As a member of the "educated public" (see below), I have been struggling lately with this question: What is Late Antiquity/Spätantike, and how is it framed? There are so many different views out there.
Therefore, it was comforting to read yesterday in A Greek Roman Empire: Power and Belief under Theodosius II, 405-450 (Sather Classical Lectures), Table of Content, University of California Press 2006, by Fergus Millar:
It is a matter of pure choice, convention, or convenience to what periods we apply the terms "Late Empire," "Byzantium," or "Late Antiquity." We can, for instance, quite reasonably choose to use "Byzantine" only for the period after the loss of Syria, Egypt, and Libya to Islam. But we could also choose to see the long and stable reign of Theodosius II as the beginning of "Byzantium:" the first extended reign by an Emperor born in Constantinople; the first regime conducted from there (allowing for occasional minor excursions) continuously for four decades; the reign most emphatically marked by Christian piety; and the one for which our evidence allows us to see, far more fully and clearly than any other, the intimate relations between the Emperor and the Greek-speaking Church. (emphasis mine)
If this German Wikipedia article is to be believed, and it is labeled "Dieser Artikel wurde in die Liste der Exzellenten Artikel aufgenommen," the term Spätantike was coined by the Austrian art historian Alois Riegl towards the end of the 19th century. Our friend Adrian informed me that in the America the term is "Late Antiquity," whereas British universities use "The Later Roman Empire" – at least clearing up one bit of confusion for me.
Setting aside Millar's advice, when "Late Antiquity" began seems to be rather unanimous (284, Diocletian) – but see Bowersock/Brown below – when it ended appears to be a matter of great discussion and dispute. It ranges in the West from 476 (end of the reign of Romulus Augustulus) to 568 (Langobardian invasion of Italy); in the East from 565 (death of Justinian) to 641 (Battle of Jarmouk in 636 with the loss of Syria and Egypt to the Arabs and the death of the emperor Heraclius in 641).
Online, there is Steven Muhlberger's Overview of Late Antiquity at ORB Encyclopedia, "… a short introduction to some of the main features of this long and complex period," who also seems to count as late as Heraclius.
At the extreme end (800, Charlemagne crowned) are G.W. Bowersock, Peter Brown and Oleg Grabar, who in Late Antiquity: A Guide to the Postclassical World (Harvard University Press Reference Library) write:
This, very briefly, is what we mean when we talk of "late antiquity." Late Antiquity: A Guide to the Postclassical World has been put together on the frank assumption that the time has come for scholars, students, and the educated public in general to treat the period between around 250 and 800 as a distinctive and quite decisive period of history that stands on its own. It is not, as it once was for Edward Gibbon, a subject of obsessive fascination only as the story of the unraveling of a once glorious and "higher" state of civilization. It was not a period of irrevocable Decline and Fall; nor was it merely a violent and hurried prelude to better things. It cannot be treated as a corpse to be dragged quickly offstage so that the next great act of the drama of the Middle Ages should begin--with the emergence of Catholic Europe and the creation of the Arabic civilization associated with the golden age of medieval Islam.
Read the entire Introduction at HUP / TOC
So where does that leave me? None the wiser… <grin>