History of Late Antiquity
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Our digital history of Late Antiquity focuses on the time of transition from Classical world of Greece and Rome to the Early Middle Ages. Generally, it transpired from the end of the Roman Empire’s crisis-ridden third century to the early conquests of the Empire of Islam (622–750). It also experienced disastrous wars with Persia’s Sassanian Empire.
The Roman Empire underwent profound social, cultural and governmental changes under Diocletian, who split the Empire into Eastern and Western parts ruled by separate emperors. When the Sassanian Empire succeeded the Parthian Empire, there began a new phase of Rome’s wars with Persia, and differences grew between the Greek East and Latin West. Diocletian’s persecution of Christians in the early 4th century was ended by Galerius, and under Constantine, Christianity was permitted in the Empire. With that, the Christianization of the Roman Empire was furthered by the conversions of the rulers of Armenia and Axum. And under Theodosius I, Nicene Christianity became the state church of the Roman Empire.
Constantinople rose in the East and by the 5th century it had eclipsed Rome as the largest city in the Roman Empire and Near East. There, the 160-mile Aqueduct of Valens was constructed to bring water to the city, and some of Rome’s grandest triumphal arches were built there.
Migrating Germans, Huns, and Slavs complicated Roman rule. Their predations culminated in the Sack of Rome by the Visigoths in 410 and the Sack of Rome by the Vandals in 455. With that, the empire in the West had collapsed by 476. It was replaced by an Ostrogoth Kingdom that ruled Rome from Ravenna. The blending of Greco-Roman, Germanic, and Christian cultures laid the foundations of European culture.
Roman imperial rule continued in the East throughout the 6th century, and war with the Sassanians ground on. Justinian the Great re-conquered the lands of the Ostrogoth and Vandal Kingdoms, and the city of Rome and much of Italy and North Africa returned to his control. Though most of Italy was soon overrun by the Lombards, Roman rule in Ravenna endured, along with the Byzantine Papacy. Justinian built the Hagia Sophia, an icon of Byzantine architecture, exclaiming upon its completion, “Solomon, I have outdone thee!” The first outbreak of a centuries-long plague pandemic occurred. At Ctesiphon, the Sasanians built the Taq Kasra, the largest single-span vault of unreinforced brickwork in the world and a wonder of Persian architecture.
Extreme climatic events occurred with the volcanic winter of 535-536 and the Little Ice Age. Another disastrous pandemic (Plague of Justinian) emerged in 541. The effects of these events in the social and political life were pervasive.
In the 7th century, further war with the Sassanian Empire enabled the emergence of Islam in Arabia in response to the call of the Prophet Muhammed. Indeed, the Muslim conquest of the Levant and Persia overthrew the Sassanian Empire and brought two-thirds of the Eastern Roman Empire’s territory into the Rashidun Caliphate. The rise of the Empire of Islam with the late-7th century Umayyad Caliphate marked the end of Late Antiquity.
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