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Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350-550 AD Hardcover – September 2, 2012


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Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350-550 AD + The World of Late Antiquity: AD 150-750 (Library of World Civilization) + The Rise of Western Christendom: Triumph and Diversity, A.D. 200-1000
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 792 pages
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press (September 2, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 069115290X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0691152905
  • Product Dimensions: 2 x 6.8 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.8 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (57 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #325,410 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

Review

Winner of the 2012 Gold Medal Book of the Year Award, History category, ForeWord Reviews

Winner of the 2012 Award for Excellence in Humanities, Association of American Publishers

Winner of the 2012 R. R. Hawkins Award, PROSE Awards, Association of American Publishers

Winner of the 2013 Jacques Barzun Prize in Cultural History, American Philosophical Society

Winner of the 2013 Philip Schaff Prize, American Society of Church History

Winner of the 2012 PROSE Award in Classics & Ancient History, Association of American Publishers

One of Choice's Outstanding Academic Titles for 2013

Honorable Mention for the 2013 Cundill Prize in Historical Literature, McGill University

"To compare it with earlier surveys of this period is to move from the X-ray to the cinema. . . . 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."--Garry Wills, New York Review of Books

"[O]utstanding. . . . Brown lays before us a vast panorama of the entire culture and society of the late Roman west."--Peter Thornemann, Times Literary Supplement

"[M]agisterial. . . . The formidably learned historian challenges commonly accepted notions about the role of wealth in the decline of the Roman empire and examines the roots of charity, two subjects relevant to contemporary economics."--Marcia Z. Nelson, Publishers Weekly

"It is exciting to watch a historian who has already written so extensively on Late Antiquity absorb so much new scholarship, revise his old reviews, and re-imagine the world we thought we knew from him. . . . 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 aperus and turns of phrase for which its author is deservedly famous. . . . There can be no doubt that we are in the presence of a historian and teacher of genius."--G. W. Bowersock, New Republic

"As Brown (Augustine of Hippo), the great dean of early church history, compellingly reminds us in his magisterial, lucid, and gracefully written study, the understanding of the role of wealth in the developing Christian communities of the late Roman Empire was much more complex. Combining brilliant close readings of the writings of Ambrose, Augustine, Jerome, and Paulinus of Nola with detailed examinations of the lives of average wealthy Christians and their responses to questions regarding wealth, he demonstrates that many bishops offered such Christians the compromises of almsgiving, church building, and testamentary bequests as alternatives to the renunciation of wealth. . . . Brown's immense, thorough, and powerful study offers rich rewards for readers."--Publishers Weekly

"Brown's goal in this book is patiently to reconstruct the debates on wealth among late Roman Christians: in other words, to set out the context for the tendentious claims of ascetic minorities, which have misled so many later interpreters."--Conrad Leyser, Times Literary Supplement

"His sparkling prose, laced with humour and humanity, brings his subjects to life with an uncommon sympathy and feeling for their situation."--Tim Whitmarsh, Guardian

"This book should be daunting but it is not; for while the book is heavy to lift, it is even harder to put down. It makes utterly compelling reading."--Eric Ormsby, Standpoint

"Brown may be an emeritus professor of history at Princeton, but his research is resolutely up-to-date. . . . A hefty yet lucid contribution to the history of early Christianity."--Kirkus Reviews

"[A]n unprecedented resource. . . . Brown creates broad, deep landscapes in which the reader can watch the ancients moving. You can, in places, just crawl in and have a true dream about the ancient world. Moreover, the topic holds fascinating implications about the formation of modern Western culture. . . . It's a significant and suggestive story."--Sarah Ruden, American Scholar

"The sheer scope of this history is daunting, but scholars, theologians, and anyone interested in late Roman history or early Christianity will find this a fascinating view not only of the Church's development, but also of the changing concepts of wealth and poverty in the last centuries of the Roman empire."--Kathleen McCallister, Univ. of South Carolina Lib., Columbia, Library Journal

"This is a masterpiece that more than justifies its length. Peter Brown is the greatest living historian of late antiquity, a periodization which he virtually invented, and Through the Eye of a Needle an achievement which stands to his earlier career as a great cathedral does to a pilgrimage route."--Tom Holland, History Today

"[N]o other scholar could have produced Brown's characteristically intricate, spectacular and joyous synthesis. . . . One of the captivating qualities of Brown's new book is the sheer energy and intellectual excitement that sparkle through it. He might, in recent years, have rested of his laurels--perhaps, like his beloved Augustine, written his memoirs. Instead, he celebrates the continuing expansion of the field and demonstrates his continued mastery of it in a groundbreaking study of wealth in the late antique Church. . . . Towards the end of the book, Brown describes how a basilica might have looked around the year 600: glowing with candles, glittering with mosaics, gleaming with gold and silver vessels. 'The church itself', he says, 'had become a little heaven, filled with treasures.' It is a description irresistibly applicable to Peter Brown's own book: as rich a monument to the life of the mind as was any late Roman basilica to the life everlasting."--Teresa Morgan, Tablet

"[A] predictably brilliant re-appraisal of the Roman world during the fourth to sixth centuries. . . . Through the Eye of a Needle is a vast book, but is remarkably readable. Brown's intimate knowledge of Augustine and his times is presented with human empathy and a sense of the relevance of these long-ago events. . . . [T]he latter chapters of Through the Eye of a Needle contain much essential information about the establishment of Christian influence throughout Europe following Rome's fall. . . . [A] wonderful book."--Ed Voves, California Literary Review

"Peter Brown, professor emeritus at Princeton University and the leading historian of late antiquity, has written a masterful study. . . . His book is characterized by lively prose, mastery of the primary sources and original languages, comprehensive use of changes in the study of antiquities (especially the 'material culture' of archaeology), gorgeous plates, nearly 300 pages of bibliographic end material, and a number of important revisions to the standard historiography."--Dan Clendenin, JourneywithJesus.net

"Through the Eye of a Needle (Princeton University Press) is the crowning masterpiece of Peter Brown, the great historian who virtually invented late antiquity as a periodisation. The book's theme might seem specialised: the evolution of attitudes towards wealth in the last century and a half of the Roman empire in the west, and the century that followed its collapse. In reality, like so many of Brown's books, it gives us a world vivid with colour and alive with a symphony of voices. It is not only the most compassionate study of late antiquity in the west ever written, but also a profoundly subtle meditation on our own tempestuous relationship with money."--Tom Holland, History Magazine

"Brown, in this masterful history, makes the writings of Augustine, Ambrose and Jerome more accessible to the average reader, and scholars will welcome the voluminous notes and index."--Ray Saadi, Gumbo

"[D]eliriously complicated. . . . As usual, Brown leaves no stone unturned in his search for insight and evidence. . . . He paints a colorful social setting for early church debates about theology and ethics without becoming reductively sociological, and often overturns accepted mytho-history in the process. He quietly draws on contemporary theory but typically lets ancients speak for themselves because his aim is to introduce us to an exotic world. Through it all, he focuses on the masses of details by treating attitudes, beliefs, and practices about wealth as a 'stethoscope' to hear the heartbeat of late Roman and early Christian civilization. . . . Brown has captured the rough texture of real history. It is testimony to the success of Brown's subtle, provocative, and beautifully written book."--Peter Leithart, Christianity Today

"A fascinating book by the great historian of late antiquity, Peter Brown, on the development of Christianity in Rome. . . . Through the Eye of a Needle is a serious work of scholarship and an important study about how Rome became Christian."--John Roskam, Executive Director of the Institute of Public Affairs

"Thoroughly researched, making use of the new materials that have emerged in the recent years, The Eye of the Needle is a scholarly work not just on early Christianity but relates its growth to the later developments and offers a new reading of the old sayings. It definitely is a source book for readers on religion and society."--R. Balashankar, Organiser

"Its achievement is plain. It explores, with Brown's characteristically profound empathy, the great paradox of how a church with a world- and wealth-denying ideology came to acquire temporal riches and respectability. . . . [H]is approach is to offer the reader extraordinarily vivid portraits of individual Christian thinkers faced with the moral contradictions of worldly riches. . . . This much anticipated book, described by Brown as 'the most difficult book to write that I have ever undertaken,' fulfils expectations. Its success is grounded in its unerring moral balance. Perhaps for the first time, the problem of wealth in early Christianity is treated in full, with no righteous fury at blatant hypocrisy nor any apology for a church that rationalized its enrichment by feeding the poor. . . . It is the virtue of Through the Eye of a Needle that it prompts and enables one to think about the largest questions. It is a gift to have such a beautiful, authoritative, and humane study that cuts to the heart of all that is most challenging in the relationship between the spiritual and the material in late antiquity."--Kyle Harper, Bryn Mawr Classical Review

"Brown . . . offers a masterful study on how converting to Christianity transformed the ways that economic elites in Europe and North Africa viewed their own wealth's source and purpose. A vivid storyteller, Brown transforms evidence from written, archaeological, and material sources into compelling portraits of early Christian leaders like Ambrose and Augustine. . . . [Through the Eye of a Needle] will quickly become required reading for students of early Christianity and late ancient history, but others interested in history and theological studies also will find it engaging."--Choice

"Compelling. . . . One can see in Brown's narrative that the disputes of the fourth century stand between the old civic generosity and a new concern for otherworldliness. Perhaps that transitory radicality could not be sustained. But it has bequeathed to the church a 'conglomerate of notions' that link the wealth of the church, the care of the poor and the fate of the soul."--Walter Brueggemann, Christian Century

"Peter Brown's achievement is not least in having placed us all in his debt with so rich a work. . . . [D]o not be put off by thinking that this is a book only for academics; all of us can enjoy what is, simply, accessible and well-written reading matter that does not require the possession of academic qualifications. It deserves to be enjoyed on the beach, as well as in the Bodleian!"--John Scott, Fairacres Chronicle

"[B]oth masterful and friendly. . . . Through the Eye of a Needle, an important revisionary account for scholars of the ancient world, should also be read by a general public and by beginning undergraduates as an example of the humanity, the generosity, and the clarity of scholarship at its best."--Caroline Walker Bynum, Common Knowledge

"Through the Eye of a Needle demonstrates Brown's mastery of an enormous range both of source material and of secondary work. It is crammed with stimulating ideas, and striking, very Brownian observations and metaphors. . . . Brown has taken us on a long and highly informative journey with numerous fascinating detours through late antiquity. We can only be grateful."--J. H. W. G. Liebeschuetz, American Historical Review

"Through the Eye of a Needle, an important revisionary account for scholars of the ancient world, should be read by a general public and by beginning undergraduates as an example of the humanity, the generosity, and the clarity of scholarship at its best. . . . It is both masterful and friendly."--Caroline Walker Bynum, Common Knowledge

"[T]his book, like Brown's many others, has done [much] to illuminate the late-ancient world, and he has opened many avenues for others to continue exploring."--Michael Kulikowski, Catholic Historical Review

"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."--World Book Industry

"In typical fashion, Peter Brown has delivered a text that is masterly in scale, broad in scope, . . . and admirable in readability for a large audience."--M.A. Gaumer, Ephemerides Theologicae Lovanienses

"In addition to vast erudition formed by a range of reading in well over a dozen languages, Brown has something of the cinematographer's ability to compose a narrative by moving between panoramas and individual close-ups. The results are often dazzling."--Patrick Cook, Cambrdige Humanities Review

"[T]his is an impressive and monumental piece of scholarship that casts western late antiquity into clearer relief than it has received. It will long be required reading for anyone wanting to understand the social realities of Christianity in the late antique West."--Geoffrey D. Dunn, Journal of Early Christian Studies

From the Inside Flap

"Through the Eye of a Needle is a masterpiece of detailed historiography, brilliantly written. Peter Brown's long-awaited book surpasses even the high expectations set by his previous writings, and will engage general readers and specialists alike."--Elaine Pagels, author of Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, and Politics in the Book of Revelation

"Here Peter Brown listens to the heartbeat of the late Roman world. His report is a masterpiece that introduces us to the wealth and poverty of an empire as it implodes, and the inspiring Christian concept of treasure in heaven. Excavating the roots of medieval charity, he illuminates the problems of rich and poor today, and delivers a triumph of history at its finest."--Judith Herrin, author of Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire

"The gap between rich and poor is one of the major issues of today, and who better than Peter Brown to probe the acute problems of conscience it presented to late antique Christians? In this important book, he brings to this vital subject his characteristic wit, wisdom, and humanity, as well as the mature reflection of a great historian. It is a magnificent achievement."--Averil Cameron, author of The Mediterranean World in Late Antiquity: AD 395-700

"Like a master mosaicist, Brown brings together a huge assemblage of sources to produce a vibrant panorama bursting with vitality. His story of the transfer of great wealth from rich individuals and families to the coffers of the church is the story of the creation of the postimperial West and the European Middle Ages. This is a big, and big-hearted, beautiful book. Tolle, lege."--Paula Fredriksen, author of Sin: The Early History of an Idea

"This is a book that only Peter Brown could write. It has his trademark stamped all over it, in the richness of its source material, its breadth of coverage and turn of phrase, its fondness for the middling folk and outsiders who usually fall by the wayside of academic scholarship, and its insistence on seeing pagans and Christians as part of a larger, shared world."--H. A. Drake, author of Constantine and the Bishops

"Peter Brown has written a book for the ages, one that every specialist throughout the world in late antique history and the history of Christianity will read. Through the Eye of a Needle is a remarkable work of scholarship--interesting, informative, original, and stimulating. I recommend it warmly and confidently."--Thomas F. X. Noble, author of Images, Iconoclasm, and the Carolingians


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Customer Reviews

Astute readers can easily find such parallels for themselves.
Wes Howard-Brook
In this latest work, he deftly combines much of the current research in the now thriving field of Late Antique studies with a vivid prose style.
Michael Stewart
For the avid reader this book is a book that will be worth the read.
Cecelia Hill

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

75 of 77 people found the following review helpful By Anne Lisca on October 27, 2012
Format: Hardcover
THROUGH THE EYE OF A NEEDLE reads like a novel but is written by an author who really knows his stuff. It is obvious that Dr. Brown has a full command of Latin and nuances of the language. He is at home in both the social and political history of the period. He has incorporated archaeological and economic discoveries of recent years. I wanted to know more about the transition from the "late classical" period to the "early medieval" period, and found an 'aha' moment on almost every page. The writing, though loaded with facts, is crystal clear and often slyly humorous. It will be a standard reference for many years.
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40 of 41 people found the following review helpful By Ethan R. Longhenry on November 12, 2012
Format: Kindle Edition
An excellent, magisterial investigation into the history of Latin Western Christianity from 350-550 through a focus on material wealth, its handling, and its influence.

The author demonstrates well how this time period is crucial to explain the shifts that take place between "ancient" and "medieval" Christianity. He uses modern research, recently discovered texts, and archaeological evidence to question the prevailing narratives about the rise of prominence of Christianity in the Latin West and presents a more complex, nuanced, and ultimately more contextual and feasible explanation of that rise.

The author analyzes both pagan and Christian views of wealth in late Roman antiquity, describes the major historical events immediately before the mid-fourth century, and then begins his analysis of the role of wealth as it impacted many of the disputations and personalities of Western Christendom from 350-550, including Ambrose, Augustine, Jerome, Pelagius, Paulinus of Nola, Salvian, and Gregory of Tours.

The author convincingly demonstrates the process by which wealth eventually moved toward the church as the Roman empire disintegrated and how changes in the place of wealth and conceptions of giving in terms of penance and to the poor were major forces in the shift from "ancient" to "medieval" Christianity.

The character studies of Ambrose and Augustine (as well as the rest of the major characters) are of excellent quality and quite instructive, firmly contextualizing the men not only as theologians but as full-fledged members of the late Roman world. This work is useful since it shows the social, political, and cultural dimensions of the major theological disputes regarding Augustinianism vs. Pelagianism, Catholics vs.
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31 of 32 people found the following review helpful By Amrit on January 4, 2013
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This is a searching and authoritative study of how early Christianity dealt with the problem of wealth. The scriptural position taken literally was uncompromising. It was harder for a rich person to enter heaven than for a camel to pass through the eye of the needle (Matthew 19:24). The rich were enjoined to given their wealth away and live a life of poverty. Brown in his work explores how Christian thinkers dealt with these teachings in a situation when many rich people began joining the Church, especially towards the end of the fourth century ACE when the religion had established itself as the dominant faith supported by the Imperial State.

The narrative begins with the socio-economic context of the Fourth Century ACE. The century rather than being a period of decline was one of innovation and renewal when the Roman economy was newly monetised. The gold solidus introduced under Constantine proved to be a remarkably stable and long lasting currency which facilitated robust economic activity and the accumulation in specie of large fortunes. Although the basis of wealth remained land, the rich were able to convert agricultural wealth into gold. The top decile of Roman society comprising a small number of super rich and larger numbers of moderately wealthy were the beneficiaries of these favourable conditions and formed the imperial elite comprising both Italians and wealthy provincials, many of whom were "new men" who depended on and rose to social prominence and wealth as a result of imperial service and honours. Power for them was readily converted into wealth.

It was in this context that the Christian Church of the Fourth century found itself. At the time of the conversion of Constantine, the Church's social base lay amongst town folk from the middle levels of society.
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57 of 65 people found the following review helpful By Philip Freeman on October 3, 2012
Format: Hardcover
I've been reading and studying Peter Brown's books since I was an undergraduate. I've also used them in my own college classes on late antiquity. This book is one of his best. It focuses on the role of wealth in the later Empire, but really it's a comprehensive social history of the whole period. It's scholarly and authoritative, but very readable.
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14 of 14 people found the following review helpful By Wes Howard-Brook on December 24, 2012
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Peter Brown is not only one of the foremost living scholars on the world of Late Antiquity; he is an excellent and joyous writer and travel companion. His career spans half a century, yet this book is repeatedly punctuated by his enthusiasm for the work of younger scholars whose writing has undermined Brown's own work and assumptions in many places. How many people near the end of a long and fruitful life are excited to find that they were often wrong?

His writing always carries a balance of erudition and accessibility, serving both other scholars and lay people new to a field. I've been reading his work for years and have never come away disappointed. He has the ability to humanize figures and contexts from the ancient world like no one else.

This book is in many ways a companion to his earlier brilliant survey, The Body and Society. The earlier work examined how Christianity's perspective on sexuality and bodily ascetism was shaped by Greco-Roman attitudes and practices in the 2nd-4th centuries. This volume, covering a later period of history, uses a similar method to examine the questions of wealth and poverty. As others have written here, each page holds its own "ah ha" moments. I have been researching this field for several years as part of my own scholarly work, yet Brown's book opened up new vistas on countless situations that I had previously thought I had already understood clearly. My reading list is also at least twenty volumes longer because of his excellent, engaging footnotes highlighting recent scholarship in five languages.
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