The Roman Empire underwent considerable social, cultural and organizational change starting with reign of Diocletian, who began the custom of splitting the Empire into Eastern and Western halves ruled by multiple emperors. Beginning with Constantine the Great the Empire was Christianized, and a new capital founded at Constantinople. Migrations of Germanic tribes disrupted Roman rule from the late fourth century onwards, culminating in the eventual collapse of the Empire in the West in 476, replaced by the so-called barbarian kingdoms. The resultant cultural fusion of Greco-Roman, Germanic and Christian traditions formed the cultural foundations of Western Europe.
The term Spätantike, literally "late antiquity", has been used by German historians since its popularization by Alois Riegl in the early twentieth century. It was given currency in English partly by the writings of Peter Brown, whose survey The World of Late Antiquity (1971) revised the post-Gibbon view of a stale and ossified Classical culture, in favour of a vibrant time of renewals and beginnings, and whose The Making of Late Antiquity offered a new paradigm of understanding the changes in Western culture of the time in order to confront Sir Richard Southern's The Making of the Middle Ages.
The continuities between imperial Rome, as it was reorganized by Diocletian (r. 284-305), and the Early Middle Ages are stressed by writers who wish to emphasize that the seeds of medieval culture were already developing in the Christianized empire, and that they continued to do so in the Eastern, or "Byzantine" Empire. Concurrently, some migrating Germanic tribes such as the Ostrogoths and Visigoths saw themselves as perpetuating the "Roman" tradition. While the usage "Late Antiquity" suggests that the social and cultural priorities of Classical Antiquity endured throughout Europe into the Middle Ages, the usage of "Early Middle Ages" emphasizes a break with the classical past, and the term "Migrations Period" de-emphasizes the disruptions in the former Western Empire caused by the creation of Germanic kingdoms within her borders.
A milestone in the rise of Christianity was the conversion of Emperor Constantine the Great (r. 306-337) in 312, as related by his panegyrist Eusebius of Caesarea, although the sincerity of his conversion is debated. Constantine legalized the religion through the Edict of Toleration in 313, jointly issued with his rival in the East, Licinius (r. 308-324). By the late 4th century, Emperor Theodosius the Great had made Christianity the state religion, thereby transforming the Classical Roman world, which Peter Brown characterized as, "rustling with the presence of many divine spirits" (Brown, Authority and the Sacred).
Constantine I was a key player in many important events in Church History, as he convened and attended the first ecumenical council of bishops at Nicaea in 325, subsidized the building of churches and sanctuaries such as the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, and involved himself in questions such as the timing of Christ's resurrection and its relation to the Passover (see Eusebius of Caesarea, Vita Constantini 3.5-6, 4.47).
The birth of Christian monasticism in the deserts of Egypt in 3rd century, which initially operated outside the episcopal authority of the Church, would become so successful that by the 8th century it penetrated the Church and became the primary Christian rule within. Monasticism was not the only new Christian movement to appear in Late Antiquity, although it had perhaps the greatest influence. Other movements notable for their unconventional practices include the Grazers, holy men who ate only grass and chained themselves up like barnyard animals ; the Holy Fool movement, in which acting like a fool was considered more divine than folly; and the Stylites movement, where one practitioner lived atop a 50-foot pole for 40-years.
Late Antiquity marks the decline of Roman state religion, circumscribed in degrees by edicts likely inspired by Christian advisors such as Eusebius to 4th century emperors, and a period of dynamic religious experimentation and spirituality with many syncretic sects, some formed centuries earlier, such as Gnosticism or Neoplatonism and the Chaldaean oracles, some novel, such as hermeticism.
Many of the new religions relied on the emergence of the parchment codex (bound book) over the papyrus volumen (scroll), the former allowing for quicker access to key materials and easier portability than the fragile scroll, thus fueling the rise of synoptic exegesis, papyrology.
The Roman citizen elite in the 2nd and 3rd centuries, under the pressure of taxation and the ruinous cost of presenting spectacular public entertainments in the traditional cursus honorum, had found under the Antonines that security could only be obtained by combining their established roles in the local town with new ones as servants and representatives of a distant Emperor and his traveling court. After Constantine (re-)centralized the government in his new capital of Constantinople (dedicated in 330), the Late Antique upper classes were divided among those who had access to the far-away centralized administration (in concert with the great landowners), and those who did not—though they were well-born and thoroughly educated, a classical education and the election by the Senate to magistracies was no longer the path to success. Room at the top of Late Antique society was more bureaucratic and involved increasingly intricate channels of access to the emperor: the plain toga that had identified all members of the Republican senatorial class was replaced with the silk, court vestments and jewellery associated with Byzantine imperial iconography. Also indicative of the times is the fact that the imperial cabinet of advisors came to be known as the consistorium, or those who would stand in courtly attendance upon their seated emperor, as distinct from the informal set of friends and advisors surrounding Augustus.
As the Soldier Emperors such as Maximinus Thrax (r. 235-8) emerged from the provinces in the 3rd century, they brought with them their own regional influences and artistic tastes. For example, artists jettisoned the classical portrayal of the human body for one that was more rigid and frontal. This is markedly evident in the combined porphyry portraits of the four Roman tetrarchs. With these stubby figures clutching each other and their swords, all individualism, naturalism, the verism or hyperrealism of Roman portraiture, and Greek idealism diminish. In nearly all artistic media, simpler shapes were adopted and once natural designs were abstracted. Additionally hierarchy of scale overtook the preeminence of perspective and other classical models for representing spatial organization.
Nearly all of these more abstracted conventions could be observed in the glittering mosaics of the era. Although the pebble mosaics had been used for centuries in Asia Minor, a new technique employing tesserae rose as the method of choice by Christians. The glazed surfaces of the tesserae sparkled in the light and illuminated the basilica churches. Unlike their fresco predecessors, much more emphasis was placed on demonstrating a symbolic fact rather than on rendering a realistic scene. As time progressed during the late antique period, art become more concerned with biblical themes and influenced by interactions of Christianity with the Roman state. Within this Christian subcategory of Roman art, dramatic changes were also taking place. Jesus Christ had been more commonly depicted as a suffering servant, teacher or as the “Good Shepherd,” resembling the traditional iconography of Hermes. Now, Jesus was increasingly given Roman elite status, and shrouded in purple robes like the emperors with orb and scepter in hand.
As for luxury arts, manuscript illumination on vellum and parchment emerged in the late sixth century as a display of beauty and spiritual authority in gilded text. Also, ivory carvings were greatly desired by Roman generals (for illustrating their victories in processions) and the Church (usually for creating religious imagery on diptyches and triptyches).
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