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

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

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by Peter Brown
     
 

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"Through the Eye of a Needle is a masterpiece of detailed historiography, brilliantly written. Peter Brown's long-awaited book surpasses even the high expectations set by his previous writings, and will engage general readers and specialists alike."--Elaine Pagels, author of Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, and Politics in the Book of Revelation

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"Through the Eye of a Needle is a masterpiece of detailed historiography, brilliantly written. Peter Brown's long-awaited book surpasses even the high expectations set by his previous writings, and will engage general readers and specialists alike."--Elaine Pagels, author of Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, and Politics in the Book of Revelation

"Here Peter Brown listens to the heartbeat of the late Roman world. His report is a masterpiece that introduces us to the wealth and poverty of an empire as it implodes, and the inspiring Christian concept of treasure in heaven. Excavating the roots of medieval charity, he illuminates the problems of rich and poor today, and delivers a triumph of history at its finest."--Judith Herrin, King's College London

"The gap between rich and poor is one of the major issues of today, and who better than Peter Brown to probe the acute problems of conscience it presented to late antique Christians? In this important book, he brings to this vital subject his characteristic wit, wisdom, and humanity, as well as the mature reflection of a great historian. It is a magnificent achievement."--Averil Cameron, University of Oxford

"Like a master mosaicist, Brown brings together a huge assemblage of sources to produce a vibrant panorama bursting with vitality. His story of the transfer of great wealth from rich individuals and families to the coffers of the church is the story of the creation of the postimperial West and the European Middle Ages. This is a big, and big-hearted, beautiful book. Tolle, lege."--Paula Fredriksen, Boston University

"This is a book that only Peter Brown could write. It has his trademark stamped all over it, in the richness of its source material, its breadth of coverage and turn of phrase, its fondness for the middling folk and outsiders who usually fall by the wayside of academic scholarship, and its insistence on seeing pagans and Christians as part of a larger, shared world."--H. A. Drake, author of Constantine and the Bishops

"Peter Brown has written a book for the ages, one that every specialist throughout the world in late antique history and the history of Christianity will read. Through the Eye of a Needle is a remarkable work of scholarship--interesting, informative, original, and stimulating. I recommend it warmly and confidently."--Thomas F. X. Noble, author of Images, Iconoclasm, and the Carolingians

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Drawing on Jesus’ exhortation to a rich young man that owning possessions and true discipleship are incompatible, many Christian traditions have stressed renunciation of worldly goods as the only authentic Christian response to wealth. Other Christians, using different passages from the Bible, teach that wealth can result from living a true Christian life, a result guaranteed by prayer for the blessings that God has for each of us. As Brown (Augustine of Hippo), the great dean of early church history, compellingly reminds us in his magisterial, lucid, and gracefully written study, the understanding of the role of wealth in the developing Christian communities of the late Roman Empire was much more complex. Combining brilliant close readings of the writings of Ambrose, Augustine, Jerome, and Paulinus of Nola with detailed examinations of the lives of average wealthy Christians and their responses to questions regarding wealth, he demonstrates that many bishops offered such Christians the compromises of almsgiving, church building, and testamentary bequests as alternatives to the renunciation of wealth. As wealthy Romans and believers of all classes joined Christian churches in the fifth century, the gifts that they had once bestowed on the empire in order to gain fame in this world could now be bestowed upon the church to enable the givers to join an eternal world. Brown’s immense, thorough, and powerful study offers rich rewards for readers. (Oct.)
New York Review of Books
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.
— Gary Wills
American Scholar
[A]n unprecedented resource. . . . Brown creates broad, deep landscapes in which the reader can watch the ancients moving. You can, in places, just crawl in and have a true dream about the ancient world. Moreover, the topic holds fascinating implications about the formation of modern Western culture. . . . It's a significant and suggestive story.
— Sarah Ruden
Standpoint
This book should be daunting but it is not; for while the book is heavy to lift, it is even harder to put down. It makes utterly compelling reading.
— Eric Ormsby
History Today
This is a masterpiece that more than justifies its length. Peter Brown is the greatest living historian of late antiquity, a periodization 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.
— Tom Holland
Tablet
[N]o other scholar could have produced Brown's characteristically intricate, spectacular and joyous synthesis. . . . One of the captivating qualities of Brown's new book is the sheer energy and intellectual excitement that sparkle through it. He might, in recent years, have rested of his laurels—perhaps, like his beloved Augustine, written his memoirs. Instead, he celebrates the continuing expansion of the field and demonstrates his continued mastery of it in a groundbreaking study of wealth in the late antique Church. . . . Towards the end of the book, Brown describes how a basilica might have looked around the year 600: glowing with candles, glittering with mosaics, gleaming with gold and silver vessels. 'The church itself', he says, 'had become a little heaven, filled with treasures.' It is a description irresistibly applicable to Peter Brown's own book: as rich a monument to the life of the mind as was any late Roman basilica to the life everlasting.
— Teresa Morgan
California Literary Review
[A] predictably brilliant re-appraisal of the Roman world during the fourth to sixth centuries. . . . Through the Eye of a Needle is a vast book, but is remarkably readable. Brown's intimate knowledge of Augustine and his times is presented with human empathy and a sense of the relevance of these long-ago events. . . . [T]he latter chapters of Through the Eye of a Needle contain much essential information about the establishment of Christian influence throughout Europe following Rome's fall. . . . [A] wonderful book.
— Ed Voves
JourneywithJesus.net
Peter Brown, professor emeritus at Princeton University and the leading historian of late antiquity, has written a masterful study. . . . His book is characterized by lively prose, mastery of the primary sources and original languages, comprehensive use of changes in the study of antiquities (especially the 'material culture' of archaeology), gorgeous plates, nearly 300 pages of bibliographic end material, and a number of important revisions to the standard historiography.
— Dan Clendenin
Times Literary Supplement
[O]utstanding. . . . Brown lays before us a vast panorama of the entire culture and society of the late Roman west.
— Peter Thornemann
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.
— G. W. Bowersock
History Magazine
Through the Eye of a Needle (Princeton University Press) 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.
— Tom Holland
Guardian
His sparkling prose, laced with humour and humanity, brings his subjects to life with an uncommon sympathy and feeling for their situation.
— Tim Whitmarsh
Gumbo
Brown, in this masterful history, makes the writings of Augustine, Ambrose and Jerome more accessible to the average reader, and scholars will welcome the voluminous notes and index.
— Ray Saadi
Times Literary Supplement - Conrad Leyser
Brown's goal in this book is patiently to reconstruct the debates on wealth among late Roman Christians: in other words, to set out the context for the tendentious claims of ascetic minorities, which have misled so many later interpreters.
New York Review of Books - Gary Wills
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.
Times Literary Supplement - Peter Thornemann
[O]utstanding. . . . Brown lays before us a vast panorama of the entire culture and society of the late Roman west.
New Republic - G.W. Bowersock
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.
American Scholar - Sarah Ruden
[A]n unprecedented resource. . . . Brown creates broad, deep landscapes in which the reader can watch the ancients moving. You can, in places, just crawl in and have a true dream about the ancient world. Moreover, the topic holds fascinating implications about the formation of modern Western culture. . . . It's a significant and suggestive story.
Standpoint - Eric Ormsby
This book should be daunting but it is not; for while the book is heavy to lift, it is even harder to put down. It makes utterly compelling reading.
History Today - Tom Holland
Through the Eye of a Needle (Princeton University Press) 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.
Tablet - Teresa Morgan
[N]o other scholar could have produced Brown's characteristically intricate, spectacular and joyous synthesis. . . . One of the captivating qualities of Brown's new book is the sheer energy and intellectual excitement that sparkle through it. He might, in recent years, have rested of his laurels—perhaps, like his beloved Augustine, written his memoirs. Instead, he celebrates the continuing expansion of the field and demonstrates his continued mastery of it in a groundbreaking study of wealth in the late antique Church. . . . Towards the end of the book, Brown describes how a basilica might have looked around the year 600: glowing with candles, glittering with mosaics, gleaming with gold and silver vessels. 'The church itself', he says, 'had become a little heaven, filled with treasures.' It is a description irresistibly applicable to Peter Brown's own book: as rich a monument to the life of the mind as was any late Roman basilica to the life everlasting.
California Literary Review - Ed Voves
[A] predictably brilliant re-appraisal of the Roman world during the fourth to sixth centuries. . . . Through the Eye of a Needle is a vast book, but is remarkably readable. Brown's intimate knowledge of Augustine and his times is presented with human empathy and a sense of the relevance of these long-ago events. . . . [T]he latter chapters of Through the Eye of a Needle contain much essential information about the establishment of Christian influence throughout Europe following Rome's fall. . . . [A] wonderful book.
JourneywithJesus.net - Dan Clendenin
Peter Brown, professor emeritus at Princeton University and the leading historian of late antiquity, has written a masterful study. . . . His book is characterized by lively prose, mastery of the primary sources and original languages, comprehensive use of changes in the study of antiquities (especially the 'material culture' of archaeology), gorgeous plates, nearly 300 pages of bibliographic end material, and a number of important revisions to the standard historiography.
Guardian - Tim Whitmarsh
His sparkling prose, laced with humour and humanity, brings his subjects to life with an uncommon sympathy and feeling for their situation.
Gumbo - Ray Saadi
Brown, in this masterful history, makes the writings of Augustine, Ambrose and Jerome more accessible to the average reader, and scholars will welcome the voluminous notes and index.
Christianity Today - Peter Leithart
[D]eliriously complicated. . . . 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.
Organiser - R. Balashankar
Thoroughly researched, making use of the new materials that have emerged in the recent years, The Eye of the Needle is a scholarly work not just on early Christianity but relates its growth to the later developments and offers a new reading of the old sayings. It definitely is a source book for readers on religion and society.
New York Times Book Review - Garry Wills
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.
New Republic - G. W. Bowersock
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.
Executive Director of the Institute of Public Affa n Roskam

A fascinating book by the great historian of late antiquity, Peter Brown, on the development of Christianity in Rome. . . . Through the Eye of a Needle is a serious work of scholarship and an important study about how Rome became Christian.
Bryn Mawr Classical Reviews - Kyle Harper
Its achievement is plain. It explores, with Brown's characteristically profound empathy, the great paradox of how a church with a world- and wealth-denying ideology came to acquire temporal riches and respectability. . . . [H]is approach is to offer the reader extraordinarily vivid portraits of individual Christian thinkers faced with the moral contradictions of worldly riches. . . . This much anticipated book, described by Brown as 'the most difficult book to write that I have ever undertaken,' fulfils expectations. Its success is grounded in its unerring moral balance. 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. . . . It is the virtue of Through the Eye of a Needle that it prompts and enables one to think about the largest questions. It is a gift to have such a beautiful, authoritative, and humane study that cuts to the heart of all that is most challenging in the relationship between the spiritual and the material in late antiquity.
Choice
Brown . . . offers a masterful study on how converting to Christianity transformed the ways that economic elites in Europe and North Africa viewed their own wealth's source and purpose. A vivid storyteller, Brown transforms evidence from written, archaeological, and material sources into compelling portraits of early Christian leaders like Ambrose and Augustine. . . . [Through the Eye of a Needle] will quickly become required reading for students of early Christianity and late ancient history, but others interested in history and theological studies also will find it engaging.
Christian Century - Walter Brueggemann
Compelling. . . . One can see in Brown's narrative that the disputes of the fourth century stand between the old civic generosity and a new concern for otherworldliness. Perhaps that transitory radicality could not be sustained. But it has bequeathed to the church a 'conglomerate of notions' that link the wealth of the church, the care of the poor and the fate of the soul.
Library Journal
Well known for his biography of Augustine of Hippo and his other books on religion in the era of late antiquity, Brown (history, emeritus, Princeton Univ.) traces in this newest work the establishment of the early Christian Church and its tense, complicated relationship with money in the western Roman Empire. Beginning just after the rule of the first Christian emperor, Constantine, and with extensive references to the lives and writings of major Christian writers, Brown traces the growth of the Church and the evolution of what it meant to be a Christian in this era—in particular, the religion's gradual impact on the social ideas of privilege and philanthropy, and how these ideas affected the people of the empire in ways both material and spiritual. VERDICT The sheer scope of this history is daunting, but scholars, theologians, and anyone interested in late Roman history or early Christianity will find this a fascinating view not only of the Church's development, but also of the changing concepts of wealth and poverty in the last centuries of the Roman empire.—Kathleen McCallister, Univ. of South Carolina Lib., Columbia
Kirkus Reviews
Render unto Caesar, quoth the New Testament--even when Caesar is the church that Peter built. Brown (Poverty and Leadership in the Later Roman Empire, 2002, etc.) may be an emeritus professor of history at Princeton, but his research is resolutely up-to-date. So, too, is his language, as when he writes of a particular trope of the late Roman historian Ammianus, "this was no nostalgia trip on his part," and when he describes the imposition of the rule of celibacy on the priesthood as "consumer driven." That last makes particular sense in the context of this sizable book, in which Brown examines the long conflict between Christ-like immiseration and episcopal opulence, a conflict that has its roots in the economic history of the late Roman Empire. In that time, writes the author, there was an uneasy concord between the ruling nobility and the peasantry during a time when barbarian invasions and civil war were the new normal. When the empire dissolved, one way for a wealthy Christian to feel holy was to renounce wealth entirely in the way of the monks; another was to give all his money to the rising church, in which the monks took the place of all the poor outside the walls of the cloister. "Gifts to the city gained fame in this world and this world only," writes Brown. "By contrast, gifts within the churches were thought to join this world to a boundless world beyond the stars." Brown charts the growth of the church's "financial muscle," venturing intriguing asides as he proceeds on such matters as pagan vestiges within the beliefs of the church and lay society alike--the supernatural connection, for instance, of wealth to the turning of the seasons--and the fact that the ranks of the early Christian church were filled not by the meek and the poor, but instead by "moderately well-to-do townfolk." A hefty yet lucid contribution to the history of early Christianity.
From the Publisher

"[T]his book, like Brown's many others, has done [much] to illuminate the late-ancient world, and he has opened many avenues for others to continue exploring."--Michael Kulikowski, Catholic Historical Review

"Through the Eye of a Needle challenges the widely held notion that Christianity's growing wealth sapped Rome of its ability to resist the barbarian invasions, and offers a fresh perspective on the social history of the church in late antiquity."--World Book Industry

"In typical fashion, Peter Brown has delivered a text that is masterly in scale, broad in scope, . . . and admirable in readability for a large audience."--M.A. Gaumer, Ephemerides Theologicae Lovanienses

"In addition to vast erudition formed by a range of reading in well over a dozen languages, Brown has something of the cinematographer's ability to compose a narrative by moving between panoramas and individual close-ups. The results are often dazzling."--Patrick Cook, Cambrdige Humanities Review

"[T]his is an impressive and monumental piece of scholarship that casts western late antiquity into clearer relief than it has received. It will long be required reading for anyone wanting to understand the social realities of Christianity in the late antique West."--Geoffrey D. Dunn, Journal of Early Christian Studies

"Through the Eye of a Needle is Peter Brown at his best, his very best: a thoughtful and thought-provoking travel-guide whose beautiful prose opens up previously unseen horizons of real people living in a variety of landscapes around the Mediterranean at different moments in a period of epochal change that was fundamental for the making of Western European civilization. Using a fine brush and a light touch, Brown paints his pictures with a palette of an astonishingly broad and erudite up-to-date scholarship."--John Behr, Marginalia

"[C]learly a magisterial achievement. Through the Eye of a Needle should be read by anyone interested in the late Roman Empire, ancient Christianity, or the complex origins of attitudes towards wealth and poverty in the modern world."--Benjamin H. Dunning, European Legacy

"Through the Eye of the Needle will remain . . . as massive and reassuringly immovable landmarks in the horizon of our understanding."--Kate Cooper, Journal of Roman Studies

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780691152905
Publisher:
Princeton University Press
Publication date:
09/02/2012
Pages:
806
Sales rank:
481,316
Product dimensions:
6.50(w) x 9.30(h) x 2.00(d)

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