Academic journal article Canadian Journal of History

Peter Brown on Christian Attitudes to Wealth in the Late Roman West

Academic journal article Canadian Journal of History

Peter Brown on Christian Attitudes to Wealth in the Late Roman West

Article excerpt

Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350-550 AD, by Peter Brown. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2012. 816 pp. $39.95 US (cloth).

For half a century Peter Brown has been a prolific and highly influential historian of Late Antiquity. The structure of his latest and (by more than 100 pages) longest book, to which its main title merely alludes, resembles in several ways a set of variations on the theme stated in its subtitle--"Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350-550 AD." The first of its five parts comprises four chapters delineating the relevant social background of what follows (pp. 1-90). The next thirteen chapters concentrate on the period before the sack of Rome in 410: most of them assess the attitudes to wealth of a series of individual authors including the pagan Symmachus and the Christians Ambrose, Augustine, and Paulinus of Nola (pp. 91-288). The third and fourth sections, which are briefer, have the titles "An Age of Crisis" (pp. 289-384) and "Aftermaths" (pp. 385-453): together these two sections cover the first three decades of the fifth century, Gaul down to 450 and Italy before the Byzantine invasion, while the fifth section, entitled "Toward Another World," considers the sixth century (pp. 454-526). The twenty-nine chapters are supplemented by more than a hundred pages of endnotes (pp. 533-640), a bibliography of nearly eighty pages (pp. 641-717), and an index of forty-one pages (pp. 719-59). Brown also summarizes the content of his long book in a very brief conclusion of four pages (pp. 527-30).

Despite its length, the book has a simple main thesis. Brown argues that the Christian church in the West saw an influx of wealth only after 370 and that this sudden influx brought with it lively controversies over the proper use of wealth by Christians which lasted for two generations. After c. 430, however, "much of the wealth created in the fourth century evaporated or changed its structures in the brutal crisis of the fifth century," and "the Christian churches found themselves in a generally impoverished world," in which "the central institutions of the Roman world lost much of their mystique," while there was "consolidation on the local level," and "the collapse of the traditional aristocracies left the church in a unique position" (pp. 529-30). These developments hastened "the great turn towards the other world that has been held to mark the end of the ancient world and the beginning of the middle ages" (p. 530).

Brown's bibliography is divided, in line with an unfortunate and misleading modern convention, into "Primary Sources" (pp. 641-54) and "Secondary Sources" (pp. 654-717). Brown uses the latter term to designate modern studies, but modern works ought not to be called "sources" at all, since they do not constitute historical evidence for the ancient world in any real sense. For Brown, however, these "secondary sources" do often function as the source from which he has taken an interpretation that he then seeks to confirm by reference to ancient evidence. Hence, although Brown quotes and discusses an enormous range of ancient evidence, his interpretations are often neither derived from the ancient evidence nor based primarily upon it. He seems rather to have formulated the central themes of Eye of a Needle in the light of his own earlier historical interpretations and his wide reading of modern writers such as Averil Cameron, Clifford Geertz, Ramsay MacMullen, Amaldo Momigliano, Paul Veyne, and many others. In itself of course this method of historical research and writing is perfectly legitimate, and Brown showers his readers with an enormous range of unborrowed erudition and a large number of stimulating ideas and apercus on specific issues, situations and writers. But his modern guides have sometimes led him astray into preferring their interpretations over the ancient evidence. …

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