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  • Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350–550 ADby Peter Brown
  • Eric Rebillard
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, Princeton University Press, 2012) 806pp. $39.95

This book, which “examine[s] the impact of wealth on the Christian churches of the Latin West” between 350 and 550 A.D.(xix), is organized [End Page 252]into five parts. Part I describes in four chapters the situation at the start of the period—the privileged position that Constantine granted the Christian churches and their clergy in the Roman Empire and the different traditions and practices of giving. Part II comprises thirteen chapters that describe how well-known figures at the end of the fourth century engaged with wealth—the Roman aristocrat Symmachus, his Christian contemporary Ambrose of Milan, Augustine before his election as bishop of Hippo, Ausonius, Paulinus of Nola, and Jerome. Part III considers in seven chapters the “age of crisis” that began in 410, contrasting, on the one hand, the ideal of renunciation held by Pelagius and his supporters and, on the other, Augustine’s notion that Christians could expiate their sins by giving their wealth to the churches. Part IV dedicates two chapters to Gaul and one to Italy in the fifth century. Part V delineates in two chapters how the churches, now the “truly wealthy” in the West, used their riches.

One of Brown’s claims is that “it was the entry of new wealth and talent into the churches from around the year 370 onward, rather than the conversion of Constantine in 312, which marks the turning point in the Christianization of Europe” (528; see also 32). Indeed, the chapters of the second part contain many statements anticipating further developments: “Ambrose had begun a work that would be continued” (147). “Little did they know it at the time, but the monastery Augustine founded in Hippo … was destined to become the template for an experiment in communal living that condensed some of the highest aspirations of the medieval Catholic Church in its attitudes toward both wealth and society as a whole” (149). “Paulinus sketched out unwittingly the future of Christian Rome” (235). But Brown at the same time insists that what allowed these developments was a set of social and economic conditions that did not exist before the end of the fifth century (70, 90, 122, 146, etc.).

Thus, something of an unresolved tension haunts Brown’s narrative strategy. He states in the conclusion that he wants to help readers to “make the journey back to a world before our world,” a world that produced “the conglomerate of ideas that medieval persons took for granted” (530). But does this “journey back” not give, to some extent, a teleological taste to the powerful narrative that Brown proposes? Be that as it may, there is great subtlety in Brown’s narrative. In contextualizing his close reading of texts within an up-to-date picture of the economic and social realities of the world in which they were produced and read, he has created an undeniable tour de force. [End Page 253]

Eric Rebillard
Cornell University


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