42 of 45 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars
A poetic narrative of one of mankind's most interesting eras, 11 July 2001
In this brilliant work, Peter Brown, examines a society and a region in transition. The society in question is the Roman empire, stretching along the shores of the Mediterranean from east to west, and from the Rhine and the Danube to the north to the north African desert, to the south. The region, includes not only the Mediterranean shores, but also Mesopotamia and Persia. The transition, concerns the social, cultural and spiritual transformation of this world, as it was expressed in the change of religious beliefs, from polytheism to the monotheistic systems of worship of Christianity and Islam. The momentousness of these events cannot be overstated. We still live with the results of those changes. Peter Brown, is eminent among a plethora of scholars, who have taken a renewed interest in this period of history, among them Elaine Pagels, Glen Bowersock and Charles Freeman, many of them associated with the Institute of Advanced Studies of Princeton University. One may disagree with Peter Brown, on some points of minor importance. For instance, the approximate chronological limits he sets for "Late Antiquity", are in my opinion, too broad. He traces the beginnings, around 150 AD (or CE) (middle of the Antonine period) and its end around 750 AD, when the Arab/Islamic expansion was checked on both the eastern and western fronts (after the failure of the Arab armies to capture Constantinople, during the siege of 717 AD, in the east, and their defeat at Poitiers/Tours by the Franks of Charles Martel, in 732 AD, in the west). That covers 6 centuries. I would narrow that period, by 3 or 4 centuries. I would put the beginnings, somewhere in the first quarter of the 3rd century AD, around the time (212 AD) emperor Caracalla extended the right of Roman citizenship to all free men of the empire, thus fostering a feeling of universality, that had developed after centuries of Pax Romana, among all inhabitants of the empire, and the end sometime in the fifth or sixth century AD, taking as landmark years, the founding of an excellent Christian establishment for higher education in Constantinople, in 425 AD or the closing down of the Platonic Academy of Athens in 529 AD, respectively. Nevertheless, Brown's reasons for doing so, are not without merit. His, is a more inclusive view; after all, Islam had a huge impact in those times, and it certainly rivaled and surpassed the Christian world in literary and artistic achievement, for many centuries. However, irrespective of where one puts the beginnings and the end of Late Antiquity, there seems to be an almost universal agreement among scholars in the field, that the heart of this period, is the fourth century AD. This is the "swing" century. When it dawned, Christianity was persecuted, under emperor Diocletian, and yet at the close of the century, under emperor Theodocius I, in 395 AD, it was the official religious creed of the empire, and every other religious belief was banned. How did this come to be? This is the question that fascinates Brown, and in the course of exploring it, he provides us with some vivid imagery and lucid answers. Brown examines why certain issues were so engrossing to the people of that period, and explores the changes Christianity brought to people's mentality and way of thinking. Up till now, our view (both of the general public, and to great extend of the history scholars, too) of the Later Roman Empire, was shaped by Gibbon's opus magnum "The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire", a supreme piece of scholarship. In it, Gibbons devotes long, ironic passages, to Christianity as the obscurantist oriental creed that helped bring down a great civilization. Gibbon's view, is understandable, given the historical circumstances, in which he composed his work. He was writing during the second half of the eighteenth century, during the age of Enlightenment, when philosophical inquiry was trying to break loose form the suffocating embrace of Church and Theology. So when Gibbon attacked Christianity as a religious ideology, he was indirectly attacking the Christian Church as an institution, at a time when it was still dangerous to do so directly. As Brown delves into the 4th century AD, he comes to challenge that thesis. He examines, how Christian doctrines and beliefs changed the world view of ordinary people, in profound ways. He is not concerned with the institution of the Church, per se. He gives us a much more nuanced and complex view of the society of the time. Unlike Gibbon, he sees not decay but a vibrant, pulsing world who is living its halcyon days. In this respect, he breaks new ground. It is a pleasant surprise, that Brown extends the period he defines as "Late Antiquity" to include Islam, too. He acquaints his readers with the reasons the Arab tribes underwent a renaissance under Islam, and their exquisite contributions to art. He does a great job showing us how far removed from reality is the image westerners have of Islam as the quintessential oriental despotism (an image cultivated by centuries of European intervention and colonialism). In short, Brown gives the reader, a fluid, dynamic picture of events that may chronologically be far removed from us, but with whose consequences we still live today.