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The World of Late Antiquity: AD 150-750 (Library of World Civilization)
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About the Author
Peter Brown (Ph.D. Oxford University) is the Rollins Professor of History at Princeton University. He previously taught at London University and the University of California, Berkeley. He has written on the rise of Christianity and the end of the Roman empire. His works include: Augustine of Hippo (1967); The World of Late Antiquity (1972); The Cult of the Saints (1981); Body and Society (1988), The Rise of Western Christendom (1995 and 2002); Poverty and Leadership in the Later Roman Empire (2002). He is presently working on issues of wealth and poverty in the late Roman and early medieval Christian world.
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The book begins at a turning point in Roman history. After the golden age of the Empire, Roman political institutions entered a period of deadly instability: with its army outmoded, its politicians incapable of long-term compromise, and outsiders pressing on the borders, it appeared that Rome was doomed. However, with the reorganization of the society and army associated with Diocletion (244-311 CE), a little-known political genius, the state was once again mobilized on a scale even grander than it had known, with a more evenly distributed system of taxation and the opening to talent outside the traditional aristocracy (for both the Army and a massive new bureaucracy).
DIocletion's reforms offered a reprieve to Greco-Roman culture, in existence for nearly 1,000 years. This ancient tradition was based on an established literature and rhetoric, the mastery of which were the basic requirements of any public career; acquiring it was costly and time-consuming, which for the most part only the aristocracy could afford. Religiously, it was polytheistic, allowing flexibility for local cults that served the notables of each region and city to celebrate their uniqueness and reinforce their power. However, by opening the army and government to talent outside this tradition, Dioceltion weakened this culture. Moreover, as the centralized bureaucratic state dominated Roman institutions with the cult of the emperor, the local polytheistic Gods were losing their clout and Romans began to explore monotheistic alternatives. Once the borders began to be threatened again, this search accelerated under extreme crisis.
The appeal of the various monotheisms - and there were very many that Brown describes - was that they offered new ways of seeing the world that were more accessible to the common man than the rarified and largely unobtainable classical tradition. Suddenly, anyone could ask philosophical questions within new communities, of which Christianity was only one of the most prominent. With Constantine's conversion, in this scheme, Christianity slowly moved to the fore.
When the western portion of the Empire fell to barbarian invasion, the surviving local notables made their peace with the new masters (who were almost all members of various Christian sects). This provided a stability that nurtured the growing churches, allowing landowners and others to enter the clergy and thereby retain much of their influence. Meanwhile, in the east, Byzantium kept much of the Roman tradition alive, in its Christian version; up until the autocracy of Justinian, it was a bureaucratic state run on relatively rational lines. In Brown's telling, the long war between Byzantium and Sassanian Persia weakened both states, offering an opening to the Arabs with their new Islamic monotheism. By the time the Umayyads had conquered Northern Africa and most of the Levant, the classical era was decisively ended and the Medieval Ages had begun.
This summary cannot do justice to the subtlety of Brown's argument, which examines social and cultural change rather than explains the fall of Rome. He encapsulates this period to near perfection, but if the reader is unfamiliar with the period at the undergraduate level, the book could be pretty rough going. Brown is also a wonderfully elegant writer, his language a great pleasure.
Recommended with enthusiasm.
the East. He also reminds us that at least a few great emperors of the East (Justinian, Theodosius) succeeded for a time in reasserting imperial authority in the West and in northern Africa. Not light reading, but worth the effort.