Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350-550 AD

Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350-550 AD

Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350-550 AD

Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350-550 AD

Synopsis

Jesus taught his followers that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter heaven. Yet by the fall of Rome, the church was becoming rich beyond measure. Through the Eye of a Needle is a sweeping intellectual and social history of the vexing problem of wealth in Christianity in the waning days of the Roman Empire, written by the world's foremost scholar of late antiquity.


Peter Brown examines the rise of the church through the lens of money and the challenges it posed to an institution that espoused the virtue of poverty and called avarice the root of all evil. Drawing on the writings of major Christian thinkers such as Augustine, Ambrose, and Jerome, Brown examines the controversies and changing attitudes toward money caused by the influx of new wealth into church coffers, and describes the spectacular acts of divestment by rich donors and their growing influence in an empire beset with crisis. He shows how the use of wealth for the care of the poor competed with older forms of philanthropy deeply rooted in the Roman world, and sheds light on the ordinary people who gave away their money in hopes of treasure in heaven.



Through the Eye of a Needle challenges the widely held notion that Christianity's growing wealth sapped Rome of its ability to resist the barbarian invasions, and offers a fresh perspective on the social history of the church in late antiquity.

Excerpt

In this book I wish to examine the impact of wealth on the Christian churches of the Latin West in the last centuries of the Roman empire and in the first century of the post-imperial age, roughly from the middle of the fourth century AD to the consolidation of the post-Roman, barbarian kingdoms in the period conventionally associated with the “Fall of Rome.”

I will begin with four opening chapters that set the scene. The first will describe Roman society in the fourth century AD. The second will examine the social standing of the Christian churches in the transitional period between the conversion of Constantine in 312 and the entry of the rich in ever greater numbers into the churches in the course of the 370s. The next two chapters will juxtapose the traditional ideal of giving to the city with the novel Christian ideal of placing treasure in heaven through gifts to the church and to the poor. The issues raised by the contrast between these two ideals will remain with us for the rest of the book.

The next thirteen chapters will introduce the reader to well-known figures, each one of them in a particular landscape. Each represents a different option for the use of wealth and for the formation of attitudes to it. We will meet the great pagan, Quintus Aurelius Symmachus, in the Rome and southern Italy of his time. Then we will go north, to the Milan and northern Italy of his Christian contemporary, Ambrose of Milan. For three chapters we will follow the young Augustine, a very different person from a more modest background, from Africa to Italy and back again, as he lived and thought his way through a series of religious communities, each of which was characterized by distinctive attitudes toward the use of wealth among its members. We will leave Augustine in 397 as the newly installed bishop of Hippo and as the head of a monastery so as to go far to the north—to the Gaul of Ausonius of Bordeaux. In Gaul, and in the adjoining provinces, we will savor the wealth of the rich landowners and courtiers, the . . .

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