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What to Do About the Money?

Review: Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350-550 AD
(November Review, 2012)

What to Do About the Money?
by Brown, Peter (Princeton University Press, 2012)

Review by Frank McGough

In Through the Eye of a Needle, Peter Brown sets out to analyze the importance of wealth in the context of declining Roman power and the rise of Christianity in the Western Roman Empire. He divides the book into five sections, each covering a period of around fifty to seventy-five years. Brown moves back and forth between chapters that give background context and those that deal with individual figures—such as Symmachus, Augustine, Jerome, among others—and their attitudes towards the accumulation and spending of wealth.

In Part One Brown provides the context for fourth century attitudes towards wealth and giving, in both secular and religious terms. He characterizes the fourth century as an "age of gold," since the imperial administration flooded the economy with the new gold solidus and the possession of gold led to increased social stratification (14-6). Despite this stratification, the giving of wealth to the Church acted as an equalizer. The Church was an area of "relaxed hierarchy," where the Roman social order was muted, and as such, all gifts carried equal significance, no matter their worth in earthly terms (42, 49). Brown goes on to explain the importance of civic euergetism—the giving of wealth to one's city—and its pervasiveness in society. Wealth was given in a civic setting to benefit of one's fellow citizens, rather than the poor (62-8). The takeaway here is that the giving of wealth during this period served a decidedly social purpose.

In Part Two Brown discusses some well-known figures of the day as a way of showing the varied and ever-changing ideas about wealth during the late fourth and early fifth centuries. He presents Symmachus as an exemplar for the Roman nobility, a man who was both extremely wealthy and intent on the betterment of his city. Ambrose, by contrast, called for the giving of aid to the poor as a matter of human solidarity, rather than civic pride (133). Moving to Augustine, Brown emphasizes the importance of patronage and community in the famous bishop's career and suggests that Augustine saw the abandonment of wealth as the first step towards an ideal, heavenly community (180). Paulinus was the first Roman senator to abandon his wealth and live life as an ascetic, although it is clear that he continued to draw wealth from his estates; throughout his life he built churches and gave to the poor, exchanging earthly goods for spiritual prayers (218-36). Brown also discusses the landscape of the city of Rome during this time period, noting that it would have been mostly devoid of Christian monuments as late as 350 AD. It was only through numerous small, private donations that Rome was became a city dominated by Christian churches (242-5).

Part Three deals with a more volatile time period, the early fifth century. In this section Brown explains one of the most radical Christian stances on wealth—given by Pelagius—as well as the more tempered views that had to be accepted in light of the devastation wrought by invasion and civil war. Pelagius and his followers saw wealth as inherently evil since it was the product of avarice. It neither was nor had it ever been an innocent element of life, no matter how it was used. Great wealth was in no way related to God or His gifts (311-4). Over time, such a view was rejected in the face of the instability of the empire. The gradual collapse of imperial power made the world a smaller place, and local solidarity became increasingly important. In this context, pride was worse than avarice, and as long as wealth was being spent on the Church, its origins were excused (376-8).

Part Four covers the later fifth and early sixth centuries, dealing both with monastic attitudes towards wealth as well as the collapse of the empire. In the monastic context, the debate over good versus bad wealth was suspended in favor of the notion that wealth had no place in such a setting. Writers such as John Cassian criticized monasteries where inductees were permitted to keep their wealth, and argued that the monastery should be devoid of wealth entirely (412-8). Meanwhile, Salvian argued that Christians ought to give up their earthly goods for treasure in heaven, marking a shift in the purpose of Christian giving (440-9). Brown concludes Part Four by noting the growing wealth of the Church in Italy during this period due to the declining power of the imperial administration and nobility, although he warns that papal strength during the period is generally overstated (455-70).

In Part Five Brown covers the conflicts of the sixth century and the resulting changes in attitudes towards wealth. Increasingly, the Church argued that it did not own wealth, but instead merely managed it for the poor (483). Furthermore, giving was increasingly seen as a way of securing one's position in the afterlife rather than a social practice, as it had been in earlier, more stable times. The glamor was removed from wealth, and it came to be seen as a tool for securing the afterlife (522-6). Brown characterizes this as the shift toward medieval Christianity.

As expected from Peter Brown, this book is both well researched and well written. Brown has consulted over 100 primary sources for this weighty book, and he has managed to weave them together in a decidedly clear and readable way. In his chapters on individuals Brown presents a great deal of background material and context, and anyone looking for a brief study of the figures he discusses could do worse than this book. Another of the book's strengths is the reevaluation of long-standing "facts," such as papal power in the sixth century or Augustine's ties to Manichaeism, things which have far wider implications than attitudes towards wealth.

While overall the book is excellent, there are a few issues that should be addressed. While each individual chapter is clear and concise, the book as a whole can feel disjointed, largely because of geographical and chronological confusion. As a result it can be easy to lose sight of the bigger picture. Another problem is the end map provided by Brown or, more specifically, the title of this map. While this book focuses on the Western Roman Empire, labeling a map depicting the Mediterranean in 400-500 AD as "From Rome to a World Without an Empire" misrepresents the state of affairs in the sixth century.

Ultimately, these criticisms are minor and do not detract from the overall quality of the book. For historians of early Christianity, the late antique Roman world, or even interested members of the non-academic public, Through the Eye of a Needle is an invaluable study.

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