Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2013.02.35 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2013.02.35

Peter Brown, Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350-550 AD.   Princeton; Oxford:  Princeton University Press, 2012.  Pp. xxx, 759.  ISBN 9780691152905.  $39.95.  

Reviewed by Kyle Harper, University of Oklahoma (


Peter Brown’s Through the Eye of a Needle is a study of “the semiotics of wealth” (219) in late antique western Christianity. Its achievement is plain. It explores, with Brown’s characteristically profound empathy, the great paradox of how a church with a world- and wealth-denying ideology came to acquire temporal riches and respectability. Building explicitly on a generation’s labor in late antique archaeology and social history, this is the first account that is able to calibrate, in fine detail, the pace of Christianization, the rhythms of economic vitality and contraction, and the complexity of late imperial social hierarchies. Gone are old stereotypes of latifundism and dirigisme, in their stead a far more compelling panorama of gold-guzzling elites, grasping imperial servants, and savvy clerical fundraisers. At the same time, there is no sugar-coating the profound crisis that gripped the western Mediterranean provinces over the fifth and sixth centuries and left the world of Latin Christianity a less prosperous place, whose vaulting hierarchies of status and wealth had crumbled in upon themselves. Brown avers at the beginning of the book that “one can never be circumstantial enough” (xxii), and his approach is to offer the reader extraordinarily vivid portraits of individual Christian thinkers faced with the moral contradictions of worldly riches. From the collage of particularist sketches, though, emerges a coherent image of an unusually articulate religious movement that achieved critical mass at a very peculiar moment of imperial twilight and endured an unexpected secular crisis to inherit the wealthiest portion in a more fragmented, less steeply graded society.

Part I, comprising the first four chapters, sets the scene. Chapter 1 surveys the “age of gold,” describing a dynamic late imperial society. Brown sketches in outline an economy that remained, at the beginning of the period he covers, integrated, urbanized, and unusually wealthy. The cycles of taxation and military spending primed the pump of commercialism and allowed the accumulation of extraordinary portfolios of private wealth; “the fourth-century age of gold was also an age of empire” (30). Chapter 2 then explores the social profile of the church in the aftermath of the Constantinian upheaval, emphasizing that, with notable exceptions, the clergy was not recruited from the very highest ranks of the social order. Chapters 3 and 4, which juxtapose civic and Christian ideologies of gift-giving, form the conceptual crux of the book. Chapter 3 describes the flow of wealth through channels created by the demands of civic euergetism, reciprocity, and patronage. In this model, entitlements were fundamentally civic; the theater, the amphitheater, and the circus were paradigmatic sites of elite generosity. Chapter 4 argues that Christian leaders deliberately carved out an alternative model of obligation, in which “the poor” rather than “the citizens” would become, materially and ideologically, the object of economic solicitude. The greatest difference between the civic and Christian models was that the latter placed a “new emphasis on the supernatural efficacy of the Christian gift” (85). In these rich chapters, Brown brings to bear, in a fresh way, the full weight of his work on society and the holy, on the body and the cosmos, on poverty and leadership.

Part II, which includes thirteen chapters, covers the last decades of the fourth century. Exquisitely thick descriptions can be recovered from this most articulate generation. Chapters 5 and 6 look at the world through the eyes of Symmachus, as a representative of that thin cohort of ancient nobiles whose money and clout were not creations of the Constantinian revolution. Thanks to Symmachus we can follow the transmission of patrimonial property through carefully orchestrated senatorial marriages as well as the periodic hemorraging of wealth required to maintain the glory of the most ancient offices of state. Here we see a vital model of senatorial wealth with a scale and ideology that would not long endure. Chapters 7 and 8 turn to a man a cut below Symmachus, Ambrose of Milan. Ambrose is portrayed as a brilliant and creative tactician, whose histrionic social moralizing served to consolidate the bishop’s leadership in a volatile nerve center of empire. Chapters 9, 10, and 11 are the first of six chapters which focus on Augustine, who in retrospect “has little to say about the poor” (154). Instead, the early Augustine saw society “veined from top to bottom by the fact of patronage” (155). Chapters 12, 13, and 14 treat Ausonius and Paulinus of Nola. Ausonius does duty as spokesman for a late antique aesthetic also reflected in the remains of monumental villas; Ausonius, like the serene mosaics of arcadian abundance that look away from the role of actual human labor, was able to mystify wealth as an ineffable gift of nature. Ausonius did so in a late classical style characteristic of the Constantinian age – a style that could not remain untroubled by the sharper social politics of the next generation. Paulinus represents this next generation; he was an avatar of the new tensions occasioned by the entry of the “super-rich” into the Christian community. Chapters 15, 16, and 17 turn to Rome, then follow the figure of Jerome and the networks of patronage that fanned out across the Mediterranean in the later fourth century. Damasus is portrayed as a transitional figure, poised between the relatively modest and tightly-knit corps of Constantinian clergy and the destabilizing influx of truly elite patrons in the last decades of the fourth century. Jerome’s turbulent career in Rome would have been unthinkable absent this “increased religious and cultural stratification within the Roman community” (272). More than ever before, the theological controversies of the Theodosian age would be conducted against the backdrop of elite funding.

Part III, “An Age of Crisis,” offers seven chapters exploring the atmosphere of high tension leading up to and following the sack of Rome. Chapter 18 catches the new, radical key which developed as some of the supremely rich, like Melania the Younger and Pinian, proved willing to heed the most extreme strains of the gospel in an age when looming threats to the fabric of empire meant there was less margin for eccentricity. The next five chapters move across the later writings of Augustine and his Pelagian adversaries. Augustine’s strong model of divine sovereignty allowed him to accommodate wealth as a “providential fact.” At the same time, Augustine is portrayed as a reactive bishop, forced to mediate between an increasingly “grassroots” Christianity and a powerful imperial superstructure. Far from sliding gradually into a vacuum left by fading imperial power, Augustine’s church “remained pinned into a niche of its own in late Roman society. It was kept there by the sheer weight of a profane Roman state and by the robustly secular attitudes of those who ran it” (383). Only towards the middle of the fifth century did churchmen and local elites find themselves, rather abruptly, “in an age without empire” (385).

Parts IV and V look out across the different trajectories experienced in western regions in the “aftermaths” of crisis. It is notable that the two generations on either side of AD 400, so generously represented in the surviving record, dominate this book. After Augustine, the meaning of wealth cannot be recovered in such fine-grained detail. But what Brown does manage to salvage, making good use of the abundant revisionist scholarship on Gallic and Italian cultures in the fifth and sixth centuries, is impressive. The brief portrait of Salvian, whose drastic rhetoric is situated within its “precise moment in the crisis of the Roman state,” is a tour de force. Brown traces the process by which the church “grew richer” even as “the senatorial aristocracy grew poorer,” passing each other in the night somewhere in the later fifth century (467). The progressive empowerment of the church coincided with the “unexpected collapse of the great lay fortunes” (493). The consolidation of ecclesiastical wealth is reflected above all in the formulation of rules for its management that were, for the first time, consciously formal rather than ad hoc. The composition of the Liber pontificalis was one textual artifact of this process, while the rise of a class of ecclesiastical defensores was its legal analogue. By the middle of the sixth century, the social changes which had occurred around the steady accumulation of ecclesiastical wealth transformed the meaning of church property. Above all, “the honeycomb of carefully graded social statuses… had collapsed. What had survived best was the brutal binary model in which the rich faced the poor with no intermediary classes in between” (508). Clerics were, ritually and socially, more starkly differentiated from their secular peers, as stewards of wealth that was “touched by expectations of eternity” (523); they were left standing in the middle of a simple cleavage between the haves and the have-nots.

This much anticipated book, described by Brown as “the most difficult book to write that I have ever undertaken,” fulfills expectations. Its success is grounded in its unerring moral balance. Perhaps for the first time, the problem of wealth in early Christianity is treated in full, with no righteous fury at blatant hypocrisy nor any apology for a church that rationalized its enrichment by feeding the poor. Wealth is simply a great fact, always in some sense greater than any individual’s agency. It might be said that the moral sensibility of this book is informed by a certain familiarity with the modern university’s development office. Indeed, the language of “fundraising” recurs throughout the book, a wry affirmation of the moral ambiguities of institutional wealth acquisition and management. The actual production of wealth is external, invisible to the earnest eyes of those who can promise to make good use of it. The twist in this tale, though, is that the fundraisers of one generation became the survivors of the next. It is as though some financial collapse were to wipe out the Forbes 400 and leave the endowments of Harvard, Princeton, et alia, standing as the largest surviving fortunes in a landscape of ruin.

Through the Eye of a Needle causes us to look at the meaning of wealth in new ways, but more profoundly, this is a statement about the nature of Christianization and the experience of imperial collapse. Brown uses the problem of wealth “as a doctor uses a stethoscope,” to listen in on the internal organs of church, empire, and economy in a period of transition (xxvi). The central story tells of the gradual triumph of a sacred economy of beneficence over a civic one – a triumph shaped by forces beyond anyone’s control. The conceptual contrast between civic entitlements and charity toward the poor, laid out by Brown in Chapters 3 and 4, derives from the polemical rhetoric of the church fathers, who were eager to contrast the vain dissipations of the classical city with the eternal economy of Christian charity. This framing of the problem leaves “pagan” beneficence as such to one side. Through the Eye of a Needle insists that late antiquity saw the “buildup of a new pattern of religious giving that was different from the sacrifices and ex-voto dedications of traditional paganism” (85). Yet sacrifice, votive offering, and pagan charity are mentioned only in passing in a book whose architecture is structured around the opposition between civic and Christian circuits of gift-giving. It must be admitted that donations to the pagan gods, the accumulation of temple treasures, and the expiatory economy of the high empire are woefully understudied, but the surviving evidence is not derisory.1 The parallels with Christian practices of donation, on first blush, are more than striking, and the implications are potentially meaningful. One of Brown’s figures (Figure 17) provides an example. It is a rather modest reliquary jar that a deacon and his family (CUM SUIS) from Henchir Mdila in Algeria donated in fulfillment of a vow: BOTUM REDDIDIT. Surely, immemorial associations lie behind this familiar formula. As Brown notes (362), for many late antique Christians, “the link between almsgiving and expiation was the one most solidly installed in the back of their minds,” and it is a link that would repay further consideration. Such an investigation would quickly reveal that pagan giving was as diverse in scope and meaning as Christian charity. Pagan offerings ranged from the proverbial mite, such as a silver tablet given to the gods inscribed with its value of six denarii, to the truly spectacular, such as the donation of C. Vibius Salutaris, who in 103/4 AD donated thirty-one precious metal figurines to the temple of Artemis in Ephesus and established a 20,000-denarii endowment to fund regular processions and distributions to the citizens.2 As this example shows, euergetism in the high empire might overlap seamlessly with a flourishing civic paganism, and the religious overtones of such beneficence – which made Vibius Salutaris a “Lover of Artemis” – were not merely ornamental. The silversmiths of this very goddess, at least according to Acts, were the first to recognize the threat that Christianity posed to the sacred economy of paganism. Pagan temples accumulated considerable wealth under the pax Romana. It was this wealth which Constantine seized, and the Liber pontificalis resembles nothing so much as the extant inventories of temple properties.3 Perhaps the similarities would ultimately prove superficial, but a more robust recognition of the religious dimensions of pagan giving could both locate the archaic taproots of the impulse to give material goods to intangible beings and accentuate what was truly novel about the church’s acquisition of wealth. It is significant in itself that pagan beneficence, while extensive, remained largely inarticulate. The Christians, thanks to their scriptural commitments and sharp social gospel, were able to intensify and institutionalize the discourse of the heavenly economy. Their totalizing ideology of wealth was able to absorb both the civic and the pagan models of beneficence within a single sweeping vision of society and the cosmos.

It is the virtue of Through the Eye of a Needle that it prompts and enables one to think about the largest questions. It is a gift to have such a beautiful, authoritative, and humane study that cuts to the heart of all that is most challenging in the relationship between the spiritual and the material in late antiquity.


1.   See, for a preliminary survey, F. Baratte, “Les trésors de temples dans le monde romain: Une expression particulière de la piété,” in S. Boyd, M. Mango, eds., Ecclesiastical silver plate in sixth-century Byzantium (Washington, D.C., 1992) 111-121.
2.   The silver tablet: H. B. Walters, Catalogue of the silver plate (Greek, Etruscan, and Roman) in the British museum (London, 1921), no. 237. The bequest of Salutaris: see the study of G. Rogers, The sacred identity of Ephesos: foundation myths of a Roman city (London, 1991), who notes (41) “the essentially religious focus of the whole scheme.”
3.   E.g. ILS 4423 and 4921.

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