Through the Eye of a Needle

Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350-550 ad
Peter Brown
Princeton   806pp   £27.95

Buy this book

Last year when protestors against the iniquities of capitalism set up a tent city outside St Paul’s they also turned a spotlight onto Christian attitudes towards wealth. The Church of England, predictably enough, was split. The Dean, concerned for the dignity and sanctity of his cathedral, sought to have the protestors evicted. The Canon, no less concerned for the Church’s mission to defend the poor, promptly resigned. Sex, it turned out, was not the only topic capable of provoking an Anglican schism. ‘Truly, I say to you, it will be hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.’ Here, coming as it had done from Jesus himself, was a warning that had always haunted the Christian imagination. ‘Again, I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.’

Peter Brown’s new book, which takes its title from these haunting words, has as its theme the evolution of Christian attitudes towards wealth over a very specific span of time: the century either side of the collapse of the Roman Empire in the West. This might seem, to the non-specialist, a somewhat recherché topic, and the book itself, running as it does to well over 750 pages, a mighty sledgehammer taken to a nut. But no one with an interest in history, or indeed in our current economic travails, should fail to read it. This is a masterpiece that more than justifies its length. Peter Brown is the greatest living historian of late antiquity, a periodisation which he virtually invented, and Through the Eye of a Needle an achievement which stands to his earlier career as a great cathedral does to a pilgrimage route.

The villa owners of the late fourth century, so Brown tells us, revelled in ‘a celebration of abundance.’ Much the same might be said of him. So plentiful are the gems he has brought to view that rare will be even the most learned reader who fails to discover something arresting and new. This is a book in which received opinions are introduced only to be dispatched like beasts at the hands of an expert venator. Brown’s principle theme, the story of how wealth came to be transferred from the coffers of nobles to those of the Church, is one that is repeatedly used by him to provide novel perspectives on the entire landscape of the Roman West in its last century and of the successor states that then succeeded imperial rule. To trace the evolution of attitudes towards riches in this period is to engage in far more than an exercise in Church history. It is, as Brown himself puts it, ‘like overhearing the creaking of a great ship caught in a storm on the high seas’.

In its aptness and wit this simile is typical of his style. Brown is one of those rare scholars who can write simultaneously for colleagues and for readers lacking in specialist knowledge and satisfy both. Where a parallel can usefully be drawn between past and present, he is not afraid to draw it. So it is that the estates of the Roman super-rich are likened to the branches of a multinational, the baths at Trier are described as ‘the Pentagon of the West’, and the imposition of celibacy on the clergy of sixth-century Gaul is identified as something ‘consumer driven’. Brown’s supreme achievement, though, is to give us a world so detailed, so teeming and so richly explicated that it comes alive for us on its own terms. No opportunity to give a voice to those customarily left silent has been neglected. Set in Brown’s mosaic alongside the many tesserae derived from the celebrated writers of the period – Symmachus, Augustine, Salvian – are fragments of stone all the more precious for existing in isolation. ‘I have built more than my income allowed,’ proclaims the inscription on a Tunisian bathhouse, ‘but never as much as I would have liked’. The admission, inscribed amid a harsh and dusty landscape more than a millennium and a half ago, only came to light in 1983. Now, sourced and placed in due context by Brown, it serves his book as just one vivid touch among a whole multitude of bright colours. The result is a portrait of late antiquity in the West that must surely rank as the most vivid and compassionate ever painted.

Tom Holland is the author of In The Shadow Of The Sword: The Battle for Global Empire and the End of the Ancient World (Little, Brown 2012)

Get Miscellanies, our free weekly long read, in your inbox every week