Late Antiquity

Decline and Fall – or Late Antiquity?

Currently the very concept of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire is controversial. The late antique world is being reassessed. The reassessment began or received its most eloquent statement with a remarkable book, The World of Late Antiquity, by Peter Brown, published in 1971 by Thames and Hudson in their beautifully illustrated format. It is introduced the concept of ‘late antiquity’ as a period of its own, beginning sometime around AD 200 and continuing through until it gave way to the Islamic world between AD 600 and 800. It was very iconoclastic in its time and introduced a new concept, concentrating on continuity rather than break points.

It has been remarkably influential, and in the last quarter of the 20th century, the pendulum swung to the opposite extreme so that it became it almost incorrect to talk of a decline and fall. However the antithesis has now appeared, in a remarkable book The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilisation by Brian Ward Perkins, the ancient history fellow Trinity College, Oxford. Bryan is the son of John Ward Perkins the long serving director of the British School at Rome: he was born and brought up in Rome, where his father pioneered the great South Etruria survey, field walking the vast tracts north of Rome, picking up pottery. The results were quarried to show the rise of Rome, but they can equally be used to show its decline, as the distribution of pottery grows less in the fifth to eighth centuries: he is one of the first Oxford ancient historians to be at home with archaeology, and this informs his witty and amusing attack on the whole concept of ‘late antiquity’. He uses the evidence of archaeology, talking about the ‘disappearance of comforts’ epitomised by the disappearance of good pottery, and the decrease in the size of the major churches built between the fourth and the eighth centuries. His appendix entitled From Potsherds to People shows how much archaeology can be used to track the course of the decline and fall.

Interwoven through all this is the work of the great Belgian historian, Henri Pirenne, who in his posthumous book, Mohammed and Charlemagne, left behind on his death in 1935, argued that the real break came not with the Germanic invaders from the North but with the breakup of the trade routes in the Mediterranean by the Moslem invaders in the seventh century, and that it was Mohammed who by breaking up the trade routes in the Mediterranean, ultimately led to the rise of Charlemagne in the eighth century, introducing a very different form of society to that of the classical world.

Indeed underlying these rival interpretations is another problem, perhaps the biggest of all and one that is of increasing interest. The Muslim invasions certainly mark a break, but what is the nature of this break? Is it the destruction of the corpse of the Roman Empire and replacing it by nothing? This is so often the impression that one gets from looking at the archaeology, for virtually all the great classical towns come to an end at this time; one thinks of Athens reduced to little more than a small village squatting in the ruins of the Acropolis.

Or on the other hand, does this mark a change of gear, a change of emphasis with the destruction or abandonment of the classical cities being outweighed by the rise of the new Islamic cities such as Baghdad and Kairouan? These are problems where there is at present insufficient critical data to assess the rise of the Moslem empire. This is something for future research and enquiry.

Now let us look at Augustus’ Currency Reforms