Peter Brown is the Philip and Beulah Rollins Professor of History Emeritus at Princeton. His latest book is Treasure in Heaven: The Holy Poor in Early Christianity. (August 2016)

IN THE REVIEW

The Glow of Byzantium

A reliquary medallion from the court of Charles V of France, who reigned from 1364 to 1380. According to Cynthia Hahn in Saints and Sacred Matter, ‘on the front of the object we see what looks like the back of a ring brooch. The thorn [from Christ’s crown of thorns], identified in inscriptions as enclosed in the brooch’s “pin,” is encircled by a tubular ring that also holds Passion relics and reinforces the idea of the Crown.’

Saints and Sacred Matter: The Cult of Relics in Byzantium and Beyond

edited by Cynthia Hahn and Holger A. Klein

Allegories of the Iliad

by John Tzetzes, translated from the Greek by Adam J. Goldwyn and Dimitra Kokkini
At their best, the yearly symposia of the Dumbarton Oaks center for Byzantine studies delineate the high-water mark of scholarship in the particular field to which they are devoted. The collection Saints and Sacred Matter (which emerged from the symposium of 2011) lives up magnificently to this expectation. Most notably, …

Empress Theodora, Who Transformed the World

Empress Theodora; mosaic from the Basilica of San Vitale, Ravenna, Italy, sixth century

Theodora: Actress, Empress, Saint

by David Potter
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

Porphyry: Red Imperial Porphyry: Power and Religion

by Dario Del Bufalo, translated from the Italian by David Graham and Lara Cox

Porphyre: La Pierre Pourpre des Ptolémées à Bonaparte [Porphyry: The Purple Stone from the Ptolemies to Bonaparte]

by Philippe Malgouyres and Clément Blanc-Riehl
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

From Shame to Sin: The Christian Transformation of Sexual Morality in Late Antiquity

by Kyle Harper
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

The Throne of Adulis: Red Sea Wars on the Eve of Islam

by G.W. Bowersock

Empires in Collision in Late Antiquity

by G.W. Bowersock
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

Sin: The Early History of an Idea

by Paula Fredriksen

Heaven’s Purge: Purgatory in Late Antiquity

by Isabel Moreira
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.

Byzantium and Islam: Age of Transition (7th–9th Century)

an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, March 14–July 8, 2012
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

Ambrose and John Chrysostom: Clerics between Desert and Empire

by J.H.W.G. Liebeschuetz

Ambrose of Milan: Political Letters and Speeches

translated from the Latin with an introduction and notes by J.H.W.G. Liebeschuetz, with the assistance of Carole Hill
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 …