A man looks back on half a life, beginning with his childhood, his schooling, and his higher education. As a student he is absorbed by theological questions, and for many years he rejects the Christian faith of his youth before eventually returning to the church. In the meantime we hear of his migrations as an illustrious teacher between cities on two continents, and the narrative ends with his mother’s death.

This is a famous story, but it is no longer Saint Augustine’s alone: the renowned medieval historian (and frequent contributor to these pages) Peter Brown hews close to Augustine’s Confessions of 397 CE in his own more entertaining memoir, Journeys of the Mind. And however deliberately Brown draws them out, there are uncanny parallels between these two lives lived 1,500 years apart.

Augustine reports in the autobiographical sketch he wrote in his early forties that he went to school first in his hometown of Thagaste (in modern Algeria), then in Madauros, a day’s journey south. Brown describes his studies first at a prep school in Bray, just south of Dublin, and then at Shrewsbury, a private boarding school in England—a ferry and a train ride away. Both Brown and Augustine then spent a year back home before going to university, Augustine because his father needed to save the money to send him to study at Carthage, Brown because he was still too young to start at Oxford—although he notes the opportunity it afforded his father to save a year’s school fees.

His family’s financial challenges are a constant theme in Brown’s early chapters, along with the sacrifices they made for his education in England. He was a superb student: after graduating with the top first in history in 1956, he remained at Oxford as a prize fellow at All Souls College, the best research fellowship in the world then as now, because it lasts seven years and comes without teaching requirements. Brown taught all the same—one of the many things you warm to in this book—as did Augustine after finishing his own studies. Both men wrote their first book in their late twenties, Augustine at Carthage, Brown at Oxford. Augustine’s was On Beauty and Proportion; Brown’s was the biography Augustine of Hippo (1967).

That’s not all. Augustine went to teach at Rome, the old imperial capital, then took up a post in rhetoric at Milan; Brown headed to the University of London, then to an appointment in history and classics at the University of California at Berkeley. It is hard not to see in his affectionate account of his parents’ three-week visit to California a playful allusion to Monica’s arduous journey to join her son Augustine in Milan. Finally Augustine returned to Africa to serve the Lord, and Brown moved on to Princeton with a MacArthur Fellowship.

Monica died on the journey home from Italy; Mrs. Brown, in 1987, a few years into her son’s Princeton career. Both books culminate in a consideration of the mother’s life and a brief summary of the author’s current situation. In the case of the Confessions, there is also a lengthy discussion of the first chapter of Genesis and the nature of time. Thankfully Brown resists carrying the parallel that far, sprinkling his text instead with versions of the Retractationes, or “rereadings,” of his earlier work that Augustine composed at the end of his life in 426–427.

There are differences, too, and they provide a guide to what Journeys of the Mind is not. The beatings of Augustine’s boyhood are not to be found here. Brown does not seek things out that make him sad. Instead we meet a contented child who applies himself to his studies with appropriate diligence. While Augustine and Monica have a propensity for melodrama and mutual dependence, Brown enjoys a psychologically conventional relationship with his mother. Like Augustine’s, Brown’s is a selective memoir: a collage in his case of memories, letters, clippings, and diaries. But Brown is a conversationalist rather than a polemicist, and he addresses himself to his readers, not to God.

Perhaps the biggest difference is the absence of sin. There is no pear theft or pig-feeding in Brown’s memoir, no baby son, no sex or sentimental complication of any kind. Like Augustine, Brown admits to his mistakes, but they are professional rather than personal, and he does so with a refreshing lack of guilt. He positively draws attention to past crimes of overenthusiasm, as when he made a parrot on tour with the fifth-century philosopher Olympiodorus of Thebes speak not just Greek, as Olympiodorus tells us, but “pure Attic” Greek. Brown’s prose can get away from him here too—Hadrian’s Wall is “like the sloughed-off skin of a vast stone snake”—but he is carried along by his zest for his topic and his gift for sharp insight, lightly flung.


The other missing presence, though, is God. Brown presents his loss of faith as a student more as distraction than devastation, and his return to Christian worship in his late thirties as the result of a cultural, not a theological, revelation: after encounters with people of faith in Iran, “I came to feel that there was nothing strange about the desire to worship God.” These encounters included “metaphysical wrangling” with a Zoroastrian elder from Yazd who believed in dual powers of good and evil in the world, as did the Manichaeans, whose arguments helped drive Augustine back to Christianity.

There is, however, much about religion, and religious difference. The crucial point is that Brown, an Irishman, is also a Protestant—“a minority frequently overlooked by outsiders.” (So much so that his doctoral supervisor assumed for thirty years that he was a Catholic.) And while Brown’s maternal ancestors were a mixture of gentlemen farmers who went over to Ireland with the Normans and Ascendancy gentry who arrived in the sixteenth century, his father came from a family of Scottish Presbyterians, at least some of them republicans. One of the gifts of his book is a quick march through the complexities of cultural, social, and religious affiliation within Protestant Ireland.

There is also a powerful portrait of Irish society in the 1930s and 1940s, as the citizens of the newly independent country seized opportunities in the British army and the dying British Empire to escape poverty at home. We hear a great deal about his father’s life in Sudan, where he worked for eighteen years on the railways. Back in Ireland Brown got a sense as a child of “the role of religion as a social force.” Both the Protestant and the Catholic churches gave people “in shabby tweed coats” something to take pride in. Religion sometimes mattered to Brown himself: he worried as a child whether cowboys were Catholics or Protestants. But his upbringing in a divided society meant most to him as a key to historical interpretation, and he was shocked to discover that his teachers in England took little interest in religion as a motivating factor.

Other contrasts between his Irish and his English education come back in retrospect to the place of religion in society, and while Augustine tremulously describes the bullies at Carthage, driven by the devil to torment and humiliate younger students, Brown describes more complex cultural landscapes. Feuding and factionalism mirrored the religious tribalism of society at the Protestant Aravon Preparatory School in Bray, while the English class system that drove the social culture at Shrewsbury also created more social mobility than in Ireland, with multiple routes to status within the school.

Toward the end of his school days Brown’s passion for history began to focus on the medieval period, a “Golden Age” of saints and scholars in preconquest Ireland, as he points out, and this remains his passion. Renowned for popularizing the study of late antiquity both within and beyond the academy, Brown is keen here to debunk the Anglocentric legend that he actually invented it. He gives credit for the phrase “late antiquity” to early-twentieth-century German art historians who described the changing artistic conventions of the era between Roman history and the Middle Ages as spätantik, and for its broader application in historical settings to a French scholar, Henri-Irénée Marrou.

At most Brown will admit to importing the field to Oxford, a reluctant new home. What he saw even as a student was that the traditional Anglophone understanding of this era as one of crisis and decline was out of date on the Continent. The fourth century CE, scholars like Marrou were arguing, was a period of lively creativity, not decline, and the crisis of the fifth was overdrawn: Rome fell only in the West, while a Roman Empire ruled from Constantinople survived and often thrived for another millennium.

In 1963 this foreign world descended on Brown at All Souls. The Patristics Conference on the writings of the Church Fathers is still held in Oxford every fourth summer, and it is still a source of great excitement in the city, filling our medieval streets and mediocre restaurants with a splendid array of clerical robes and beards. For Brown it was a first opportunity not only to meet European colleagues whose work he had been reading but to see women treated as equals in an academic setting: female students and teachers were still confined at Oxford to five out of thirty-one colleges.

By then Brown was working on a Church Father himself. His interest in Augustine was not, however, so much in his theology as in his psychology and in a historical setting of social protest and religious confrontation. He was especially intrigued by Augustine’s embrace of a rhetoric of religious coercion after his return to Africa and in the face of the hard-line Donatist sect that rejected the compromises made with Roman government by the mainstream Church. New scholarship had suggested that the popularity of Donatism across Roman North Africa reflected an ethnic divide between the Roman coast and the native Berber peasants inland. Brown—who saw the “hard edges” of religion ever more clearly as postwar Ireland became more Catholic—understood it instead as a social question of the compatibility of Christian faith and Roman government, and of the larger problems posed for a universal empire by a universal religion.


The publication of Augustine of Hippo when he was thirty-two made Brown’s name. For my undergraduates it is still the first stop on the saint’s trail. But one of the pleasures of this memoir is the leisurely look back over his earlier work, and Brown admits that if he were writing the biography today, he would place less emphasis on Catholic bishops like Augustine as significant political figures: the available evidence for the period may be weighted toward the Church Fathers because they had little to do but write.

We have more of a sense now of the continuity of Roman institutions and indeed of secular power in this period, not least after the publication in 1981 of a cache of letters written by Augustine in the final years of his long career as bishop of Hippo, on the modern Algerian coast. The Austrian scholar Johannes Divjak found them at the back of a late medieval manuscript: they had been omitted from the standard collections because they lacked significant theological content, but that makes them all the more interesting for historians, revealing “a bishop with mud on his boots” and an embattled man who faced significant and often effective opposition from the political authorities.

With Augustine behind him, Brown’s horizons widened. One new interest was social anthropology, inspired by E.E. Evans-Pritchard’s studies of the Nuer of southern Sudan and the “ordered anarchy” in which they lived as a sophisticated response to cultural challenges rather than a sign of brute primitivism. Brown searched for similar logics in ancient practices that now look bizarre, and he found food for thought among the stylites of late-antique Syria, holy men who lived their lives atop tall pillars. They were often figures of ridicule to modern scholars, but the anthropologist Mary Douglas’s argument that religion and society were not competing forces but “two faces of the same social structure” cast them in a different light for Brown, as local patrons who imposed peace between households and linked their own small communities to a wider world.

This was part of a broader turn from the western Mediterranean to regions east that led Brown to learn Hebrew and Syriac and to write The World of Late Antiquity (1971). A short text with a lot of pictures, this not only fixed the notion of late antiquity in the intellectual cosmos of the late twentieth century, it fixed it as world history, in and beyond Rome’s borders, with Muhammad as its final major character.

Ireland still had lessons for Brown: having first encountered the late Roman Empire from beyond its western frontier, which allowed him “a form of double vision” unlike an Englishman’s easy identification with Rome, he now applied the same dual perspective to the empire’s eastern border with Persia. He saw how different conceptions of universal empire in Persia and Rome encouraged different attitudes toward unorthodox religion: the Sassanian kings of Iran saw themselves as first among almost-equal neighbors, kings of kings, while Roman imperial ideologies turned on a binary between Rome and barbarian others. Not by chance, then, the Christian religion of the Roman state was fiercely defended against rivals, while the Zoroastrian kings of Persia “made room” for a variety of other religions, including Christianity.

Oxford was another matter. By then Brown’s position at All Souls had long been extended into an open-ended research fellowship, and he became a university reader in 1973, but he was growing frustrated. While Augustine’s disappointments at Carthage stemmed from the bad behavior of the students, Brown’s disenchantment with Oxford arose from his colleagues’ poverty of imagination.

He provides a concise account of the problems inherent in Oxford’s tutorial system, with its reliance on written examinations taken together by students who have studied the subject in individual tutorials with different teachers in different colleges. It requires tutors to cover the same topics over and over again each week with one or two students rather than discussing them in larger groups: “the life of a galley slave, not of a scholar.” It also requires them to teach not just to the exam but to “a set of topics that were sure to ‘come up’ in the final examination, and that could be handled briskly in the single hour of a tutorial”—and so to prioritize political and institutional history over religion, ideas, and the wider world.

Brown doesn’t pull his punches: “The result was at once philistine and Eurocentric…. It amounted to the study of power by future wielders of power.” He is particularly critical of the Roman history syllabus, where “politics and the problems of running the Roman empire predominated”—“a legacy of the Victorian identification of the Roman Empire with the British Raj”—and in fact still do, despite his polite disclaimer that “such parochialism is no longer the case in Oxford.”

One solution was his move to head the history department at the University of London’s Royal Holloway College in 1975. Another was travel outside Europe—for the first time since winters as a toddler in Sudan—to Egypt, Afghanistan, and Iran. Brown describes the rock carvings of the late-antique Sassanian kings of Persia that marked the convergence of the Royal Road with water, and the Sassanian iwans, with their immense arched doorways opening into rectangular halls. These were the standard model for mosques east of the Euphrates as far as the Taj Mahal, unlike the domes of the Hagia Sophia at Constantinople that provide the more familiar archetype farther west. He observed the modern political scene as well, noting growing discontent with the Shah’s regime in Iran and the importance of Islam in the social landscape—he saw many small mosques from the road, flanked by the green signs of the Islamic credit unions that provided interest-free loans to an increasingly desperate population—though he did not yet put the two together.

The Iranian Revolution of 1979 put an end to Brown’s travels in the region, and to his plans for a book on conflict between Rome and Persia; instead, The Cult of the Saints, on the Western Roman Empire, appeared in 1981. By this time Brown had himself moved west, to Berkeley, an escape from bouts of serious illness in London that echo the fever Augustine suffered in Rome. From an institutional perspective, he concludes, the move from London to California was less of a journey than the fifty miles from Oxford to Royal Holloway, another college in a large public university system. At the same time, the move to the US brought him back to a world where scholars took religion seriously as a social and cultural force.

It also coincided with another widening of his scholarly interests: the last major project discussed in his memoir is a study of gender and sexuality that culminated in the publication of The Body and Society (1988). Brown’s aim was to relocate the figure of the virgin from its high medieval associations with holy women, and in particular the Holy Mother, to the early Christian era, when virginity was “a charged option for both sexes.” The renunciation of marriage could be a renunciation of the classical city, a choice against repeopling the polis that liberated people from social and civic convention and brought them closer instead to God.

Brown began to think about gender and sexuality around the same time that he got to know Michel Foucault, who was working on late antiquity for what became the fourth volume of The History of Sexuality and who gets one of the pen-portraits of scholars that salt Journeys of the Mind.* While Augustine blames his friends for encouraging his sins, Brown pays tribute to his colleagues for encouraging new academic work: like stealing pears, studying late antiquity alone would have been no fun.

The two men met after a lecture Foucault gave at Berkeley in 1980. When Brown took him to the student pub, “the forceful lecturer suddenly became a pupil. It was like seeing a large police dog turn docile.” A description of Foucault cooking his mother’s stew for Brown at his apartment in Paris the following year is a delightful corrective to his austere public image, and the pair were joined that night by the French historian of Rome Paul Veyne, in whom Brown found “a fellow militant for the unfamiliarity of the past” who “insisted that Romans were not versions of ourselves, dressed up in togas.”

Excavating an alien worldview is undoubtedly the most exciting duty of the ancient historian, but what Brown achieves in this book is the exoticization of the twentieth century: how easy it was to forget to write your doctorate in the 1960s, how currency restrictions made travel from Britain to Europe difficult until the 1970s, and how unthinkable it seemed even then that a revolution could be religious. Above all there is the absolute and remarkable difference made in the late 1960s by the invention of the photocopier: handouts and even readers could now be produced for teaching; no longer were texts limited to the original typescript and two precious carbon copies. It is hard not to glance across at Augustine’s passing mention in the Confessions that his own first book was, “somehow or other,” simply lost.

Journeys of the Mind is a portrait of a scholarly life in manual mode, but it is an excellent primer for twenty-first-century academics, too, on the value of learning modern languages and the importance of finding prompt and fair-minded peer reviewers, as well as on the funny things that matter. Pierre Hadot, a scholar of ancient philosophy and colleague of Foucault’s at the Collège de France, never became a touchstone in Anglophone academia in the same way that Foucault did, Brown notes, simply because he was more reluctant to travel regularly to the US or to lecture in English.

Brown ends up back in Ireland where he started; like Augustine, he returns home after his mother’s death. As ever he’s an acute observer, in this case of the shift from the primarily confessional mentality of his youth to an increasing focus on Irish identity in contrast to the English, even among the Protestant middle classes. And this is in the end what his book is about: home, society, and the way things change in small worlds over short times. At the age of eighty-eight, meanwhile, Peter Brown is up with the dawn, learning Classical Ethiopic.