John Behr on Peter Brown’s Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350-550 AD
Through the Eye of a Needle is Peter Brown at his best, his very best: a thoughtful and thought-provoking travel-guide whose beautiful prose opens up previously unseen horizons of real people living in a variety of landscapes around the Mediterranean at different moments in a period of epochal change that was fundamental for the making of Western European civilization. Using a fine brush and a light touch, Brown paints his pictures with a palette of an astonishingly broad and erudite up-to-date scholarship. The scenes he depicts draw on all the resources available to the historian: the wide range of texts and the diverse features of the material culture of Late Antiquity (from mosaics and graffiti to fabrics and foods), the best of recent scholarship, which has “rendered disturbingly unfamiliar” even some aspects previously thought well-known (such as the Roman catacombs), and critical theory. Yet Brown uses them in a manner that illuminates rather than overwhelms or obfuscates.
In his latest contribution to our understanding of early Christianity, Brown focuses on efforts to awaken a sense of compassion for the poor, and indeed a common humanity shared with them (as “brothers not others”), by appropriating Christ’s challenge (alluded to in the title) in often imaginative ways, during the period — from the last centuries of the Roman empire to the first century of the post-imperial age — when the wealth of Christian churches in the Latin West increased dramatically. Scholars often hone in on the conversion of Constantine in 312 as the event that set in motion the triumph of the church in the West, manifest several centuries later in the papacy of Gregory the Great. But this viewpoint runs the risk of foreshortening history through a conclusion now assumed. Brown argues that the crucial period really begins only in the late fourth century, when the rich began to enter the churches in ever-greater numbers, and continues through various modulations and controversies over the following centuries. These are the centuries that witnessed the Fall of Rome and the transition from a Romanness defined centrally to one defined locally. In the new era, Rome becomes the city not of the emperor but of the pope.
The first part of Brown’s journey sketches patterns of wealth and giving in Roman society in the fourth century, “the age of gold.” This was an era characterized by extraordinary giving: the imperial office disbursed to the citizens of Rome phenomenal amounts of grain and pork in annual doles, while nobles and elites competed with each other in using their wealth for the benefit of the city through building projects and entertainment in the circuses. Such civic-minded largesse targeted fellow citizens, and the donor often expected to receive in return some sort of public honors or status. The poor could bestow no benefits, so they received no charity. Against this traditional background, Brown introduces his theme: the radical idea that treasure in heaven accrues to those who give to the poor and to the church.
The second, long leg of the journey provides portraits of particular individuals prior to the fall of Rome: the pagan nobleman Symmachus in Rome, the governor-turned-bishop-of-Milan Ambrose, the North African monastic bishop Augustine, the pagan teacher Ausonius in Gaul, the super-rich nobleman and bishop Paulinus of Nola in Italy, and the cantankerous Jerome in his monastery in Bethlehem. Brown explores how they understood wealth, practiced spectacular generosity or equally spectacular renunciation, and exhorted others.
The Visigoths’ sack of Rome in 410 led to the migration of the super-rich from Italy to Augustine’s Africa. They brought with them their spiritual advisors, such as the ascetic Pelagius, already famous for his emphasis on free will in salvation. Such teachings met with widespread disfavor, especially from Augustine. Brown’s fascinating account of the ensuing controversy manages to open a new window on this well-worn topic by viewing the dispute as one about wealth. In the aftermath of the Fall of Rome, Brown focuses his attention on Gaul and its figures such as John Cassian — a monastic trained in the East who “brought the News from Nowhere of the wealthless monastery” — the saints of Lérins, and the idiosyncratic Salvian. The journey concludes with a look, as if towards another world, at the way in which the wealth given over the centuries to churches for the sake of the poor became the wealth of the Church. This wealth was presided over by one who technically did not own it — an anomaly in Roman Law that was soon addressed — but who headed a band of clergy (“the holy poor”), who needed to be “othered,” or marked out by their religious garb, tonsure, and, above all, celibacy. All these developments were demanded, so Brown argues, not from the top down but from the ground up. It is only at this point that “mono-episcopacy” really comes into its own, overcoming the “polyfocal” reality of ecclesial life even in the fourth and fifth century.
Using the problematics of wealth, giving, and the poor, each variously imagined, as a grid for understanding the two great arcs of the narrative — the rise of Christianity and the collapse of centralized imperial power in the West — provides a very sensitive and sophisticated overarching account of these momentous changes. It also highlights many specific points of theological and social import that bear further reflection as we consider the intertwined history of Christianity and the history of the West, the unraveling of these connections today, and the resulting contemporary quest for identity.
For instance, Brown claims that it was the “redefinition of the poor (derived from the Old Testament) that did most to secure the eventual triumph of Christianity in the cities in the course of the fifth century.” This urban expansion occurred “through winning the middle” (the middling and lower classes of society) who took upon themselves the role of the poor of Israel. They began to see themselves not so much as victims of poverty as of the violence and oppression exerted upon them by the powerful. But they also had the resources to give to the Church, even if less spectacularly than the elite, and did so not as a means of self-promotion but for expiation of sin amidst “the sober democracy of sin” preached by Augustine. In this way, they inaugurated a common understanding of shared humanity. What is our shared humanity when these threads are unraveled?
Another theme that recurs throughout the work is the way in which two distinct spheres of the pagan world, commerce and religious action, come together — or, in Brown’s more theological expression, “Earth and heaven were brought together through the Christian gift.” Earth is joined to heaven precisely through the reality of charity. What are the effects of splitting apart this connection? What happens when we reinstate a realm of the purely secular, a realm of commerce and transaction unbridled by any but its own rules, without even the expectation of the civic-giving that marked the “age of gold”? The protests of the anonymous early fifth-century author of De divitiis (On Riches) have an uncanny echo today. Unlike other Christian writers and preachers content to exhort the rich to use their wealth for the benefit of others, to remit their sins, and to embrace poverty, this writer didn’t mince his words: “Get rid of the rich and you will not find the poor. Let no man have more than he really needs, and everyone will have as much as they need, since the few who are rich are the reason for the many who are poor.” His invective has a particular historical and theological (probably Pelagian) context, and one might argue that the synthesis worked out by Augustine and others had a more beneficial and lasting effect, yet the challenge it presents can never be removed. It is not, it seems, only the poor that are always with us.
Not only do the figures under consideration have their own historical context; so too does the author. Peter Brown’s other lengthy journey around the Mediterranean, The Body and Society: Men, Women, and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity (1988), appeared in a period that saw the burgeoning of studies on sexuality following the sexual revolution of the 1960s. It is certainly no coincidence that this work on wealth and poverty appears now, in the aftermath of the economic and ethical maelstrom of the past decade or more, the same period as that in which, as no other over the past millennium and a half, the West has had to grapple seriously with the question of the Christian identity, or non-identity, of its civilization. But the mark of a truly great historian is precisely this: the ability to open up the imaginative horizons of people from the past in all their disturbing unfamiliarity, yet in a manner that speaks directly to us today, as we struggle not only with our place on the map but also with the map itself.