Through the Eye of a Needle by Peter Brown

Book Review by Ian Hughes

In the last fifty years the study of ‘Late Antiquity’ has grown in importance and popularity. A large part of this growth is the production of an ever-increasing number of major scholarly tomes and of new translations of previously hard-to-acquire primary sources. Although there are several ‘big names’, such as Heather and Elton, who have helped to promote interest in Late Rome, few, if any, have had as much influence as Peter Brown. His main interest lies in the ‘religious transformation in the late Roman world’, and his previous works include Augustine of Hippo: A Biography (1967), The Making of Late Antiquity (1978), and Authority and the Sacred: Aspects of the Christianisation of the Roman World (1995).

According to the inside dust jacket Brown’s latest book ‘examines the rise of the Church through the lens of money and the challenges it posed to an institution that espoused the virtue of poverty and called avarice the root of all evil’. This is almost, but not quite, an accurate description of the book. The central theme is indeed the problems caused for aristocratic Christians by the vast amount of money they owned. In 29 chapters, arranged chronologically around the works of specific Christian writers, ranging from the famous (e.g. Saint Augustine) to the less well-known (e.g. Salvian), Brown clearly demonstrates the transformation of Pagan attitudes towards wealth into a Christian approach which managed to reconcile the possession of extreme wealth with the biblical principle that the owning of wealth was bad and that it was ‘easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God’ (Matthew 19:24).

Yet almost in passing he also highlights that, contrary to the view of many Christian ‘historians’ of the past, the rise of Constantine to become sole Emperor was not mirrored by a simultaneous meteoric rise of Christianity. In fact, it would be many decades - if ever - before Christianity was seen by the majority of the inhabitants as the ‘sole’ religion of the Empire.

To say that Brown’s conclusions are convincing is to understate the case. His analysis of the primary sources and his conversions of their specific comments into the existence of trends unfolding within Roman society is flawless and hard, if not impossible, to counter. The picture of a slow transformation from Pagan to Christian ethics concerning wealth, and the change in emphasis placed by the ancients on the message contained in the Bible, explains how the wealthy in the Empire managed to reconcile their riches to their belief in a God whose perceived attitude was transformed from simply the owning of money to the avaricious seizure of money. Furthermore, the investigation also extends to the middle classes, from which many of the early Church historians and writers originate, allowing for the inclusion of these classes into the analysis of the period.

The one flaw in the discourse is not the fault of the author but of the nature of the sources. Brown is forced to move between different regions within the Empire solely by the fact that the surviving sources are so fragmented and so it is impossible to trace the specific transformations in any one province. In effect, Brown is forced to construct a narrative which highlights the differences between the Western provinces whilst at the same time attempting to trace the congruencies within the Empire as a whole. The fact that he manages to do this convincingly is a testament to his ability as a historian.

If that was the single accomplishment of the book it would make the book a valuable work. However, the book contains much more than just the story of the evolution of Christian beliefs. Interwoven with the rise of Christianity is the story of the collapse of the Western Empire. Contrary to the old tradition of ‘grand collapse’ or ‘barbarian destruction’, Brown describes what emerged as ‘a local Roman empire’; a transformation from a unified system looking towards Rome to a fractured Empire focusing on parochial concerns

As with his Christian analysis, this theory is convincingly demonstrated and hard to argue against. In some respects the conjecture goes against the suggestion that barbarian invasion was the main cause of the ‘Fall of the West’, but this would be an error. The expansion of barbarian power within the Empire is included in the analysis and is interpreted as both a cause and a result of increasing factionalism in the West. That so many external and internal factors are included in the work is one reason why this book is so invaluable.

Yet there remains one caveat for those thinking of buying the book. In such a large and detailed work it would be easy for a novice to the period to become confused and disillusioned due to the large number of names and places included. As a consequence, a good grounding in the period is necessary to appreciate the book to the full.

This is a massive volume, both in size and importance. At the time of writing the book is available for as little as £20/$27. At this price this is a must for anyone interested in the ‘Late Roman Empire’ and the ‘Fall of Rome’. I cannot recommend this book highly enough.

Tell us your opinion - Submit your Review - Buy the book!

Get it now!

Union Jack Through the Eye of a Needle for the UK