on October 27, 2012
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.
on November 12, 2012
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. Donatists, and even the late phase of the Arians vs. Trinitarians.
This is an excellent work of history and very worthwhile for anyone with an interest in the history of late antiquity and/or the development of Christianity and Christian doctrine.
**--galley received as early review edition
on January 4, 2013
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. They were not the poorest but reasonably well off middling people, often skilled craftsmen, teachers and other urban service providers of modest to comfortable means. By contrast, the aristocracy in general remained pagan. It was after about the 370s once the religion had established itself as the religion favoured by the State that the rich began joining the Church and the religion began to assume the character of a majority religion. These changes were encouraged also by the "gentle violence" of the Christian Imperial Court, although it officially maintained a policy of neutrality in matters of religion until the end of the Fourth Century. Against this background, rich men without any prior training or Christian background began to obtain the role of bishop, including Ambrose of Milan. These developments also accompanied a new vigour amongst the leaders of the Church directed against whom they saw as their enemies, both pagans and non-Nicene Christians, bringing to an end the era of toleration of the reigns of Constantine and his sons.
The uses and abuses of wealth engaged the attention and interest of both pagan and Christian elites. Concepts of charitable giving found expression in both traditions as obligations on the part of the wealthy to share their wealth with others. Both traditions also took a hostile position towards or at least discomfort with the idle rich. For the pagan historian Ammianus Marcellinus, the sad contrast was between the supposed frugality and virtue of the past exemplified by the Republic and the excesses of his own time, attributable especially to the new money associated with the Constantine era when imperial officials were able to make huge fortunes. One form of pagan giving was the endowment of public buildings and putting on of games for the civic population. This was wealth that the Church however taught would be better directed at donations to the Church and poor relief and became an early target for Christian leaders.
For Christians, their moral compass on matters of wealth and its uses came from the passages of the Old and New Testaments requiring the rich and powerful to do justice to the poor (eg in the book of Isaiah) and specific injunctions of Jesus for the rich to give what they had to the poor in return for a reward in the afterlife. This view of giving took the form of a commercial transaction which may appear odd and distasteful to a modern sensibility. The Christian view of the proper uses of wealth in the end prevailed in favour of pagan concepts of public endowment and largesse, with the Church itself receiving gifts from rich donors which it in turn was supposed to apply for the benefit of the poor.
The narrative at this point turns to the lives of five prominent men of the era. The first is Symmachus, the pagan magnate who witnesses the decline of the old religion and an increasing numbers of aristocrats becoming Christians. Their wealth "slipped into the hand of the church".
Ambrose of Milan who is the second subject represents the new phenomenon of a Christian Bishop for the first time entering the circles of power to influence the policies of the Imperial Court. He also represents a new confident type of Churchman who ushers in the ascendancy of Nicene Christianity over its rivals, both Christian and Non-Christian. This new power is underpinned in part by the ability to bring the crowd onto the street to get one's way and even to take on the power of the Emperor (perhaps foreshadowing the conflicts between Church and State during the Middle Ages).
Ambrose importantly, argued for a sense of human solidarity, bringing the poor within the one human community rather than as outsiders receiving charity from those who saw fit to give. He said that it "is not anything of yours that you are bestowing on the poor; rather, you are giving back something of theirs. For you alone are usurping what was given in common for the use of all. The earth belongs to everyone, not to the rich". The view put forward by Ambrose stood in contrast to the Classical view that distinguished between citizens (who alone were entitled to the Annona or corn dole and giving by the rich) to the exclusion of non-citizens, often rural refugees surviving on the margins. This change bringing all within the community of "God's people" represents a key transformation in Late Antiquity.
The narrative then moves to consider the life of St Augustine. Augustine did not come from a wealthy background so that for him, poverty may have been something close to the bone. He did not speak forcefully like Ambrose in favour of redistributing wealth but looked to some kind of spiritual communism in which all souls were brought together based on his reading of Plotinus - in some kind of metaphysical communion. He however did give much thought to the uses of wealth and took a high minded but "middle of the road" position that in the end prevailed.
The next subject of the discussion is the late Roman nobleman Ausonius who exemplifies the life of a wealthy aristocrat through his life of consumption and otium (leisure and study) in Aquitania, a life though luxurious was based on the flimsy foundations of the Late Antiquity which would disappear in a generation when the Roman Imperial state in the West begins unravelling. Ausonius represents a Christianity that is comfortable in and with the world and with wealth, in contrast to the more high minded and austere Christianity of Augustine that followed in the next generation.
The final figure Brown looks at is Paulinus of Nola. Like Ausonius, Paulinus was a Christian from the wealthiest segment of Roman society. But unlike the case of Ausonius, for Paulinus and others of the generation that followed, wealth was a "slime" to be discarded in order to access spiritual riches. Paulinus was the first Roman aristocrat known to have abandoned his estates and wealth in order to be ordained a priest and live a religious life, to the disquiet and even shock of other members of his class. He reflects the new austere spirit of Christianity and its rejection of wealth and the good life and enjoyed by the upper classes. For the aristocracy, the abandoning of wealth was shocking because it meant turning one's back on the duty that came with wealth including obligations of public service - and to be condemned as such.
At the end of the period, the "poor" had come to assume the place of the old Roman plebs as the object of the munificence of the rich, and giving to the poor by the rich (usually done in a public and ostentatious manner) was seen as a way of getting through the "eye of the needle". Against this background, teachings developed arguing that the rich held their wealth on trust for the poor and by giving, achieved spiritual riches - "salvation economics". Pagans on the other hand would argue that wealth belonged to the human creator of the wealth and not held on trust for God or the poor.
The entry of greater numbers of wealthy people into the Church in the later fourth century also produces greater stratification within the Christian community. Damasus and Jerome both deal with the issue in different ways. Pope Damasus encourages the rich to enter the Church to provide it with greater respectability and Jerome inspired by Syrian models encourages rich Romans to take up ascetic and chaste lives, scandalising aristocratic families when women from these families do what Jerome asks. Jerome and Churchmen of his day though wedded to a notion of personal poverty, lived in the shadow of enormously expensive libraries on which their intellectual endeavours depended presumably funded by wealthy patrons and donors, recalling perhaps Gandhi's quip that keeping him in poverty, cost his friends a fortune.
The increasing flow of wealth to the Church triggered conflicts over who should get the new wealth. Pope Damasus in Rome for example objected to funds from Christians in Rome going to endowments in Palestine, believing that all donations to the Church from Roman Christians should be under his control.
Two sharply different views of the use and deployment wealth emerge out of the debates of the era. Augustine urged giving by the rich to the Church, which would then use for its own benefit, for the "Holy Poor", namely the clergy - and give to the rest of the poor as it saw fit. He also preferred steady giving over time so that the Church enjoyed an assured flow of income rather than spectacular acts of giving everything away as a one off event. A more radical giving and self-impoverishment was urged by others. These differences also reflected how the rich came to be viewed. For Pelagians, the position was "tolle divitem et pauperem non inveniens" (Get rid of the rich and you will find no poor). Augustine however responded "tolle superbiam, divitiae non nocebunt" (Get rid of pride and riches will not harm).
However, it was the view of Augustine which prevailed. Following the trauma of the Gothic invasions of the early Fifth century and the dislocation and insecurity of life in the period, those "whose wealth had survived the shocks of this new crisis were unlikely to feel guilty about what little was left to them". With the collapse of the Roman state in the West during the fifth century, it is the Church, supported by the increasing wealth in its hands, that steps in and assumes many of the functions of State at the regional level, anticipating the Medieval Church. Also settled by this time were concepts of charitable giving to and through the Church (as opposed to more uncompromising Pelagian concepts of abandoning wealth and pagan concepts of civic endowment) that survive into and beyond the Middle Ages.
Brown's study of how Roman elites and intellectuals after the coming of Christianity addressed the question of wealth and gave effect to the teachings of the scriptures on the ownership and uses of wealth, does not however deal with how the rest of the population dealt with these questions. This indeed may be what Brown calls one of the vast areas of silence that the surviving texts do not speak to - and can only be guessed at. There is evidence of social banditry during the era - and indeed in pretty much every pre-modern society - including the Robin Hood like Christian bandits of Augustine's own time, the Circumcellions. How these groups thought about these issues can only be speculated on. Did they reject the elite concept of limited redistribution of wealth through individual donations by rich givers in favour of involuntary redistribution through banditry of what Ambrose said belonged to everyone? Did they not think about the theology very much at all and simply did what they thought they had to do to survive? In this regard, the better documented medieval period shows some insight into the groups such as the Dolcinites who did provide a theology to support their forced expropriation of the rich - and appealed directly to scripture to support their actions.
However, it appears that neither the rich voluntary givers of Late Antiquity studied by Brown (and those of the Middle Ages) nor the poor who forcibly took wealth from the rich operated beyond the level of individual action or action by small groups in their local areas. The theology of Ambrose in other words did not operate as a generalised political programme driven by the State for the redistribution of wealth from the rich to the rest of the population (even if the non-conformist Pelagius and his followers may have implied such a proposition). Political programmes of this kind were generally not found in any pre-modern society (with some arguable exceptions of "State Socialism" such as the "Equal Field System" (juntian zhidu) of the Tang Dynasty in China). However, by Early Modern times in Europe, the relevant passages of scripture could and did inspire such political action pushed through by powerful states. Cromwell in dispossessing cavaliers could raise his voice in prayer to ask "Strengthen us, O God .... that many be made not poor to make a few rich" (although sadly, he did not see fit to apply the prayer in Ireland). It is hard to see that Ambrose could have conceived the passages of scripture he relied on to support his teachings on wealth working in this way to dispossess violently the rich. The rise of mass political programmes in the nineteenth century calling for the redistribution of wealth took these issues to a more intense level - with theological support for socialist programmes based on the same basal arguments known to Ambrose and his contemporaries. Karl Marx was concerned enough with these trends in theology that he specifically attacked what he called "clerical socialism" in the Communist Manifesto, anxious to stamp socialism with a resolutely secular character.
The scriptural debates concerning wealth studied by Brown resonate to this day, as countries such as the United States and France debate how the upward sliding scale of taxation should or should not be used to redistribute wealth from the "1%" to the "99%". Were they to hear the theology of Sister Simone Campbell and the "Nuns on the Bus" on the justice of redistributing wealth, Ambrose and Augustine may well recognise the arguments and the difficulties in giving effect to the same uncompromising passages of scripture - even if they might find it surprising that the State had the power and the means to do so on a scale that would have been unimaginable in his day when the best they could hope for it their day would have been the voluntary practice of "salvation economics" by a few rich people. Brown's work is a valuable and thought provoking study of how an ancient society dealt with an issue that still confront societies of the 21st century, with theologians attempting to give life and meaning to the same scriptural passages in a very different setting.
on December 24, 2012
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.
One of the overarching insights of the book is that "Christianity" never existed as a "thing," but was manifest, then as now, in unique ways in local contexts that varied over time. This has become a commonly held scholarly perspective in recent decades, and is thus not unique to Brown. But Brown takes that insight and allows it to shed light on a fascinating array of such contexts from throughout the Western Empire. The specific theme of wealth and poverty is one with which Christians have always and continue to grapple. This book's examination of the ancient world sheds much light on our own economic questions today, although Brown does not weigh down the historical analysis with comparisons with our world. Astute readers can easily find such parallels for themselves.
Whether you are a scholar or simply have a casual interest in this time period, "Needle" is worth its weight in Roman solidii!
on October 3, 2012
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.
on December 27, 2012
Yes, Peter Brown is a great writer with a thorough knowledge of the Late Roman sources. Anything he writes deserves the attention of the general public and serious scholars. 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. In many ways this work is his magnus opus, and serves as a worthy partner to Alan Cameron's Last Pagans of Rome.
However, there are some methodological issues with this work. He relies largely on rigorist Christian writers to explain his often linear view of Roman attitudes towards wealth. At times he picks out thoughts from a writer like Ambrose, who as many specialists have noted tended to vary his views depending on the genre his was writing in or the current political environment. One modern scholar has suggested that it is difficult to know if we are ever hearing the "real" thoughts of the Milanese bishop. There is also very little literary evidence from what Cameron would describe as more moderate Christians.It may also be problematic to use a writer like Augustine's writings and thoughts as a means to explore larger societal views.The majority of Christians would have been quite unfamiliar with his writings or disagreed with many of his more strident positions. Indeed, imagine trying to learn about modern American culture by relying predominantly on people who hailed from the Tea Party movement.
Late Roman and early Byzantine historians, and secular sources are rarely consulted at all. Procopius' seminal history recounting the Eastern Empire's reconquest of the sixth-century Italy is not used at all, or even to be found in the bibliography. In fact their are no "Eastern" Romans in Brown's final chapter on a Italy in the sixth century. I suspect that Brown ignores the Eastern half of the Empire because more traditional views towards wealth remained entrenched and there is a much greater amount of contrarian evidence to be found. Surely, much of the rejection of wealth found in these final pages was surely more rhetorical than literal.
on May 18, 2013
Well known and lesser known Church personalities populate the pages of this always interesting and insightful study of the impact of the Church's changing attitude towards wealth had on the Church's early development, which culminated in the Church of the Middle ages. As usual, Brown brings to life such figures as St. Augustine, Saint Jerome, Saint Ambrose, and largely forgotten figures who played substantial (and often controversial) roles in the Church's adaption to the changing social scene in Africa, Rome, the Holy Land, the Orient, Spain, etc.
Brown switches between people and locations with the ease of an expert. He is generous in his praise for scholars whose interpretations and archaeological findings he cites. His descriptions of the internal workings of the Church, the role of bishops, priests and monks, and the changes that occurred over time are fascinating (to this non-scholar.)
My one criticism is that the focus on wealth creates the impression that God played a secondary role in the institution of the Church. Brown does not say this but when most every discussion is about how the Church changed its attitudes towards wealth the practical shoves the religious into the background.
There are many, interesting insights into the how the Church changed in its teachings and attitudes. One that effects an issue that frequently rears up today is celibacy being a requirement for the clergy. Brown teaches that this rule was not imposed from the top and but came from the grassroots the masses. This is but one "surprise" you will you find in this important work.
on November 12, 2013
One reviewer on Amazon remarked that it took him four months to slog through this tome. He had trouble sustaining interest. I too took many months to complete the exercise. I enjoy Dr. Brown's works and have slogged through my share, but this one caught my eye because of the outstanding collegial reviews. But I'm not certain if these reflect the quality of the content or more of a final thanks for the lifetime of effort exercise by his peers. Sort of like the lifetime achievement award for the actor that never won an Oscar. I did learn alot from the book and as always appreciate his seemingly limitless primary source material, but it troubled me that there was a ponderous approach that didn't quite capture the reader. Every chapter had very interesting material and a lot of uninteresting material. Certainly one cannot please everyone, but at the end I was left feeling that the final chapter was all I needed to read and even that chapter seemed like a last minute addition simply because the book had grown too long and it need to end. It seems curiously out of place when compared to the depth of analysis in the other sections. In summary I suggest that you read it or at least attempt to read it. Put it this way, if you loved The Body and Society then you are really going to enjoy this book because it's like that only a lot longer.
This book provides wonderful insight into a period of history (both of the church and of western society overall) that many of us may not be very familiar with. Brown has provided incredible detail in showing how the Church (with a capital C) dealt with the handling of money and prosperity in the middle of the culture it was placed. All to the good.
The reason for only three stars, however, is that I am afraid there will be many readers who will never get through the over-written, poorly edited text. I have no problem with long books and pages and pages of footnotes; in fact, that is sometimes my favorite kind of text. However, Brown's writing here reminds me of an overly wordy college professor who tells you what he is going to cover in this lecture, then talks for a bit before giving you a summary of what he just told you, with an additional bit of commentary on what he will cover next time. Then his next lecture starts off summarizing the previous one before starting the what I am going to tell you routine all over again. Since this book has 30 chapters, each with many subsections, the repetition becomes more than a little maddening at times.
I would love to see a re-issued, "condensed" version of this book, since Brown has provided a lot of valuable material that should be more accessible to a broad range of readers. For now, consider reading it but be prepared for having to slog through a whole lot of unnecessary repetitions and summarizations.
on March 26, 2013
Peter Brown deliberately confines himself to the influence of the wealth and poverty on the Christianity in the west, 350-550 AD. For those wishing to expand their knowledge to the eastern part of the Roman Empire in the same period I would like to suggest the following brilliant studies: Charles Avila, Ownership. Early Christian Teaching (Orbis Books, 1983; reprinted by Wipf & Stock; this perceptive work quotes the originals and discusses Clement of Alexandria, Basil of Caesarea a friend of Ambrose, John Chrysostom and Augustine. After completing his work in Toronto, this author was involved in the fight against Marcos' regime in the Philippines; three studies written or edited by Susan R. Holman (one of the leading contemporary scholars on the topic with an impressive background), The Hungry are Dying. Beggars and Bishops in Roman Cappadocia (Oxford, 2001); Wealth and Poverty in Early Church and Society (Baker, 2008); God Knows There's Need. Christian Responses to Poverty (Oxford, 2009). Although confined to the west and a later period, the following work cannot be more highly recommended, Lester K. Little, Religious Poverty and the Profit Economy in Medieval Europe (Cornell, 1978). Of course for those who know other languages there are many more outstanding publications. Those related to Basil of Caesarea can be found in my Bibliotheca Basiliana Vniuersalis. A Study of the Manuscript Tradition, Translations and Editions of the Works of Basil of Caesarea. v. Studies of Basil of Caesarea and His World: An Annotated Bio-Bibliography (Corpus Christianorum; Brepols, 2004).
Addendum (29.xi.2015): four new outstanding publications: Fernando Rivas Rebaque, Defensor pauperum. Los pobres en Basilio de Cesarea (homilias vi, vii, viii y xivb) (Biblioteca de autores cristianos; Madrid, 2005; 76* + 667 p.). Listed in Amazon.com
Luigi Franco Pizzolato, La cura del povero e l'onore della richezza. Testi dalle Regole e dalle Omelie. Testo greco e latino a fronte (Editoriale Paoline Libri, 2013; 448 p.). Listed in Amazon.it
Brenda Llewellyn Ihssen, They Who Give from Evil. The Response of the Eastern Church to Moneylending in the Early Christian Era (Pickwick Publications, 2012; xiii.207 p.).
Helen Rhee, Loving the Poor, Saving the Rich. Wealth, Poverty, and Early Christian Formation (Baker Academic, 2012; xx.279 p.).