Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2003.04.06

ALSO SEEN: Peter Brown, The Rise of Western Christendom: Triumph and Diversity, A.D. 200-1000. Second edition.   Oxford:  Blackwell, 2003.  Pp. x, 625.  ISBN 0-631-22138-7.  $29.95.  

Reviewed by James J. O'Donnell, Georgetown University (

A new book by Peter Brown always makes my heart beat faster: it will assuredly stimulate the imagination, bring to the reader's attention a broad range of learning, and challenge conventional interpretation. The present volume is no exception, but remains exceptional.

In 1971, Brown canonized the notion of 'late antiquity' in Anglophone realms with the publication of a short illustrated book that served a generation well as textbook: The World of Late Antiquity. Relatively few textbooks are the object of extended symposia 25 years later to trace their genesis and influence, but this one was: see Symbolae Osloenses 72 (1997) 5-90, including Brown's own palmary 'confessions' at 5-30.

But, at about that same time, Brown yielded again to the textbook temptation, this time in a series published by Blackwell and meant for broad European dissemination and translation (Jack Goody and Umberto Eco had early volumes in the same series) and with a more conventional title: The Rise of Western Christendom. Where The World of Late Antiquity had ended in 700 with an eastward regard, here Brown plowed steadily onwards and kept the breadth of coverage stretched from Ireland to the Near East. Illustrated only by a handful of maps, it offered a new master narrative in a concise 328 pages. I reviewed the volume in BMCR.

Now, seven years after first publication, the book reappears. The chief purpose of this short note is to emphasize that there is no typo in the header here. It does now extend to twice its original length. The fundamental structure (chapters/sections) remains unchanged, and the master narrative withal, but the explosion of late antique studies of the 1990s has driven this master of bibliography to seek to do justice, and what he has done is quite amazing. Hardly a page is unaltered, and the addition of a dazzling range of new scholarly material makes the book a far more thorough treatment, now of direct use to scholars as well as students. Two volumes of the new Cambridge Ancient History, a collective volume simply titled Late Antiquity from Harvard Press (1999, co-edited by Brown with Glen Bowersock and Oleg Grabar), and no fewer than thirteen volumes in the Brill-published Transformation of the Roman World, a collaborative research project supported by the European Science Foundation, offer the most readily available evidence of the abundance and depth of the new generation of scholarship. What was literally unimaginable thirty years ago and what seemed still out of reach twenty years ago (when some of us complained that we grew tired of teaching Brown over and over again but there was nothing else to send students to) has now come to pass. This new volume is at once its distillation and its monument-in-progress. My students will be reading it.

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