10.1 The Eastward Shift
After the political tumult of the third century, the emperor Constantine reinvigorated the Roman Empire by establishing a new capital in Constantinople and embracing Christianity. Both Constantine and the Christian emperors who succeeded him attempted to manage the church and Christian orthodoxy through ecumenical councils, new laws, and increased bureaucratization in the Roman government. This new religious culture resulted in the neglect of traditional Roman polytheism, and the empire’s eastward shift came at the expense of the western empire. In the Roman West, Germanic peoples became both allies and enemies of the Roman state. The imperial government was able to manage these groups for a time, but by the fifth century, the Roman West had fragmented into various Germanic kingdoms.
10.2 The Byzantine Empire and Persia
The two great superpowers of Late Antiquity, the Byzantine Empire and the Sasanian Empire, vied for supremacy in the fifth and sixth centuries. Though the Byzantine Empire had to contend with the Sasanians as a particularly formidable challenge, the reign of Justinian witnessed the zenith of Byzantine culture. Justinian carried out monumental building projects, codified Roman law, and oversaw the reconquest of parts of the Roman West. The Sasanians meanwhile consolidated control over a vast region of central Asia, overseeing a large trade network and instituting Zoroastrianism as the state religion. Military conflict characterized the relationship between these two empires, but there were also periods of peace and cultural exchange.
10.3 The Kingdoms of Aksum and Himyar
Two kingdoms flourished on the periphery of the Byzantine and Sasanian Empires in Late Antiquity. In East Africa, Aksum oversaw a trade network with a wide geographic scope. King Ezana’s conversion to Christianity in the fourth century was a seminal moment for the empire because it was then able to use religious motivation to conduct a military campaign in southern Arabia. Here, the Himyarite Empire subsumed local groups to become a unified state that converted to Judaism sometime in the fifth century CE.
These two kingdoms demonstrate the diversity of Late Antique societies because each had to manage its disparate populations and interact with different regional powers. Their history also shows the political motivations of their governments’ religious policies. While the use of religion to justify administrative and military campaigns was a hallmark of Late Antique life, ordinary people expressed their individual faiths in a variety of ways.
10.4 The Margins of Empire
The Kushan Empire in central Asia is an example of the diversity found beyond the Mediterranean during Late Antiquity. The Kushan Empire dominated trade along the Silk Roads, was home to a religiously diverse population, and promoted the burgeoning religion of Buddhism within and outside its borders. The city of Palmyra was able to rival the Roman Empire for a short time in the third-century eastern Mediterranean. By taking advantage of a tumultuous political situation, Queen Zenobia expanded her empire, and Palmyra flourished as a nexus of trade in the region. The peoples of pre-Islamic Arabia likewise interacted with the major superpowers of Late Antiquity. The Arabian Peninsula was a culturally diverse region and home to a mix of different religions and distinct tribal groups.