Princeton author Peter Brown is profiled in The Chronicle for his impressive work surrounding ancient Rome and Christianity, which he most recently covered in his book Through the Eye of a Needle. Brown is an accomplished historian who is “deservedly famous” for his originality and style. Critics hailed Through the Eye of a Needle and it won numerous awards including the 2012 R. R. Hawkins Award through the Association of American Publishers, the 2012 PROSE Award- Classics & Ancient History through the Association of American Publishers, and the 2012 PROSE Award- Humanities also through the Association of American Publishers.
Read the profile below.
By Peter Monaghan
Historians and classicists considered the last centuries of the Roman Empire an era of obscurity and decline until Peter Brown led a generation of scholars in illuminating them.
From Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, in 1776, until Brown’s first books, in the 1960s, the period from the third century AD to about the eighth, when Christianity thrived in the barbarian kingdoms that swept Rome away, was commonly conceived as an auxiliary Later Roman Empire and even as the Dark Ages. Now, thanks in large part to Brown, those centuries are Late Antiquity, an acknowledgment that Western civilization did, indeed, continue to advance.
With his latest book, the Irish-born Brown, now an emeritus professor of history at Princeton University, provides more compelling evidence about just what those years were like in the increasingly Christian West, and in particular about the role of wealth as institutional Christianity gained ground. The book, released late last year by Princeton University Press, has a title as imposing as the text—540 pages plus 200 more of notes: Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350-550 AD.
The title, of course, comes from Jesus’ proverb that it is easier for a camel to fit through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter heaven. Elsewhere, Jesus tells a wealthy man to “sell what you possess and give to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven.”
That posed a problem for wealthy Christians, and even for those of modest means. Brown’s view is that they resolved it by believing they could save themselves from the depredations of money by making the church flush, so that it could provide welfare in an empire in crisis. That transformed Christianity into a worldly power and with that, writes Brown, began Europe’s progress toward the opulent Roman Catholic culture of the Middle Ages.
Brown shows that the concept of righteous giving, while not fully divesting one’s wealth, took hold after an ascetic attitude lost out to a more earthly one, espoused by St. Augustine. He argued that to renounce all material goods thwarted the church’s worldly work. What came to drive donors’ “daily acts of kindness and generosity,” then, was their deep conviction that any generosity to the church “joined heaven and earth.”
Writing in Bryn Mawr Classical Review, Kyle Harper, an associate professor of classics and letters at the University of Oklahoma, said that thanks to the “unerring moral balance” Brown brings to his subject, “perhaps for the first time, the problem of wealth in early Christianity is treated in full, with no righteous fury at blatant hypocrisy nor any apology for a church that rationalized its enrichment by feeding the poor.”
“Predictably brilliant,” “a masterpiece,” “vast,” “remarkably readable,” was the estimation of Garry Wills, who has called Brown’s book his favorite of 2012.
Last month the Princeton press received the R.R. Hawkins Award from the Association of American Publishers for “professional and scholarly excellence.” It was not the first honor for Brown; in 2008 he was one of two winners of the Library of Congress’s Kluge Prize for Lifetime Achievement in the Study of Humanity, and shared its $1-million purse.
Continue reading the full article at The Chronicle.