowners was maintained almost everywhere and even seemed to be in the majority in Syria. After 500, the attachment of Eastern settlers to their land is less rigorous. Their condition approaches that of the small landowner. A new category developed, that of the “emphyteutic”, who were granted land in exchange for a modest rent and sometimes even without rent. The consequence was an increase in the number of small landowners in the East throughout the sixth century.
Christianity did not make slavery disappear. In the fourth century, Constantine sought to soften the condition of slaves. The Church favored emancipation and advocated dignified treatment of slaves, but slavery as an institution was not called into question. Caesarius of Arles only limited the punishment of a slave to 39 strokes a day. At the beginning of the fifth century, when Melanie the Younger, a rich Roman, decided to free all the slaves on her estates, several thousand of them refused this largesse. Indeed, the condition of small farmers had deteriorated so much that a slave treated with humanity had nothing to envy. There was hardly any difference between a colonist, in theory legally free, and a slave in the fourth and fifth centuries.
The poor facing the exactions of the state
In order to bring in the taxes needed to maintain the army and the bureaucracy, the tax agents and the secret police are particularly hard on the poorest people. The latter therefore demanded the protection of the powerful locals, the bosses. While during the High Empire the role of the patron was to allow harmonious relations between the state and the citizens, from the 4th century B.C. onwards, he used his influence and his social status to exempt his clients from the requirements of the law. In this way, he hijacks a part of the authority of the State for his own benefit. One can see there also, in genesis, the feudal relations between the lords and the peasants. The emperors, who saw in the practice of patronage an attack on the authority of the State and a loss of income, tried to oppose this practice, in vain. A constitution of 415 placed the colonists under the fiscal responsibility of the master, a sign of a shift in power.
The revolt is another response to the demands of the Empire. The collection of taxes by the decurions sometimes led to local uprisings in Syria. The revolt of the Bagaudes in Gaul, that of the Circumcellions in Africa are all examples of the contestation of imperial demands.
The barbarians in the Roman world
Since the third century BC, the Roman Empire has been nourished by barbarian contributions. The fundamental role of the federated peoples in the Roman army has already been mentioned. They also populated the northern regions of the Empire threatened by depopulation. The decrees of Valentinian I prohibiting Roman-Barbarian marriages show that there was already a significant amount of interbreeding at this time. The cases of barbarian officers living in the Empire and romanized are frequent in the fourth century.
Stilicho is an excellent example of assimilation into Roman society. He is Vandal by his father, probably commander of a cavalry squadron under Valens, and Roman by his mother, a provincial from Pannonia. He climbed all the ranks of the army. Around 384, he married Serena, daughter of Honorius, son of Theodosius I, and adopted by the latter on the death of her father, proof that he was part of the imperial palace. After Theodosius’ victory at the battle of the Cold River in 394, Stilicho took the title of magister peditum. At the death of Theodosius, he became the tutor of two sons of the deceased but it is initially that of Honorius which is only 11 years old in 395. It is the policy of coexistence with the barbarians and the will to keep united the two parts of the Empire which seems to have guided the decision of the emperor. A barbarian can thus reach the highest functions except to put on the imperial purple. Gondebaud and Ricimer also reflect this will of the patrices of barbarian origin to serve the Roman Empire without imperial ambition.
The barbarian invasions of the 5th century do not make disappear suddenly the Roman structures of the West. The Barbarians represent only 5% of the population of the West. The prohibition of mixed marriages shows the fear of losing their identity. In fact, apart from the Vandals, the Anglo-Saxons and later the Lombards, ownership of land changed hands only slightly. The conversion of the barbarians to Catholicism allowed for the fusion with the Romans. This merger was largely in favor of Romanity. The first barbarian monarchies are very respectful of the Roman institutions that they admire. In Ravenna, in Toledo, the Gothic courts spoke Latin. Romanity thus survives the Roman Empire.
The city remains the heart of Romanity. The traditional places of Roman life, the thermal baths, the circuses and the amphitheatres were frequented until the end of the 6th century and even beyond for Constantinople. But many of the ancient monuments deteriorated because public finances were insufficient to provide for their maintenance, especially since the period of Late Antiquity was rich in earthquakes. Fifteen imperial constitutions from 321 to 395 are devoted in whole or in part to the problem of the restoration of ancient buildings. The cities of the Empire underwent transformations. They built ramparts in the 3rd and 4th centuries to protect themselves. The great architectural novelty was the construction of Christian buildings, a basilica, a baptistry and the bishop’s residence, some of the material used for which came from old abandoned monuments. The new imperial residences: Trier, Milan, Sirmium, Nicomedia benefit from the presence of troops and emperors.
Five great cities dominate by the number of their inhabitants in late antiquity. These are Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and Carthage. The last three have an estimated population of between 100,000 and 150,000. In Rome, the walls built by Aurelian were modified by Maxentius and Honorius to improve their efficiency. The aqueducts, bridges and roads were maintained. The Flavian amphitheater, victim of lightning in 320 and three earthquakes, was regularly repaired. However, the emperors of the West did not have the necessary finances to maintain all the monuments of the old imperial capital. The numerous works are insufficient to prevent the ancient monuments from deteriorating. Majorian (457-461) forbade urban officials to authorize the removal of stones from public buildings, which proves that the practice tended to develop. But nothing was done about it. After the end of the Western Roman Empire, the ancient monuments were used as quarries by the inhabitants. The growing role of Christianity led to the construction of basilicas such as the Lateran, St. Peter’s or St. Paul’s Outside the Walls, catacombs, baptisteries and episcopal palaces that were enriched by the installation of marble, mosaics and enamel. Until 410, Rome has about 800 000 inhabitants. The population was around 300,000 to 400,000 throughout the fifth century. This high level of population can be maintained thanks to the good functioning of the annum. 40% of the food of the inhabitants of Rome is ensured by the State. The loss of Africa in 439 brought an end to the payment of the annone to Rome. The population then slowly decreases. In the 6th century, the Gothic war between Justinian and the Ostrogoths brought it down to 80,000 inhabitants.
Constantinople, inaugurated by Constantine in 330, was built on a natural defensive site that made it virtually impregnable while Rome was under constant threat from the Germans. It is also close to the borders of the Danube and the Euphrates, where military operations to contain the Goths and Persians are most important. Finally, it is located in the heart of traditional Greek lands. Constantine built it on the model of Rome with seven hills, fourteen urban regions, a Capitol, a Forum and a Senate. At first, he allowed pagan temples to be established, but very quickly the city became almost exclusively Christian and included only Christian religious buildings. Within a few decades, the city became one of the largest metropolises in the Roman East thanks to its political role, its economic activities and the tax exemptions granted to its inhabitants. By Constantine, the city had 100,000 inhabitants. It reached 200,000 inhabitants at the end of the 4th century. Constantinople, located outside the conflict zones, saw its population increase. The number of its inhabitants is debated: 800,000 inhabitants during the 5th century for Bertrand Lançon, 400,000 to 500,000 for A. Ducellier, M. Kaplan and B. Martin. The embellishment of the city was the main project of the emperors from Constantine onwards. He built the imperial palace, the hippodrome, the new name given to the Roman circuses, the church of the Sacred Wisdom (Saint Sophia). The city then expanded towards the west. The original enclosure of 700 hectares was no longer sufficient, so Theodosius II built new ramparts between 412 and 414, which increased the surface area of the city to 1,450 hectares. The Council of Chalcedon of 451, in its twenty-eighth canon, gives the city of Constantinople the title of “New Rome”, which makes its bishop, the patriarch of Constantinople, the second personage of the Church. This further contributes to give the city its independent character as the capital of the Eastern Empire.
In the 4th century, many schools appeared in all regions. Teaching was based on ancient knowledge. The development of Christianity did not call into question the foundations of education. Students continued to learn to read and write in Greco-Roman mythology. Homer’s texts are still learned by heart by generations of students. During his short reign, Julian in 362 forbade Christian teachers to teach. He based his decision on the principle that one could not honestly explain mythological texts in which one did not believe. However, the Christians thought that traditional teaching was indispensable for the formation of the spirit of a religion based on the written word. They therefore continued to follow it even if it transmitted knowledge that was considered pagan. The path of Saint Augustine is representative of that of the literate Roman. He left his native town of Thagaste for Madaure to be taught by a grammarian, then went to Carthage in 370 to be taught by a rhetorician. The universities of Carthage, Bordeaux, Milan and Antioch enjoyed a good reputation. The most renowned are those of Rome and Constantinople for philosophy and law, Alexandria for mathematics and medicine, Athens for philosophy. The cities engaged in fierce competition to attract the most renowned teachers.
The world of letters
During the Late Antiquity, the Greek-Latin bilingualism of the High Empire was defeated. However, during the 4th century, Latin made a spectacular breakthrough in the East because of the growing importance of law and administrative techniques. Greek was spoken by the cultivated classes of the West. But from the end of the fourth century, knowledge of Greek declined considerably in the West. At the beginning of the 5th century, Augustine, considered the greatest intellectual of the West of his time, did not use it. To help in the understanding of Greek texts and their translation, numerous Greco-Latin glossaries were copied. In this context, Jerome, capable, at the end of the fourth century, of translating into Latin the books of the Bible written in Greek, seems an exception. The Christological debates that run through late antiquity are made even more complex by the end of bilingualism. Nicene clerics had to find the right translation for Latin speakers to understand the meaning of the word ὁμοούσιος
In the East, Latin was maintained as the administrative language until the Justinian era. The Justinian code of 534 was written in this language, symbol of Romanity. But from 535 and the publication of the first novels, the new laws wanted by Justinian, the language used then becomes Greek, while Latin evolves into vernacular Eastern Roman. The laws are only in Latin in the Roman-speaking regions: Aurelian Dacia, Mesia, Scythia Minor, the vicinity of the via Egnatia, and for the administrative and military executives of Africa. Later, at the beginning of the 7th century, Heraclius made Greek the official language of the empire. Thus, the division of the Empire led to a linguistic division. From then on, translations multiplied. They were the work of great bilingual scholars: Jerome, who was both a Hebraist and a Hellenist, translated the Bible into Latin at the end of the 4th century; the writings of the Greek physicians Hippocrates, Dioscorides, Galen and Oribasius were compiled and translated in the 5th and 6th centuries. In late antiquity, copies and translations abounded to meet the demands of public libraries, bishoprics and monasteries.
Within this linguistic division, a diversity of vernacular languages is more important than it seems. In the East, Greek was used mainly in coastal regions and cities for administration, trade and the Christian religion. Elsewhere, Greek, the language of the receivers of Chalcedonian orthodoxy in the face of the peasantry, which had adopted Nestorianism or Monophysitism, was ignored. In Gaul, for example, the last bilingual writer was the Marseilles priest Gennade, who disappeared in the last years of the fifth century. From the second half of the 4th century, official acts had to be translated into Coptic in Egypt. A Coptic literature developed: hagiographic accounts of the most venerated saints of the country, monastic texts as community rules… The texts of the Fathers of the Church, originally written in Greek, were also translated into Coptic. Syriac gave birth to a brilliant literature which proves that the Hellenization of Syria is still only superficial after eight centuries of Hellenism.
Greek philosophy is still very important in late antiquity. Aristotle and Plato still exert a great influence among the intellectual elites. Plotinus (205-270) and Porphyry are the most illustrious representatives of Neoplatonism. For Plotinus, the universe is explained by “the chain of Being”. At the top, there is the One, the Good, from which emanate different degrees of lower beings, up to matter. Man can enter into union with the One in moments of ecstasy. The Academy of Athens was open to the educated until 529, when it was closed by Justinian. Gregory of Nazianzus rubbed shoulders with the future emperor Julian. Alexandria remained a great cultural metropolis. Great intellectuals such as Ammonius or Hypatia, a woman who directed the neo-Platonic school of Alexandria, ensured the influence of the Egyptian city. At the beginning of the 6th century, Boethius, a Christian and Hellenist by education, was appointed consul by the Ostrogoth Theodoric in 510 and 522. He tried to create a center of intellectual culture at the court of the barbarian king. The Middle Ages, until the 13th century, knew Aristotle only through his Latin translations. Christianity was influenced by the cultural and religious movements of his time, such as Gnosis and Manichaeism. Augustine interprets Christianity in the light of Neoplatonism. He sees no contradiction between Christianity and Plato’s philosophy. He reconciles the Platonic concept of “eternal ideas” with Christianity by considering them as an integral part of the eternal God.
The codex, which appeared in the first century in the Roman Empire, became widespread and replaced the volumen, a scroll that was difficult to use. The book became a handy object, easy to transport, to store, and readable by a single individual. But it remains an expensive object, even if the number of volumes in circulation increases considerably. The use of parchment, more solid but more expensive, is spreading at the expense of papyrus. The passage from volumen to codex, sometimes of very reduced size, has as a consequence the loss of a part of the ancient texts which are not consulted any more. The place of the written word in society became more and more important. In the field of law, the great codes such as that of Theodosius and Justinian or the compilations of jurisconsults in the 4th and 5th centuries further reinforced the legitimacy of laws. Unlike traditional religions, Christianity relies on the written Revelation that constitutes the Judaic Bible, which the followers of Christianity appropriate and progressively increase the neo-testamentary writings recognized canonically as Scripture (graph). Some researchers voluntarily mobilize the anachronistic concept of “religion of the Book” or even evoke the “pocket book” insofar as this still marginal religion knows how to mobilize in an efficient way new techniques of diffusion of knowledge that help its propagation. Moreover, silent reading gives rise to a form of internalization of thought and, as a result, creates a new spirituality.
The literature of the time is essentially Christian, at least among the texts that are known or have come down to us. The correspondence of some great minds of the time, very well preserved, makes it possible to have a fine knowledge of the mentalities of late antiquity. In Greek, Libanios left 1544 letters and John Chrysostom, 236. In Latin, there are 900 letters of Symmachus, 225 of Augustine, 146 of Sidonius Apollinaris, 850 of Pope Gregory the Great. Greek rhetoric was used by the Fathers of the Church, whether to write sermons, explain the holy texts or try to convince non-Christians. Hagiography multiplies. While recounting the lives of the saints in the manner of Suetonius or Plutarch, it focused on the Christian virtues of the saints to make them examples for the reader. In the sixth and seventh centuries, the hagiographic genre multiplied the accounts of miracles, which took precedence over the moral example. It is therefore not surprising that the major work of late antiquity is a religious work. It is the work The City of God by Augustine of Hippo, completed in 423. The author replies in a masterly way to the detractors of Christianity who held religion responsible for the sack of Rome in 410. In his theory of the two cities, he develops the idea that Rome is an earthly city and therefore mortal. The city of the Christians is the kingdom of God which awaits them after death. They should not therefore link their Christian faith to the existence of Rome, even if they should serve the Empire loyally. The city of God played an essential role in the West from the Middle Ages to the 17th century.
Since the works of Alois Riegl and Heinrich Wölfflin, the late Roman arts, long considered decadent, have regained a dignity equal to that of the High Empire. The first characteristic of the period is that there is not one art but different styles according to regions and centuries. The second characteristic is that, despite the growing influence of Christianity, there is no specific Paleochristian art. The themes are certainly Christian but the forms and techniques are those of ancient art in general. Coptic art is, for example, in the beginning, that of the indigenous or assimilated Egyptians, both pagan and Christian. It is commonly the work of Christians only from the 6th century onwards.
The development of the codex leads to the development of calligraphy. The mosaic, which decorated the rich houses, becomes a parietal art in the churches and the baptisteries from the IVth century. The Basilica of St. Constance in Rome but especially the Basilica Sant’Apollinare in Classe and the Baptistery of the Orthodox of Ravenna built at the time of Justinian are the most accomplished examples. The sculpture is mainly represented by the bas-relief. They are mostly found on sarcophagi. Those of the rich nobles contain a great artistic wealth.
The sculpture, the painting and the art of the mosaic have common characteristics. They must serve the emperor and glorify his power. After the reign of Julian, the representations leave their character of portrait to represent an impersonal figure of the emperor with wig and diadem. Already the tetrarchs sculpted in porphyry and preserved in Venice and the Vatican were sculpted as look-alikes. The symbolic representation of the function thus became more important than the person who embodied it. Artists used to represent the emperor with all the attributes of his power: diadem, nimbus, sceptre. One of the first representations of an emperor enthroned in majesty shows Theodosius I sitting and nimbed between his sons. This representation of the dominus is used as a model to show Christ in majesty in the mosaics. The Christian iconography always uses at this time the classical themes as Orpheus and his lyre, peacocks, doves, dolphins. Begin to add representations of biblical scenes. The cross did not become a decorative theme until the sixth century. Until then, the Chrism, the fish, the vase and the bread are preferred.
The Christian basilica is the newest architectural form. It is an adaptation of the Roman basilica. It has a nave to accommodate the faithful, an apse for the clergy and sometimes a transept in front of the apse. However, each region of the late Roman Empire kept its specificities in the artistic field. The Coptic church of Deir el-Abiad, founded in 440 by Chenuté, who was the greatest cenobitic authority in Egypt after Pacôme, is a basilica with three naves and a trefoil apse. It is preceded by a narthex and bordered by another narthex. In the decoration, the style of this period is characterized by a workmanship close to the Hellenistic model. The basilica of San Lorenzo Maggiore in Milan, where the chapel of Sant’Aquilino is located, is an example of a centered basilica.
The chapel of Sant’Aquilino has the octagonal plan of the baptistery built at the time of Ambrose of Milan. Its original shape has been perfectly preserved. The number eight, in the symbolism of the ancient Fathers of the Church, indicates the day of the Lord, which follows the seventh, that is, Saturday. The number seven, on the other hand, recalls the days of creation told in Genesis and symbolizes the law given to Moses in the part of the Bible that Christians call the Old Testament. The number eight refers to the New Testament which, for Christians, completes and surpasses the ancient law. It refers to the coming of Jesus, to his resurrection on the day after the Sabbath, the eighth day.
In Greece, architects sometimes built a dome over the basilica. In the sixth century, the most beautiful buildings of the Justinian period are characterized by splendid domes such as the Basilica of St. Vitus in Ravenna and Hagia Sophia in Constantinople. The exterior is without frills. The interior is decorated with sumptuous mosaics featuring the glory of Justinian.
Late Antiquity is, for the Western and Mediterranean world, a pivotal period between a progressively Christianized ancient world and a feudal era whose structures were not easily put in place after the shock of the Germanic invasions (4th and 5th centuries).
In the West, this period was characterized by the crumbling of political power and a weakening of the notion of the State, while in the Eastern Roman Empire (known as “Byzantine” since 1557) the imperial idea and the myth of the restoration of the universal power of Rome were maintained until the sixth century. This “imperial idea” was later embodied in the West, successively in the Carolingian Empire in 800 and the Holy Roman Empire of Otto I in 955. If after Justinian the Eastern Empire abandoned its project to rebuild the Roman Empire politically, it perpetuated its political and legal model, and until 1557 it was called Romania in medieval writings.
In the legal domain, the Theodosian and Justinian codes served as a basis for French legalists to legitimize the construction of the Capetian monarchy. The principle of an official religion, the Christian religion, a major component of the State, established from the 4th century onwards, structured public life and consciences until the 20th century in Europe. Christianity could only impose itself in the countryside at the price of a slow acculturation and a certain religious syncretism, the best example of which is the cult of saints and relics. During late antiquity, the divergences that divided the Christian world into Catholics, Orthodox and Copts appeared. From Late Antiquity to the end of the Middle Ages, the main manifestations of art magnify the religion of Christ.
The Eastern Roman Empire was the first guardian of ancient culture: Greek and Latin manuscripts were preserved and copied in its libraries, while its schools taught ancient culture in a society that was nevertheless deeply Christianized. This is how ancient culture was revived in the West in the 15th century, giving rise to Humanism and the Renaissance. This transmission took place through two channels rarely mentioned in Western historiography: that of Byzantine Italy and that of Muslim Spain (for example, the Roman emperor Lecapenes I sent libraries and translators to Hasdai ibn Shaprut, minister of the Caliph of Cordoba, Abd al-Rahman III). But politically and, consequently, religiously, a rivalry was established between, on the one hand, the Germanic heirs of the Western Roman Empire, supported by the Papacy, and, on the other hand, Romania and Eastern Christianity, first weakened by the first (1204) and then conquered by the second (1453) capture of Constantinople, henceforth capital of the Ottoman Empire, a Muslim power. Through this process, Islam, which was retreating in the West, progressed in the East: it reached the gates of Vienna in Austria in 1529 and remained there until 1699.
: document used as a source for the writing of this article.
- Antiquité tardive
- Late antiquity
- Peter Brown, Le monde de l’Antiquité tardive de Marc Aurèle à Mahomet, Éditions de l’Université de Bruxelles, 2011, 208 p. (ISBN 978-2-8004-1626-7), p. 179
- Lançon (1997), p. 4.
- Le terme rétrospectif d’« Empire byzantin » est dû à l’historien Jérôme Wolf dans son ouvrage Corpus historiæ byzantinæ : cf. Georges Ostrogorsky, Histoire de l’État byzantin, 1996, p. 27
- L’idée d’une décadence de la civilisation romaine est exposée dans deux ouvrages célèbres, les Considérations sur les causes de la grandeur des Romains et de leur décadence de Montesquieu en 1734 et, en 1776, le Decline and fall of the Roman Empire d’Edward Gibbon.
- ^ Mazzarino 1995, pp. 85-86.
- Max Weber, Soziologie – Weltgeschichtliche Analysen – Politik, Stuttgart 1968, S. 58 (zuerst erschienen 1909); Jacob Burckhardt, Die Zeit Konstantins des Großen, Leipzig 1853, S. 313. Vgl. Alexander Demandt, Die Spätantike, München 2007, S. XVII, 587–588.
- A.H.M. Jones, Later Roman Empire gaat relatief gedetailleerd op de bronnen in. Zie ook de onder ‘literatuur’ vermelde werken, bijvoorbeeld Demandts handboek.
- J.W. Drijvers: Van ‘Decline and Fall’ naar een wereld van de Late Oudheid in ‘Tesserae romanae’, liber amicorum voor Hans Teitler, ter gelegenheid van zijn afscheid als universitair hoofddocent Oude Geschiedenis aan de Universiteit Utrecht, oktober 2002 (Google Books)
- Iñaki Martín Viso, Poblamiento y estructuras sociales en el norte de la Península Ibérica. Siglos VI-XIII, p.19, Universidad de Salamanca, 2000. ISBN 84-7800-914-0.
- Considérations sur les causes de la grandeur des Romains et de leur décadence de Montesquieu en 1734 y, en 1776, Decline and fall of the Roman Empire de Edward Gibbon.
- Die spätrömische Kunstindustrie nach den Funden in Österreich.
- Saint Augustin et la fin de la culture antique, París, De Boccard, 1937 (dernière édition chez De Boccard, 2003).
- Publié au Seuil, collection Points Histoire.