How late should the late antique go?

The Journal of Late Antiquity is now online and seems to have adopted the recent habit of annexing bits of the early Middle Ages. The journal aims to cover ‘the late Roman, western European, Byzantine, Sassanid, and Islamic worlds, ca. AD 250–800’, while the existing journal Early Medieval Europe covers ‘the history of Europe from the later Roman Empire to the eleventh century.’ Preferring one journal over the other is easy if you work on Egypt or Iceland, but harder otherwise. Nor is it simply about whether you think barbarians or the ‘fall of the Roman empire’ are a Good Thing/Bad Thing (which is the normal cultural divide between the late antique and the early medieval). Both journals are printing articles by people like Peter Heather and Guy Halsall, after all.

The far ends of each journal’s period look reasonable, if you’re going to stick to round numbers (rather than the spurious precision that Modern History starts in 476 AD). I suspect Peter Brown originally started late antiquity in 150 AD because that was roughly where the Oxford classics syllabus lost interest (certainly, 25 years ago, when my husband was doing classics there, they ended the history papers with the death of Trajan in 117). Either 250 or 300 AD is a good place for the start of late antiquity, depending on whether you think Diocletian or Constantine are more significant. Where the ‘early medieval’ ends depends partly if you’ve got a central Middle Ages to go onto, or whether you’re moving immediately to the later Middle Ages. But assuming you’ve got a ‘middle middle’, then it’s a choice between 1000 and ‘mutation’ or 1100 with the Gregorian reforms and the Crusades, and I think I’d agree with 1100 myself.

The problem is the five century overlap in the middle (300-800). It makes sense for there to be some overlap between the two periods (and the two journals), because the post-Roman world developed at a different rate. You can’t really claim that fifth century Britain is ‘late antique’, but you can say that about fifth-century Gaul. On the other hand, there are some claims that are frankly unconvincing. We early medievalists ought to be thinking seriously about giving the fourth century back to the late antique people, if not in survey courses and textbooks (where you have to include some references to Constantine), at least in research terms. Equally, the attempt by late antique researchers to include the eighth century is just ridiculous. It makes no sense to cut up the two most powerful dynasties (the Carolingians and the Abbasids) in that way, and what else of ‘late antique’ culture is still round by then? I’d say you could either pick 600 or 700 AD as the end of late antiquity. 600 works better for western Europe (especially France and Italy), with Gregory the Great looking a very transitional figure, but 700 may make more sense for the east (and keep the Spanish historians happy). That leaves 250-400 to the late antique, 700-1100 to early medieval (both decent stretches), with three centuries in between being tugged either way, depending on your location and your field of history (roughly the early medieval comes in earlier in economic and political history and later in religious and cultural history). After all, of we could agree at least when we’re talking about, then maybe we could get a little further in the quest to get people thinking it’s worth studying things that happened before the twentieth century.


9 thoughts on “How late should the late antique go?

  1. I’m going to get into this in a bit more detail when I get to my K’zoo update for Saturday sessions as Ralph Mathison gave a paper arguing that Desiderius of Cahors marks the end of the classical literary tradition – at least a big chunk of it. Not sure when I’ll get to it – I’m still working on Friday afternoon. Hopefully by next weekend.

    I’ve always been pretty comfortable with 700 myself. It gets us past the Merovingians for the most part and leaves the Carolingians as a Medieval entity. It also gets us past the Arab Conquests in the East. It chops up the Lombards and Visigoths a bit but the Lombards aren’t a true successor state anyway, much as they feel like they should be sometimes and I doubt anyone will get too upset with LA folks talking about another 15 or so years in Spain.

    I have more trouble with the start. IMO Galen was the last great classicist, when it comes to adding to knowledge – not devoting oneself primarily to the study and understanding of past philosophers so I can at least argue for around 200. But that seems a touch early – it wasn’t until Rome managed to reconstitute itself from its 3rd century problems that I think we see institutions developing that become peculiarly “late antique.” And I think there’s a lot to be said for Diocletian rather than Constantine – that allows a look into both economic/administrative systems and the evolution of Christianity. So I’m happy with 250 as a starting point if we need to round it off – 274 works politically for me if I was pressed to give “a date” but I don’t think that kind of specificity is necessary.


  2. Why do we need to fix hard dates at all? This isn’t intended to be flippant. Isn’t 800, just to take the JLA’s date, in Byzantium different from 800 in Francia, and both different from 800 in Iberia?

    Moreover, we often talk about how arbitrary periodization really is — summarily invented after-the-fact — so shouldn’t we do our best to knock down those divisions?


  3. I agree with both of these perspectives, basically. On Curt’s side, Spain is changing quite a lot by 700: the slave system is coming to bits, it’s certainly possible to say it’s being dragged into the Middle Ages at last. And 250 seems like a good date for the start, not because anything hugely significant is there—we’re in the middle of the third-century crisis—but precisely because it’s not a date with much significance per se it’s unlikely to cause any difficulties. But on Matt’s side, I think that there’s almost no harm to the overlap. There appears to be that much work wanting to be published; JLA is commendably cheap, so it’s an extra the early medievalists can afford; and it encourages us to reconsider the supposed boundary between the periods with every single article, which since that boundary is our construct, and not a little political, can only be good I think.

    I do think, though, that there are important differences in degrees of antique continuity that make some of the interactions between the states in differing circumstances clearer. Liutprand’s report on the embassy to Constantinople always hit me for this, just for silly things like his mocking the Greeks for putting fish sauce on everything. Time was, everywhere in the Western Empire was manufacturing garum, or so it sometimes seems. Barcelona’s first cathedral was built over a garum factory. In that piece of mockery, therefore, is a marker of how one thorough change had occurred in the West and not in the East, even though you have barbarian warlords promoted to the imperium in both places. Again, I don’t think that having scholars partisan to one side of this or the other is bad, as long as they both have a voice, and that’s what Ralph has achieved, even if I bet he’s also managed to steal a whole bunch of EME subscribers.


  4. Thanks for all the comments. Curt, I’ll look forward to your discussion of the session, especially as Ralph Mathison’s the editor of JLA. It’s in the literary/cultural field that the ‘late antique’ label seems most appropriate, so it’d be interesting to hear why he thinks Desiderius is the end, and not before.

    As for Matthew and Jonathan, I’d say there are two reasons why it matters when we draw the boundaries of late antique and early medieval. Firstly, there’s the practical one for someone like me who’s researching on the Carolingian period. Do I try submitting articles to the Journal of Late Antiquity or not? In practice, there isn’t much Carolingian research which is solely eighth century – you can’t easily divide Charlemagne into Part I and Part II, for example. My suspicion, moreover, is that the core interest of the journal and the readers is really the Mediterranean in the fourth-seventh century – they haven’t had any eighth century articles published so far. So even if I did send an article to them and they did accept it, would the readership be interested or would it be seen as peripheral? (Similarly, the IHR earlier medieval seminar audience tend to vote with their feet when there’s a paper on Syria, for example, however much the seminar might claim not to be purely European in focus).

    On a more ideological level, there’s the question of where we place our research in wider historiographical trends. In the twentieth-first century, it’s increasingly hard to see modern British civilisation as having much in the way of classical roots, unlike in some other parts of Europe. What may have seemed like its roots now turns out largely to be an eighteenth and nineteenth century revivalism of classical literary and artistic traditions that has now withered away. (This, incidentally means that it might be possible to argue that the US has more in the way of classical roots than the UK does, given that certain eighteenth century ideas are still embedded in US culture via the Founding Fathers and the constitution).

    So the British study of classics is now of a civilization that is largely ‘other’ to ours, which also explains why it’s now possible to study the bits of Greek and Roman life that the Renaissance and the eighteenth century weren’t interested in (including Hellenism and Late Antiquity etc). In particular, while late antiquity may be a fashionable historical topic, I suspect one of the reasons is that it’s an easy way to show that pre-modern history courses aren’t purely white and Euro-centric. Look, we talk about Persians, and Augustine comes from Africa! (See for example, the Oxford general history courses, for a particularly blatant example of this).

    If we say our research is ‘late antique’, therefore, we’re implicitly disconnecting it both from the Middle Ages, and from any developments after that. I’m probably particularly biased against such a view by my research focus on masculinity. Hiistoriographically, research on that has been marked by a focus on classical and late antique masculinity down to the early fifth century, and then a hiatus, with medievalists only being interested from the eleventh century onwards. Sixth to tenth century masculinity tends to be seen either as a period of static (post-classical) or primitive (pre-medieval) gender ideology. So I am concerned about anything that encourages mediaevalists to ignore what happens pre-1000, or more generally puts Carolingian society as the tail-end of a dying tradition.


  5. Hey, I try and make an extra point of turning up when Syria’s the IHR subject… but I know what you mean. My impression of JLA is that its low cost means a circulation to many people who won’t necessarily be reading EME, but I think I would agree that they won’t really be your target audience. I have no more actual information than you, though, so this is just a gut feeling.

    I think that where I would continue to argue is that I don’t see late antique and early medieval, as categories, stopping where the other one starts. I think both can be used, and have different meanings, but there is an obvious overlap, at least chronologically. In Spain, particularly, the Visigothic kingdom could be claimed by either. So I think there certainly is a space where either JLA or EME (or indeed JMH, etc.) should be interested in an article. On the other hand, I think I agree that neither of us are in that space. But though you feel that JLA stops you going late enough, do you feel that EME stops you going early enough? If not, and especially if we’re right that JLA is not where your target readers are, does that matter?


    • JLA probably isn’t my target audience, and that’s fair enough. But the more journals we get, the more fragmented the audiences are for them, and the harder it is to keep up. In my reference database I currently have 80 journal articles on Carolingian topics from the last 10 years – from 40 different journals!

      Personally, I would find it hard to justify paying even 30 dollars a year for a journal that might not contain any directly relevant articles in one year (when I could put it towards a book I really do need), and a lot of people don’t have access to libraries willing to pay for new journals on esoteric subjects, when library budgets are already being severely hit.

      Conversely, if the late antique people are now less interested in reading EME, that’s a loss of audience for anyone publishing in that journal. The big advantage of a relatively small field like early medieval history is that we tend to be aware of each others’ work. If we end up with too many overlapping, but separate fora, we’re in danger of weakening that.


  6. On advantage of going all the way to c. 750 is that it will entirely including the first plague pandemic. This is certainly a unifying factor in c. 540-750.


    • It’s not a topic I know very well, but how strong is the evidence for the plague having a major social impact after the initial pandemic? I know Chris Wickham is fairly sceptical for that as a cause of depopulation in the west, based on the archaeological evidence (the big decline in settlements seems to be in the first half of the sixth century). Is there anything that suggests that the effect was greater than the many other early medieval epidemics, such as those in the Carolingian empire?


  7. As someone who regularly attends Shifting Frontiers, I know that I am pretty much never going to be able to give a paper there — although Emily Amt gave one at the Boulder session, and it was definitely 11th or 12th C! Conversations I’ve had with RM pretty much indicate that, for Frankish historians, it stops with the Merovingians. My gut feeling is that it’s true for JLA, too, but you know? it never hurts to ask.


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