Bread and circuses

Issue: 138

Nick Evans

Review of Peter Brown (2012) Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of the Christian West: 350550 (Princeton University Press, 2012), £27.95

How did Christians come to be intensely relaxed about people being filthy rich? Peter Brown, a historian who has transformed ideas of the period once called the “Dark Ages”, uses this question to illuminate a world in crisis. This book may not yield the rich social history from below, or detailed economic history, that its opening section seems to promise. But through his presentation of the ideas of major late Roman writers and church leaders in relation to the changing world in which they lived, Peter Brown offers brilliant insights into the emergence of institutions and ideologies we think of as characteristic of the medieval west, and which continue to have major influence in our own time.

The title comes from a line attributed to Jesus: “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.” The Marxist historian Geoffrey de Ste Croix once drew attention to how this line, which appears in the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, came to be read by the figures who dominate this book. In only one version, that of Matthew, the line “if you would be perfect” is added in. This qualification, however, was taken up by all the commentators on the incident. Peter Brown’s focus on how figures such as Augustine of Hippo helped to take the sting out of Christian critiques of the rich leads him to present familiar texts and disputes in a startlingly new light.

Augustine’s dispute with the ascetic preacher Pelagius over the question of humans were inherently evil (Augustine supported the concept of “original sin”, which Pelagius challenged), was constantly revisited over the following centuries and became a major issue during the Reformation. Brown shows how the original discussion was all about wealth. Pelagius was no radical on this: he wrote to the notoriously rich Anicii family to reassure them that their wealth derived from their own virtues. This was conventional Roman wisdom on the subject, but Augustine argued wealth came from God alone. This may have been a less flattering message for late Roman aristocrats, but it had the useful effect of treating the origins of wealth as beyond discussion. Brown points out that it also enabled a “no questions asked” approach to donations to the church.

This happened precisely at a time when some Christians were beginning to enquire into the origins of ruling class wealth. An anonymous pamphlet called On Riches by a writer influenced by Pelagius put it simply: “If you take away the rich, you won’t find any poor” (p313). In the context of the weakening of Roman power in the early 5th century, the writer of the pamphlet pointed not only to the abuses of individual landowners, but to the whole fiscal and administrative system which underpinned their power. This contrasts with the preaching of the otherwise uncompromising figure of Ambrose of Milan, just a few decades earlier, whose criticisms of the rich remained confined to individual behaviour. By the mid-5th century Salvian of Gaul was squarely blaming the burdens of Roman taxation for the victories of the “barbarian” armies.

Alongside the critique of wealth is the question of giving. The Roman aristocracy had long traditions of self-promoting donations to their cities, from public building works to putting on lavish games. But their generosity was only directed to those with the privilege of citizenship. When some rich Romans started giving money to non-citizens Peter Brown reveals the contradictory motivations lying behind such donations. By giving to people to whom they felt they had no social obligations, their gift giving was, in a sense, simply the mirror image of the “ideal” commodity exchange: treating the poor as “others”, rather than “brothers”, in Brown’s words.

The absence of any feeling of obligation to the ordinary people from whom their wealth was derived is starkly revealed by Brown’s depiction of the behaviour of super-rich aristocrats Melania and Pinanius during the siege of Rome in 408 CE. The hagiography of Melania tells us that she was reminded of Jesus’s warning about the eye of a needle in a dream. So, just at the point when the Gothic armies stood outside the City of Rome, Melania and Pinanius suddenly informed 8,000 of their slaves that they had been emancipated, and thereby abandoned to their fate. It was, as Brown puts it, a context in which, “through renunciation, absentee lords became something worse than absent” (p296).

There are notable absences and imbalances in this book. It begins by responding to recent scholarship indicating late Roman urban civilisation as characterised by a sizeable population of people who belonged neither to the super-rich nor to the poor, and shows churches developing in such a milieu in the 4th century. But the rest of the book concentrates on a small number of exceptional writers largely drawn from higher social circles. Perhaps more surprisingly, it virtually doesn’t discuss slaves at all. Much of the economic evidence is dependent on material from Egypt, despite an opening promise to focus on regional diversity. However, by presenting the ideological conflicts over wealth in the period in such an original fashion, Brown has made a crucial contribution to understanding how the relationship between Western aristocrats and the church in the post-Roman period developed in the way it did.