A Masterpiece on the Rise of Christianity

Patrick Kelley
Apse mosaic in Santa Pudenziana, Rome, early fifth century

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,…

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