As we come to the end of the holiday season and are almost to the New Year, we take the time to reflect on the magnum opus of the historian of late antiquity Peter Brown: Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350-550 AD.
2012 has seen reviews of Brown’s important book in the New Republic, the New York Review of Books, and in the UK in BBC History Magazine, The Guardian, The Literary Review, and The Times Literary Supplement, to list just a few.
Why the interest in how Christianity and conceptions of wealth changed over a period of a two hundred years a few millenia ago? With ongoing discussions about how much each of us owes society (whether we’re talking holiday gifts or taxes and the so-called fiscal cliff), the issues around giving and our beliefs couldn’t be more timely–and it certainly can’t hurt that Brown is the top scholar to draw connections between the ancient past and today. As Glen W. Bowersock writes in the New Republic:
It is exciting to watch a historian who has already written so extensively on Late Antiquity absorb so much new scholarship, revise his old reviews, and re-imagine the world we thought we knew from him. . . . Through the Eye of a Needle is a tremendous achievement, even for a scholar who has already achieved so much. Its range is as vast as its originality, and readers will find everywhere the kinds of memorable aperçus and turns of phrase for which its author is deservedly famous. . . . There can be no doubt that we are in the presence of a historian and teacher of genius.
In his piece “A Masterpiece on the Rise of Christianity” in the New York Review of Books, Garry Wills (who also selected the title as his book of the year in the Chicago Tribune) says:
To compare it with earlier surveys of this period is to move from the X-ray to the cinema….Every page is full of information and argument, and savoring one’s way through the book is an education. It is a privilege to live in an age that could produce such a masterpiece of the historical literature.
Writing in his five-star online review at Christianity Today, Peter Leithart affectionately calls the book “deliriously complicated,” and goes on to write:
As usual, Brown leaves no stone unturned in his search for insight and evidence. … He paints a colorful social setting for early church debates about theology and ethics without becoming reductively sociological, and often overturns accepted mytho-history in the process. He quietly draws on contemporary theory but typically lets ancients speak for themselves because his aim is to introduce us to an exotic world. Through it all, he focuses on the masses of details by treating attitudes, beliefs, and practices about wealth as a ‘stethoscope’ to hear the heartbeat of late Roman and early Christian civilization. … Brown has captured the rough texture of real history. It is testimony to the success of Brown’s subtle, provocative, and beautifully written book.
Across the pond, Tom Holland champions Peter Brown and the book in History Today, BBC History Magazine, and Twitter. In History Today, Holland calls Brown the “greatest living historian of late antiquity.” He goes on in BBC History Magazine:
Through the Eye of a Needle is the crowning masterpiece of Peter Brown, the great historian who virtually invented late antiquity as a periodisation. The book’s theme might seem specialised: the evolution of attitudes towards wealth in the last century and a half of the Roman empire in the west, and the century that followed its collapse. In reality, like so many of Brown’s books, it gives us a world vivid with colour and alive with a symphony of voices. It is not only the most compassionate study of late antiquity in the west ever written, but also a profoundly subtle meditation on our own tempestuous relationship with money.
Meanwhile, Peter Thornemann of the Times Literary Supplement calls it “[O]utstanding. . . . Brown lays before us a vast panorama of the entire culture and society of the late Roman west.” And at The Guardian, Tim Whitmarsh writes,”His sparkling prose, laced with humour and humanity, brings his subjects to life with an uncommon sympathy and feeling for their situation.”
Through the Eye of the Needle has also been selected as a best book of the year at the Institute of Public Affairs blog, among others. Doubtless, the interest in the origins of how society balances faith and finances will continue well into 2013 and we would do well to heed the fascinating lessons of Brown’s much-lauded work.
To learn more about the author and his latest book:
Through the Eye of a Needle