Peter Brown is Philip and Beulah Rollins Professor of History Emeritus at Princeton. His latest book is The Ransom of the Soul: 
Afterlife and Wealth in Early Western Christianity.
 (November 2015)

Empress Theodora, Who Transformed the World

Empress Theodora; mosaic from the Basilica of San Vitale, Ravenna, Italy, sixth century
In the year 500 CE, the Roman Empire was still alive and strong in its eastern territories. It spanned the Balkans, the eastern Mediterranean, and the Middle East. It was almost as large as the Ottoman Empire at the height of its power. At Constantinople (later the Turkish Istanbul), under …

The Purple Stone of Emperors

‘Portrait of the Four Tetrarchs’; detail of a porphyry statue from about 300 AD of Diocletian and three other emperors who ruled the Roman Empire, now at St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice
Big empires, it appears, like big stones. The moment that the mines of the Urals and the Altai opened up, in the early years of the nineteenth century, the tsars of Russia reached out to fill their palaces with jasper and malachite. Time and distance meant nothing. A single block …

Rome: Sex & Freedom

Fresco from the House of the Centurion, Pompeii, first century BCE
One of the most lasting delights and challenges of the study of the ancient world, and of the Roman Empire in particular, is the tension between familiarity and strangeness that characterizes our many approaches to it. It is like a great building, visible from far away, at the end of a straight road that cuts across what seems to be a level plain. Only when we draw near are we brought up sharp, on the edge of a great canyon, invisible from the road, that cuts its way between us and the monument we seek. We realize that we are looking at this world from across a sheer, silent drop of two thousand years.

Recovering Submerged Worlds

A relief depicting the triumph of the Sassanian Emperor Shapur I over the Roman emperors Valerian and Philip the Arab, one of seven large reliefs showing Sassanian monarchs at Naqshe-e Rustam, Iran, third century CE
While the idiosyncrasy of post-Islamic Iran has been amply acknowledged by modern scholars, the Christian communities of what became the Arabic-speaking Middle East have remained largely invisible to us. It is as if the large Christian churches of Syria, Mesopotamia, and Egypt had fallen silent at the moment of the Muslim conquest. They are treated as having become religious “minorities” overnight. It is assumed that they were cut off as much from each other (by confessional rivalries) as they were cut off from their now-dominant Muslim neighbors. Yet nothing could be further from the truth.

The Risks of Being Christian

Tintoretto: Temptation of Adam and Eve, sixteenth century
It was once said of President Calvin Coolidge, a perfunctory churchgoer and notoriously short-spoken, that when questioned by his wife about the theme of the sermon he had just heard, he answered in one word: “Sin.” When asked to elaborate on what the preacher had said, all he vouchsafed was: …

The Great Transition

A silver plate from Constantinople depicting two companions of Dionysos, Silenus and a Maenad, 613–630. Images from classical mythology persisted in Byzantine art well into the Christian era, and in Middle Eastern art long after the Islamic conquest.
In the century between 630 and 730 a considerable portion of the Old World took on its modern face. Through a series of astonishing campaigns, Arab Muslim armies created a single empire that, for a time, would reach from southern Spain to northern India and the western borders of China. From the “big bang” of these conquests a new galaxy emerged. From then onward, a closely interconnected chain of Muslim regions stretched across Africa and Eurasia, joining the Atlantic to western China. A new civilization came into being, one that has lasted, with many permutations, into our own days.

A Tale of Two Bishops and a Brilliant Saint

Vittore Carpaccio: Saint Augustine in His Study, circa 1502
This review is about three persons who played a major part in the emergence of a confident ascetic Christianity in the Roman world of the late fourth and early fifth centuries CE: Ambrose of Milan, John Chrysostom of Antioch and Constantinople, and Augustine of Hippo. Of these three, one man …

On the Magic Carpet of the Met

Silk animal rug; 95 x 70 inches, made in Iran, probably Kashan, 1550–1600
Unlike the no less challenging civilizations of East and South Asia, the world of Islam suffers from having been a charged opposite to the West. Ever since the seventh century CE, when Muslim armies first spread with baffling ease across the southern Mediterranean and the Middle East, Islamic civilization has been viewed, in Europe and in America, as shot through with an eerie sense of grandeur tinged with menace. The threat posed by Muslim powers on the frontiers of Europe was sharpened by the feeling that Islam itself was not entirely alien. It was seen as a mutation from the common stock of Judaism and Christianity that was all the more disturbing because the family resemblance between the three religions had not been entirely effaced. This attitude has persisted into modern times.

Paganism: What We Owe the Christians

Bacchus/Dionysus; painting by Nicolas Poussin, seventeenth century
The trouble with the end of paganism in Rome is that we once thought we knew all about it. Paganism took the form of worship of a variety of deities, along with participation in different cults and the celebration of sacred rites, many of which depended on support from the …

A Surprise from Saint Augustine

Vittore Carpaccio: Saint Augustine in His Study, circa 1502–1507
It is a pleasure to write on a book that derives from a modern scholar’s brain wave about the fateful insight of a thinker over a millennium and a half ago. Paula Frederiksen’s sudden inspiration occurred in an altogether appropriate place—Jerusalem: I remember staring out the window of the Mishkenot …

The Voice of the Stones

No one is better qualified to instill in his readers the sense of wide horizons and of unexpected continuities between cultures that are usually held to be irrevocably divided than Glen Bowersock. His recent book, Mosaics as History: The Near East from Late Antiquity to Islam, is an iridescent masterpiece.

The Private Art of Early Christians

In the past several decades, the history of Early Christian art and of the late-antique world in which this art developed have been subject to a series of surprises, all of them profoundly disruptive of previous certitudes. These weighty disciplines had developed in Rome in the later nineteenth century under …

Charmed Lives

In his later years, the humorist Robert Benchley was in the habit of blaming the paucity of his visual imagination on the fact that he had grown up in Worcester, Massachusetts. A mind nourished from youth on the prospect of Front Street, Worcester, he affirmed, found it impossible to conjure …

A New Augustine

Not often, but every now and then, a truly gifted film director takes up well-known material—a famous short story, a novel, a biography—and turns a subject with which we thought we were thoroughly familiar into something once again strange and challenging. To do this, he must exercise a dictatorial power …

‘A More Glorious House’

In around 1140, the Abbot Suger of Saint Denis, rummaging among the ancient treasures of his monastery, came upon a “precious chalice out of one solid sardonyx.” Produced over a thousand years before, in the Alexandria of Queen Cleopatra, it had been stored in the Imperial Palace of Constantinople until …

Brave Old World

This open-hearted and learned book is one that any scholar of the ancient world and of early Christianity would be proud to have written. The cultivated reader can wander in it with ever renewed pleasure and with the guarantee of reliable and up-to-date guidance. The learned will undoubtedly quarry its …

Understanding Islam

At the time when Columbus sailed to the New World, Islam was the largest world religion, and the only world religion that showed itself capable of expanding rapidly in areas as far apart and as different from each other as Senegal, Bosnia, Java, and the Philippines. To take one small …

Violence in Olympia

Olympia lies in a quiet, though easily accessible, corner of Greece. The beauty of the site, a hollow between gentle, well-watered hills, impressed the ancients. Even more important than the landscape was the impression that in that quiet countryside time had stood still. The tourist of Roman times could observe …

In Gibbon’s Shade

For books on the Roman Empire and on the rise of Christianity to come before a reviewer in 1976 brings author and reviewer alike into the disturbing presence of a mighty shade. Two centuries ago, in 1776, Edward Gibbon published the first volume of his Decline and Fall. It was …

Artifices of Eternity

Any visitor to a museum or art gallery will in due course come to realize the extent to which medieval Christianity in its varying forms fostered the growth of visual art. The books reviewed here are a testimony to some of its manifestations. Françoise Henry presents new reproductions of large …

The View from the Precipice

No field of history shows more clearly than does the history of religious art the utter indifference of the past to its own future. A visitor to the excavations beneath the Vatican can step, in a few yards, from the tasteful burial chambers of the Roman pagans to beneath a …