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 a fair view of how the environment was 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 period of classical Antiquity conventionally ended with the death of Alexander in 323 BC, along with 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.

What’s more, 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 of 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 Roman/Byzantine 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 ancient Greece and Rome. The collapse of the Western Roman Empire ensured the cease of traditional practices in large parts of western Europe.

Similarly, the ancient ways of architecture initially lived on in the Byzantine Empire, but it also soon molded into its own distinct Byzantine style later on. 

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Historians can trace the first efforts of bringing back ancient architectural style into the classical antiquity era back to the Carolingian Renaissance of the late 8th and 9th centuries.

The Gatehouse of Lorsch Abbey (c. 800) in present-day Germany, for example, displays a system of alternating attached columns and arches- features that can be attributed to the Colosseum in Rome. 

On the other hand, Late Antiquity was a multicultural period, with architectural styles made for both Christians and Pagans. Patronages hired architects to construct intricate buildings adorned with stories from the Bible or mythic legends pertaining to 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, both 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, eventually, Islam. Late Antiquity marks the decline of the Roman state religion

Furthermore, unlike the papyrus scrolls of classical Antiquity, many of the 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 key materials, which then consequently fueled the rise of synoptic papyrology, like the Fifty Bibles of Constantine, for example.

Similarly, in 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, from lyrical poetry, pastorals, odes, elegies, and epigrams to dramatic presentations of comedy and tragedy, rhetorical treatises, and philosophical dialectics.

The two major lyrical poets of classical Antiquity were Sappho and Pindar. Likewise, the comedy of this period arose from a ritual in honor of Greek God Dionysus, with plays filled with obscenity, abuse, and insult, like the surviving plays by Aristophanes being a great example of classical antiquity literature. 

In like manner, two other influential historians of this age include Herodotus and Thucydides. However, the most significant prose achievement of the 4th century BC was in philosophy.

Greek philosophy was at its peak during the classical period, with Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle being the most famous philosophers

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

Late Antiquity, likewise, 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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