This year, I have taught several ancient history or archaeology courses that end in the eighth century CE instead of with the rise of Constantine or somewhere in the fourth century. Admittedly, my class periods on Late Antiquity cover a lot of time quickly, but I still think that it is important we include Late Antiquity in our classes for these reasons:
- Ending with the origins and rise of Islam seems like a more academically honest ending to a course on Rome than a (seemingly triumphant?) legalization of Christianity under Constantine. The spread of Islam through the eastern Mediterranean, North Africa, Sicily, and southern Spain; the creation of the German kingdoms in Europe; and the retrenchment of Byzantium create the large cultural zones of the Middle Ages. These are the heirs and successors to Rome.
- Islam is frequently in the news, and there is a lot of Islamophobia. Students would benefit from learning more about this major world religion and its origins. This is especially true because discussion of Islam in class encourages understanding (instead of fear) of Muslims, and it provides students with good information (again, instead of fear) about Islam. If you’re looking for a good resource on Islam, my co-teacher for World History, who is a Middle Eastern historian, recommends John L. Esposito’s book Islam: The Straight Path as a good explanation of the religion and its history to Westerners.
- Students have generally enjoyed and appreciated this introduction to Islam.
- A discussion of the rise of Islam provides a less Eurocentric history of Rome and the Mediterranean.
- A historical survey that includes more about Christianity includes the rise of the papacy, Catholicism’s intertwining with the state, and some of the possible sources of conflict within Christendom. Even if most of our students are not Catholic or even Christian, a better understanding of Christianity and its historical development would not harm our students, especially since it has had such an important role in European and global history.
- Islam has also had an important role in the world’s history.
- Some great recent scholarship has been done on Late Antiquity so it is more representative of Classics as a field.
I also admit that my training involved relatively little about Late Antiquity so it did require more research and work to prepare these classes. Nevertheless, that is not a great reason to avoid including Late Antiquity in the curriculum. After all, aren’t there all sorts of lessons that we teach even though we were not thoroughly trained in that subject matter?