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on 8 August 2008
Peter Brown's The World of Late Antiquity was a revolutionary book for its time. Published in 1971 as an eloquently written essay, Brown challenged many of the assumptions about Classical Civilisation that had dominated historiography since the days of Edward Gibbon.
In those days the idea of the fall of the Roman Empire was one of violent invasion and decline, folllowed by centuries of artistic and intellectual poverty called the Dark Ages.

Brown opposed these ideas and showed that there were still strong links with the Classical World, well into the Dark Ages, and even following the Islamic Conquest.
Although Brown's main point of interest is social and cultural change, he also discuss the art of the period, and many wonderful examples of this art, from portaits to jewellery, are displayed throughout.

This book is certainly an excellent read, as Brown is an erudite writer. Yet some of his claims are incorrect and I cannot agree with his thesis in its entirety. In recent years, his ideas about late antiquity have come under attack by scholars such as Peter Heather and Bryan Ward-Perkins. Heather and Ward-Perkins stress the idea of the Empire's violent fall, and they pour scorn on Brown's ideas about the peaceful integration of Germanic tribes. I would have to agree with them on some of these ideas, but I still find Brown's work persuasive.

The World of Late Antiquity is a landmark in Classical and Medieval studies. Anyone who has an interest in those periods must read this book. But readers should be willing to seek out Brown's recent work, as well as the books by Heather and Ward-Perkins and others that oppose his ideas. A great read, and highly recommended!
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on 14 August 2003
Peter Brown, a professor of History at Princeton University, is a legend in the field of Late Antique studies. While many classicists flippantly refer to the Roman world after 312 as merely "medieval," Professor Brown paints a portrait of a vibrant Late Antique world, a world filled with both great accomplishments and dramatic changes. Brown is a genuine humanist; he writes with a clear, graceful style and his book is as pleasant to read as it is enlightening. The book is also well illustrated, presenting a number of brilliant examples of Late Antique art. While a short work, it provides a whirlwind survey of the whole of the classical world, and includes discussions of the Persian Empire, which is often ignored by Rome-centric classicists. It is also a brisk tour of history, covering the period between the reign of Marcus Aurelius and the Arab conquests. Nonetheless, it is an essential introduction to the period between 200 and 700, and a must read for those Roman history buffs who are tired of the Roman saga ending abruptly with the Council of Nicea.
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HALL OF FAMEon 27 December 2003
The world of Late Antiquity is an historical period often overlooked. The more prominent periods such as the Greek Empire, Roman Empire, Early Christendom, Rise of Islam, East/West Split, etc. take the majority of space in historical texts; often the world of Late Antiquity is an epilogue or a prologue to anothe period.
Peter Brown, renowned for his authoritative biography on Augustine of Hippo, has produced a good introductory text to the period between the beginnings of the downfall of the Roman Empire and the beginnings of medieval times in western Europe. This period does not have strict boundaries -- there were no crucial or pivotal events defining the beginning or the end of the period, which is perhaps why it is often overlooked.
The text is divided into two primary sections -- the Late Roman Revolution, and Divergent Legacies. In the Late Roman Revolution, Brown explores the aspects of culture and religion that change slowly but ultimately dramatically from classical Roman to Christian-medieval. As Christianity rises and the power from the centre fades, including the power of the intelligensia, the post-Roman world takes on a new character.
In Divergent Legacies, Brown first looks at the development of the West after the fall of Rome. The barbarian invasions are recast, the assimilation of the Senate into the aristocratic and higher clerical ranks of the ruling Church shown to be a way in which the Roman hierarchy in fact survived the collapse of Rome, and the fragmentation of the empire ensured the dominance of Latin for the next many centuries.
This was a very different character from the survival of the Late Antique world in the East. Here the walls of Byzantium were never breached, despite the fact that most of the empire was lost not once but multiple times. The final chapter in Late Antiquity in the East was the first chapter in Muslim history, with the rise of the Muslim-dominated empires, which at first had cordial and profitable relationships with the West.
This book is part of a series, the Library of World Civilisation, edited by Geoffrey Barraclough of Brandeis University. Each volume is approximately 200 pages, richly illustrated (this particular text has 130 illustrations in these 200 pages), and accessible in writing style.
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on 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.
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on 8 August 2014
I have been labouring under a misapprehension about this book. I thought that its author - Peter Brown (b. 1935), Prize Fellow of All Souls in the 1960s and subsequently Professor at Berkeley and Princeton, was the originator of the idea that there was a period in history which could usefully be designated ‘Late Antiquity’; and equally of the idea that the Roman Empire did not fall to the barbarians in the 5th century, but was instead gradually transformed by them. I reached this conclusion when I read Bryan Ward-Perkins’s account of the school of Late Antiquity in his brilliant The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilisation (2005). Ward-Perkins certainly conflates the two ideas, and is concerned to refute them both, by showing – by reference to the archaeological evidence – that the Roman Empire did indeed fall around 500 A.D. and that civilisation and living standards did not recover until around 1500 A.D.

Now that I have read The World of Late Antiquity, which was published as long ago as 1971, I can see that these two ideas are quite distinct. In fact, then, Brown proposed that instead of looking at history in terms of ancient, medieval and modern periods, we should look at the period 200-700 A.D. as an extension of the ancient world, albeit with many characteristics of its own; and his narrative is an attractive one, attractively presented. But he distinguished sharply between the Western Roman Empire and the Eastern; and most of what he wrote about related to the latter. He never said that the West did not fall prey to barbarism. On the contrary, he explained very clearly the vast difference between the history of the two halves of the Empire. On the face of it, then, Brown does not differ much from Edward Gibbon, who carried his history of the decline and fall of that Empire down to 1453.

Reading Brown has clarified Late Antiquity for me. It is not what I thought it was. At the same time, I find quite a lot of what he has to say about the development of religion obscure. This is probably a failing on my part; but, like A.L.Rowse, I have never been able to take theology seriously; and cannot understand why the speculations and meditations, even of venerable men like Augustine, Jerome, Athanasius and St . Anthony Abbot, should be regarded as any kind of advance on the thinking of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle.
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This is one of those history books that defines an era, setting a standard that is either accepted or opposed by all who follow. Because it is one of the turning points that most fascinates me, this book was a particular pleasure, at once an over-arching synthesis yet accurate in its evocation of detail.

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.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 31 December 2010
Brown's argument in The World of Late Antiquity is that the collapse of Roman civilisation in the fifth century is overrated, in particular that it focuses too much on the West and ignores a process of transformation that had begun two hundred years before. The book goes on to tell the story of a late-antique civilisation, poised between the second-century Roman heyday and the Middle Ages proper, and centred around the Eastern Roman or Byzantine Empire and its Persian and Arab rivals.

As Brown has it, the Roman Empire in the west saw wealth and power concentrate in the hands of a few magnates. This led to ossification, the regionalization of power bases, and an estrangement of these magnates from the frontier armies that guaranteed Rome's safety. The same Western elites failed to integrate invading barbarian chieftains in the fourth and fifth century, forcing these to take power in their own name. Meanwhile, paradoxically, Christianity helped Latin and a popularised classical culture to spread at the grassroots, ensuring these would survive in places such as Gaul and Spain.

Roman civilisation, however, was at its most lively in the East, where the Greek language and culture dominated. Brown writes that Eastern civic cultures remained lively, providing the energy and flexibility to face the barbarian invasions. Monasticism, in particular, integrated with urban cultures to create a new flourishing that was the basis for the empire's cohesion into the seventh century. The author goes on to describe the Byzantine flourishing under Justinian, its travails in the latter part of the reign, and its seventh-century struggles. His argument is again that a late antique civilisation endured around the Mediterranean far longer than is generally recognised.

Brown examines two phenomena: socio-political evolution in the two halves of the Roman Empire, and cultural-religious change. These are interconnected but not always logically linked, making for a subtle and complex narrative. Moreover, because this is but a general overview of a long period, not every point is substantiated. Brown takes for granted, for example, Constantine's conversion, the timing and terms of which are actually at dispute. Nevertheless, The World of Late Antiquity does a good job of presenting a challenging argument at the same time as it paints a broad picture of six hundred years of history.
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HALL OF FAMEon 8 March 2006
The world of Late Antiquity is an historical period often overlooked. The more prominent periods such as the Greek Empire, Roman Empire, Early Christendom, Rise of Islam, East/West Split, etc. take the majority of space in historical texts; often the world of Late Antiquity is an epilogue or a prologue to anothe period.
Peter Brown, renowned for his authoritative biography on Augustine of Hippo, has produced a good introductory text to the period between the beginnings of the downfall of the Roman Empire and the beginnings of medieval times in western Europe. This period does not have strict boundaries -- there were no crucial or pivotal events defining the beginning or the end of the period, which is perhaps why it is often overlooked.
The text is divided into two primary sections -- the Late Roman Revolution, and Divergent Legacies. In the Late Roman Revolution, Brown explores the aspects of culture and religion that change slowly but ultimately dramatically from classical Roman to Christian-medieval. As Christianity rises and the power from the centre fades, including the power of the intelligensia, the post-Roman world takes on a new character.
In Divergent Legacies, Brown first looks at the development of the West after the fall of Rome. The barbarian invasions are recast, the assimilation of the Senate into the aristocratic and higher clerical ranks of the ruling Church shown to be a way in which the Roman hierarchy in fact survived the collapse of Rome, and the fragmentation of the empire ensured the dominance of Latin for the next many centuries.
This was a very different character from the survival of the Late Antique world in the East. Here the walls of Byzantium were never breached, despite the fact that most of the empire was lost not once but multiple times. The final chapter in Late Antiquity in the East was the first chapter in Muslim history, with the rise of the Muslim-dominated empires, which at first had cordial and profitable relationships with the West.
This book is part of a series, the Library of World Civilisation, edited by Geoffrey Barraclough of Brandeis University. Each volume is approximately 200 pages, richly illustrated (this particular text has 130 illustrations in these 200 pages), and accessible in writing style.
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on 25 May 2013
This book is thought provoking, beautifully written and a bargain. Brown's personal impressions and insights are so powerful that as I closed the book I was tempted to start again immediately on page 1. The book is organized loosely by theme and chronology. Basic political history is sprinkled along the way, but this is not the book's main purpose. So it may be useful to read this together with or after reviewing a historical primer. For this purpose, it would be hard to beat Mike Duncan's History of Rome podcast.
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on 16 September 2014
Incredible book, a must buy, easy to read and very informative.
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