Transition to Christianity:
Art of Late Antiquity, 3rd–7th Century AD
“Transition” is a word often used to describe the period between the 3rd and 7th centuries, a period we call Late Antiquity. It was a period of profound change, when what had been the Roman Empire ceased to exist, when western Europe became fragmented, and when the east was consolidated as the state that became known as the Byzantine Empire. However, geographical boundaries do not fully encompass the influence of the Greco-Roman world, nor the implications of its change from a pagan to a Christian empire. Using the notion of transition as a lens to examine the period, we are able to explore the processes of change that ended the classical era and to observe how the people of Late Antiquity, especially in the areas defined by the Mediterranean Sea, were surrounded by the practices, traditions, and belief systems they inherited from their ancestors.
In the past, this period of transition was judged as a time of decline marked by the fall of the Roman Empire and the beginning of the so-called Dark Ages. Conversely, it has also been seen as one of progress, marked by the disappearance of an old and corrupt imperial machine and by the rise and eventual triumph of Christianity. It has also been characterized as the Great Migration Period, when the substantial movements of “ethnic” tribes established themselves, sowing the seeds for future European states.
With the advantage of historical hindsight, we can see the results of the profound shifts in the social, political, and religious underpinnings of what had once been a more or less unified empire: the power shift that gravitated to the eastern Mediterranean and established the Byzantine Empire and the building blocks that sketched what would become early modern Europe. Yet to evaluate Late Antiquity in terms of a series of events that unfolded as though a matter of course, either the inevitable “fall of Rome” or the triumphant “rise of Christianity,” is a dangerous pitfall of historical hindsight. It is important to recognize Late Antiquity as its own unique period, with a material culture reflective of the values of the time.
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Head of Aphrodite
1st century. Parian marble
Athens, National Archaeological Museum, 1762
Photo © Hellenic Ministry of Culture and Tourism
(Photo: Christos Galazios)