About Global Late Antiquity

Holy warriors

Holy warriors: formative Islam drew upon the concepts and symbols associated with the characteristic conjunction of holiness, authority, and violence in late antique Christianity. (L) Detail, warrior saint with lance and shield, chalice from the Attarouthi Treasure (1986.3.3; courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art) (R) Detail, gold dinar with standing caliph, probably ʿAbd al-Malik b. Marwān (r. 685-705), Syria, 76 AH/695-6 CE (COC28791; courtesy British Museum)

The term “Late Antiquity”(Spätantike) was coined at the turn of the 20th century by the Viennese art historian Alois Riegl to describe a period in history characterized by a particular synthesis of classical and vernacular styles in late Roman provincial art. Riegl’s approach to the period has been much debated and critiqued, particularly his assumption, following Gibbon, of the ‘decadence’ of the age. Nevertheless, the notion that the period between the Christianization of the Roman Empire and the rise of Islam is distinctive, marking the crucial transition from the ancient world to the Middle Ages and modernity, has had a significant impact on a number of scholarly disciplines and profoundly influenced the way we think about the relationships between Judaism, Christianity, and Islam; the connections between European and Middle Eastern civilization; and the nature of the period formerly mislabeled the “Dark Ages.”

Beginning in the 1970s, the work of Peter Brown revolutionized the way scholars approach the “fall of Rome,” the decline of Roman and Sasanian power in the Middle East, and the rise of Islam in Late Antiquity. In his classic The World of Late Antiquity, AD 150-750 (W.W. Norton, 1989), Brown argued that the emergence of Islam and the establishment of the caliphal empire was not a radical disruption of the course of history, but rather represented the continuity of older cultural, political, social, and religious patterns. Subsequently, Garth Fowden refined Brown’s approach in his From Empire to Commonwealth: Consequences of Monotheism in Late Antiquity (Princeton, 1993), which posits that the entire history of the Middle East and eastern Mediterranean from the second through the ninth century CE can be understood as a succession of imperial projects aiming to establish divine rule on earth. In Fowden’s work, the use of religion to justify imperial authority becomes the thread that links Christian Rome, Sasanian Iran, and the caliphates, allowing us to see the significant continuities between them with clarity. Fowden has recently widened the scope of his work still further in his Before and After Muḥammad: The First Millennium Refocused (2014).


Legends of the Fall: during Late Antiquity, biblical myths were widely adopted and adapted by communities spanning the Mediterranean and Southwest Asia. (L) Detail, The Expulsion of Adam and Eve, Abreha and Atsbeha Church, Axum, 8th-10th c.? (courtesy Wikimedia Commons); (R) Detail, manuscript illumination by Nakkaş Ḥasan Pasha, The Expulsion of Adam and Eve, folio from a Fālnāma (Book of Omens), Istanbul, c. 1610 (Topkapı Palace Museum H. 1703, f. 7b; from M. Farhad and S. Bağcı, Falnama: The Book of Omens [Sackler Museum, 2009], 101)

Despite the groundbreaking impact of the work of Brown, Fowden, and others who have sought to reconceptualize the period, substantial obstacles to a full integration of ancient, early Christian, Jewish, and Islamic phenomena into a general history of the civilization of Western Asia remain. This approach to the period has significant implications for contemporary perspectives, especially for countering the corrosive impact of the ‘Clash of Civilizations’ model of history and global politics advanced by Samuel Huntington at the end of the Cold War. As Richard Bulliet argues in his The Case for Islamo-Christian Civilization (2004), a better model for imagining the relationship between Islam and the West is to think of them as parallel developments of a single shared civilizational heritage originating in the eastern Mediterranean – the Islamic Middle East and Christian Europe following parallel and intertwined paths for centuries before they parted ways (and that only relatively recently). In this context, the study of Late Antiquity, in which the origins of both Islam and European Christianity lie, gains new importance, if not urgency.

A holistic approach to Late Antiquity rests on the recognition that both Europe and Islam are heirs to the biblical legacy of ancient Israel and the classical legacy of Greece and Rome. It promotes an understanding of the deeply intertwined cultures of Christian Europe and the Islamic Middle East, and thus the recognition that the global ascendance of the West is built upon a foundation that rests upon Jewish and Islamic as well as Christian components. Thus, despite the historical emphasis on approaching Late Antiquity from a “late Roman” perspective, one of the most profound benefits an interdisciplinary approach to Muslim societies can make to humanistic inquiry is in contributing to a more integrated and nuanced perspective on “Western civilization” and its origins in the shared heritage and conjoined development of the cultures of Late Antiquity, in this crucial moment at the temporal nexus of the ancient and medieval worlds, at the geographical nexus of Europe, the Mediterranean, and the Middle East.