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How Christianity Spread: the 1% and the 99% in Ancient Rome

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 University Press, 759 pp., $39.95)

WHEN EDWARD GIBBON began to write a history of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, he intended to conclude his work at the end of the Western empire, which had been traditionally fixed in 476 with the death of Romulus Augustulus. A last emperor whose absurd name evoked the legendary founder of the Roman state alongside a diminutive form of the name of its first emperor Augustus was too good to be true. But Gibbon eventually discovered that the story did not end with this hapless nonentity, and he persevered with unwavering dedication to bring his great history all the way down to the fall of Constantinople before the Turks in 1453.

Arnaldo Momigliano, who was among the last century’s most perceptive historians of the entire ancient Mediterranean world, famously observed that the fall of Rome, unlike the fall of Constantinople, seemed to have happened without a sound. Yet the fall of Rome lives on as a marketable tag for the gradual, and noiseless, dissolution of the Roman imperial polity in the West. In the East, however, Constantinople, on the Bosporos where the old city of Byzantium once had been, became the New Rome. As the once great city in Italy grew less populous and sank into medieval obscurity, the Roman empire now meant, in the various languages of the eastern Mediterranean, what we have become accustomed to call the Byzantine empire.

Not so long ago it was normal to refer to this age of fragmentation and change as the Later Roman Empire. In 1964, A.H.M. Jones published under that name a magisterial study of the period from 284 to 602. But all of this has now changed, and the historian responsible for this change, more than anyone else, has been Peter Brown. His distinctive voice, at once arresting and mellifluous, and his profoundly searching analyses, buttressed by formidable learning, first reached a broad readership in 1967 through his eloquent biography of Augustine. That wide-ranging work explored not only the thought and character of that complex man, whose own Confessions had already set a high standard for any biographer, but also the Italian and African societies in which he lived. Brown’s Augustine was not someone crying out in the desolation of a waning empire, but a man whose driving intellect allowed him to shape and strengthen not only the course of his Church but also the legacy of the Jewish and pagan past out of which it had arisen.

Brown soon went on, in 1971, to articulate his vision of the post-classical period in a short book with the disarmingly straightforward title The World of Late Antiquity. He carefully correlated a generous selection of illustrations with his vivid text and thereby showed himself a historian more sensitive to visual evidence than anyone since Michael Rostovtzeff. This work established the modern paradigm for Late Antiquity. It has inspired several generations of students and scholars through its shimmering evocation of transformation and renewal where there had once been impending collapse. It is fair to say that the term Late Antiquity has now become a common alternative for Later Roman Empire, which survives chiefly in discussions of the West, and this change in nomenclature is directly due to the influence of Brown. The expression itself had its origins in the work of the art historian Alois Riegl at the beginning of the twentieth century, but for a long time it was principally discussed in art historical contexts. Today, even though its chronological parameters are porous and indistinct both at the beginning and at the end, Late Antiquity is the way we usually refer to the centuries between Constantine and Muhammad, and to the pullulating cultures that animated the Mediterranean lands during that period.

In his Jackson Lectures, delivered at Harvard in 1976, Brown himself was the first to look for a pre-Constantinian glimmering of the late antique world. The book that he based on those lectures bore a title,The Making of Late Antiquity, that echoed the title of R.W. Southern’s The Making of the Middle Ages, and it proved to be the first of many works in which Brown showed his astonishing ability to rethink his own positions and to grow creatively as new ideas and new material came to him. In this work he reached back into the second century for adumbrations of late antique sensibility when Christianity was very young. Then, with The Cult of the Saints in 1981, Brown was able to expand on the implications of his earlier and seminal article on the rise of the Holy Man to compare Christian saints with divinized pagan heroes.

At this point Brown took off in an altogether new direction with a major study of sexual renunciation, The Body and Society, which appeared in 1988. This direction turned out to be as fruitful as it had been unexpected. No one writing today on the increasingly popular subject of ancient sex—or “desire,” as some like coyly to say in the manner of Eugene O’Neill in Desire Under the Elms—has so far been able to provide more than a passing commentary on Brown’s masterly analysis. He managed to combine a deep knowledge of theological issues with a sharp eye for the constraints of daily life in the real world of the Christian empire. He showed how the traditional physicality of sexual relations—what made humans like animals—was gradually pushed aside to make way for a chastity of the heart in a spiritual body. 

MEANWHILE, Brown began work on a new theme that provided an effective response to occasional European criticism (largely Marxist) that Late Antiquity, as he and others envisioned it, had been illegitimately confined to religious and cultural history, without due regard for economic and social upheavals. In 2000, in three lectures delivered in Jerusalem in memory of the great Israeli scholar Menahem Stern, Brown surprised his colleagues by turning to the subject of poverty and leadership, clearly an important subject for what had been traditionally seen as an age of decline. Poverty inevitably raised the problem of its antipode, wealth, and Brown’s interest therefore spread naturally to the acquisition of wealth. This theme inevitably opened up fundamental questions of land-holding and trade as well as the distribution of riches.

These questions had emerged at just about the same time with spectacular clarity in a work by Jairus Banaji, titled Agrarian Change in Late Antiquity: Gold, Labour, and Aristocratic Dominance. This highly original and dense study had its origins in Max Weber’s fundamental investigation of ancient agrarian history, but it drew also upon economic studies by Gunnar Mickwitz and Santo Mazzarino, both of whom Anglo-American scholarship had conspicuously neglected. As his title shows, Banaji adopted Brown’s perspective on the post-classical age within the context of a revisionist interpretation of its economy. Brown, ever alert to new ideas, quickly digested Banaji’s book, and soon had the opportunity to interact with him personally during the year that Banaji spent at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton.

In the great days of Graeco-Roman paganism, wealthy citizens had flaunted their assets by securing their posthumous reputations through munificent endowments for festivals and games, as well as through funding for imposing monuments and buildings. By taking up the whole problem of wealth in Late Antiquity, Brown has now, in his new book, sought to discover how this largesse came to be re-arranged in the Christian world so as to enrich the Church and to endow its foundations. He has generously fulfilled the promise of his Stern Lectures on poverty by turning the spotlight on wealth.

BROWN’S TITLE, Through the Eye of a Needle, proclaims the problem that every conscientious Christian of means has had to confront—how to reconcile profit and wealth with Jesus’s admonition to give up all one’s possessions, for “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” Jesus’s admonition lies at the heart of Brown’s book, which ranges widely across the two hundred years specified in its subtitle (350–550). But his subtitle is remarkable not only for the uncharacteristic specificity of its temporal frame, but also for the surprising invocation of the fall of Rome (obviously not an event but a process) and for the limitation of its treatment of Christianity to the West. Anyone who has read Peter Brown will be well aware that he would have been perfectly able to write as brilliantly about the eastern Mediterranean world as about the western, but all of that could hardly have been put between two covers. The situation in the West was dramatically different, with the decline of old Rome in favor of the new, the barbarian invasions, the turbulence in Augustine’s North Africa, and the transformations of provincial life in Europe. In the East, Constantinople prevailed, more or less, for many centuries to come. The Persian empire, which had long been the enemy and rival of the New Rome, had come to an end in the seventh century and gave the Byzantines a little more breathing room as they confronted the warriors of Muhammad, who invaded their empire at about the same time.

Despite the length of Brown’s new book, there are no longueurs, at least for this reader, not least because it is so closely in touch with recent historical work. It is exciting to watch a historian who has already written extensively on Late Antiquity absorb so much new scholarship, revise his old views, and re-imagine the world we thought we already knew from him. In commenting on his changes of mind over the past decade, Brown invokes the impressive list of recent titles in the bibliography that he has supplied for his book as opening “a window through which I saw what I never thought I would see—a vista of late Roman society from which many of the accustomed landmarks that had once dominated the landscape of late Roman studies have vanished or have come to seem less prominent than they had once been.”

This new window no longer reveals the great landowner estates (latifundia) and proto-serfs (coloni) that had dominated Rostovtzeff’s Bolshevik-inflected analysis of an economy in decline. It exposes, instead, a whole middle range of country folk and laborers, and it illustrates a multitude of regional diversities that changed over time. In all this the glimmer of gold is more prominent than it used to be. Brown accepts the fundamental economic and social role of the post-Constantinian gold coin (the solidus), as Banaji had done, in pushing back the old idea, espoused by M.I. Finley and primitivists of various stripes, of a Mediterranean economy in which cash was not the primary medium of exchange.

WITHOUT A TRACE of nostalgia, Brown reminds us of the old post-Gibbonian picture of “an ineluctable process of decline that had begun around the year 200 AD,” a view that “dominated the historiography of the first part of the twentieth century,” and then firmly states that “this is not the opinion of this author.” In fact, in revisiting the second century, where the opulence and the felicity of the Antonine age served Gibbon as the peak from which the decline would begin, Brown now goes well beyond his previous work, which had sought the making of Late Antiquity in that century. He rejects the second century as a golden age, from which later centuries marked a decline, and describes it dismissively as “a costly fluke” characterized by overbuilding, ecological strain, and a long-term demographic downturn. Accordingly, what is conventionally known as the “crisis” of the third century, when provincial administration and taxation were overhauled, barbarians invaded Greece, and a Roman emperor was captured by the Persians, becomes a salubrious adjustment to the frenetic activities of Antonine prosperity. The later period thereby emerges as “a period in its own right, marked by a strange vigor all its own.” Brown’s restructuring and reassessment of the two pre-Constantinian centuries is altogether new, and yet admirably coordinated with current research (as represented, for example, by Chris Wickham’s influential work of 2005, Framing the Early Middle Ages: Europe and the Mediterranean, 400–800).

The evolution that Brown sees from the third century into the fourth, when, in 312, Constantine becomes Christian, continues well into the generations after Constantine. The impact of Christianity on the Western empire after the foundation of the New Rome is muted, in Brown’s interpretation, until the election of Ambrose as bishop of Milan in 374, which is the first major turning point in “the brilliant period between 370 and 430.” This Brown declares to be “the heart” of his book. Looking at the decades that went before is for him like stepping back from the sunlight into a catacomb of unaccustomed dimness. So much for the inevitability of the militant Church after its emperor had espoused the faith. The decades immediately after Constantine were in fact fraught with heresies, imperial rivalries, and paganism. The emperor Julian, who for a brief moment re-established the pagan cults, is paradoxically the most luminous figure in that gloom.

Yet Ambrose and Augustine would have been unthinkable without those earlier struggles to clear the path. No one today seriously maintains that the pagans made a last stand at the end of the fourth century, despite the glamorous rhetoric of Symmachus, the great pagan aristocrat, in 384, when he defended the privileges of Vestal Virgins and the placement of the Altar of Victory in the Senate House. Brown wryly insists that Symmachus ought not to be considered the last pagan but the first, because he so effectively brought the old aristocracy into the socio-political orbit of the Christian administration. He is quite right to insist that Symmachus himself would not have called himself a pagan. He was a Roman aristocrat. Similarly, the extravagant wealth and success of the Christian Petronius Probus has more to do with the old noble family from which he came than the religion that he professed. His career brought enormous prestige and wealth to him and his sons. Those who found fault with Probus did so for reasons of character rather than religion. It is significant that his two most eloquent contemporary critics were a pagan and a Christian, the historian Ammianus Marcellinus and the Church Father Jerome. This was an era of flux and distinctly malleable faiths, in which both Christians and pagans, jointly heirs to a great classical tradition, took the measure of each other.

Brown’s emphasis on the late fourth century presupposes that it was the entry of the rich into Christian churches toward the end of the fourth century, and not the conversion of Constantine, that “marks the true beginning of the triumphant Catholicism of the Middle Ages.” This meant a radical shift from civic munificence to pious donations. Since the moderately and even excessively wealthy were, as we now can see, not confined to the countryside, as Rostovtzeff once thought, the change in the deployment of surplus wealth naturally altered the fortunes of cities at the same time as it fortified the churches. But the change was by no means simple. Pagan munificence had been directed to temples as well as to games and buildings, whereas Christian piety embraced both giving to the poor and giving to Church properties. Brown aptly quotes Kimberley Bowes’s rejection of a “swap sale” model for what went on (mitre for consular garb or poorhouses for baths). It was not inevitable that old pagan practices would be merely replaced by Christian ones, or, for that matter, vice versa. Julian, who had been raised as a Christian, tried to introduce into his pagan church what he had learned from his teachers about caring for the sick and the poor. Christians were scarcely the first to discover that poor people existed and needed succor (that is why emperors had a dole), though the new religion did “pauperize” them, in the words of Gertrude Himmelfarb, whom Brown quotes approvingly from her work on Victorian London.

FROM SYMMACHUS we move on to the four personalities that constitute the core of Brown’s evocation of late antique Western Christianity. These are Ambrose of Milan, Augustine of Hippo, Ausonius of Bordeaux, and Paulinus of Nola. These four, for whom Brown’s deeply felt but not uncritical sympathy irradiates his every page about them, link his new book with his first across the vast arc of the intervening years in which he has lived with these strong, courageous, and thoroughly decent men. He liberates Ambrose from the shadow of Augustine, whom Ambrose baptized at Milan in 387, and dilates on the Ciceronian Ambrose, who wrote, for the instruction of bishops, his De Officiis (“On Duties”) in emulation of the famous treatise that Cicero had written for his son Marcus. In his sermons Ambrose addressed the social problems of his age with such force that his preaching can be, and has been, exploited to prove that the Western empire was already well on its way to collapse. Yet Brown pulls us up with a salubrious counterblast: “Ambrose was a lot less like us than we think. His decision to preach on social issues was not inevitable; it represented a new departure.” What pagans were worried about was the loss of “supernatural protection caused by Christian blasphemy.” So, Brown argues, Ambrose responded to such anxieties by turning a religious crisis into a social crisis, thereby “secularizing the contemporary discourse on decline.” Ambrose managed to defuse pagan anxiety by converting it into a social issue that would benefit the Church. This brilliant perception transforms our understanding both of Ambrose himself and of the age in which he lived.

About Augustine, Brown emphasizes the local environments in which he grew up and preached. Not surprisingly, after Augustine returned to North Africa from Italy, his relations with Ambrose cooled. As bishop of Hippo, Augustine confronted entrenched beliefs and lifestyles that were very different from what he had encountered in Italy, as can be seen clearly in the newly discovered sermons and letters of Augustine that Brown discussed in the epilogue to the second edition (2000) of his classic biography.

Brown’s attention to local cultures here is part of his larger objective to emphasize those regional differences that work against any composite historical picture of the age. He wishes to stress the interrelation of place and thought in the work of writers in their own respective social contexts. This is particularly true of Augustine at Hippo, but it was true also of Ausonius, with his provincial roots in the highly cultivated society of Bordeaux and a friendship with no less a pagan than Symmachus. Ausonius’s pupil Pontius Meropius Paulinus changed location several times, moving first to Spain, where his wife had property, and then, after the death of his only child, to the Mediterranean coast, where he cunningly followed the injunction to sell his worldly possessions without giving up his money. Together with his wife, he dedicated himself to a life of continence and service as a priest. In doing so he turned his back on a noble and wealthy background and passed from the senatorial order to the rank of a simple clergyman. Ausonius was appalled.

On the basis of recent studies of Paulinus and his correspondence, Brown makes a case that would have warmed the heart of old Ausonius. Despite Paulinus’s desire to end his days at Nola in the service of a local saint named Felix, we now learn “how much of Paulinus the grandee survived in Paulinus the convert.” At his monastery near the shrine of Felix he co-habited with his wife, Therasia, even though ascetics of the opposite sex were not supposed to do that. Brown points out that he seems to have had no ecclesiastical connection with the bishop of Nola, and yet after 408 he became bishop there himself. He made sure that St. Felix appeared on the walls of the city when the Goths invaded, and some years later his advice was solicited in a disputed papal election.

FOR BROWN, the career of Paulinus illustrates how much the world had changed between 395 and 431, when Paulinus died. Though a local bishop, he was neither patron nor guardian to his city. On the contrary, “He was not tied down to any city, to any church, or to any conventional public role. He did it his way.” When we hear that he gave his wealth to the shrine of St. Felix, we recall his renunciation of possessions in Spain. But Brown assures us that, although he followed the command of Christ to sell all, he still had plenty of money left to give to the poor. God had given him his wealth, and he was only returning it to Him.

This is the evolving world of Western Christianity, where local traditions allowed aristocracies of wealth to prosper alongside the churches and shrines that they maintained. This is why Christianity fostered difference rather than unity. Paulinus and his wife in the monastery near Nola are no more surprising than the obscenities of the marriage poem (cento nuptialis) that the eminently respectable and undoubtedly Christian Ausonius had composed. In such a world as this, it could be hard to tell who was a Christian and who was a pagan. The current debate over the religion of the fifth-century writer Macrobius, the author of the learned Saturnalia, turns precisely on the impossibility of determining whether, despite his immense knowledge of pagan traditions, he was himself a pagan or a Christian. Macrobius does not figure in Brown’s book, which is mainly about Christianity, but he figures prominently in Alan Cameron’s new The Last Pagans of Ancient Rome,a book of comparable length that ends up by showing that there simply were no last pagans of ancient Rome at all. They just trickled on and became indistinguishable from most of the Christians around them.

IN LOOKING AT THE fifth century, Brown returns to a word that he had used for the third century, “crisis”—but this time it is a crisis of the West, characterized by barbarian invasions that included the Vandals in Africa and the Visigoths in Europe. Tracts that berated Christians for leaving their wealth to family rather than the Church proliferated, as well as vivid personalities, above all Salvian of Marseilles, who wrote a treatise on God’s governance that took a dim view of Rome’s governance. He appears here less as a source for the collapse of the Western empire than for the urgent need to strengthen ecclesiastical finance in a new social and economic system. In many respects in Provence, where Salvian lived on an island off the coast, this system did not look all that different than it did before the Goths arrived. The marginalization of Rome as the Western capital in confronting the rise of Milan and Ravenna had been only a prelude to the new dispensation. Salvian’s grim report on the world around him was not written, in Brown’s words, “for the citizens of a world empire but for the inhabitants of an enclave in which the grandeur of an ancien régime still lingered.... In the last analysis, for Salvian the church and not the empire was the Sick Man of Europe.”

Salvian’s contemporary, the young Sidonius Apollinaris at Arles, had a distinctly sunnier view of things. He took pride in an eminent local family that brought him close to imperial power, and, as Brown observes, “he had a gift for making time stand still.” Even when his public career succumbed to an accusation of associating with a traitor, he managed to become a bishop, “a comedown” but not so bad all the same. He continued to take pride in his beloved Clermont, where the local residents were happy to become a part of the Gothic kingdom, because the old empire no longer held any attraction for them. 
The crises of the third and fifth centuries serve as bookends for the fourth, at the end of which Brown sees “the turning point in the Christianization of Europe.” After the fifth century a process of transforming the clergy into a sacral class arose, with distinctive dress, grooming, and celibacy—what Brown calls the “othering” of the clergy. We are told that the impetus came from the desires of the laity and not from the churchmen themselves. “The imposition of celibacy on the clergy was what we would call ‘consumer driven.’” It appears linked to an increasing concern with the individual souls of the faithful. Donations to the Church became assurances for the afterlife rather than ostentatious display for subsequent generations or selfless help for the poor. The confusion of these two not altogether compatible objectives was now resolved in the astonishing growth in donations for personal salvation and, along with it, the domination of the clergy. It reflected an ever growing closeness of the individual with his God. For Brown, “it was the laity that wanted its clergy to be different.” At this point we reach the threshold of the Middle Ages.

Through the Eye of a Needle is a tremendous achievement, even for a scholar who has already achieved so much. Its range is as vast as its originality, and readers will find everywhere the kinds of memorable aperçus and turns of phrase for which its author is deservedly famous. What is unusual about this work is its structure. The argument emerges in short segments, sound bites for readers, which are then compounded into large chapters. This means that nowhere does a long and elaborate treatment of a complex theme impede the movement of the overall exposition. The various parts are held together by a thread that the author himself provides through numerous programmatic statements of what he is trying to do as he goes along. These statements, usually cast in the first-person plural, serve as welcome guideposts. They are reminders that Peter Brown is one of the greatest teachers of our time. His unique and irresistible ability to guide auditors and readers, to tease, enchant, and instruct them, is fully on display here. There can be no doubt that we are in the presence of a historian and teacher of genius.

G.W. Bowersock is professor emeritus of ancient history at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, and is the author, most recently, of Empires in Collision in Late Antiquity (The Menahem Stern Jerusalem Lectures) (Brandeis University Press). This article appeared in the December 6, 2012 issue of the magazine under the headline “Pagans to Christians.”