Readings in Late Antiquity

This spring semester, I’m teaching a class on Late Antiquity. When I say that, people usually ask, “What is Late Antiquity?”

Late Antiquity is the period of transition from the late Roman Empire to the early Middle Ages. Often we talk about the the Fall of Rome as if it was something that happened in 476 and afterwards Europe was radically different. But the transition from Roman to medieval isn’t a clean break, and the consistency within the change makes the time period fascinating.

We’ll begin the semester by reading Peter Brown’s The World of Late Antiquity. Peter Brown more or less invented the study of Late Antiquity as a distinct time period. This relatively short book lays out the case that the break between Rome and the Middle Ages has been overstated. Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire still looked to Rome for its traditions and institutions. In fact, generations passed before Europeans even realized that Rome had fallen. Peter Brown will give us the framework and categories to think about the source material that we’re reading.

In the realm of politics, we’ll read Procopius’s The Secret HistoryThe Secret History is a gossipy account of the goings on at the court of Emperor Justinian. Justinian reigned as Roman emperor in Constantinople from 527 to 565. I like to think of Justinian as the last of the “real Roman” Roman emperors.


Many of our readings this semester will deal with the early church. Late Antiquity isn’t just about the fall of Roman institutions; it’s also about the rise of Christian institutions. We’ll read sources from the Trinitarian controversy. In the early fourth century, the churches of the Mediterranean spent time clarifying how God could be Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, yet remain one God. They did this in response to Arianism, the idea that Jesus was a created being. We’ll also read some of the writings of John Chrysostom, who preached in Antioch and Constantinople in the second half of the fourth century. His sermons don’t merely give us a distillation of Christian theology; they also provide us with insight into the daily lives of men and women living in late Roman urban centers.

And of course, I’m going to assign lots of pages from Augustine of Hippo’s City of God. Augustine started writing the book after Rome was sacked by the Goths in 410. The book is a theological work, but its pages also help us understand how people thought about politics and culture during the last days of Rome. This is my favorite book. I could teach a whole class on just this one book—oh wait, I have.

The last book on our list is more or less just for fun. We’ll be reading the Irish epic The TáinThe Táin is sort of like the works of Homer, but instead of stealing the most beautiful woman in the world, the bad guys steal a beautiful cow. This mythical war over the Brown Bull of Cooley tells the story of how Ireland came to look like it does. It’s a strange and beautiful tale. Probably more strange than beautiful.

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