Classical Antiquity vs. Late Antiquity

Also famously known as the Classical Era, or the Classical Age, Classical Antiquity lasts between the 8th century BC and the 6th century AD.

Rooted around the Mediterranean Sea, classical Antiquity comprised interlocking civilizations of the ancient Greco-Roman world.  

According to one of the first in the anglophone books- The World of Late Antiquity by Peter Brown, Late Antiquity is a periodization transition from classical Antiquity to the Middle Ages.

Although precise boundaries for the period are debated, Brown proposes a period between the 3rd and 8th centuries AD. 

Both periods experienced massive cultural, religious, and political changes, with the rise and fall of empires and annexation of the old world by the new.

The transition to classical Antiquity vs. late Antiquity for various socio-economic sectors, like religion, literature, art, politics, and the consensus, presents an unbiased view of the environment during those times.

Let’s look at some notable differences and the transition of sociodynamics during classical Antiquity vs. late Antiquity.     

What ended classical Antiquity?

The classical Antiquity period conventionally ended with Alexander’s death in 323 BC and the consequent fragmentation of his empire, which was divided among the Diadochi. 

How long did classical Antiquity last?

The timeline of classical Antiquity can be traced to about 1450 years, roughly from about 1000 BCE to 450 CE.

How did art and architecture change during late Antiquity?

Late Antiquity experienced artists who expanded their work into intricate mosaics, architectural structures, and relief sculptures. An excellent example of late antiquity architecture that survives is the Arch of Constantine in Rome. It gives insight into how art forms shifted from classical portrayals of individualism and naturalism into a more straightforward style. 

Classical Antiquity vs. Late Antiquity Timeline 

A map depicting the Greek colonies during 6th and 7th Centuries
A map depicting the Greek colonies during the 6th and 7th Centuries

The archaic period marks the beginning of classical Antiquity (c. 8th to c. 6th centuries BC). Succeeding the collapse of the Bronze Age, the archaic period manifested against the backdrop of the gradual re-appearance of historical sources.

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The earliest Greek alphabetic inscriptions appeared in the first half of the 8th century. 

Likewise, historians believe that Homer also lived during the 8th or 7th century BC, with the proper beginning of classical Antiquity marked by his lifetime.

Moreover, the traditional establishment date of the ancient Olympic Games also falls within the same period, in 776 BC.

During the Archaic period, there were significant advancements in political theory, including a rise in democracy, philosophy, poetry, theatre, and the revitalization of the written language.

Moreover, archaeological evidence shows the first traces of Roman settlement in the mid-8th BC, giving rise to the Greco-Roman era, leading to the transition into late Antiquity.   

With the reign of Diocletian in 285, the Roman Empire underwent a substantial change in social, cultural, and organizational structures, marking the start of the late antiquity period.

Diocletian began the custom of dividing the Empire into Eastern and Western portions, simultaneously ruled by multiple emperors. 

Consequently, in the East, Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine/ Roman Empire, the Latin Empire, and the Ottoman Empire, became the permanent imperial residence by the 5th century.

It superseded Rome as the largest city in the Late Roman Empire and the Mediterranean Basin. 

The end of late Antiquity manifested around 787, with the Second Council of Nicaea convened by Empress Irene of Athens and her son Constantine VI, ending the First Iconoclast period.

The Architecture in Classical Antiquity vs. Late Antiquity 

The most famous architecture of the classical antiquity period - The Parthenon
The most famous architecture of the classical antiquity period – The Parthenon

The architecture of classical Antiquity derived from the Ancient Roman and Greek Period. The falling of the Western Roman Empire ensured the cessation of traditional practices in most parts of western Europe.

Similarly, the ancient techniques of architecture initially lived on in the Byzantine Empire, but eventually, they soon molded into the unique style of the Byzantine empire. 

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Historians can trace the first efforts of bringing ancient architectural styles back into the classical antiquity era between the 8th and 9th centuries.

For instance, the displaying of a system of varying the attached arches and columns similar to the features attributed to the Colosseum Rome can be witnessed at the Gatehouse of Lorsch Abbey located in Germany.

On the other hand, Late Antiquity was a multicultural period, with architectural styles for Christians and Pagans. Patronages hired architects to construct intricate buildings adorned with stories from the Bible or mythic legends about Greek or Roman history. 

Much of late antiquity architecture, though, was classicized. Classicizing stipulates that Roman and Greek artistic techniques were copied but not recreated precisely. 

Religion in Classical Antiquity vs. Late Antiquity  

The Barberini ivory of the late antiquity period

Religion in classical Antiquity was marked by traditional Greek and Roman polytheism. The ancient Greeks and subsequent Romans believed in worshiping many gods and goddesses.

The people of classical Antiquity believed some gods influenced all natural phenomena. Ancient Greeks developed elaborate myths that explained and related the phenomena to each specific deity, included and excluded within the Pantheon. 

Each Greek polis or city-state also had its own set of patron gods and goddesses, like Athena being the patron Goddess of Athens.

On the flip side, when it comes to late Antiquity, religion is defined by the formation and evolution of the Abrahamic religions: Christianity, Rabbinic Judaism, and Islam. Late Antiquity marks the decline of the Roman state religion

Furthermore, unlike the papyrus scrolls of classical Antiquity, many new religions during the late antiquity period relied on the emergence of the parchment codex (bound book).

These new bounded “books” allowed easier portability, with quicker access to necessary materials, which consequently fueled the rise of synoptic papyrology, like the Fifty Bibles of Constantine, for example.

Similarly, around the 7th century, Islam appeared due to spurring Arab armies who invaded the Eastern Roman Empire and the Sassanian Empire of Persia.

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Literature and Philosophy in Classical Antiquity vs. Late Antiquity   

A portrait depicting Plato and Aristotle
A portrait depicting Plato and Aristotle

The literature of classical Antiquity is defined by many prominent western genres, including odes, pastoral, epigrams, lyrical poetry, and elegies to present tragic and comic literary pieces systematically.

The two significant poets with expertise in lyrical poetry of classical Antiquity were Poet Pindar and Poet Sappho. Likewise, the comedy of this period arose from a trend to show respect for Greek God Dionysus, with plays filled with numerous emotions such as insults, abuses, and obscenity.

A great example of Classical Antiquity Literature could be the surviving plays by Aristophanes. 

In like manner, two other influential historians of this age include Herodotus and Thucydides. However, philosophical pieces mark the most significant prose acquirement of the 4th Century BC.

At that time, Aristotle, Plato, and Socrates were the most famous philosophers of Greek philosophy, and their contributions have impacted the literary world till today.

In literature, late Antiquity experienced a decline in classical Greek and Latin use. On the contrary, there was a notable rise in literary cultures in Arabic, Syriac, Armenian, Georgian, Ethiopic, and Coptic states. 

Late Antiquity also marked a shift in literary style, with a preference for comprehensive works written in dense and allusive styles. 

Late antiquity literature consisted of summaries of earlier works (anthologies, epitomes), with priests decorating the bound books in elaborate allegorical garbs.

They were painted with intricate illustrations, depicting symbolisms or stories from holy books and religious scriptures.  

Conclusion 

The slow and subsequent cultural transitions of classical Antiquity vs. late Antiquity played a significant role in the artistic and literary endeavors of the Middle Ages. 

After all, much of our knowledge of classical Greek culture, poetry, drama, and philosophy comes from the scribes and illuminators of the bygone era. In like manner, the surviving architecture, even in a ruined state today, from the baths and aqueducts to sanctuaries, still provokes us to reflect upon the grandeur of the past. 

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