ORB Online Encyclopedia

Overview of Late Antiquity--The Sixth Century

Section 1: Ancient Society on the Verge of Dissolution

Steven Muhlberger

Despite the troubles of the fifth century, the sixth began with much of "Romanity" (Latin Romanitas) surviving more or less intact in the Mediterranean basin and in many places outside it. The Roman emperor based in Constantinople remained the most powerful monarch west of the Euphrates, his city a true imperial capital. The Emperor Justinian was, in fact, able to reconquer Italy, North Africa and even part of the Spanish coast during the mid-sixth century. Justinian was equally energetic in pursuing religious conformity, and gained a high-profile theological victory in the Ecumenical Council of Constantinople of 553-4.

Such policies did not, however, lead to a revival of Roman power as it had existed in the fourth century and earlier. The urban network that had been constructed in antiquity, fragile at the beginning of the century, was further disrupted by Justinian's strenuous efforts at reconquest. The Council of 553 embittered pre-existing rivalries, and made the court new enemies among the Christians of Egypt, Syria, the Persian empire, and the Latin west. The economic basis of Mediterranean life was also eaten away by disease: beginning in the 540s, recurrent epidemics of bubonic plague reduced the population to its lowest level in many centuries. This contributed to the weakening of urban domination of the countryside, which led to imperial government losing control of its borders and the immigration of more barbarians. These new immigrants, unlike earlier groups, would not find a society unambiguously stronger or more attractive than their own.

Indeed, by A.D. 600, what was left of ancient Mediterranean culture was changed almost beyond recognition. At the beginning of the sixth century much of classical culture, the culture of sophisticated laymen, still survived. Many Christians and a number of convinced pagan held onto classical literature and learning even if it was ideologically somewhat suspect. There was a similar continuity in the ordinary customs and habits of life. A century later, few cities supported any significant remnant of the independent lay culture of old.

Despite everything the inland sea still supported an urban culture that was much the same on every shore, even though the content of that culture was much changed and its scale was reduced. Mediterranean cities continued to influence if not utterly dominate the more rural world that surrounded it. The basic unity of Mediterranean culture would not, however, long outlast the sixth century.

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