Bryn Mawr Classical Review 98.1.14


Peter Brown, The Rise of Western Christendom: Triumph and Diversity, AD 200-1000. Oxford: B.H. Blackwell, 1996. ISBN 1-55786-136-6 (hb), 1-57718-092-5 (pb). Pp. xvi, 368. $59.95 (hb), $22.95 (pb).


Reviewed by James J. O'Donnell, Department of Classical Studies, University of Pennsylvania, jod@ccat.sas.upenn.edu.

In 1971, Peter Brown, then aged 35, published a textbook that defined its field. The World of Late Antiquity was for many years not merely the best textbook in its field, but the only one. It is only in the last ten years that Averil Cameron and Roger Collins and others have provided books that can be used instead of Brown, and the invaluable Translated Texts for Historians has begun making available a ready supply of primary materials in translation from late Roman and early medieval times. Now, a quarter century later, Brown has returned to the field with a very different textbook, in some ways a complement to his earlier volume, in some ways a successor.

This volume appears in a series published ambitiously in four languages and five countries. With authors like Eco, Le Goff, and Chartier in promise, each volume is published more or less simultaneously in Spanish, Italian, French, and English, intended to reach a broad European readership.

In seventeen chapters of approximately equal length, smoothly written but episodically-plotted, the narrative falls in three parts: Empire and Aftermath, Divergent Legacies, End of the Ancient World. The focus settles eventually on the northwestern frontier of the old Mediterranean world and to no reader's surprise, Charlemagne looms large. But rather than conflate a single linear narrative of diverse materials, Brown has chosen a series of foci and arranged them in rough chronological order. Six pages of chronological tables, seven of "Selected Bibliography", and four simple maps supplement the narrative. The bibliography arrests the attention: of 114 titles, only five were published before Brown's 1971 World. This represents not merely a preference for the new, but the real transformation of Anglophone late antique studies in the last generation, a transformation for which Brown deserves great credit, for his own contributions, for his example, and for his infectious and inspirational style.

As always with Brown, it takes the astute reader some time to read his bibliography and endnotes and then carefully to notice what is omitted, for it is by omission that Brown, ever generous and patient, signals his disagreements. Most notably absent here is Ramsay MacMullen, whose swingeing interpretation of the "triumph" of Christianity in the fourth century and after as the blunt effect of brutal persecution was already clear in his 1984 Christianizing the Roman Empire, now carried impressively forward in his 1997 Christianity and Paganism in the fourth to eighth centuries. Brown takes a more traditionally philo-Christian view of "triumph" and glides over awkward evidence that MacMullen would compel us to read less charitably.

A typical chapter begins with a vignette, with the effect of personalizing history and making it vivid, whether the occasion be a Muslim geographer in the tenth century or traditionalist Roman senators celebrating the Lupercal in the fifth. But Brown is no lecture-platform superficialist, and deep learning and shrewd analysis underlie his choice of anecdotes and their application. His story is one of the prosperity of localities. The "Roman empire" has gone south, by and large, and good riddance. In its place, communities that had never been quite submerged in the Roman flood awaken, dry themselves out, and make lives and futures for themselves. One is struck with a point Brown does not make explicitly, that the futures they made were in various ways impossible without Rome's precedent, if only for the way Roman military force had defined and clarified the geopolitical map -- clarified sometimes in ways that may somberly be thought of as "ethnic cleansing".

Deep erudition lies close to the surface of the book, but will escape the attention of the reader who merely requires the narrative and has been put in every case through the wringer of an original and penetrating intelligence. For example, we do not get what we might expect in a book on this topic written in this decade, a rehearsal of the arguments of such as Herwig Wolfram, Walter Goffart, and Patrick Amory over the nature of the "barbarians" (were they Germanic tribes of long-standing, new political realities created within living, Roman memory, or polite fictions?), but Brown has clearly absorbed the debate, re-addressed the evidence, and thought his way through to measured and sensible conclusions. He emphasizes, for example, the role of retrospective construction of origins in the case of "England". He tells the story of the Anglo-Saxon invasions of the fifth century as itself a story made up in after years to explain and justify a revolution that was more nearly seventh- than fifth-century in essence. To his great credit, Brown does not tell stories of origins and foundations very often at all and treats the traditional ones with a well-merited skepticism.

The survey that results is not quite as limited as the title might suggest. Brown himself has spoken of this volume as filling the gap for matters western left by his new-found enthusiasm for the Mediterannean east in his 1971 volume. He speaks of this book as "my amende honorable to the West, the Cinderella of my narrative in The World of Late Antiquity" (Symbolae Osloenses 72 [1997] 23), but in fact Brown cannot leave the east alone. So here, though we get chapters in which Brown handles material he has never or rarely handled in print before (Ireland, Britain, Scandinavia), we also have two fascinating chapters on "Christianity in Asia" and "Christians under Islam". The best way to understand this book is to see its focus on the rise of various Christendoms beyond the traditional heartlands of the Mediterranean Roman empire. The west looms large, but does not drive others from the field. When Byzantium appears, it is scarcely even primus inter pares, and the underplaying of its role is one of the subtlest successes of the book.

The chief omission is Balkan and Slavic, glancingly addressed on literally the last two pages of the book but otherwise still terra incognita to our most indefatigable late antique traveler. One suspects, in the wake of e.g. the synthesis of archaeological findings in Hodges and Whitehouse, Mohammed, Charlemagne, and the Origins of Europe [1983], that the eventual history of sub-Roman Europe will emphasize the way that the bridge between east and west that emerged did not need even the Mediterranean or even the Byzantine empire to build a context for "Europe".

You can't step in the same river twice. This book will clearly have nowhere near the epochal effect that the 1971 World of Late Antiquity had. The difference may be measured by consulting a fascinating symposium in Symbolae Osloenses 72 (1997) 1-90, in which Brown first reviews the book and the circumstances of its composition, then ten distinguished scholars (e.g., Glen Bowersock, Albrecht Dihle, Averil Cameron, Elizabeth Clark, Aline Rousselle) comment on the book, and then Brown himself responds to those comments. That Brown at age 16 had a year off from schooling to return, Augustine-like, to his native Dublin to find his life changed not by the pleasures of the flesh but by the enticements of Rostovtzeff and Huizinga will arrest the attention of any follower of his work, and the image of Brown reading Marrou's Saint Augustin et la fin de la culture antique through a long afternoon in a punt on Oxford's Cherwell seems quite too good to be true.

But what emerges most strikingly from the symposium is a point raised not by Brown but by the other scholars in the volume: one after another recalls that the most immediate impact of the 1971 volume lay in its illustrations, many in color. For many of us (the present writer included), those illustrations opened a world of possibilities and made concrete what the text suggested -- that late antiquity was a time of unique creative force, and that it could be grasped in ways we had not hitherto suspected. One of the symposiasts, Hjalmar Torp of Bergen, even goes in detail to show how Brown's choice and presentation of illustrations was, by the most rigorous scholarly standards, flawed, and then admits that it made no difference. The impact of the visual was irresistible and gave the book a power it would otherwise have lacked.

Alas, The Rise of Western Christendom is bereft of illustration. Inspection of other volumes in the series suggests that the choice was made and enforced by the publishers, perhaps for all their pan-European patriotism still afraid of the difficulties of getting rights to publish images in multiple countries at once. The undergraduate reader into whose hands this book ultimately may fall most often will be the poorer for this gap, but the scholar who knows at least some of the materials may indulge the fantasy of filling in the gaps in imagination at least, images of finds from Sutton Hoo to Turfan to the fascinating sub-Hellenistic paintings found far out in Arabia and described by Glen Bowersock in his Hellenism in Late Antiquity (1990).

So Brown has not made another revolution with this book, but he has extended the frontiers of the revolution he made a quarter century ago. A very reasonable survey course can now be made with the two textbooks, and the enlightened general reader, to say nothing of the scholar, will read this volume with unflagging profit as well.