Tim Whitmarsh reviews a sparkling book which rethinks the history of the Christian church for The Guardian, and arrives at some interesting insights.
Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350-550 AD by Peter Brown (Princeton University Press)
Historians, those most cynical students of human behaviour, struggle to explain altruism. Politics, economics and war are the staples of history precisely because they allow for the acquisition, consolidation or failure of power. The genetic code unlocked by the historian is a selfish one.
Yet late antiquity poses a baffling problem. Why did Roman society, from the bottom to the very top, progressively adopt a religion that appeared to promote the surrender of worldly goods to the poor? And given that wealth continued to be as important as ever after Christianisation, how did the Roman world reconcile riches and moral austerity?
Peter Brown's dashing new book explores these questions for the Latin-speaking, Western Roman Empire. It's an immensely learned and authoritative study; Brown has been for 40 years the world's most eminent scholar of late antiquity.
Yet it is far from a work of arid scholasticism. His sparkling prose, laced with humour and humanity, brings his subjects to life with an uncommon sympathy and feeling for their situation.
But the wider story matters too, for the age he describes saw the making of Europe as we know it, and with it the development of many of our current instincts and anxieties around the compatibility of wealth and social responsibility.
The story is built around two narrative strands, interwoven like a double helix. The first is the rise of Christianity in the fourth century AD from a niche cult in the multi-religious world of the Roman empire to the dominant religion of the west.
The second is the collapse of centralised imperial authority in the fifth century, and the transition to what Brown calls a ‘local Roman empire’. These two combined processes allowed Christianity to move from a counterculture based around an ideology of renunciation of worldly goods to an institutional infrastructure built on corporate wealth.
One of the most decisive hallucinations in history occurred in 312AD, when the hitherto polytheist Emperor Constantine saw a vision of the cross hanging in the sky above a battlefield just outside Rome. We'll never know what Constantine's real motives for conversion were; perhaps it was quite simply a religious experience.
But this wasn't the moment when the empire as a whole was transformed: Christianity remained one religion among many for some 60 years.
Constantine's major legacy to the empire was root-and-branch fiscal reform, which put efficient tax-collection at the heart of the entire bureaucratic system. Brown calls the fourth century the ‘age of gold’, after the coin known as the solidus that symbolised the confidence of the imperial treasury.
So, wealth was on everyone's mind – mostly because 90% of the population didn't have enough of it, while the remaining 10%, those on the inside of the tight-ravelled nexus of power, had riches beyond compare. Sound familiar? But this is only half of the story...
Tim Whitmarsh's Narrative and Identity in the Ancient Greek Novel is published by Cambridge.
Full review in The Guardian: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2012/dec/07/through-eye-needle-peter-brown-review
Preview on The Bryn Mawr Classical Review: http://bmcr.brynmawr.edu/2013/2013-02-35.html
Review on The American Scholar: http://theamericanscholar.org/golden-rules/#.UeYDL41TC4g
Review in The Tablet: http://m.thetablet.co.uk/issue/1000335/booksandart