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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 AD by Peter Brown
  • Michael Kulikowski
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. Pp. xxx, 759. $39.95. ISBN 978-0-691-15290-5.)

At a recent conference, Peter Brown suggested that we accept the word convulsion as a productive way of describing what happened to the Roman West in the fifth century—a word that would allow us to escape the polar dichotomy of transformation versus decline and fall, while also acknowledging that the disappearance of a Roman state both did happen and did matter, regardless of how much future decades preserved of its scraps. That seems a very fine insight, and it is one great achievement of this magnum opus to show us a hitherto underappreciated aspect of that convulsion: the new and psychologically fraught relationship to money and other wealth that conversion to Christianity meant for the Roman world. The many long reviews this book has already attracted have not been able to do its rich complexity full justice, and so a short one stands no chance of doing so. What seems most interesting to this reader is the way that Brown, returning to a detailed consideration of the late-antique West, should have found so much new to say, much of it in the form of small aperçus on such well-trodden topics as the elder Symmachus and the “vile plebs” of Rome. The several chapters on Augustine between them offer a retractatio of Brown’s classic biography of the saint. And it is in the treatment of Pelagius, his appeal and his challenge, that the book makes its greatest impact. Placing the Pelagian critique of wealth in the wider social context, comparing the explicitly sober but implicitly radical writings of Pelagius himself with the anonymous Pelagian tract De diuitiis, he draws out the extent to which the theological challenge of the Pelagian doctrine of free will was matched to a social challenge: the great wealth of the Roman rich was neither natural nor inevitable, but a product of human custom, and the force of free will could supervene over human custom. In an era during which civil war, military uprising, and occasional foreign invasion posed an ongoing material threat to senatorial fortunes built up over centuries, the existence of a theological justification for radical renunciation threatened stable social assumptions far more than the extremist thinkers themselves could have realized.

The last third of the book takes us through the years of convulsion at the start of the fifth century, when within a generation the administrative structures of imperial government either collapsed or were hollowed out to the point that they barely mattered. Developments in Gaul and Italy are usefully contrasted, while Brown charts the end of an imperial Christianity and the creation of a new and very different early-medieval form, a process that he regards as a “simplification” (p. 517). That argument is convincing in itself, but it touches on the book’s main unconscious omission: the years of “simplification” were also years in which the world of western Christendom ceased definitively to be coterminous with territory formerly ruled by the emperors. But those once foreign lands were, to a greater extent than Brown allows, intimately linked to the economic and political life of the fourth- and fifth-century empire, as contributors to its wealth (settlers, soldiers, importers of raw commodities) and consumers of it (shoppers, tributaries, mercenaries, and raiders). [End Page 104] The wealth with which Brown deals seems to stop dead at the borders of the empire, at least until those borders no longer exist, and an already rich exposition would be rendered richer still by noticing how far north and northeast the Roman West’s struggle with its wealth made an impact—a reminder of how much this book, like Brown’s many others, has done to illuminate the late-ancient world, and how many avenues he has opened for others to continue exploring...


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