Book Review: THROUGH THE EYE OF A NEEDLE
Through the Eye of a Needle by Peter Brown – review
Tim Whitmarsh on a sparkling book that rethinks the history of the Christian church
Photo: The Emperor Constantine and his mother, Saint Helena, depicted in a 16th century fresco.
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. If the imperial heart sucked resources towards the centre in relentless cycles, there was also a corresponding diastolic process that kept the people going. Local agriculture could not always feed local populations, especially in Italy; vast quantities of grain were imported to Rome (mostly from Egypt, the breadbasket of the Mediterranean), and then distributed in annual doles. Provincial elites competed to disburse wealth to the people, whether in the form of doles or the provision of entertainment to a populace as hungry for spectacles as it was for bread.
This culture of largesse, Brown shows, paved the way for the Christian obsession with giving to the needy that gripped the empire from the 370s onwards. Augustine, for example, began a "war of giving" in 403, seeking to outdo the munificent games at Carthage with a huge church-building programme financed by sympathetic locals. The two systems were direct rivals. But Christian charity wasn't just traditional "bread and circuses" in a new guise; rather, it signified a radically different way of conceptualising relations between individuals and society, and between individuals and their own wealth. When non-Christians gave, they gave to their fellow citizens (and usually expected public honours in return). This was an exercise in civic-mindedness, in generosity towards the state. When Christians gave, by contrast, wealth flowed from "the rich" to "the poor".
What was at stake in this shift? Why did it matter? These questions go to the heart of Brown's thesis. "Rich" and "poor" were not, in Brown's view, objective categories; rather, they were dramatic roles borrowed from the Psalms and the Prophets. There was no systematic redistribution from the 10% to the 90%. One of the book's recurrent themes is that, while there were certainly super-wealthy Christians engaged in acts of ostentatious self-sacrifice, Christianity's core clientele lay in the "middling" people. Christianity saw, in effect, the triumph of mediocrity: men and (unusually for the ancient world) women of modest means could now play in their churches the kind of generous role previously reserved only for mighty patrons. Conversely, the genuinely wealthy can be found playing the role of "the poor", as Jerome did in the late fourth century when sneering at Rome's luxuries from a position of faux-penury; or as the fantastically wealthy Pinianus and
Melania did when theatrically enlisting on the poor roll at the church of Jerusalem in 417.
Crucially, Christian giving did not necessarily go directly to "the poor". When Augustine, Jerome and others counselled the renunciation of worldly goods, they were in practice fundraising for churches and monasteries. The rise of the church as an institution was, initially, dependent on this vital role as a point of redistribution of surplus wealth. But this role was transformed from the fifth century onwards, after successive barbarian invasions had smashed centralised authority in the west. Now that secular authorities in the regions had lost their key tax-collecting role, it was religious institutions that filled the institutional void, and became seats of worldly power too. Bishops such as Gregory of Tours (573-94) were managers of institutional wealth as much as they were spiritual leaders.
It would be easy to see this transformation as a sell-out, a betrayal of the radical spirit of the fourth century, a pragmatic accommodation with mundane power. Churches and monasteries were now not only wealthy in their own right, but also characterised by routines, with a whole panoply of institutional garb (the sixth century saw the arrival of the tonsure and the habit). Brown, characteristically, is not content with such simple explanations. What had happened, rather, was a transformation of the understanding of what wealth was: it was "given a higher purpose", in his words, swept up into a new imagery of the church as the shepherd of the local congregation.
It is hard for modern readers to shed their cynicism towards attempts to justify the hoarding of vast wealth, especially in the context of subsistence economies. What makes this such a fine book is, ultimately, the challenge it issues to overcome that cynicism and to enter a very different imaginative world – one where corporate wealth was not yet tainted with corruption and capitalist acquisitiveness, where the possibility of a divine purpose for riches was still alive.
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