Connecting Late Antiquities: new project launched to create digital resources to aid research into one of history’s most iconic eras

'Porphyry statue of the Tetrarchic emperors, Basilica di San Marco, Venice, c. AD 300'

'Porphyry statue of the Tetrarchic emperors, Basilica di San Marco, Venice, c. AD 300'

A new project has been unveiled to create innovative digital resources that promise to transform how people research and study one of the most dramatic periods of history – the fall of the Roman Empire.

Connecting Late Antiquities will showcase our understanding of the family connections, political alliances, and social networks that characterised the end of the ancient world – between A.D. 300-700 – by housing key historical research resources in a freely accessible online platform.

The project will also develop two new case studies to demonstrate the potential of the platform, focusing on religious and secular social networks in North Africa, and on figures in Britain below the highest levels of the social elite, such as clerics and soldiers.

Backed by funders in the UK and Germany, the two-year project brings together ancient history experts and scholars from the Universities of Exeter, London, and Bonn.

“The period we refer to as Late Antiquity, spanning roughly four centuries, was a time of dramatic change, especially with the growth of Christianity and its ecclesiastical organisation and the replacement of the political structure of the Western Roman Empire with a number of independent successor kingdoms,” says Dr Richard Flower, of the Department of Classics, Ancient History, Religion and Theology, and one of the project leads.

“And while the study of Late Antiquity has blossomed in recent decades, the available resources are no longer adequate to answer some of the most vital questions in scholarship, concerning issues such as the integration of the Christian Church in late-antique society and the degree of connectivity of Western regions after the ‘fall of Rome’.”

Many of the resources used in the study of this ancient time involve prosopography – a form of research that brings together biographical information about particular individuals and groups in search of patterns and connections. But often, key texts, such as the Prosopography of the Later Roman Empire, have remained relatively inaccessible either as expensive print publications found in reference-only volumes in university libraries, or in the form of specialist databases.

Connecting Late Antiquities will begin with the digitisation of the Prosopography of the Later Roman Empire, with permission from Cambridge University Press. The three-volume reference work will be updated and transformed into a searchable online resource and made openly available on the Cambridge Core platform.

The second digital initiative will be the creation of a central Connecting Late Antiquities resource, incorporating material from the newly developed digital Prosopography of the Later Roman Empire along with prosopographical information from other publications and new studies, as well as linking to information from other online research projects.

The final stage of the project will seek to extend understanding of this time period by developing two new case studies focusing on specific western regions of the later Roman Empire. The first, on North Africa, explores the movement of local elites into the clergy and the roles played in their careers by social networks and relationships with their communities. The second, on late-antique Britain, moves beyond the highest echelons of society to explore interactions with sub-elites and the degree of mobility they enjoyed.

“Past research has traditionally focused on the privileged few who constituted the social and political elite, paying little attention to the rest of society who, although not as well represented in the surviving sources, have nonetheless left behind evidence of their lives, particularly in inscriptions and papyri,” adds Dr Charlotte Tupman, Senior Research Fellow in Digital Humanities, of the Department of Classics, Ancient History, Religion and Theology.

“These two new case studies will not only demonstrate the value of this new resource, but also add to our understanding of a world that was more fluid and interconnected than has traditionally been thought, where the spheres of church and government frequently intersected.”

Connecting Late Antiquities will launch in February 2023 with two years of funding from the UK’s Arts and Humanities Research Council and Germany’s Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft. The core research team consists of Dr Flower, Dr Tupman, Dr Gabriel Bodard (London) and Professor Julia Hillner (Bonn).

For more information, visit the project website.