Peter R. L. Brown

Seminar VIII: Religious Revisionism – Peter Brown and the Invention of ‘Late Antiquity’

Judging by the lectures and seminars so far one might be forgiven for thinking that the only persons to take an interest in the later Roman Empire were anti-Christian secularists. To be sure, some of the historians we have looked at, not least Bury, exculpated the Church from Gibbon’s charge that Christianity distracted the Romans from the military arts and their government from the work of defence, but the effect (and perhaps the aim) of such arguments is to diminish the importance of Christianity by treating its emergence as an irrelevance. There has, however, long been an alternative approach to the period, one which concerned itself not with the ‘Decline and Fall’ but with the ‘Rise of Christianity’ – an approach which defined the crucial moment as the conversion of the Emperor Constantine (r. 306–337) rather than the sack of Rome by Alaric (410) or the deposition of Romulus Augustulus (476). Within British academia these two approaches were for a long-time kept apart: the secularists were housed in departments of history whilst ecclesiastical historians were consigned to schools of theology and divinity; the former confined themselves to political and constitutional history while the latter concerned themselves with the development of Christian institutions and theology.

One has to go outside academia, to the work of private scholars such as Christopher H. Dawson (1889–1970), to find an exception to this pattern in earlier twentieth-century Britain. A convert to Catholicism, Dawson believed that religion was the fundamental force driving society: ‘It is the religious impulse’, he wrote, ‘which supplies the cohesive force which unifies a society and a culture... A society which has lost its religion becomes sooner or later a society which has lost its culture.’ In his influential work The Making of Europe: An Introduction to the History of European Unity (1932), Dawson argued that the Fall of Rome, far from being a bad thing, ushered in the most creative period in western history. It was a period when, confronted with the forces of barbarism that had plunged the Empire into chaos, the Church asserted itself as the defender of unity and order – as the guiding light of western civilisation.

Since the Second World War the older disciplinary demarcations which encouraged the separation of religion off from the historical ‘mainstream’ have broken down. A new interest in those historical phenomena which have mattered to ordinary people (‘history-from-below’) has directed attention towards religion and culture, whilst the findings and theories of the social scientists, especially the cultural anthropologists, have disrupted the older conviction that economics and politics were the engines of historical development. Thus, whilst Dawson’s work received scant recognition, that of a more recent religious revisionist, Peter R. L. Brown (1935–), has had a huge impact. The product of an Irish Protestant family, Brown has had remarkable career: he has gone from Oxford University, where he was a junior fellow at All Souls (1966–75) and a university lecturer in Late Roman History (1970–73), to Royal Holloway, London (1975–78), and from there to America, where he has held chairs at Berkeley (1978–86) and at Princeton (1986–). Brown is widely credited, moreover, with having invented a whole new way of conceiving later Roman history: in direct contrast to Gibbon, Brown has promoted the view that this period was a time, not of recession and failure, but of new beginnings and tremendous creativity.

For Brown ‘late antiquity’ was a coherent phase in human history, defined in The World of Late Antiquity (1971) as comprising ‘the period from about AD 200 to about 700’ (p. 7). The term ‘late antiquity’, or rather its German equivalent Spätantike, was first popularised, not by Brown, but by the Austrian art historian Alois Riegl, who was much concerned with art which had been produced in what he considered were ‘transitional’ periods. But it is Brown who has done most to promote the concept in the English-speaking world. He gave it a new meaning and new currency in The World of Late Antiquity. Ostensively an illustrated history intended for students and the general reader, this work pioneered a new view of the late Roman world which rested, not on grand statements of theory, but on a radical shift of perspective. Note in particular:

  1. The geographical frame is vastly extended in an eastwards direction: whereas most conventional histories of the later Roman world have tended to focus on the West and to put Rome at the ‘centre’, Brown focuses on the East, and for Brown the East encompasses not simply the Eastern Roman Empire but also the Persian Empire and the Arab world. This shift of frame is well-illustrated by the map on p. 208 (in the paperback edition), in which Constantinople sits at the centre. The western edge is slightly to the right of Spain, but the eastern edge sits in Afghanistan. In the text itself, the West and the northern frontier gets significantly less attention than the Eastern Mediterranean and ‘Mesopotamia’, the regions which Brown describes as ‘the main theatres of change’ (p. 9).
  2. The chronological frame is much broader: it begins before the third-century crisis, in the late second century with religious changes that anticipate the conversion of the Empire; it ends in the seventh century with Islam in the ascendant.
  3. The end of the Western Empire scarcely rates as an event of note: of the deposition of Romulus Augustulus in 476 Brown simply says that the Church and the senatorial class, sharing as they did an urban distaste for things military, found they could dispense with a military figurehead.
  4. Cultural and religious developments, often treated as the background to political events or as a barometer of economic decline, are put firmly in the foreground.

Brown developed this approach further in The Making of Late Antiquity (1978), a work which did for his new phase in the history of the Mediterranean world what another distinguished Oxford historian, Sir Richard Southern, had done for the High Middle Ages (for the period between 950 and 1250) in his The Making of the Middle Ages (1953). More recently, in the late 1990s, Brown helped to enshrine the concept when, together with Glen Bowersock and Oleg Grabar, he edited a one volume encyclopaedia entitled Late Antiquity: A Guide to the Post-Classical World. The time had come, they explained in their introduction,

for scholars, students and the educated public in general to treat the period between around 250 and 800 as distinctive and quite decisive period of history that stands on its own. It is not, as it once was for Edward Gibbon, a subject of obsessive fascination only as the story of the unravelling of a once glorious and ‘higher’ state of civilization. It was not a period of irrevocable Decline and Fall; nor was it merely a violent and hurried prelude to better things. It cannot be treated as a corpse to be dragged quickly off-stage so that the next great act of the drama of the Middle Ages should begin (p. ix).

The period saw the invention, the editors assert, of many of the social and cultural structures that have given rise to the present:

Not only did late antiquity last for over half a millennium; much of what was created in that period still runs in our veins. It is, for instance, from late antiquity that we have inherited the codifications of Roman law that are the root of the judicial systems of so many states in Europe and the Americas. The forms of Judaism associated with the emergence of the rabbinate and the codification of the Talmud emerged from late antique Roman Palestine and from the distinctive society of Sassanian Mesopotamia. The basic structures and dogmatic formulations of the Christian church, both in Latin Catholicism and in the many forms of eastern Christianity, came from this time, as did the first, triumphant expression of the Muslim faith. (pp. ix–x.)

Like Dawson, Brown puts religious change at the centre of the historical process: he claims, for example, that the changes in ‘religious attitudes’ which took place in late antiquity were just as ‘decisive’ as those which took place ‘in the public life of the empire’. Like Dawson, Brown sees religion as a force for cohesion. But whereas Dawson focused on the ‘Catholic Church’ and its contribution to the history of the West, Brown takes a much wider and less sectarian view: the creativity which he perceives in the Roman world between c.200 and c.700 is to be found not only in the Latin Church but also in eastern orthodox Christianity, in Judaism and in Islam.

Paul Hayward (10.xii.07).

Photo: Peter R. I. Brown.

Set Texts

Worksheet Questions

  1. What does Peter Brown mean by the concept ‘Late Antiquity’?
  2. How does Brown’s account of the changes introduced by Christianity differ from that of Edward Gibbon?
  3. Brown has often been accused of smuggling contentious assertions past his readers. Identify four claims or novel ideas in the extracts from The World of Late Antiquity which you have been asked to read for this week’s seminar, and assess their merits. You might consider, for example, the way in which Brown often makes reference to ‘the average well-to-do civilian’ – to this person’s ‘culture, outlook and needs’ (p. 82). But who are these people? How does Brown know what they thought and felt? Was their contribution as decisive as Brown suggests? Why does he emphasise their role?
  4. Do you find Brown’s approach more convincing than that of Gibbon?

Strongly Recommended Reading

  1. Brown, P. R. L., ‘A Life of Learning’, The Charles Homer Haskins Lecture for 2003 (American Council of Learned Societies Occasional Paper No. 55). An account of Brown’s career by the man himself.
  2. Brown, P. R. L., ‘Art and Society in Late Antiquity’, in K. Weitzmann (ed.), Age of Spirituality: A Symposium (Princeton, NJ, 1980), pp. 17–27. PN.I. This essay is usefully compared with H. P. L’Orange, Art Forms and Civic Life in the Late Roman Empire (Princeton, NJ, 1965), chp. 3 (pp. 19–32), ‘The Spiritual Background’ (an example of the kind of approach to the art and architecture of late Antiquity to which Brown was responding).
  3. Bowersock, G. W., P. R. L. Brown and O. Grabar (eds), Late Antiquity: A Guide to the Postclassical World (Cambridge, MA, 1999). LVL.* A kind of encyclopaedia which is grounded in the ‘Late-Antiquity’ thesis of Peter Brown.

Some works of Peter Brown, with an Emphasis on those that Promote the Concept of ‘Late Antiquity’

  • Brown, P. R. L., Authority and the Sacred: Aspects of the Christianisation of the Roman World (Cambridge, 1995). Published texts of three lectures given at Cambridge in 1993. LTU.
  • Brown, P. R. L., ‘Christianization and Religious Conflict’, in A. M. Cameron and P. Garnsey (eds), The Cambridge Ancient History, vol. 13, The Late Empire, AD 337–425 (Cambridge, 1998), pp. 632-64. LI.
  • Brown, P. R. L., ‘Gibbon’s Views on Culture and Society in the Fifth and Sixth Centuries’, Daedalus, 105 (1976), 73-88; Journals K6. Rpt. in idem, Society and the Holy in Late Antiquity (London, 1982), pp. 22-48. LVL.H.
  • Brown, P. R. L., Power and Persuasion in Late Antiquity: Towards a Christian Empire, The Curti Lectures 1988 (Madison, WI, 1992). LVL.J.
  • Brown, P. R. L., Religion and Society in the Age of St Augustine (London, 1977). LVR.
  • Brown, P. R. L., Society and the Holy in Late Antiquity (London, 1982). Collected essays from 1971-1979. LVL.H.
  • Brown, P. R. L., St Augustine of Hippo (London, 1967). PN.DK.A9.
  • Brown, P. R. L., The Making of Late Antiquity (Cambridge, MA, 1978). LVL.
  • Brown, P. R. L., ‘The Problem of Christianization’, Proceedings of fhe British Academy, 82 (1992), 89-106. L69.
  • Brown, P. R. L., The Rise of Western Christendom: Triumph and Diversity, AD 200-1000 (Oxford, 1996; 2nd edn, 2003). PO.A.
  • Brown, P. R. L., ‘The World of Late Antiquity, AD 150-750’ in P. Veyne (ed.), A History of Private Life, vol. 1, From Pagan Antiquity to Byzantium, trs. A Goldhammer (Cambridge, MA, 1987), pp. 239-311. LGC.

Critical Discussions of the Concept of ‘Late Antiquity’.

A Few Terms and Phrases Not Translated by Brown

  • aggiornamento = ‘a period of renewal, of modernisation’, a word often used to describe the phase of reform within the Catholic Church associated with the Second Vatican Council of 1962–65 (World of Late Antiquity, p. 82).
  • paideia = ‘education’, used of the kind of education that would prepare an aristocrat for leadership and citizenship – for, that is, a position in public life in the classical world (pp. 84, 93).
  • razzias = raids (p. 85).
  • Avant de rechercher les élaborations subtiles et réfléchies d’une ecclésiologie, l’enquête doit commencer par ces manifestations plus collectives et spontanés. = ‘Before investigating an ecclesiology’s subtle and considered embellishments, the enquiry must start with those expressions which are more collective and spontaneous’ (Brown, ‘Art and Society’, p. 22).
  • homme moyen sensuel = ‘the average, sensual, person’ (p. 23).

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