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date: 30 June 2022

Introduction: Late Antique Conceptions of Late Antiquity

Abstract and Keywords

This article begins with a brief overview of The Oxford Handbook of Late Antiquity, which attempts to integrate all the interpretive systems (economic, social, artistic, religious, cultural) while maintaining a broad geographical perspective—from the Atlantic to Central Asia. The discussion then turns to the challenges of recreating the mental world of Late Antiquity. In order to describe the mental world of the elites of Late Antiquity, it is first necessary to know how they conceived of the late antique geopolitical world. One can then proceed to study the values of late antique societies, the late antique religious world, and ultimately the late antique knowledge of the world, in particular, the history of the 'poque as it was understood by its contemporaries.

Keywords: late antique period, mental world, geopolitics, religion, values, knowledge

For a half century now, a diverse range of historiographical models for the end of antiquity has been increasingly reshuffled (Mazzarino 1959; Demandt 1984; Inglebert 2003; Marcone 2008; James 2008; Ando 2008). “Late Antiquity,” a term first attested in German, has, since 1900, been delineated by four main characteristics: (1) a periodization, more or less long in duration; (2) a geographical area, more or less expansive; (3) central themes, either numerous or singular; and, especially, (4) a judgment of overall value. In 1949 (and subsequently), Henri-Irénée Marrou explained why it is preferable to replace the weak adjectives “bas-empire,” “spätrömisch,” and “late Roman”—all of which suggest a universal Roman decline that never happened—with the strong nouns “Antiquité tardive,” “Spätantike,” and “Late Antiquity” (Marrou 1949; 1977). These latter terms allow for an understanding of the period unto itself, and art historians, under Riegl’s influence (Elsner 2002), had already been using such terms for half a century by Marrou’s time. But for Marrou, the expression “Late Antiquity” applied above all to the Roman empire and its immediate neighbors, whereas art historians had used it to describe an entire (p. 4) époque—applying it even to phenomena attested in Central Asia (Le Coq 1923–1933). What is more, the expression allowed value to be placed on the creative aspects of the period—especially in religious, cultural, and artistic domains—and it took into account all the historical dimensions, understanding these to be linked to the disappearance of the western Roman empire and to the decline of specific regions.

In 1971, a book by Peter Brown, The World of Late Antiquity, described Late Antiquity as a long-lasting phenomenon (200–800 c.e.), during which the dissolution of the ancient Mediterranean world led to the creation of three civilizations, all equal heirs of antiquity: western Europe, Byzantium, and Islam. This conception was accompanied by the positive depiction of a period that was altogether creative. Later, in The Making of Late Antiquity (1978), Brown proposed defining Late Antiquity by its religious and cultural themes, in their relation to the social evolutions at the heart of the Mediterranean world. Subsequently, Late Antiquity was conceived of as encompassing a vaster area, combining the Roman and Sasanian territories, and later the Umayyad (Fowden 1993)—all the while preserving not only its longue durée (250–800) and the central themes defining it (Hellenism, Christianity, Islam) but also the positive judgment it now carried (Hägg 1997; Bowersock, Brown, and Grabar 1999).

However, this new historiographical norm has been sharply criticized in the last ten years or so (Giardina 1999), and some scholars no longer hesitate to take up once more the concept of decline: whether it be in the region-by-region picture of Mazzarino (Liebeschuetz 2001) or even in the universalizing sense of Gibbon (Ward-Perkins 2005). These debates are accompanied by the abandonment of an a priori favorable judgment and by the reassertion of classical themes neglected since 1971. Some favor a new geographical and chronological delimitation of the “Late Roman Empire” (Mitchell 2005); others preserve the broad geographical scope but restrict the time frame (400–800) and keep to economic and social systems (Wickham 2005). This present collective work, The Oxford Handbook of Late Antiquity, has chosen to attempt to integrate all the interpretive systems (economic, social, artistic, religious, cultural) while maintaining a broad geographical perspective—from the Atlantic to Central Asia. It offers itself as a thematic complement to the final two volumes of the new Cambridge Ancient History (XIII and XIV), which together cover the period 337–600. The Cambridge Ancient History volumes emphasize above all classical historiographical themes (political, military, social, and institutional history) and leave out the Sasanian world, which is treated in The Cambridge History of Iran (III). By contrast, the Oxford Handbook of Late Antiquity tries to extend its reach as far as possible, in terms of both thematic categories and geographical scope.

However, the chronology of this volume is a different matter, since it was announced to the contributors that “from Constantine to Muhammad” was to be the chronological span, and the contributors were asked specifically to problematize this periodization in their chapters. “From Constantine to Muhammad” (p. 5) differs from the periods typically reserved among classicists for the “Late Roman Empire,” which begins with the accession of the emperor Diocletian (i.e., 284) and draws to a close—depending on the author—with the death of the emperors Justinian (565), Maurice (602), Phocas (610), or Heraclius (641). To begin with Constantine rather than with Diocletian and to end with the prophet of Islam rather than with a Roman emperor is a choice in favor of religious themes. In the debates over the nature of Late Antiquity, this chronology insists on continuity, as opposed to drastic change. Rupture, by contrast, is what a political periodization usually champions, not least because of the disappearance of the Roman empire in the West.

The fact that this religious periodization favors Christianity (and Islam) in comparison with other religious systems of the époque (“paganism,” rabbinic Judaism, Manichaeism, Zoroastrianism) is not what some might call “politically scandalous,” for Christianity was in fact the major religious movement in the Roman empire, in the Romano-Barbarian kingdoms of the West, among certain neighboring peoples, and even in some regions of the Sasanian Persian empire (Armenia and Mesopotamia). The growing significance of religious sentiment from 250 to 311 is well attested: Christians became more numerous; Manichaeism emerged; general anti-Christian persecutions were perpetrated by the Roman authorities (249–251, 257–260, 303–311), as well as Zoroastrian persecutions ordered by the Moabadan-Moabad Kartir (the Zoroastrian “priest of priests” who had Mani executed in 276); and the term “Hellene” began to be used to signify those who were religiously “pagan.” However, only the conversion of Constantine, made public at the end of the year 312, crystallized these sentiments by establishing a link between the Roman empire and Christianity, both bearing ambitions of universality. The emperor was able to present himself as a universal protector of Christians, a stance that was immediately understood in Persia by the Christian Aphrahat and by the Zoroastrian “king of kings” Shapur II, persecutor of the Christians after 337.1 And three centuries later, the expansion of Islam was another example of convergence between a monotheistic religion and a politics of imperial domination. The conversion of Constantine and the Muslim conquest very much had a global impact in allying a religion and a universal power. Even if the rate of conversion to Christianity or Islam diverged region by region, the process persisted into the following centuries.

Nevertheless, this central religious/political/military issue, however important it may be, does not exhaust the significance of the period: one cannot legitimately omit the social dimensions (especially the role of the elites), the economy,2 or cultural factors. But yet, so long as the evolution of diverse diachronic themes is not rendered in a synchronic manner, it is inevitable that periodizations will vary according to the themes broached. Thus, for Late Antiquity to avoid becoming only a projection of contemporary anachronistic ideas—related to American multiculturalism, to concepts of European Union—or to be only a predictable framework of scholarship,3 the historian has only two solutions. (p. 6) The first would be to try to articulate the diverse evolving unsynchronized systems in a unified structure that would describe the appearance, the development, and the disappearance of Late Antiquity and would correspond to the raison d’être of the term itself, as previously described. Such a systematic synthesis, hoped for by Andrea Giardina and necessarily worked out according to the understandings of our time, remains to be written. The second solution would be to describe Late Antiquity from the point of view of the “mentalities” of the époque (or of “representations” of its mentalities, though representations are too often understood only as the effects of discourse). This approach would give Late Antiquity what we might call a “psychological” unity.

Such an attempt to re-create the mental world of Late Antiquity—already partially tried (Sambursky 1962)—nevertheless runs into particular difficulties. If one supposes that Late Antiquity existed as a place of shared consciousness—that is to say, as a network of communication—one must admit that it was not a homogeneous space. If one should wish to include the western part of the Roman empire (subsequently the Romano-Germanic kingdoms), the eastern Roman empire (earliest Byzantium), and the Sasanian empire as one geographic unit for the period of 300 to 630, it would be necessary to acknowledge that this unit would not form a “civilization” of Late Antiquity, in the sense that there once existed a Roman civilization.4 Since this grouping did not know cultural unity (still less political, ideological, or religious unity) before the Muslim conquest—being as it was divided between two large empires and two large official religious systems (leaving aside various others)—the existence of a unity of mentalities seems impossible. However, such a unity might be established in two ways: either according to jointly common ideas (idées communes)—which was obviously not the case—or according to shared ideas (idées partagées). For example, the idea that the truth was contained in revealed religious texts, even if these texts could be different, was a shared idea (une idée partagée) among the Jews, Christians, Zoroastrians, Manichaeans, Neoplatonists, and Muslims. On the other hand, the Christian groups (except the Gnostics and the Marcionites) had the common idea (l’idée en commun) that their revealed text consisted of the Old and the New Testaments, which deterred alternative views of the status of these texts. One could say that a common idea (une idée commune) allowed a collective identity to be defined and that a shared idea (une idée partagée) led to the definition of a commonwealth. Late Antiquity was not a common civilization (une civilisation commune), but a shared commonwealth (un commonwealth partagé).

Reconstructing the mental world of Late Antiquity, therefore, returns to describing the representations that peoples had of themselves and of their world (and the connections between these representations). Nevertheless, this world was a real geographical space, which, from the Atlantic to India, had a center of gravity, the imperial Roman power, henceforth Christian. This center, like a very massive star, bent the world of meaning around itself and oriented the mental space-time of people toward its own center. Since it was (p. 7) the most ancient, the most powerful, and the most prestigious empire of Late Antiquity, all other self-definitions referred back to Rome. When the Roman empire disappeared in the West from the fifth century, it was the eastern Roman empire that then assumed the role of reference point. It is for this reason that those who have defined Late Antiquity from the point of view of the Roman East exhibited a correct intuition, but this “East Side Story” was only one facet of the plot. The demographic, economic, military, and cultural importance of the Roman East is alone insufficient to provide us with a definition of Late Antiquity. Rather, the East was only the necessary condition, a central hub around which (and for which) existed a network of traffic in information and meaning—a role that the Muslim world would perform later. In other words, the Roman East was the material cause but not the efficient cause of Late Antiquity. Late Antiquity arose out of the redefinition, from 312 to 632, of the imperial Roman ideological model of the superiority of the “High Empire,” an empire that saw its sovereignty contested in many ways after 230 and that Constantine reformulated from a Christian point of view. Late Antiquity, from Constantine to Muhammad, was both the époque of a new Christian assertion of Roman ideology and hegemony and the époque of challenges to such an assertion.

Any attempt to describe the “Late Antique Conceptions of Late Antiquity” encounters three methodological problems. The first is the geographical origin of the sources: we have many more documents stemming from the Roman world than from the Sasanian world. Consequently, the reconstruction of a late antique consciousness of the world would be unbalanced in favor of the Roman empire, but at this time, the political and psychological reality always favored Rome. The second difficulty lies in the social origin of the sources: we must lean principally on written sources, and one cannot reconstruct a whole conception of the world from a small selection of works. But in an aristocratic world, there is nothing else that might be used to generalize. The third problem is the criticism that the sources that supply us with information provide more representations than descriptions of reality. However, these are the very representations that structured the shared mentalities (les mentalités partagées).

To describe the mental world of the elites of Late Antiquity, it is first necessary to know how they conceived of the late antique geopolitical world. One can then proceed to study the values of late antique societies, the late antique religious world, and ultimately the late antique knowledge of the world, in particular, the history of the époque as it was understood by its contemporaries.

To understand the late antique geopolitical world, it is necessary to start from the situation of the High Empire, from Augustus to Gordian III (27 b.c.e. to 244 c.e.). The known world for the Romans (orbis terrarum), as it was derived from what was known by Greek geographers from the fourth century b.c.e. (oikoumene), had four characteristics: (1) it was assumed that the oikoumene was greater in longitude than in latitude by a ratio of 2 to 1; (2) it was divided into (p. 8) three parts: Europe, Asia, Africa; (3) it was composed of a central civilized zone (exemplified by the city), which was surrounded by barbarian peoples living in villages or as nomads, and beyond these lived mythical peoples of the borders (eschatia); finally, (4) within the civilized zone, the Roman empire held a dominant position. This image of the world—illustrated by the now lost maps of Eratosthenes and Strabo and also by the surviving itinerary map called the Peutinger Table—remained the common conception until 550, when the first atlas of world and regional maps, derived from the Geography of Claudius Ptolemy, was produced in Alexandria (Wolska-Conus 1973). From a Roman point of view, the world could be divided into six political and geographical regions: (1) the Roman empire, (2) European Barbaricum, (3) the Iranian world, (4) the Erythrian or Red Sea (Arabia-Ethiopia-India), (5) Scythia (the northeastern steppes), and (6) the country of Seres or “silk” (i.e., the Silk Road, including Central Asia and northwestern China). But from a cultural point of view, one might distinguish (within these six regions) four zones of information circulation: (1) the Roman West (Latin), (2) the Roman East (Greek), (3) the Near East (Aramaic), and (4) Persia (Middle-Persian).5 Each of these cultural zones had its own perception of the world, which did not, however, prevent some exchange of information and knowledge.

From an ideological point of view, Roman power asserted the extension of its own power, or at the least its own influence, into the entirety of the known world, from the Atlantic to the Ganges, ever since the victory at Actium was presented as if it were Rome’s victory over the peoples of the East, who had allied themselves with Cleopatra and Marc Antony. The Imperium Romanum, which Virgil had defined as sine fine (Aeneid 1.278), spilled over the provincial frontiers. It is necessary to understand that this pretension, that there was an urbs to rule the orbis terrarum, was not absurd (Nicolet 1988). On the world maps from the period—such as Strabo’s, upon which the coordinates of certain points were fixed according to an astronomical system—the Roman empire extends in longitude over more than half of the known world. In the second century, when Rome controlled the client kingdoms of the Rhine and the Danube, as well as the Red Sea, it was in a position of strength against the Parthians (who were defeated by Trajan, Marcus Aurelius, and Septimius Severus), and it received ambassadors from Central Asia and southern India. The Romans could think without exaggeration that their superiority (maiestas) was recognized by all peoples—China was not known—and that the Roman emperor was indeed the master of the world. In the second century, a Roman soldier, to the east of Aqaba (in modern Jordan), inscribed in Greek: “The Romans always prevail. I, Lauricius, wrote this. Greetings Zeno” (IGLJ 4.138 = Sartre 1993); and in Trier, as in Rome, one could write on the stadia, “Parthi occisi, Britto victus, ludite Romani” (Année Épigraphique 1949, +00258). The grandeur of Rome was known in China, as claimed by the princes of southern India who used denarii as local money and received a cult of the divine Augustus at the port of Muziris (probably in modern Malabar). Around 200, Bardaisan of Edessa, a Christian (p. 9) aristocrat writing in Syriac, admitted in his Treatise on the Laws of the Countries (45 and 48) that the Romans would always be ready to conquer new territories and to extend their laws to others, a concept that harks back to Virgil, Aeneid 6.851–853:

  • Tu regere imperio populos, Romane, memento
  • (hae tibi erunt artes) pacique imponere morem,
  • parcere subiectis et debellare superbos.6
Only the Parthians, who considered themselves “Philhellenes” (as the successors to Alexander), were able to challenge Roman hegemony. The idea of a division of the universal dominion of the Macedonian empire was affirmed by the Parthians after their victory over Crassus in 53 b.c.e., and at some point accepted by some Romans.7 But during the Antonine period, Rome was eventually led to consider itself the unique heir of the ancient universal empires, after the Assyrians, the Medes, the Persians, and the Macedonians. What is more, the Roman dominion was conceived of as bigger than its predecessors, because it was tricontinental, as well as perpetual: Roma aeterna, which celebrated its millennial anniversary on April 21, 248, was the telos of history.

This image of the world was cast aside by the crisis of the third century. From 240 to 275, the Roman empire was attacked on three fronts by adversaries that had become more powerful: the Sasanians in the East, the Goths along the Danube, and the Franks and Alamanni along the Rhine. The defeats, the civil wars, and the fragmentation of the empire into three parts that occurred around 270 created a dramatic situation that stabilized only around 298. But in 300, though Rome had regained a semblance of its former hegemony, this would not last. After 350, the attacks against the Roman empire resumed: troops were withdrawn in the face of the Persian onslaught (Nisibis was lost in 363, Armenia divided in 387); they were defeated by the Goths (Adrianople in 378; the sack of Rome in 410); they were unable to defend the Rhine frontier (407); they suffered losses at the hands of the Vandals (Africa was lost from 429 to 439; Rome was sacked in 455; Roman expeditions were held in check from 460 to 468). All of these events led to the end of the western empire during the years 475 to 480. And even the Justinianic reconquests (533–552) in Africa, Italy, and southern Spain were afterward contested by the Mauri/Moors (535–548), the Lombards (after 568), and the Visigoths (until 624). Eventually, the menace of the Slavs in the Balkans (540) and the Sasanians in the East (613–629) was more pressing. But all of these events were henceforth understood in relation to the Christian Roman empire, a mental framework that was the founder of Late Antiquity, ideologically established by Constantine during the years 312 to 337, at the very moment when the notion of Roman superiority was rediscovered. It is now necessary to present the different understandings of this space-time according to the various cultural zones.

(p. 10) In the Latin West, it was still possible in the fourth century to reaffirm the traditional ideology that a Roman hegemony extended all the way to the Ganges (André and Filliozat 1986). This can be seen from the Panegyrici latini or in the Historia Augusta (Vita Cari 9.1–3), which criticizes (even c. 400!) the idea that destiny would prohibit the emperors from going beyond Ctesiphon: for the author of the Historia Augusta, Rome rules over a world wherein Persians and barbarians are subordinated. The Peutinger Table offers us a graphic expression of this conception of Roman rule. Even if the surviving copy is medieval, with some early medieval, maybe Carolingian, inclusions (Albu 2005; cf. Talbert 2010), its final conception can be dated to around 360 (Arnaud 1991), and on it the Roman empire represents 80 percent of the depicted space. But the Christian Jerome, who was attuned to the actual state of eastern affairs and wary of an (originally pagan) ideology of Roman domination, wrote around 392, “Persae, Medi, Indi, et Aethiopies regna non modica et Romano regno paria” (Adversus Jovinianum, 2.7). For Jerome, Rome was an empire among others in history. The idea of the Roman hegemony became rare after 400. But even after the invasions along the Rhine in 407, it was possible to believe from 417 (Orosius and Rutilius Namatianus) to 470 (Sidonius Apollinaris) that, despite the machinations of the Vandals—in 460 and in 468 it was still possible to hope seriously that they would be destroyed—the Roman empire was surviving (at the least) in the power of the emperor over confederated barbarians henceforth installed within Roman territory. After 470, however, these illusions disappeared. Nevertheless, during the fifth century, men in the West began to think that the “empire of Christ” could take the reins from Rome, perhaps in the form of a Christian commonwealth extending itself beyond the frontier of the empire (Rufinus of Aquileia after 400 in his Ecclesiastical History) or perhaps in the form of a spiritual empire of Christ of which Rome would be the citadel in the name of an ideology making the pope the successor of Peter (Leo the Great and Prosper of Aquitaine, around 440–450). The concrete Roman universality could become a Christian universality. This, however, did not prevent barbarians (Odoacer in 476, the Burgundian kings around 520) or the popes—Gregory the Great, who, around 600, was still truly a Roman citizen thanks to the Justinianic conquest—from respecting that the Roman empire was henceforth directed from Constantinople. Throughout the sixth century, however, Visigothic Spain and the Merovingian kingdoms remained outside Justinian’s Romania.

Seen from the Roman East, the world was rather different because the Roman empire remained in place. Of course, the known world had grown significantly: around 380–390, Ammianus Marcellinus correctly described China, not Central Asia, as the country of the Seres. But some still believed in the sovereign superiority of the Roman empire. Recording the Indian voyage of a scholasticus from Thebes, Palladius reported the respect that the Roman emperor had inspired in those far-off regions (Commonitorium 6.10). And around 550, Cosmas Indicopleustes, a merchant from Alexandria, proudly reported how (p. 11) many eyes of southern Indian princes had been struck by the gold solidus after Constantine had gotten the better of the silver money of the Sasanian empire (Christian Topography 9.17–19). At that same time, the first atlas of maps based on Ptolemy were created (Wolska-Conus 1973): if the Roman empire appeared smaller, its renown, not only in India, was only appearing greater. However, the fame of Rome was greater than its influence, and the imperium sine fine had been replaced with Romania, a word that appeared in the fourth century and was prominent thereafter: from now on—that is, after 350, as attested by the Expositio totius mundi—the frontier that separated Rome from the barbarians was more insisted upon. And the wars of the fourth century with the Sasanians led Ammianus Marcellinus to reflect on the Persian “other”: in his description of the Sasanian territory (23.6), he adopted a model of Persian origins, going from the center to the periphery, thereby recognizing the specificity of an empire that had to be defined for itself. And if the Greek-speaking Romans continued to qualify the Persians as “barbarians,” Ammianus—who, though he was a Greek-speaking Syrian-Roman, wrote in Latin—avoids the term, as do other Latin authors. For him, barbaricum denotes Germanic areas of Europe, not the powerful and civilized eastern empire.

The Syriac and Armenian Near East, divided between the Roman and Sasanian empires, was without doubt the best place to learn about the late antique geographic world. Already around 200, Bardaisan of Edessa, in his Laws of the Countries, describes the world from the Seres (probably the Chinese) in the East to the Celts in the West. Around 337, Aphrahat, a Christian from Persian Mesopotamia, was meditating on the Roman and Sasanian empires (Memra 5, “On Wars”), and his preferences leaned toward the Roman emperor and the Christian Constantine, who presented himself as the natural protector of Persian Christians. These were Christians who retained lasting suspicion among their Persian rulers and had famously suffered persecutions. Cosmas Indicopleustes, himself a Roman citizen from Alexandria, was in contact with Christians from the Persian empire due to his conversion to “Nestorian” (i.e., East-Syriac) Christianity. For his own theological reasons, he refused to use the maps derived from Ptolemy and instead took up again the very ancient geography of Ephorus (from around 350 b.c.e.), privileging the Celts and the Indians as the peoples at the edges of the world, but he knew China (Tzinista), and he gave the number of days for a journey across Eurasia (Christian Topography 2.28): 243 days from Tzinista to Seleucia on the Euphrates and 150 days from the eastern Mediterranean coast to the columns of Hercules. The Persian empire appears in his work to be comparable in size to the Roman empire. Following Cosmas, it is then possible to continue the investigation after 632, beginning with Ananias of Širak in Armenian, Jacob of Nisibis in Syriac, and the Umayyad frescoes at Quṣayr ‘Amra.

Sasanian Persia is the final cultural sphere that concerns us here. Due to their central position in Asia, the Sasanians were a priori very well placed to assemble information (Fr. information). But they did not have the Greco-Roman (p. 12) ethnographic and cartographic techniques at their disposal with which to organize their findings into knowledge (savoir). They were not in direct contact with the Chinese, except at the end of the Sasanian empire at the time of the Arab invasion, but they knew of their power from Sogdian merchants. They were in contact with northern India, because they fought against the Kushans from 230 to 240. This is shown in a recently discovered bas-relief from Rag-i Bibi, in Afghanistan, which depicts a Sasanian king (no doubt Shapur I) on horseback, attacking a rhinoceros (as a symbol of Kushan India and not of the Afghan mountains!) with a spear. But the Sasanian control over Sogdiana, Bactriana, and Gandhara lasted only until around 360, coming to an end with the arrival of the Ephthalite Huns. The Persians maintained more lasting contact with the Arabs, and they managed to extend their control to Yemen by 575. But in the eyes of the Sasanian “king of kings,” only two exterior powers were of any significance: the Romans and the peoples of the Steppe—the Huns and the Turks—the region that the poetic tradition later called Turan. However, Rome was the model, not the nomads. Around 600, Khusro II wrote to the emperor Maurice: “God effected that the whole world should be illuminated from the very beginning by two eyes, namely by the most powerful kingdom of the Romans and by the most prudent sceptre of the Persian state. For by these greatest powers the disobedient and bellicose tribes are winnowed and man’s course is continually regulated and guided” (Theophylact Simocatta, History 4.11.2–3).8 This duality and this parity were reiterated shortly afterward by Persian ambassadors: “For it is impossible for a single monarchy to embrace the innumerable cares of the organization of the universe, and with one mind’s ruler to direct a creation as great as that over which the sun watches” (4.13.7).9

It is known that the Sasanians had asserted their Persian origins, connecting themselves to the Achaemenid Persians; in reality, this pretension was theoretical and aimed less at conquering the Roman East than at justifying their power over the Arsacids, against whom they fought from 224 to 226—though their princes still reigned in Armenia and at Hatra (they had established a rapprochement with Rome by then). Neither in the third century nor in the sixth did the Sasanians endeavor to use their opportune victories over the Romans to annex Syria or part of Anatolia; they did this only at the beginning of the seventh century. But the claim to Achaemenid heritage was real, and it held a strong ideological force.10 It permitted the rejection of the Parthians as Philhellenes alongside Alexander, an enemy of the Iranians, and it justified animosity toward Rome as Alexander’s heir and the eternal enemy of the Iranian people.11 Indeed, it allowed a claim of, if not sovereign primacy, at least equality with Rome.

After 240, Shapur I proclaimed himself “King of the Iranians and of the non-Iranians” in his inscriptions (e.g., at Naghsh-e-Rostam, near Persepolis), which was a new definition of universality, and around 250, the prophet Mani developed another universality, this one religious, affirming that—after the teaching of Buddha in India, Zoroaster in Iran, and Jesus in the West (the (p. 13) Roman empire)—he had come to close the cycle of prophets. This Manichaean selection of three great religious spheres was different from the ideological traditions of the Sasanians, which was as much cultural—two civilized empires, Rome and the Sasanians—as it was political: four thrones, China, Central Asia, Persia, and the eastern Roman empire. If the Romans were well acquainted with the Persians after 350 (as the work of Ammianus Marcellinus shows), the Persians were informed about the Romans from the time of Shapur I (as demonstrated by his description of the army of Valerian in 260). The Persians, whether under Shapur I or under Khusro I, were equally receptive to certain Roman models—including political models (ceremonies), military technology (siegecraft), artistic styles (mosaics, the iconographic theme of Victory), philosophical learning (translations of Plato and Aristotle), and scholarship (medicine)—in an effort to be able to claim equality with their great rival, Rome, who was also the great model (Garsoïan 1983).

Thus, beginning after 230, the hegemony of the empire of Rome was called into question, and despite the reestablishment of Roman authority around 300, the question was taken up again after 337 in the East and led to the political and economic disintegration of the Roman West after 400. The Sasanian military power forced the Romans to admit their parity, something they had refused to admit to the Parthians. At the same time, the expansion of Christendom allowed a greater assertion of Christian universality. The world of Late Antiquity was thus organized around four loci: (1) the affirmed primacy of the Christian Roman empire (which became the empire of Constantinople after 476–480), (2) the accepted equality between the Roman and the Sasanian empires, (3) the integration of a number of peripheral regions through the expansion of Christianity (e.g., Ireland, Ethiopia), and (4) the diffusion of culture (e.g., cultural factors of Hellenistic origin in the Arabian peninsula: Bowersock 1990).

In the late antique world, connections among the values of the elites was an important phenomenon; just as under the High Empire, it is easy to simply hold the Roman and Iranian elites in opposition. The former maintained civic, urbane, cultural (paideia), and civil values. In effect, the city was the foundation of the municipal Roman civilization, with its double dimension of the local patria and the universal city, as found in the dialectic of the “two patriae” inherited from Cicero (De Legibus 2.2.5). Even still, these civic values expressed themselves best in the towns that (almost without exception) were the civic centers where the aristocrats who governed the cities resided. They levied taxes, maintained the imperial highways, and assured public order. In exchange, the autonomy of the cities and the primacy of the aristocrats were guaranteed by Roman power. Finally, the dominant values were civil values, since the Roman army was composed of professional soldiers who were stationed on the frontier. Classical education in grammar and rhetoric marked membership in the elite class. Public spectacles allowed popular participation in the pleasures of the pax Romana and classical culture. Only the senators and a small segment of the Equites (those who had (p. 14) entered into the imperial administration) had experience—brief for senators, substantial for Equites—of military life as an officer. After Augustus, who had created a professional army to avoid a resumption of civil war, Italian Roman society lost that warlike structural system that had allowed them to conquer the world in only three centuries. After 300, with few exceptions (Isauria, Mauretania), civil values became dominant throughout all of Romania. The recruitment of volunteer soldiers, however, became insufficient, and recourse was found through conscriptions beginning during the reign of Diocletian and by the use of Germanic mercenaries.

On the other hand, in the Iranian world, aristocratic values were based in the military; it was necessary to be an excellent horseman and a skilled archer to justify your rank. Furthermore, the Parthian aristocrats lived less in towns and more on their rural estates, where they devoted themselves to hunting, considered to be the best practice for war. The arrival of Sasanian authority did not change this value system, shared by the kings who set their example. Sasanian bas-reliefs and paintings show scenes of hunting because the kings withdrew to their rural palaces surrounded by gardens—the paradis inherited from the Achaemenids—which were also hunting reserves. The Sasanian army still remained composed of a substantial rank and file, but it was poorly equipped and poorly trained, consisting of peasants brought by the aristocrats, who, for their part, formed a fearsome cavalry.

The ineffectiveness of the Roman army between 249 and 275 led the emperors to privilege officers who were outside the high ranks for command posts after 262, and the fear of usurpation led them to separate civil administrative careers from military careers after 285. As Rome began to engage many barbarian soldiers after 330, an elite officer corps of barbarian origin arose (Franks, Alamanni, Goths, Alani). They were loyal to the emperor, they adopted some traits of the elite senatorial class (a luxurious life, classical culture), and, sometimes, they married within this class. The “barbarization” of the Roman army in the West, significant after 380, became predominant after 420, whereas in the East after 400, the role of barbarians was limited and controlled. In the West, after 480, the disappearance of the Roman empire led to the devaluation of the civil models of Roman elites (though this was true by 410 in Britain). Euergetism and spectacles had, for the most part, disappeared during the turmoil of the invasions of the fifth century, surviving only in a marginal and dissimilar manner, such as in a royal, imperial, or even an episcopal context (versus a local, elite context).

There was a reduction in the number of administrative posts in the Roman empire’s western successor kingdoms because taxation was simplified and some administrative levels—praetorian prefect, dioceses, sometimes even provinces—that were no longer needed after the creation of city counts and court counselors disappeared entirely. This rendered classical culture less attractive, because the effort and investment necessary to master it became less socially profitable. When other careers, especially episcopal ones, opened up to (p. 15) aristocrats in Gaul and Spain, the creation of new cultures was needed: patristic (synthesis of classical and biblical culture) or monastic (primarily biblical). At the same time, the career mode nearest to the kings became, above all, military. Already in 449, at the height of the power of Attila the Hun, Priscus, the ambassador from Constantinople, met with Romans in the service of the Hun king; they were making their careers in an open aristocratic system as administrators or as soldiers (History fragment 8). Additionally, in 506, Gallo-Roman aristocrats came from Aquitaine and Auvergne with their peasant militias to support the Visigothic king Alaric II against Clovis; for the first time in many centuries, war became an aristocratic Roman value again (though this was true earlier in Britain and in the time of Sidonius Apollinaris in Gaul). During the same period, aristocrats began to reside less in towns, which were no longer places of spectacles, power, or culture. Thus, urban, cultural, and civil values began to weaken, from 440 in Great Britain, from 500 in Gaul and Spain, and after 530 in Africa and Italy. As for the towns, they became more and more centers of religious power (the bishop), royal power (the count), and military power (the garrison). A similar evolution took place after 550 in the Balkanized regions of the eastern Roman empire. The necessity for pagans to convert to Christianity after 527–529, the increased importance of the law (as opposed to rhetoric) in the formation of civil servants after 540, the progressive clericalization of culture after 550, and the decline of civic life all led to a weakening of classical culture and to the predominance of military and religious values (which supported alms distribution and pious building projects).

This evolution slowly led the aristocrats of the western kingdoms, the Roman East, and the Sasanian empire toward shared dominant values. Everywhere in the sixth century, one can find the elites engaged in military, administrative, and religious pursuits. But these values were shared (partagées) differently, and it is because of this that they were not values held in common (communes). The bishops of Gaul and Spain often came from the aristocratic senatorial class (Sidonius Apollinaris, Remy of Rheims, Gregory of Tours) and had only a little in common with bishops from Africa, Italy, or the East, who were from a more modest social background, and still less with the hereditary caste of Zoroastrian magi. The social rank of the warrior aristocrats from the West was quite different from that of the Roman officers (and sometimes the barbarian ones) from Constantinople, as well as their Sasanian counterparts. Finally, the administrators of Germanic kingdoms—Roman aristocrats like Cassiodorus or, increasingly as the sixth century advanced, clerics—were not as effective as the huge, meddling bureaucracy of Constantinople: in Africa, reconquered by Justinian, the people felt the difference in tax collection. On the other side, it is possible that after 500, the Sasanian administration had been inspired by Roman models.12

Two remarks will suffice for a conclusion to this section. One can observe some convergences between the two states, the Roman one and the Sasanian one: the more centralized placement of power, the organization of an official (p. 16) state church, and increased militarization caused by a greater presence of conflicts (either between the two empires or against barbarians from the north: Germanic tribes, Alani, Huns, Slavs, Turks). This occurred to the detriment of local traditional elites and to the profit of new administrative, military, and religious elites. But these did not all carry the same respective weight, nor the same power relationships, nor the same functions in the different societies (western kingdoms, eastern Roman empire, Sasanian empire). Finally, one can reflect on the evolution of the term nobilitas. At the end of the Republic and under the High Empire, this term denoted a small group of aristocrats (around 200 families) whose ancestors had been patricians or consuls. In the fourth century, emperors created a state nobility, which never had the same prestige as the senatorial nobility determined by birth (“pars melior humani generis” according to Symmachus, Ep. 1.52). On the other hand, one could use the term nobilis to denote the quality of individuals (and not of groups) among the local elites of the cities and also among the bishops and the barbarian, German, and Persian nobles—nobles defined in two cases by their status as warriors (i.e., the German ruling class; the Persian aristocratic cavalry class). The Roman senatorial nobility disappeared after 550 in Gaul and after 570 in Italy, but the term “noble” was sufficiently extended to designate the various administrative, military, and religious elites of the late antique world (Badel 2005).

In the late antique world, religious values became the central values, even the supreme values, for conceiving of the world and for justifying discourse and action. However, this was not previously the case, except in a socially marginal manner, before Late Antiquity. Of course, all of ancient life can appear to us as saturated with religion, but this classical religion was not of the same nature as its late antique counterpart. Indeed, in classical communities—cities, gentes, and kingdoms—“religion” was comprised of a group of official and family rites maintaining good relations between the community and its gods; religion was thus a part of communal life, side by side with politics and the military, and did not have superior status; in the case of conflicting authority, politics took precedence. Personal religious aspects, beliefs, acts, and sentiments were less glorified (superstitio, δεισιδαιμονία) and were not to interfere with the communal religion. Marginalized behaviors, scorned but more often tolerated, were not reprimanded unless they questioned or threatened authority: this is the principal reason for the occasional Roman and Sasanian persecutions against Christians or Manichaeans, as well as against the astrologers in Rome.

The principal evolution was that new religious behaviors became the norm. Alongside traditional rituals (above all, sacrifice), others appeared, but explicit beliefs, in particular, took a central place. If the ruling authority continued to privilege some religious aspects with a view toward its own security, it permitted diverse religious systems to coexist, a peace that was occasionally interrupted with phases of persecution. These evolutions took place in a complex way, and through various channels, but it is evident that the most important, in light of (p. 17) the number of people concerned and considering its impact on others, was the development of Christianity from the time of Constantine. The religious mental map was completely transformed. The supreme God, the God of philosophers since Plato, became the principal actor in human history; that which had been evident to Jews, Christians, and Zoroastrians became evident for all (save the Neoplatonists). The supreme God, until then withdrawn from a world that he nevertheless controlled through general Providence—keeping watch over its proper functioning and over the harmonious balance of the cosmos—would henceforth be interfering with collective history,13 as well as in the details of private life, either directly or through the intermediation of angels or daimones. Christianization—and in reaction, the development of a more organized paganism—resulted both in the increased presence of divine providence through its miracles and in man’s responsibility for his own salvation, caused by the growing belief in the survival of the whole person because of the Christian faith in resurrection.

In addition to these aspects, linked as they were to the quantitative growth of the number of Christians, the fourth through sixth centuries witnessed the generalization of the model of religious communities, which had all of the characteristics that would be also found later in Islam. These communities were defined by four main principles: (1) a revealed fixed text (the Jewish scriptures of the Hebrew Bible, the Christian Bible including the Old and New Testaments—and some additional apocryphal writings among the East-Syriac and Oriental Orthodox churches—the Avesta of the Zoroastrians, the books of Mani, the Chaldean Oracles of the Neoplatonists, the works of Homer, Virgil, or Cicero for certain educated pagans); (2) a tradition of interpretive commentaries defining the norms of belief and life, that is, a kind of “orthodoxy” (the Mishna and the Talmud for the Jews, the conciliar decisions and patristic traditions of the Christians, the Neoplatonist philosophical commentaries); (3) the existence of professional religious authorities controlling the others (Christian clerics, pagan philosophical scholarchs, Jewish rabbis, Manichaean clerics, Zoroastrian priests) and holy men who were models for life (Christian ascetics and monks, Neoplatonist ascetics, some rabbis, the Manichaean “elect”); and (4) a sacred geography of pilgrimage to the dead or living saints (the “holy men”) but also to certain landscapes, as much for monotheists (Sinai for Egeria), as for pagans, with their landscape relics (Tardieu 1990).

But if the problem of human relations with the divine world and the role of intercessors became more significant for everyone, the proportions of these elements could vary. The Roman polytheists preserved the rituals, such as the sacrifices, even if they were henceforth prohibited in the Roman empire at the end of the fourth century, which led to the birth of new pagan practices: the philosophers added the “Hellenic” practices of Neoplatonic theurgy to their spiritual exercises (those of stoicism and the spiritual asceticism of Plotinus). Christians insisted on the essential intercessory role of Christ—which explains (p. 18) the extreme importance of the theological and Christological debates, but also the centrality of sacramental rituals (from which comes the significance of the Donatist schism in Africa)—and the role of the intercessory rituals of the saints (pilgrimage for the veneration of relics of dead saints or living holy men, a group to whom the Virgin and some angels were later added). Though the Jews privileged rabbinic meditation on the Torah, they also made pilgrimages, and not only to Jerusalem but also to the tombs of the patriarchs.14 The Manichaeans emphasized instead the salvific asceticism of the “elect,” but their discourse was very understandable to Christian monks. The Iranian Zoroastrians were without doubt the most traditional, particularly in their cult of the fire altars, but the fixation on the Avesta and the social uses of Iranian religion (such as the Mazdakite movement) were also innovations.

The evolution of mentalities toward a predominance of religion explains the modification of identity categories, principally in the sixth century, since this process was quite slow.15 Subsequently, in the West, the fact that the homoian Germans (Visigoths, Vandals, Ostrogoths) were considered to be heretics by the Catholics of the vanished Roman empire—who were very much in the majority—limited relations with the new powers, despite the Latin acculturation of the latter (including the adaptation of Roman law in the codes of the new kingdoms). The adoption of religious Catholic orthodoxy by barbarian kings, on the other hand, allowed the growth of post-Roman ethnic identities: around 500 in Britain, formerly Roman people were able to define themselves as Britons, as Goths in Spain around 600, and as Franks north of the Loire at the same time. In the East, in the fifth century, the persistence of the Roman empire was accompanied by the creation of parallel churches: Chalcedonian, “Monophysite” (miaphysite), and “Nestorian” (dyophysite). If this did not contradict loyalty to the empire, it nevertheless allowed men to define themselves religiously, something that became essential after 600 during the Persian and Muslim Arab invasions in the Near East and in Egypt, when communal religious affiliation became more important than imperial affiliation. Thus, the religious factor altered relations within the Roman citizenry, which lost its universal value as an identity.

This recomposition of values explains the construction of a Christian commonwealth, an empire of Christ that spilled over beyond Roman borders. From 300 to 600, a series of regions and peoples converted to Christianity, often with the intention of thereby establishing relations with the Roman empire, sometimes in opposition to the Sasanians: Armenia, Iberia (Georgia), the Ethiopians of Axum, some Himyarites (Arabs from Yemen), some Saracens, some peoples of the Black Sea (Huns and Goths), the Nubian kingdoms—a broad collection of peoples among whom it is necessary to include both the Christians of Persia (especially those in Mesopotamia) and the distant peoples of the far West (Irish Scots, Caledonian Picts, later the Angles and Saxons). This reality does not mean that there was Christian uniformity—since differences in language, doctrine, and monastic regulations were quite real—but it does create a world of common (p. 19) references from the Atlantic to Persia. And above all, this reality redefined what it meant to be civilized: to the Romans, it was henceforth necessary to include the Persians, for political and military reasons, and people formerly scorned as barbarians who had become Christians, for religious reasons. Late Antiquity was not a common civilization (une civilisation commune), but a mental space-time with a new, larger definition of civilization that was shared (partagée) and accepted (acceptée) by Romans who had become Christians.

In this world, more and more modeled on a new definition of religion and on the new role of the elites, culture and learning’s place in the world was modified. In classical Greek and Roman culture, poetic and rhetorical composition was central, and erudite learning formed only a complement. Though totalization of learning was the ambition of the Aristotelian school and of the Ptolemaic project of the Museon and the library at Alexandria, erudite learning nevertheless remained outside the enkyklios paideia. But the pretension of assembling the totality of knowledge had real ideological significance, and it can be observed in imperial Rome, with its Latin and Greek libraries, and in Sasanian Persia, where the sovereigns supported translation projects of certain Greek and Indian texts. The totalization of late antique knowledge also had an impact on religious hermeneutics: both Christians and Neoplatonist philosophers claimed the ability to exhaust the world’s meaning (Inglebert 2008). Another point of connection between the learned Christians and pagan philosophers was their certainty that classical culture (grammar, rhetoric, knowledge) should not be an end in itself, but an instrument in the service of higher religious truths. For Christians, however, the biblical texts held a supreme authority, and because of this, certain literal readings occasionally led to tensions between “Christian (inner) knowledge” and “Greek (outer) knowledge.” For instance, there were debates about the shape of the world: the ancient conception (with a flat earth and heavenly dome) or spherical (with a spherical world encompassed by spherical heavens). This debate principally took place from 350 to 550, and above all among the Greek and Syriac Christians. But there were also debates over the existence of a single ocean or closed seas (Cosmas versus Philoponus) and on the comparative efficacies of medicine or prayer for healing; indeed, they even debated the eternity of the world (Philoponus versus the Aristotelians). It is thus possible to propose a typology of the Christian modifications to knowledge about the world (Inglebert 2001).

One must not overlook two sociological factors. The first, already mentioned, is that the elites were now less interested than they had been previously in investing in classical culture to make a career—which brought about a decline in civic schools during the sixth century—whereby it became necessary for bishops to create religious schools to form the clergy. The second is that Christianization of the culture was different, depending on whether one was a member of the pepaideumenoi. In regions where there were not any Greco-Roman schools, traditional rhetorical techniques were less important than technical knowledge and ecclesiastical rules, which (in order of priority) were (p. 20) translated from Greek into Syriac and Armenian in the East, or imported in Latin in Ireland. In the sixth century, the school of Nisibis, located in Persian territory since 363 but near Roman Edessa, was the only ancient institution (with the monastery of Qenneshre in the West-Syriac tradition) dedicated to biblical exegesis and Christian theology (Vööbus 1965; Becker 2006); teaching there was done from Greek and Syriac Christian texts. It was a theoretical model for some Christians from Constantinople, Italy, and Africa, but in the Roman world, the Christian cultural shift was actually the founding of monasteries. Thus, for various reasons, linked to the absence (Armenia, Mesopotamia) or to the disappearance (in the Roman empire, first in the West, then in the East) of civic schools, clericalization of the culture became the sociological norm after 550 (the rabbinization of the Jewish tradition had already occurred). In the Mediterranean world at the end of the sixth century, the patristic synthesis, or the coexistence of the profane and Christian between classical and biblical contributions, was replaced by a more strictly theological culture that insisted on criteria of orthodoxy for the selection process of texts, as in the catenae (Cameron 1996). But this phenomenon—which selected portions of prior works according to particular rubrics and reorganized knowledge that was formerly distributed in a different mode, that is, according to works by individual authors—was not to be found only in theology. One can find it in other fields where authority had become the criterion for classification: the Theodosian Code, the Code and Digest of Justinian, and the Talmudic tradition.

Another important change was the new status of language and culture that Christianization brought to languages other than Latin and Greek: Syriac, Coptic, Gothic, Armenian, Georgian, and others.16 This change likewise favored translations of erudite classical knowledge (philosophy, geography, medicine) into Syriac and Armenian. Middle-Persian also served the elaboration of a written corpus of both religious knowledge (Avesta) and profane knowledge (translations from Greek or Sanskrit). This cultural evolution thus encouraged the extension of the concept of civilization, via Christianization, to new people groups.

An example of this transformation of knowledge was the manner in which one understood the history of time, which combined political, religious, and intellectual dimensions together. Classical history, beyond its mere description of events, expresses the earthly reflection of a cosmic reality: eternal Rome, the last universal empire, was the telos of history and the sign of a unified divine order. With the advent of Christianity, history became another process of realization, in that the expansion of the Church proved the continuity of sacred history. Though the Manichaeans would also use such reasoning, this view was, by contrast, less common among Roman pagans, among Zoroastrians, and among Jews: ecclesiastical history and a universal narrative were Christian specialties. However, contemporary political and military topics, the primary themes of classical history, were central preoccupations of all groups.

(p. 21) For the pagans, Roman military defeats (e.g., Adrianople in 378, the sack of Rome in 410) could be explained by the cessation of divine support, brought about by the coming of the christiana tempora (as in Libanius, Eunapius of Sardis, Zosimus). In 417, for instance, Rutilius Namatianus (De redito suo, vv. 47–155) could still think that Rome would remain the eternal city, but later pagan hopes—too closely linked to the terrestrial fall of Rome—disappeared. For Latin Christians, the arrival of pagan or heretical barbarians signaled various things: either a sign of the end of the fourth empire of the Book of Daniel, and thus the end of the world (Hydatius, Quodvultdeus); a punishment for the sins of Roman Christians (Salvian); an opportunity for the spread of Christianity (Orosius); or an event to be understood from a philosophico-theological point of view (Augustine, Prosper of Aquitaine). Roman Christians of the East, on the other hand, until the arrival of Arab Muslims, were able to maintain the ideology of Eusebius, Constantine, and Theodosius, that of a Christian Roman empire: God would protect the last empire, Roman and Christian, up to the end of times. As for the Sasanians, they interpreted their victories as victories of Ahura Mazda, and their defeats as resulting from impious leaders, similar in this to the view of pious Romans (pagan or Christian).

The Roman understanding of Persian history was similarly complex. The Sasanian pretension of being the heirs of the Achaemenids was known by the Romans from the third century, but it was not necessarily accepted, and the Persians were considered by some, such as Julian (On Royalty 11) and Ammianus Marcellinus (23.6.2) to be merely “Parthians.” One Syriac text, the late version of the Cave of Treasures, written around 500, presents another history of the Sasanians. The text integrates the Sasanian dynasty with biblical history, making them descended from Sisan the servant of Nimrod, the first king of Babylon (Cave 24.25; cf. Genesis 10:8–12)—according to tradition, “Sasan” was the grandfather of Ardashir I, founder of the Sasanian dynasty. Further, with respect to the magi who came to adore the newborn Jesus in Bethlehem, the text specifies that they were certain kings, one of whom was the king of Persia (Cave 45.19): this claim once again linked the Persian empire to sacred history. Thus, Syriac Christians proposed a syncretistic history in order to insert Sasanian power into Biblico-Christian history. Cosmas Indicopleustes, a Roman but a “Nestorian,” displayed another conception of Sasanian history around 550. According to his Christian Topography (2.76), the Sasanians descended neither from the Achaemenids nor from the Parthians. Their empire was actually a kingdom of magi, founded by the descendants of those who came to Bethlehem. This showed that the Sasanian empire, officially Zoroastrian, was in fact willed by God and that it therefore had the same theological foundation as the Roman empire, although with a pagan origin. For Cosmas, the Roman empire since the time of Augustus had been the guardian of the empire of Christ, and it would return it to Christ at the end of time. The association of Christ with the Roman empire of Augustus was ancient (Origen, Eusebius of Caesarea), and the census mentioned in Luke 2:1 (p. 22) was interpreted wrongly during Late Antiquity as Jesus’ enrollment as a Roman citizen and was understood as such even by Syriac Christians like Aphrahat (Memra 5.24). But the idea that the Sasanian power was linked to the magi of Bethlehem is profoundly original and is not found elsewhere (Panaino 2005), and this idea had, without any doubt, a Persian “Nestorian” origin—perhaps due to the fact that the “king of kings” had given official status to the Church of the East in the fifth century. Such an idea affiliated the two great empires via the same Christian unity and the same chronology focused on the birth of Christ. On one hand, this gave credence to the Sasanian ambitions for parity while, on the other hand, it reserved the first rank for the Roman empire of Justinian.

From the Atlantic to Central Asia, the world of Late Antiquity was neither unitary (unitaire) nor common (commun), but was fragmented (fragmenté) and shared (partagé). However, one notices from the fourth to the seventh centuries a convergence of elite values and of conceptions of the world among educated people. And there existed unifying representations of this world, especially religious—those of the Manichaeans, as well as those of Syriac Christians of the sixth century. Situated between the two empires, the Roman and Sasanian, where they formed minority communities and used both Greek and Aramaic, Syriac Christians made simultaneous use of received knowledge from Greco-Roman paideia and from data of eastern origin. They were better able than others to affirm the geographical and historical unity of the Mediterranean and Iranian territories based on biblical traditions and the expansion of Christianity.

One can comprehend the late antique world from Constantine to Muhammad from three perspectives. First, there was hardly any upheaval in geographical knowledge: the addition of China, which remained mostly unknown, modified the map of the world only marginally; Christian traits that were inherited from Jewish traditions (e.g., locating the terrestrial paradise in the east, or the central placement of Jerusalem) imposed themselves only slowly as the culture was clericalized; and cartography derived from Ptolemy remained secondary. On the other hand, this world witnessed profound transformations: political (e.g., the disappearance of the western Roman empire and the arrival of the Germanic tribes; the growing power of the Sasanian empire to the east), religious (e.g., the majority victory of Chalcedonian Christianity), social (e.g., the redefinition of the role of elites with respect to military and religious values), and economic (e.g., the decline of economic complexity in the West during the fifth century and in the East after 550).

Finally, representations of this fragmented world were strikingly restructured, and, in this sense, Late Antiquity was above all an époque of revolution and of the adaptation of different mentalities. One cannot simply pass from a world dominated by political models to a world dominated by religious models, but, more subtly, we see the transition from a political, classical, uncontested model of Roman hegemony to a religious, Christian, contested (p. 23) model of Roman supremacy. This late antique world was without unity, but nevertheless, there was a structural scheme that created a shared world (un monde partagé), a necessary reshuffling that occurred with reference to the model of a Christian Roman empire, inherited from Constantine. The imperial conversion to Christianity was, in effect, the opportunity to reassert, in a new way, the superiority and universality of Roman ideology and values. And it is through this discourse, linking Rome (with its two possible interpretations: the empire and the city) and Christianity, that one can understand the late antique conceptions of Late Antiquity: whether in explaining this new Roman model according to the various categories of time, place, and social and cultural settings; in seeing it transformed according to the whim of emergent circumstances; or, by challenging it, for religious or political reasons.

From Constantine to Muhammad, one can therefore characterize Late Antiquity as an époque of “transition,” with the condition that the term transition is used in a strong sense, distinguishing it from simple transformations that are inherent in every historical period. We pass from a world in the third century wherein identity was primarily political (the principal affiliation being either civic or ethnic), to a world in the seventh century wherein identity became above all religious (the principal affiliation depending on one’s religious community). Late Antiquity was a historical period in which the two conceptions coexisted and in which the second overcame the first: this is true whether within the empire of Constantinople, the kingdoms of the West, the Sasanian empire, or in the Qur’ān with “the people of the book.” This transition can be explained by the fact that the notion of religion had changed, insisting henceforth less on cosmic and topical aspects and more on soteriology and history (Brown 1978). The main consequence was that the notion of “civilized” was redefined, juxtaposing the ancient political criteria, which permitted the inclusion of the Sasanian empire, and the new Christian religious criteria, which justified the inclusion of converted peoples, even those who were barbarians. The imperium Romanum, in theory sine fine, became Romania in the fourth century, which after 480 denoted the empire ruled from Constantinople. But Romania was only one part of the Christian world, which was itself included within a late antique commonwealth. However, this commonwealth did not exist as a unified representation until the sixth century—and only among Sasanian rulers, with the rhetoric of the two “eyes,” and among Syriac Christians (or among those, like Cosmas, who were religiously affiliated with them), and only then with reference to Christianity—that is, a common sacred history encompassing the Roman and Sasanian empires, both of which were connected to Christ through Augustus and the magi at Bethlehem. In both cases, this expanded and united “world of Late Antiquity” was that of Rome’s (or Constantinople’s) political or religious challengers.

But yet, this matrix of discourse, which had been organized by reference to the Christian Roman empire, disappeared with the expansion of Islam. This expansion signaled after 634 the end of any possible Roman and Christian (p. 24) hegemony, a hegemony that had again been reasserted in 629–630 through Heraclius’ victory over the Sasanians. In effect, the military victory of the Muslim Arabs—understood as heretical or impious barbarians—was incomprehensible outside of eschatological reasoning,17 a fact that might explain the end of the Byzantine tradition of ecclesiastical history (which linked Christianity and Roman empire) after 600. The expansion of Islam, by its destruction of the Sasanian empire and the given Roman and Christian certitudes, sealed (in an archaeological sense) a particular conception of the world: Late Antiquity, which lasted from Constantine up to Heraclius, the Roman emperor (610–641) contemporary with both the “king of kings” Khusro II (591–628) and the prophet Muhammad (612–632).

It is therefore possible to say that the analysis of ancient mentalities strengthens the idea of a real Late Antiquity within an expanded geographical framework and is also an argument in favor of a short chronology. Nevertheless, with respect to the chronology, our debate must remain open, if only because the respective roles played by the ancient conceptions of ancient realities and by the contemporary representations of those realities have yet to be delineated clearly.18

Works Cited

Ancient Sources

Aphrahat. 1988–1989. Les exposés, 2 vols. Ed. and trans. Marie-Joseph Pierre. Sources chrétiennes 349 and 359. Paris: Éditions du Cerf.Find this resource:

La Caverne des Trésors: Les deux recensions syriaques. 1987. Ed. and trans. Su-Min Ri. 2 vols. CSCO 486–487. Leuven: Peeters.Find this resource:

Cosmas Indicopleustes. 1968–1973. La topographie chrétienne, 3 vols. Ed. and trans. Wanda Wolska-Conus. Sources chrétiennes 141, 159, and 197. Paris: Éditions du Cerf.Find this resource:

Eusebius of Caesarea. 1999. Life of Constantine. Trans. Averil Cameron and Stuart G. Hall. Oxford: Clarendon.Find this resource:

Gregory the Great. 1986–1990. Homélies sur Ezéchiel, 2 vols. Ed. and trans. Charles Morel. Sources chrétiennes 327 and 360. Paris: Éditions du Cerf.Find this resource:

Pseudo-Methodius. 1993. Die syrische Apokalypse des pseudo-Methodius, 2 vols. Ed. and trans. G. J. Reinink. CSCO 540–541. Leuven: Peteers.Find this resource:

(p. 26) Rutilius Namatianus. 2007. Sur son retour. Ed. and trans. Étienne Wolff. Paris: Les Belles Lettres.Find this resource:

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(1) . Constantine’s letter to Shapur, describing himself as protector of the Christians of the world, Eusebius of Caesarea, Vita Constantini, 4.9–13; the Sasanian Christians persecuted by Shapur II, Aphrahat, Memra 21.

(2) . That is, the technical decline and general impoverishment of the West, well perceived by Gregory the Great when he described Rome at the end of the sixth century, Homily on Ezekiel 1.9.9; 2.10.24; 2.6.22.

(3) . For this author, at least, the simple juxtaposition in CAH XIII and XIV of classical “Late Roman” themes and more innovative “Late Antique” themes is not intellectually satisfying.

(4) . In the introduction of Late Antiquity: A Guide to the Postclassical World (Bowersock, Brown, and Grabar 1999), the editors define Late Antiquity as “a distinctive and quite decisive period that stands on its own” (ix), as “a distinctive civilization” (xi), and “a common civilization, that of Late Antiquity” (xi). However, a period is not a civilization, and such a definition is not, therefore, self-evident—though the confusion of the two terms is already in found in Marrou. For the concept of “Roman civilization,” cf. Inglebert 2005.

(5) . India and China were largely seen through the lens of Persia: see chapter 5, la Vaissière, in this book.

(6) .

“Remember thou, O Roman, to rule the nations with thy sway,

there shall be thine arts, to crown Peace with Law,

to spare the humbled and to tame in war the proud.”

Trans. H. Rushton Fairclough (LCL; Cambridge, MA, 1965)

(7) . Pompey Trogus, who lived during the time of Tiberius, in his Philippic Histories 12.13, 12.16, and 41.1, allows the theory that Alexander was the sole ephemeral master of an empire that was actually universal.

(8) . Theophylact Simocatta 1986, 117.

(9) . Ibid., 121.

(10) . It is revealed onomastically through the names Ardashir/Artaxerxes, decoratively through the revival of the Egyptian cornice, used in the buildings of Persepolis, in the palace of Ardashir I at Firuzabad, and through the Zoroastrian religious practice.

(11) . Around 238, the Roman outposts were located at Hatra, only 300 kilometers from the capital Ctesiphon.

(12) . Garsoïan 1983, 587–589.

(13) . Cf. the prayer to the deus summus of the army of Licinius in 313 (Lactantius, De mortibus persecutorum 46).

(14) . Maraval 2004, 2–31, 52–53, 194, 275, 276.

(15) . Cf. the fact that, in 363, the inhabitants of Nisibis wished to remain Romans (Zosimus Nea historia 3.33.4), and the same was true for the Arverni around 470; cf. Prévot 1999.

(16) . The expansion of Manichaeism (which used Aramaic, Coptic, Middle Persian, Parthian, Sogdian, Old Turkish, Chinese), as well as the choice by Jewish rabbis to use Aramaic, had the same effect. Cf. Tardieu 1997.

(17) . Such as that in the Apocalypse of Pseudo-Methodius, a Jacobite Syriac text written around 691/692 in which the future victory of the Roman empire over the Muslims is linked to the end times.

(18) . In particular, a different presentation is possible: one founded on the ancient realia, and not on ancient representations of reality, and one that corresponds to the wishes of Giardina. Such an approach would seek to offer warrant for the different frameworks, both geographical and chronological. I intend to return to these questions in an essay titled “Late Antiquity: A Problem for Historians” (L’Antiquité tardive: Un problème d’historiens).