by Peter Brown
Princeton University Press, 2012, 806 pp., $24.96
The specter of Rome still haunts our world, and particularly America. But it is not the burbling pot of today’s vast Italian metropolis, nor the Rome of the Renaissance or the Vatican, but Roma antiqua that shadows our imagination. Rome has this spectral quality for us not just because of its temporal mystique, but because it occupies a special place in our civilization’s self-consciousness. Ancient Rome is widely held to be a warning of what might happen to us. The story of Rome, from its splendor and achievement to its decline and collapse, is our memento mori.
So it has been from the start. The example of Rome, and its bloody slide from Republic to Empire, and thence from tyranny into senescence, shaped the Founders’ minds as powerfully as did the English Civil War. They drew from Rome’s history the main examples of republican virtue—Cato, Cincinnatus, Cicero—whereby they understood their own words and deeds. The very language of our republic is Roman: president, senate, congress, justice, veto, vote and republic. And the hopes and fears we have for our nation are still given shape by the course of Roman history. Geopolitical thinkers may insist that our current challenges are more like those of Thucydides’ era than those of Cicero or Suetonius, and they may be right; but from the 18th century on our worries have centered more on corruption, tyranny and luxury than hegemony. Our political language, our political imagination and even how we judge our nation’s providential course all derive not from Memphis or Athens or Ur or Persepolis or Babylon or even Jerusalem, but from Rome.
But they do so in no simple way. Rome furnishes neither simply the positive standard against which we judge ourselves, nor just the negative image of what threatens us. Through the shell game of implication, Rome teaches us not only about ourselves, but about our essential enemies, our “others”—first the specter of barbarian overthrow, and then the thousand-year reign of Christendom known as the Medieval period. The far temporal poles of Rome and modernity, with the Middle Ages smack in-between, still shape our imagination of what catastrophe, the end of civilization, looks like. We often understand ourselves lately as caught in a war with uncivilized barbarians, which is intensified by the fact that we’ve been fighting in lands well-known to ancient political thinkers: Babylon, Persia, Afghanistan (Alexander the Great founded Kandahar, known then as Alexandria Arachosias, in the 4th century BCE). This is so in high and not-so-high culture alike: zombie apocalypse, plague, asteroid strike and other imaginations of the end of civilization always look too much like what we imagine the fall of Rome to be for it to be entirely accidental.
Rome’s haunting of us is not a simple story also because many find that the imagined “other” to our world provides resources for criticizing the modern world’s shortcomings and constructing an alternative to it. From Roman Catholics to High-Church Anglicans to paleocon agrarians to Romantics and post-Romantics like John Ruskin, and a surprising number of French postmodernists, too, the “medieval” has symbolized an inexhaustible well of anti-modern fodder. It has generally offered itself up for modern use, along with a romantically (and problematically) reconstructed vocabulary featuring words like “tradition”, “place” and “identity.” If only we could get it right, they suggest, we moderns could avoid Rome’s fate not by flinging ourselves forward into who-knows-what, but by backpedaling to bliss. We could skip past tyranny, ostentatious excesses and total social breakdown to a cozier world in which unicorn tapestries hang on the wall while Morris dancers stomp happily on stone floors.
It is a complicated affair, finally, because of our inherited filters, which touch, disturbingly and inconclusively, on what happened to Rome between its rise and fall: Christianity. In a sense, the “end of Rome”, and the ancient Rome itself, that is so crucial to us is not that of the 1st or 5th but of the 18th century. It is not Cicero’s Rome, nor Augustus’s; it is rather Edward Gibbon’s.
ibbon is perhaps the least appreciated of the great English and Scottish Enlightenment thinkers. Newton gave us science; Hume, modern philosophy; Smith, economics; Locke, political philosophy; Johnson, the English language as penned in his Dictionary and his essays. Gibbon merely gave us history, so no wonder Americans tend not to value him much. But from the moment he finished his History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, as he says, on “the 27th of June, 1787, between the hours of eleven and twelve”, every historian has worked in his shadow.
This is because he had chosen for his topic the central historiographical problem of the West—indeed, the central problem of modernity itself. For European intellectuals of Gibbon’s age, and ages before, there was no historical puzzle more profound or more poignant than that of the fall of Rome. The accounts they had on offer were powerful but partial, and more like morality tales than what we recognize as history: Pagan sources narrated a moralistic vision of the simple decline of republican virtue due to decadence, while Christian ones saw impiety finally receiving its well-deserved comeuppance. All such accounts were based on an important truth about Rome: Its strength had always been more moral than material, more based on nerve and verve than on fortunate geography or resource endowments. Yet by the 18th century the traditional accounts of Rome’s fall had grown stale and unpersuasive in the light of the new rationality applied to all corners of human culture. Both seemed to take a symptom for the cause. The goal now was to figure out objectively, through history as a positive human science, what had caused the loss of nerve. In solving that puzzle, Gibbon gave people of his age not just a new way to look at the past, but a new way to understand their own world.
That was deliberate, for Gibbon never aimed at mere antiquarianism. His History may have been shorn of moralism, but it definitely had a moral. His main point was that Rome fell because of Christianity, because of what he called the “triumph of barbarism and religion.” His version of the story was therefore not only unprecedented but also scandalous and shocking. No one had so explicitly linked the fall of Rome to the rise of Christianity, and it was fundamentally a moral argument despite the trappings of its more rational historical method. The Christians not only failed to commit themselves to the good of the civitas; worse, due to their training in obeisance to a tyrannical sky-god, they were easy marks for the tyrants who increasingly came to covet the imperial purple. For Gibbon, Christianity’s resolute otherworldliness, both in the aims it professed and the virtues of mercy and piety it commended, worked as an acid on the Roman state and psyche alike.
And the modern moral of the story? For Gibbon, doctrinal Christianity (that is, institutional Christianity) is destructive of good social order and good individual character because it fuels superstition, ecclesiastical factionalism and an anti-worldly animus as regards the fundamental realities of our created condition. Christianity is held hostile to the facts that we are beings located in one place (Christianity’s universalism undercut people’s loyalty to Rome); at one point of time (Christianity is uninterested in history because it is fixated on an endlessly deferred but already scripted apocalypse); embodied and sexualized (Christianity encouraged a destructive asceticism); and in a situation that warrants not close-minded dogmatism but openness to experience that culminates in a deep metaphysical agnosticism (Christians were hostile to the wisest philosophical position by far, namely “pyrrhonic” skepticism or, at best, minimal theism). In this vision the two worlds of classical antiquity and Christianity were ineluctably opposed: Gibbon was, in this way, a follower of Machiavelli, properly understood, and an anticipation of Nietzsche a century later.
Gibbon’s story of the martial glories of Rome undone by the unworldliness of Christianity made the book’s fame, and its author’s fortune and notoriety. Gibbon soon recognized that his tale was overdrawn; later volumes of Decline and Fall tell a more nuanced story of the interactions between a rising Christianity and a declining imperium Romanum. But the damage had been done. Gibbon had produced a treasure-chest of arguments against Christendom, and against the religious and moral underpinnings of that civilization.
So it was that among the enlightened of Europe, Christianity came to be seen with pagan Roman eyes peeking out beneath an 18th-century periwig.1 In his History we see for the first time the full range of arguments and attitudes against Christianity that have been deployed by thinkers over the past two centuries. And these arguments took stronger hold in the common imagination in the enormously influential writings of Oswald Spengler and, later, Arnold Toynbee. While these writers did not approach Christianity in precisely the way that Gibbon did, they appropriated his cultural declinism, his cyclical analysis and his ever so lightly shrouded moral purpose.
Gibbon’s achievement still endures today: His story is still the fundamental frame through which people understand not just Rome, but the past from which modernity emerged. Scholars still explore late Roman history in his footsteps, judges cite him as an authoritative sage, and intellectuals still argue about religion and politics in fundamentally Gibbonian terms.2 Books as diverse as Mark Lilla’s The Stillborn God, Martha Nussbaum’s The New Religious Intolerance, and anything by Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris are variations on a Gibbonian theme: Doctrinal, institutional religion is crude, uncultivated and prone to violence, whereas a skeptical classicism, naturally agnostic (though tending toward polytheism) and pluralistic, is open-minded, healthfully curious and welcoming of otherness. It is also, above all, tolerant, particularly of abstruse metaphysical differences, despite the fact that efforts to resolve such differences have frequently provoked disputes whose rational interminability is ultimately handled by appeals to brute force. Hence, while most literate people have never read Gibbon, the culture they inhabit has been shaped by his story in ways far more fundamental than almost any other modern influence.
Leaving aside for the moment whether Gibbon’s characterization of Christianity’s impact on Rome was correct, we can see that his lauding of Roman paganism was not. He softballed the savagery and brutality of Rome, to other peoples and to its own, in a way that flattered his readers’ picture of themselves. He anesthetized their self-critical faculties in ways bemoaned by later critics of liberalism’s smugness, from Tocqueville and Mill all the way to Lionel Trilling. Indeed, much of the weakness that Trilling diagnosed in the “liberal imagination” can be laid at Gibbon’s door, particularly its blindness to the limits on its ability to understand positions radically different from its own, both barbarians and believers, as it were.
t is only in our lifetime that a rival story to that of Gibbon has emerged with enough imaginative power, intellectual verve and scholarly fortitude to challenge and perhaps replace it. This is the story of the field known in academia as “Late Antiquity”, and it is a story we can tell due largely to the efforts of one of the greatest scholars of our age: the historian Peter Brown.
Outside the academy, Brown is known for his almost unbearably vivid 1969 biography Augustine of Hippo. From the title forward (no “Saint” here, just the quick lad from Hippo), it was clear Brown was after the human Augustine, and he did more than anyone else before or since to capture that protean figure. He wrote that book while in his twenties, but as monumental an achievement as it would have been for a scholar of any age, it was just a warm-up for Brown, who was already slowly carving out a new vision of ancient history captured by “Late Antiquity.” In the nearly half century since, that is what he has been up to, leading finally to Through the Eye of a Needle.
“Late Antiquity” is an innocuous-sounding bit of scholarly subterfuge. Surely the era of Antiquity came to an end, and just before it did it can be considered, in its last stages, “late”, right? Ah, but for classical scholars, as for Gibbon, the ancient world was the pre-Christian one. Once Christianity seriously arrives on the scene the ancient world comes quickly, shudderingly, to an end and something else begins: the Middle Ages, the Dark Ages, what have you. Furthermore, the adjacent field of theo-historical scholarship, “Patristics”—the study of the Greek and Latin Church Fathers in the first eight or so centuries of Christianity—was happy to collaborate in this historiographical disjuncture, because for Patristics scholars it is an inconvenient truth that figures such as Augustine or Ambrose or Eusebius or Gregory of Nyssa have much more in common with their pagan Stoic or Neoplatonic near-contemporaries than they do with later Christian theologians. For both these fields, then, the phrase “late antiquity” is like a father’s unacknowledged illegitimate child showing up at Thanksgiving dinner. It means that the classical world is not so crisply distinct from the medieval, that the blood is mixed, producing continuities and complexities that the ancien régime of Christendom had refused to acknowledge.
“Late Antiquity” is not just a conceptual challenge, but an institutional one as well. It is an attempt to offer a rival institutional framework within which to study the period from around 200 to 800 CE. (The Oxford Modern History curriculum of Brown’s undergraduate days had modernity beginning in 400 AD; before that it was “Ancient History.”) Brown’s revisionism has generated new programs of graduate study and effectively transformed scholarship on the era. Rival grand narratives in history do not, however, directly argue with one another, like fleets doing battle. They are better seen through the structure of an ecological model, as different dominant species fitted for different ecological epochs. As any ambitious academic knows, the best way to change a conversation is to create a new academic field, and the best way to do that is not to argue a thesis (such as “the ancient world did not end in 315 AD”) but to identify and make pressing a puzzle (such as “when are we definitively in a post-classical world?”). That is precisely why Brown’s isolation of the period named “Late Antiquity” was so brilliant: It posed just the right puzzle at just the right time.
Of course, Brown has been engaged in more than a disciplinary or curricular squabble. His work all along has aimed to dethrone the intellectual underpinnings of that curriculum (that is, Gibbon’s story) and defeat it in detail. Brown’s early work on “the holy man” in late antiquity and his major 1988 book The Body and Society rendered the story of asceticism far more complicated, connecting pagan spiritual practices with medieval monastic regimens. His work on the rise of bishops as significant figures in the first six Christian centuries recast the question of patriotism and “local attachments” in the ancient world, in part by showing how Christian conceptions of spiritual leadership developed in deep conversation with Greek and Roman notions of authority and charisma (Latin- and Greek-derived terms, respectively). His exploration of the “cult of the saints” asked fundamental questions about the relationship between elite theology and popular piety, as relevant to our society as to that of late antiquity.
The unity in Brown’s manifold has been clear throughout: to undermine the idea of a radical and tidy caesura between eras. If the historian’s first task is to remind us of the differences that separate now from then, their ultimate aim is to explain how the now and the then are both part of a single story. Indeed, Brown gives us a picture of the past as vivid as any historian ever has, but one whose details, each in themselves and collectively, lure our attention away from any simple theoretical themes. It plunges us fully and joyfully into the (at least at first) incoherent, immanent reality of the past. In all these ways, Brown is perhaps the preeminent historian of our age.
ow he has published his masterpiece. Through the Eye of a Needle, in some ways the capstone of his career, is the most direct, though still somewhat covert, confrontation with Gibbon’s “grand narrative” that we are likely to have from him. He offers it as a “social history of Latin Christianity” from 350–550, though it is perhaps more intelligently put as an attempt to answer a simple question: How did the “middle ages” begin, and what was that era’s relation to the classical world that came before it?
Brown pursues an answer by investigating the changing understandings of this-worldly wealth and material property in these centuries. The classical view shared by both non-Christians and early Christians at the beginning of the 4th century understood wealth as a gift of a numinous yet immanent natura, bestowed on some to enjoy but also for them to shower on their homeland, their patria (typically understood as a city) in gratitude for such munificence. Wealth that could not be in large part shared was not wealth at all. The imperium Romanum was an empire of gifts, bound together by the cords of philanthropy, within the various provinces and cities and, via the Emperor, among them as well.
The rising Christian church did not at first trouble this understanding much, for it did not have much wealth, and what it possessed it mostly spent on the new constituency of “the poor”, a social class the church imagined into existence. But then, in the 4th century, things began to change. Truly wealthy people entered the church, and the “inner structures” of cultural understanding began to shift, even as much of the outward appearance of the old Roman amor civicus, “civic love”, floated more or less stably on the surface. Among these “new men” were figures like Augustine of Hippo, as high culture a fellow in his own day as any Soho-based filmmaker of our own; Ambrose of Milan, a late antique version of a State Department envoy or Davos Man; and Paulinus of Nola, the scion of a family whose wealth would rival that of Warren Buffett today. When these figures entered the Church the problem of what to do about all the good stuff of this life came into focus. How was one supposed to manage personal property and the opulence of immense estates, and how was one to understand that management in light of the salvation they all sought and preached?
Their strategies were diverse, but all moved in the direction of a more complicated and fraught attitude toward worldly wealth. Ambrose offered a critique of avarice that was almost the first serious radical critique of the entire social order of the time. Augustine developed an ethos of common life and a critique of private property that can be seen as a basis for much later forms of socialism and that has injected a certain theological suspicion of the very idea of privacy into all later Western Christian thought. (So Spengler was not wrong when he wrote that Christian theology was the “grandmother of Bolshevism.”) Paulinus, perhaps most influentially, built a kind of “highway in the mind” between the right use of wealth in this life and a felicitous destination in the next, a “spiritual exchange” or commerce, a commercium spiritale. This amounted to a kind of reverse Calvinism: Be generous and get saved, rather than be saved and get in a position to be generous.
Along with the emergence of this new Christian way of thinking, large-scale social changes were reshaping the inner hydraulics of Roman society, the dynamic flows of power, legitimacy and wealth. The age’s unexamined confidence that its wealth could be perpetually sustained was mistaken. The vast wealth of the Empire in the 2nd century was due to the tremendous over-exploitation of land. It was a “golden age” in retrospect because pre-modern wealth was largely extracted from the earth through agriculture and not (as in our world) created through trade. All was well as long as the economy stayed within certain bounds; when it strayed beyond them, there was an inevitable recoil, as there was in the 4th and 5th centuries. New social facts then appeared: The clergy were slowly emerging as a powerful “third estate” between the old aristocracy and the new wealth of, if not a middle class, people of sufficient wealth to never fear abject immiseration. The church was emerging as a powerful social reality around which other social forces learned to arrange themselves.
Nonetheless, the life of a Roman citizen in 395 or 400 had a fair amount of continuity with his ancestors two centuries before, at least on the surface. He was still a civis Romani, a citizen of Rome, and Rome’s imperium had now lasted for as many as 600 years in much of the territory it claimed, and as much as 1,000 years in the central part of Italy. In those 600 years there had only been one serious existential threat to Rome, namely, Carthage; and that city had been wiped from the earth more than five hundred years before. The permanence and stability of such a culture is hard for us to conceive. Imagine a government of any European state in place for the past five hundred years, and you begin to glimpse the sort of complacency that the people of late antiquity would have felt. (They would never have thought of themselves as “late”, for starters.)
Then, suddenly, everything changed. On New Year’s Eve 405, the Rhine froze and barbarian tribes poured over the frontier from Germania. They were not bent on rampage and pillage—not at first anyway; they developed a taste for it by having served as mercenaries for various claimants to the throne of the Western Empire in the civil wars of the 5th century. In those wars their pay was their plunder, the very wealth over which the various claimants were fighting. In the course of their business they ravaged Gaul and Spain and eventually reached North Africa. When Augustine died in 430, his city of Hippo was under Vandal siege.
In the summer of 410 Rome was besieged by another wandering barbarian people, the Visigoths, who had been let in the empire earlier, partially as refugees and partially (again) as useful mercenaries. While it was no longer the imperial capital (the Emperor had moved to Milan in the 3rd century, and then Ravenna in the 5th), the sack of Rome was a shock to imperial morale. But the body blow came from the barbarians flowing across the Rhine, who ravaged and then settled in the richest parts of the Western Empire. Their actions, and the complicity of those who hired them, left the West a series of fractured kingdoms, an impoverished husk of its former self.
Dreams of unity faded as the magnificent opulence of the earlier world was lost to rubble and ruin, preserved only in relics and myths about giants who built the causeways and aqueducts and walls and gates and then disappeared. Cities shrank precipitously; while early Christianity had been primarily urban (the word paganus originally meant one from the country), Brown sees in the 5th and 6th centuries the rise of as a truly rural Christianity. Monks in monasteries clinging to the coast of Ireland, huddled in their rough wool robes and stone huts against the North Atlantic’s gales, traced out texts they could barely understand, which had been written in marble palaces beside warm seas by scribes and scholars clad in fine linens and silk. Society had undergone a “great simplification” into priests, warriors and farmers (the old triumvirate of oratores-bellatores-laboratores—“those who pray”, “those who fight” and “those who labor”). And there emerged a vast “coral reef of institutions devoted to intercession” between this world and the next.
All this led to a new understanding of wealth, community and the individual soul, an understanding that gripped European minds for a millennium. Yet it was no dark age, but an “age of light”, even if the light was now otherworldly, glowing from beyond the grave. Fundamental change had occurred: Augustine could readily have conversed with Julius Caesar, who lived five hundred years before him, further from his time than Calvin or Luther are from ours. But were he to try to converse with Clovis, who fifty years in the future was first King of the Merovingian dynasty in what had already begun to resemble France, the prospects for mutual understanding would have been far bleaker, despite the commonalities of Latin Christianity.
Brown’s story extends to 550, but a good case can be made that the years around 529 are the truly decisive ones. In that year Saint Benedict founded Monte Cassino; the Second Council of Orange established Augustine’s theology of grace and free will as normative for the Latin churches; and the Eastern Emperor Justinian closed the (pagan) Platonic Academy in Athens and issued the Codex Justinianus of imperial law, and was already drawing up plans for the reconquest of the West, which began in 533. (For sense of scale, remember that Justinian’s Eastern Empire still had over 900 years to run, which is more than the imperium Romanum had behind it at that point.) Several years before, Boethius had been executed, and he was the last lay philosopher in the West for almost a thousand years. Several years later, Cassiodorus founded his monastery, committed to passing on Roman antiquity to future generations of Christians.
Does this mean that Brown has simply pushed the boundary of the ancient world up a bit, so that some Christians are essentially Romans but the rest remain medieval barbarians? Not at all. Augustine and his contemporaries looked forward as well as back, however blindly. Indeed, Augustine knew he was far more part of the future than the past, that his words would live on well past his flesh (one major reason he wrote his Retractationes, perhaps the first book attempting to give future readers the “correct” hermeneutical key to understand his own writing). They knew the future would be decisively shaped by what they said and did, and Brown shows us what in their thought was decisive for the centuries that followed.
In this as in all things, Brown’s basic aim is to show that, pace Gibbon, the world of antiquity was never “lost” to us. It did not end; it was overlaid. We still live in a world deeply infused by its energies and its understandings, in no small part because the Christendom that came after it was itself an attempt to inherit that civilization as best it could. Gibbon’s charming picture of two rival worlds, two incommensurable civilizations, is for Brown more modern ideology than historiographical reality. The distinction between “ancient” and “medieval”—and by implication, between “medieval” and “modern”—is as much a gate as it is a wall. By showing us that gate, and by giving us the key to it, Brown’s achievement must rank with Gibbon’s as one of the greatest intellectual and imaginative accomplishments of recent centuries.
ith any work so vast, one can quibble. Brown’s decisions entail that some stories are underplayed. He is so social and material an historian that he sometimes neglects intellectual life, especially Scriptural exegesis. The text from which the book’s title is taken, for example, is only slightly touched on; yet as Brown knows, its proper understanding was the object of considerable anxiety in these centuries. Because Brown is deeply interested in the self-consciousness of the age, he sometimes seems to avoid getting caught up in textual analysis, preferring to gather evidence more widely than deeply.
Most deeply, I wonder if for all its brilliance his ambition is futile. After all, Gibbon’s project succeeded in no small part because he was working in the popular media of his day: books, the most powerful instrument of intellectual exchange. Through them, he was able to influence the concentrated and focused elites of his time, and in so doing shape the way the past was taught and the present construed, for centuries to come. Brown is also working in books, but books have become much less relevant to the shaping of the elite imagination. But it is hard to imagine compressing this work into a TED talk or a series of tweets.
What does Brown’s different approach do to the popular habit of analogizing America, and the modern world in general, to ancient Rome? It alerts us to the fact that our imagination of future disaster is just another product of our history. Contemporary scholars of Ancient Rome tell us that the Romans’ own understanding of the challenges they faced and the decline they suffered—an understanding revealed in writers like Ammianus Marcellinus and Zosimus—was quite different from the story that Gibbon bequeathed to us; and if Brown is right, the real story of that age was quite different from what either Zosimus or Gibbon said it was. Such an achievement, properly digested, will work to refigure a great deal of our own self-understanding, for as I have said, Rome has always been “Rome”, as much a mythology as a place, and a mythology that has played no small role in our flawed picture of ourselves and the dangers we face. Insofar as Brown’s work helps us escape that mythology, he may be, ironically enough, fulfilling the vocation of the Enlightenment thinker that Gibbon thought himself to be fulfilling as well.
Such ironies aside, Through the Eye of a Needle is both a magnificent book in its own right and a wonderful entrepôt into Brown’s larger body of work. As a book of beguiling stories, it charms; as a work of intellectual heft, it impresses; as a product of a lifetime of scholarship, the likes of which it is hard to imagine seeing again, it awes.1For a very fine(-grained) analysis of Gibbon’s impact, see J.G.A. Pocock’s apparently interminable (almost as long as Gibbon’s Decline and Fall) Barbarism and Religion, now into Vol. V: Religion, the First Triumph (Cambridge University Press, 2010).2See Bryan Ward-Perkins, The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization (Oxford University Press, 2005) and Peter Heather, The Fall of the Roman Empire (Oxford University Press, 2005). In a surprising example, Judge Richard Posner recently cited Gibbon in an opinion on Doe v. Elmbrook School District.