Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350–550 AD
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.
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.
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. ↩
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. ↩