A Masterpiece on the Rise of Christianity

Friday 21 September 2012 at 6:19 pm. Used tags: , , , , , , , ,


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                                                  


Apse mosaic in Santa Pudenziana, Rome, early fifth century

Over the last fifty years there has been an explosion of interest in and study of late antiquity—that previously neglected half-millennium or so between ancient history and the High Middle Ages. In archaeology, old sites have been given deeper scrutiny; new sites have been found and developed. Art historians have been surprised by the quality of the period’s mosaic floors, sarcophagi, and pious objects. Eating vessels have been treated as if in a crime lab. Even bones from mass burials and catacombs have established the dietary conditions of different regions and periods. Generalizing terms like “barbarians” have been articulated into many-layered entities, refining and reversing historical judgments.

Why was this vast field neglected for so long? There were effects lingering from interlinked though discredited myths. One myth was that the Roman Empire (but only in the West) “fell” overnight when barbarians invaded and brought it down. The light of classical times blinked out and we stumbled straightway into the Dark Ages. Myth two (without a neat chronological fit) was that Constantine in the fourth century took Christianity out of the martyrs’ arena into the seats of power, making the persecuted become persecutors. Myth three (again only approximately synchronous with the others) was that a primitive Christianity lost its purity and became rich in its own right. Thin apostles could get through a needle’s eye, but fat bishops (like camels) could not. Those beliefs, previously dislodged, have by now evaporated.

Developments in this field are so recent that some of its pioneers are still exploring and expanding it—Glen Bowersock, Brent Shaw, Alan Cameron, and Averil Cameron among others. Of these, none has been more influential than Peter Brown. His Augustine of Hippo, published forty-five years ago, broke that figure out of his theological and hagiographical encrustations, making him live in a newly believable landscape. Since then Brown has ridden the tidal wave of new information from many disciplines, across the Eastern as well as Western parts of the Roman Empire, publishing study after stunning study of developments as they were happening. There was an apparent paradox in the importance of his Augustine for this movement. Biographies of famous men are normally considered an elite form of history “from the top down,” and much of the work on late antiquity has been social history, assembled “from the bottom up,” from traces of the people who were not the writers or subjects of ancient books.

Brown’s new work, long as it is, may seem to be a shrinking back to smaller compass and returning to his first biographical emphasis. It concentrates on how Christian attitudes toward poverty and wealth changed during just one span of time, the years 370–430, within a penumbra of the years 350–550. It also confines itself to the Western Empire, to Italy, Africa, and Gaul, with just a brief excursus to Palestine when Jerome goes there. Even more surprising, it is largely shaped around the biographies of four famous men, Ambrose, Augustine, Jerome, and Paulinus of Nola—though the landscape around and between this Big Four is populated with scores of other figures.1 Brown’s work has always treated any sharp difference between top-down and bottom-up as illusory. Statistics about the inarticulate bottom are inert. They must be animated by interaction with what was said about them “on top.” Besides, much action takes place between those two poles.

This last point is one of Brown’s major themes in the new book, which keeps returning to the mediocres, the “in-betweeners,” the “little big men” who were not at the bottom or top of society, so they went for a long time unnoticed by historians. When the social system seemed to be collapsing, the mediocres were the ones who quietly kept things working—small Campanian farmers, for instance, who supplied Rome with grain when the great estates (latifundia) were foundering. When spectacular ascetics or publishing bishops stole the religious limelight, it was little-known gray clerics who carried out the daily functions of religion. What makes Brown’s Big Four interesting in this connection is that two of them (Ambrose and Augustine) knew they needed these mediocres to do their work, and two (Jerome and Paulinus) did not think so. This explains why Brown is relatively favorable to the former two, and less favorable to the latter.

One reason for the book’s doggedly thorough treatment of a relatively short time—inched forward decade by decade and region by region—is that Brown is almost obsessively aware of the difficulty of getting the “feel” of actors and actions remote from our surroundings. Everyone is moving through an alien landscape, one we are trying to enter. Brown knows that most people act, most of the time, not out of clear doctrines, but from “a heavy sediment of notions” shaped by a culture constantly fluctuating.

Diagnostic Tools

Words change their meaning, even words central to the period, as Brown moves around and across this landscape. “Poor” does not mean the same thing to people in Gaul and in Africa, or in Gaul of the 330s and Gaul of the 340s. Most often the term does not mean the entirely abject or helpless. The “poor” can hide in plain sight as the mediocres. They can fly false colors as dim minor functionaries. Sometimes they are ordinary (nonstarving) citizens on the dole, the plebs. Sometimes they are clergy needing support from others. “Wealth” is an equally elusive term. So is “treasure.” The earthquake of late-antique studies has sent out many tremors, and Brown labors to make his instruments for tremor measurement more delicate. For this he has developed special skills with three linguistic tools—words, cross-cultural comparisons, and metaphors and similes.

Words: Every word is a storehouse of accumulating meanings, some quick-born, some senescent, some revivable. One must try to get the specific weight and emanation of a word from how it works in its immediate environment. Brown wrenches words free from their later accretions, making them leap out of the dictionary as from a tomb. He makes us aware of the exact social role of terms like barbari, vetustas, verecundia, pudor, tenuis, and others. Describing, for instance, the late-fourth-century ideal of a clergyman, Brown quotes the historian Ammianus Marcellinus, who says that a true bishop should be purus et verecundus. “For a Roman,” Brown writes,

verecundus was a charged word. It summed up the quintessentially Roman virtue of knowing one’s place. Verecundia was a virtue of the subelites. Experts such as schoolteachers, grammarians, and doctors were expected to show verecundia in the presence of their social superiors…. They were not to be “pushy.”

Cross-cultural comparisons: Since we are all wrapped in a web of our own culture’s assumptions, one way to break us out of the cocoon, to leap into another net of associations, is to take a detour. That way we can shed just the obstructive part of our culture and parachute into just the relevant part of the distant culture. For instance, when the great grain suppliers of the fifth century failed, aristocrats like Ausonius and Cassiodorus despised or ignored the small farmers who filled in the needed supplies. Brown compares that to conservative Confucians in eighth-century China mocking the “little works” of Buddhist monks upholding social services.

Or consider men like Augustine, trapped in provincial “little pyramids,” forced to “escape toward the top” by breaking free of local ties. Brown compares them with Scott of the Antarctic, who took any odd chance, even exploration, to escape the paralysis of Royal Navy protocol. Some may say this involves an unnecessary twofold effort—to learn or remember a different situation in order to understand the first one proposed. But the effort sharpens and refines what one is trying to understand. Augustine escaped upward by combining a millionaire’s patronage, Manichaean social connections, and a fierce concentration on the period currency of rhetoric. By way of the Scott comparison we see how both nervy and lucky was that escape upward.

Sometimes Brown can make a cross-cultural comparison in a single word, as when he calls the arena’s venatores (beast fighters) “matadors.” He wipes away much of the foreignness of the distant past with a more familiar modern game. Sometimes even our own culture may be distant from us, as when we have to remember the “Old China Hands” of the 1950s to smile when Brown says that Jerome bullied Rome as “a self-professed Old Desert Hand.” It is easy to get his point when he says that the vast complex of public baths in Trier was turned into a military stronghold and staging area as “the Pentagon of the West.” When ascetics made spectacular renunciations of their wealth, to display their own virtue without practical concern for the poor, he compares this with the acte gratuit of European existentialists in the aftermath of World War II. In all these cases he reminds us not to understand him too quickly. To get into a strange land, we need to find the right passport.

Metaphor and simile: Brown has always loved figurative language, not as ornament but as expository tool. When churches allowed wealth to be retained on certain conditions, it was wealth “put on parole.” When many gifts were elicited from small donors, they were like a “soft, fine rain,” more work by the mediocres—as opposed to a large contribution given for display, which was like “a mighty flash of lightning” obscuring the rest of the landscape. To combat the idea that the barbarians’ invasion erased Roman civilization all at once, he caps his more nuanced description with the simile: “What we call the ‘barbarian invasions’ are better seen as the jets of water that suddenly announce the breaking of a dam.”


Such linguistic tools are a way of presenting informed speculation on the tone and texture of a time. Brown brings them to the huge mass of material evidence pouring in for this period—reaching down to such minute items as the unshucked oysters still waiting to be eaten in a great villa unearthed near Toulouse. All this evidence is assessed to explore the main theme of the book—how Christian attitudes toward poverty and wealth changed in this seminal age of late antiquity. One must wonder how a religious vision that began celebrating or aspiring to poverty became the top-heavy church of later times. Brown works at the problem from its root statement in the Gospel of Matthew 19:21–26. When a young man asks how he can be perfect, Jesus says he should sell what he owns and give it to the poor, in order to amass “treasure in heaven.” Explaining himself to his followers, Jesus then says: “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.” Ever since, trying to thread needles with camels has led to some ludicrous and heartbreaking episodes in history.


Detail of apse mosaic in Santa Maria in Domnica, Rome, showing angels, ninth century

The consequences of giving one’s wealth to the poor are rarely predictable. If the giver becomes poor and the recipient becomes rich, must the latter give his wealth to the former, in an endless cycle? That might not seem a realistic problem for a single moderately rich person. But if a vastly rich person gives everything away, how does he decide who are poor enough to be recipients? How is the distribution to be managed without bitter competition for it and questionable arbiters of it?2 With no accumulation of riches, how are large industries, the tasks of societal organization and protection, or the buildup of cultural enrichment to be managed?

Brown does not refer to the famous case of Saint Francis of Assisi, but it illustrates the problem. Francis wanted his followers to be absolutely, not relatively, poor—to own neither book, nor lodging, nor any form of money. As his order began to grow, how could it get, keep, provision, and expand houses of study, places of worship, the instruments of increased learning? A series of compromises began to take place even in his lifetime, leading to bitter cries of betrayal that grew into a disedifying early history of depositions, schisms, excommunications, appeals to popes. Finally, Saint Bonaventure, a Franciscan who had the leisure and resources to become a famous scholar at the University of Paris, guided the order into revisions that made it just like other orders, Dominican or Jesuit or whatever. But the splintering tendency—into Zelantis, Spirituals, Fraticelli, Clareni, Minorites, Joachites—left a heritage far from evangelical simplicity and poverty.

Brown’s story has various people who gave up their property to amass treasure in heaven, with surprising consequences. Unlike Francis, who could renounce but not distribute his merchant father’s property, these people had vast holdings in many territories to shed—Jerome’s traveling patrons Paula and Eustochium, Paulinus of Nola, Pinianus and Melania, the aristocratic monks of Arles and Lerins. He embeds each of these persons in his or her different situation. Their stories play out around his Big Four’s observation posts.


Ambrose is best known for his confrontations with “Arians” over the Trinity and with Western emperors over his ecclesial domain. Brown shows that his ability to carry on both battles came from his consolidation of support over and with his congregation. One of the major themes of the book is stated early on:

It was the redefinition of the Christian poor (derived from the Old Testament) that did the most to secure the eventual triumph of Christianity in the cities in the course of the fifth century. The adoption of a view that saw the poor not only as beggars but also as persons in search of justice and protection reflected mounting pressure within the Christian communities themselves to engage in forms of social action that had wider effects than mere charity to the destitute.

Ambrose best expresses this movement. To champion the rights of all those in his community, he attacked not the possession of wealth but its use to deprive others of dignity. He spoke as one of his favorite Old Testament prophets against those who would oppress God’s people. He did not ask for a onetime dump of all one class’s wealth onto a lower class, but for the healthy circulation of goods throughout the community. His was not a cry for charity but for justice.

Later Christians, looking only to heavenly recompense, would rebuke this approach as too worldly, as trying to create the good society in the here and now. Ambrose had enough wealth to launch huge building programs, not only for his double cathedral and imposing baptistry in Milan, but for a circle of tall basilicas around and outside the city walls. He did this to incorporate local shrines and martyr cults in a system of social interaction that cared for the poor. He gave precious church plate to ransom Christian slaves. He baptized Cicero’s On Duties to make for a Christian social order.


Augustine baptized a different work of Cicero, On Friendship. Some have claimed that Augustine never escaped a Manichaean fascination with evil. Brown convincingly says that the lasting effect of Manichaeism was the warm sense of community it gave Augustine. He would stress the affective ties binding people together, not the juridical ties of Ambrose. There was nothing eremitical about Augustine. Wherever he was, in Africa or Italy, his first instinct was to find and foster a close group around him. He did not plan to become a priest or a bishop, but he lived in some form of monastery at every stage of his life. When he became a bishop, he attached his monastery to the cathedral. There, it had to be an outward-looking monastery, unlike the cloistered orders of later time. Augustine did not think he could find the City of God on earth, but he had to deal with future members of it in a decidedly compromised church on earth.

Augustine’s fight with the Pelagians, who did not believe in original sin—and who argued that man could take the fundamental steps toward salvation by his own efforts, without divine grace—has been crudely put as a fight of Augustinian pessimism against Julian of Eclanum’s optimism. Brown’s emphasis on wealth and its uses erases this cartoon. The Pelagians, who came from the privileged upper class of Rome and Sicily, wanted to use their advantages to perfect their own spirituality. Augustine, who knew that most people live with continual little sins, also saw the path to redemption in that fact. Before the sacrament of penance existed in its later forms, the way to redeem yourself from daily sin was daily giving of alms. Augustine’s sermons dwelt on the clause of the Lord’s Prayer, “Forgive us our sins [debita], as we forgive the sins of others.” Debita meant debts as well as sins.

Augustine’s notion was that sins are offenses not only against God but against others we deprive of our goods, or goodwill, or a share in the common condition. The daily small distribution of goods is not so much a payment of justice, as with Ambrose, as an expression of one’s need for others, of the ties that bind.


Jerome hated the “corrupt” wealthy, all but the wealthy women he persuaded to go into perpetual virginity or to follow him and finance him in his Holy Land scholarly retreat. Jerome’s immense learning had to be upheld by immense expenditures. All of the thinkers of the time had to be subsidized on a grand scale. Books were expensive to produce and retain when multiple copies had to be written by hand on parchment (costly to process), protected from heat, moisture, and insects, and circulated mainly by messengers. When Jerome first became a hermit, his scribes and assistants had to accompany him into the desert, carting his many loads of books. At first these may have been slaves, to be replaced later, in his learned isolation, by devout souls like his millionaire ladies. This sheds a dark light on his denunciations of wealth.

Paulinus of Nola

Augustine knew the dangers of large-scale renunciation of wealth, since two extremely wealthy Romans, the married couple Pinianus and Melania the Younger, came to his cathedral in the disruption following Alaric’s sack of Rome in 410. As Christians, they decided to renounce the wealth that was now so imperiled. Augustine’s own congregation tried to recruit Pinianus into the priesthood, to secure his money for itself—much to Augustine’s embarrassed frustration. The two had already manumitted eight thousand of their slaves, who—adrift in the chaos—tried to refuse their freedom. Then they went to the Holy Land to establish a monastic home. They renounced not only their homeland but the world, feeling it was spiraling down toward hell. Rather than be sucked along with it, they set up a kind of spiritual space station, above the mess, waiting to blast off for heaven. It was a well-provisioned space station, since they took money from the land they had sold out from under the slaves to devote it to holy purpose.

Paulinus of Nola, vastly wealthy, resembled Pinianus in his renunciation, but he did not withdraw from Italy. Instead, he built a spectacular shrine to Nola’s patron saint, Felix, where he cared for pilgrims, making himself a commercial dealer in heavenly favor for those seeking divine intervention. He was a learned poet who kept up his network of spiritual friends in a kind of countercultural clearing house of saintly concerns. Later pilgrim sites would imitate his partial withdrawal from the world—less a space station than a field hospital for the disenchanted.


Brown is versatile at inferring mental states from material evidence, construing attitude from situation, somewhat like the conjectural historians of the eighteenth century. Edward Gibbon, William Robertson, and others challenged histories tainted by piety, patriotism, or superstition, reasoning from the probabilities of physical and human nature—as Hume had undermined the historical accounts of miracles. They did not rely on what people said had happened, but on what must have happened. Brown does not discount what theologians said was happening in his period, but he does not pay it much attention. This is certainly better than some older accounts, which tended to reduce figures to their overt theological claims—Ambrose to the Trinity, Donatists to rebaptism, Pelagians to original sin.

But Brown could explore whether his mediocres were not also affected by such matters. In Ambrose’s time, for instance, Trinitarian speculation was not just the intellectual game Gibbon called it. People were plausibly puzzled by how or whether they were supposed to pray to what their scriptures called the Son of God and the Holy Spirit. Brown might have pondered more the old saying Lex orandi lex credendi, the norm of prayer is the norm of faith. Similarly, he presents Augustine’s fight with Donatists as mainly one of imperial power relations. But ordinary people on both sides of that fight had different shrines, martyrs, and concrete spiritual practices centered around baptism. In fact, Brown has given us a model for testing theology’s impact on ordinary life when he shows that the idea of original sin affected the daily alms for daily sins in Augustine’s congregation. He could have entertained conjecture about other doctrines’ psychological implication for his mediocres.

Of course, Brown is not vulnerable to the things that made the old conjectural historians lose their credibility. They had a narrow range of material evidence from which to calculate their probabilities, and Brown has a huge range. Also, they were sure that human nature was the same in all times and places, and Brown knows better—which is why he so usefully brings in cross-cultural comparisons and contrasts. These things mark his difference from even so brilliant a conjectural historian as Gibbon. And surely we have the most convincing picture of the period Brown covers here that we are likely to get. To compare it with earlier surveys of this period is to move from the X-ray to the cinema. He marshals masses of evidence, much of it heterogeneous and unfamiliar, yet he is never tedious. Every page is full of information and argument, and savoring one’s way through the book is an education. It is a privilege to live in an age that could produce such a masterpiece of the historical literature.

  1. 1

    Important figures fleshed out include Symmachus, Ausonius, Rufinus, Priscillian, Damasus, Salvian, John Cassian, Hilary of Arles, Honoratus of Lérins, Prosper of Aquitaine, Paulinus of Pella, and Gregory of Tours. 

  2. 2

    When Queen Mary Tudor washed the feet of poor women on Maundy Thursday, she gave her gown to the poorest woman there. Her successor, Queen Elizabeth I, found that practice invidious, and gave an equal share of money to them all. Competitive poverty is a tricky business. See Carole Levin, The Heart and Stomach of a King: Elizabeth I and the Politics of Sex and Power ( University of Pennsylvania Press, 1994), pp. 16–35. 

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