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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

Copyright Date: 2012
Pages: 806
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    Through the Eye of a Needle
    Book Description:

    Jesus taught his followers that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter heaven. Yet by the fall of Rome, the church was becoming rich beyond measure.Through the Eye of a Needleis a sweeping intellectual and social history of the vexing problem of wealth in Christianity in the waning days of the Roman Empire, written by the world's foremost scholar of late antiquity.

    Peter Brown examines the rise of the church through the lens of money and the challenges it posed to an institution that espoused the virtue of poverty and called avarice the root of all evil. Drawing on the writings of major Christian thinkers such as Augustine, Ambrose, and Jerome, Brown examines the controversies and changing attitudes toward money caused by the influx of new wealth into church coffers, and describes the spectacular acts of divestment by rich donors and their growing influence in an empire beset with crisis. He shows how the use of wealth for the care of the poor competed with older forms of philanthropy deeply rooted in the Roman world, and sheds light on the ordinary people who gave away their money in hopes of treasure in heaven.

    Through the Eye of a Needlechallenges 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.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-4453-1
    Subjects: History, Economics, Religion

Table of Contents

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    (pp. xvii-xviii)
  2. PART I Wealth, Christianity, and Giving at the End of an ancient World

    • CHAPTER 1 Aurea aetas: Wealth in an Age of Gold
      (pp. 3-30)

      In this chapter we will start with general considerations. We will deal first with the distinctive manner in which wealth and social status came together in roman society. Then we will look at the way in which wealth was taken from the land. After this, we will focus on a single century. We will attempt to sketch, inevitably briefly, the structure of upper-class society in the Latin West in the fourth century AD. We will look at what was, in many ways, a new society, where new forms of status and new ways of showing wealth had emerged as a...

    • CHAPTER 2 Mediocritas The Social Profile of the Latin Church, 312—ca. 370
      (pp. 31-52)

      This chapter is about the christianity of the roman West in the period roughly between the conversion of constantine in 312 and the election of Ambrose as bishop of Milan in 374. it is not easy to approach this period, as it is a tantalizingly transitional age.

      By contrast, we are used to the more brilliant—indeed, more strident—Latin christianity of the late fourth and early fifth centuries. This was the age of Ambrose, Jerome, Augustine, and Paulinus of nola. it has been aptly characterized by sir ronald syme as the last (and in many ways the richest) of...

    • CHAPTER 3 Amor civicus: Love of the city Wealth and its Uses in an Ancient World
      (pp. 53-71)

      In this chapter and the next, I will attempt to juxtapose non- Christian and Christian attitudes toward wealth and giving. In doing this, I will seek to avoid stark contrasts between the two groups, based on purely abstract considerations. Rather, I shall begin by pointing to the large middle ground of attitudes shared by Christians and non- Christians alike. Both groups, as we will see, placed wealth, as it were, on parole. Both insisted that the possession of wealth should be legitimized (or at least be given a more gentle face) by acts of generosity.

      yet when it came to...

    • CHAPTER 4 “Treasure in Heaven” Wealth in the Christian Church
      (pp. 72-92)

      In conjuring up christian attitudes toward wealth and poverty in the Latin West at the end of the fourth century we will often find ourselves in the world of the christian sermon. There is nothing strange about this. In her groundbreaking studyChristianity and the Rhetoric of Empire, Averil cameron speaks of christian sermons as “the hidden iceberg” in the life of the christian communities.¹ Regular preaching—week in and week out, community by community—was the air the Christian churches breathed. The formal works of Christian authors, which now fill so many shelves in our libraries, are mere islands...

  3. PART II An Age of Affluence

    • CHAPTER 5 Symmachus Being Noble in Fourth-Century Rome
      (pp. 93-109)

      It is usual to approach the Roman nobleman Quintus Aurelius Symmachus (ca. 340–ca. 402) as if he were a “contemporary ancestor” of the Christians of his time. He is often presented as an isolated figure, cut off from the brave new world of a triumphant Christianity by his traditional paganism, by his loyalty to the senate of rome, and by his choice of Rome and old-world Campania as his favored places of residence. yet this is not so. Symmachus was never out of touch with the world around him. He may well have been on personal terms with Ambrose...

    • CHAPTER 6 Avidus civicae gratiae: Avidus civicae gratiae Greedy for the good favor of the City Symmachus and the People of Rome
      (pp. 110-119)

      In 370 AD the city of rome was probably the largest human agglomeration on earth. Its population has been variously estimated at half a million to a million.¹ What can be deduced with greater certainty from official documents is that, out of this shadowy mass, 120,000 to 200,000 members of thepopulus Romanusdepended (in the manner described in chapter 3) on the arrival of over 175,000 tons of grain, gathered principally from the hinterland of Africa and shipped from its coastal cities to the port of Ostia. This great levy of grain was the heart of theannona civica...

    • CHAPTER 7 Ambrose and His People
      (pp. 120-134)

      With hindsight, it is difficult to realize the extent to which the election of Ambrose as bishop of Milan in 374 and his subsequent activities as a public figure, up to his death in 397, came as a surprise. His election was an unforeseen event whose impact on the Christian churches of the West was both a symptom and a cause of changes in the texture of Christianity that were more decisive, in the long run, than had been the conversion of Constantine in 312 AD. This chapter and the next will concentrate on the nature of Ambrose’s impact. They...

    • CHAPTER 8 “Avarice, the Root of All Evil” Ambrose and Northern Italy
      (pp. 135-147)

      By the time Ambrose came to write the Deofficiis, at the end of the 380s, the mood of terror sparked by the disaster of Adrianople in 378 had passed. Northern Italy settled down to a period of prosperity, linked to the presence of an imperial court. From 383 to 388, under Valentinian II and then on occasions under Theodosius I, Milan was an imperial capital. The court brought to the upper classes of the region the benefits of the late Roman age of gold. Fortunes were to be made in Milan, either through government service or through exploiting the...

    • CHAPTER 9 Augustine Spes saeculi Careerism, Patronage, and Religious Bonding, 354–384
      (pp. 148-160)

      To turn to Augustine (354–430) is to meet a figure from a different region and from a very different social world from that of Ambrose. The story of Augustine begins in Africa, and after a hiatus of less than five years spent in italy, it picks up again in Africa. A younger man than Ambrose, Augustine outlived the bishop of Milan by thirty-three years. It was from Africa, as bishop of Hippo, that Augustine witnessed the unfolding of a crisis of empire, from the Gothic sack of Rome in 410 onward, that was more drastic than Ambrose and any...

    • CHAPTER 10 From Milan to Hippo Augustine and the Making of a religious community, 384–396
      (pp. 161-172)

      When Augustine took the road from Rome to Milan in late 384, it might have seemed as if he had succeeded in making his way to the top of the Roman world. The imperial court was at Milan. But we must remember that this court was only one of three imperial courts set up in different parts of the immense empire. It was the smallest and the least successful. It was flanked by strong and ambitious rulers. The emperor Theodosius was firmly installed at Constantinople. Gaul and Spain were ruled from Trier by Maximus, who had recently ousted and killed...

    • CHAPTER 11 “The Life in Common of a Kind of Divine and Heavenly Republic” Augustine on Public and Private in a Monastic Community
      (pp. 173-184)

      From the time of his ordination as a priest at Hippo in 391 to his death in 430, Augustine’s life and thought were inextricably linked to the monastery that he had founded. Its importance in his life is obvious. But, unfortunately, the precise course of its development as an institution is shadowy. For most of the time, except when provoked by the occasional scandal, he took the existence of the monastic backdrop to his daily life for granted and seldom discussed it. As a result, it remains for us the dark side of the moon of the life of Augustine.


    • CHAPTER 12 Ista vero saecularia: Those things, indeed, of the world Ausonius, villas and the Language of Wealth
      (pp. 185-207)

      Pontius Meropius Paulinus is known to us now as Paulinus of Nola. He was almost exactly the same age as Augustine. When they first made contact with each other (in 395, a year after Paulinus’s definitive rejection of his wealth), each had just entered their forties. Both had made drastic changes in their lives in their mid-thirties. Augustine, the son of a modest town councillor, had abandoned a promising career. Along with a group of his friends he had thought himself ever deeper and deeper into the ideal of a life in a small community radically stripped of private wealth....

    • CHAPTER 13 Ex opulentissimo divite: From being rich as rich can be Paulinus of Nola and the Renunciation, of Wealth, 389– 395
      (pp. 208-223)

      The great villas of Aquitaine have been described by Catherine Balmelle as “dynamic and complex places . . . that lay at the heart of a network of sociability.”¹ This is certainly how they appeared to Ausonius in the poignant last decade of his life, after he had left the court of trier in 383. In his letters and poems, he presented the region around Bordeaux as a charmed world, held together by the punctilious exchange of poems and of little gifts of food between like-minded neighbors.

      It was important for Ausonius that this world should hold together. For behind...

    • CHAPTER 14 Commercium spiritale: The spiritual exchange Paulinus of Nola and the Poetry of Wealth, 395– 408
      (pp. 224-240)

      Between 395 and 408, Paulinus wrote a yearly poem for the festival of Saint Felix of Nola. In these poems, he wished his readers to know that he had always been destined to serve saint Felix at his tomb. As a result, we tend to take very much for granted Paulinus’s move to Campania and his taking up residence beside the shrine of Felix at Cimitile—the cemetery—on the outskirts of Nola. We assume that, in arriving at Nola, in 395, Paulinus had realized his goal in life. This was “to end his days at Nola, serving the altar...

    • CHAPTER 15 Propter magnificentiam urbis Romae: By reason of the magnificence of the city of Rome The Roman Rich and Their Clergy, from Constantine to Damasus, 312–384
      (pp. 241-258)

      In the fourth century, Rome was still a stupendous city. A traveler who entered Rome from the south through the Appian Gate would take an hour of brisk walking through a landscape of continuous stone and brick before finally exiting the city at its northern end through the Salarian Gate. The same traveler could have walked through Trier in twenty minutes. The traveler would have passed through monumental areas that were calculated to leave the visitor stunned.¹ On all sides of the monumental center, a population of over half a million was squeezed into high, rickety buildings in the valleys...

    • CHAPTER 16 “To Sing The Lord’s Song in a Strange Land” Jerome in Rome, 382–385
      (pp. 259-272)

      Damasus knew how to act as a patron of the arts. He liked to summon experts and put them to work. He wanted the best. The exquisite lettering for the verses he wrote for the tombs of the martyrs in the catacombs had been designed by one such expert—Furius Dionysius Filocalus.

      Filocalus worked for noblemen and women. On one occasion, he composed and executed an inscription for a bathhouse set up by the elder Melania, a Spaniard and a wealthy relative by marriage of Paulinus of Nola, on one of her estates in north Africa. He was one of...

    • CHAPTER 17 Between Rome and Jerusalem Women, Patronage, and Learning, 385–412
      (pp. 273-290)

      We must never underestimate the fierce intellectualism of many upper-class romans. This intellectual commitment had long roots. In advocating monasticism and intensive meditation on the Scriptures, Jerome claimed to have brought to Rome an exciting novelty from the East. In fact, he had many pagan predecessors. Those to whose palaces he came could look back to at least one and a half centuries of teach-ins conducted by spiritual mentors from the eastern provinces.

      When the great Neo-Platonic philosopher Plotinus came from egypt to rome around 243 he found himself at the center of a whole circle of zealous romans. Women...

  4. PART III An Age of Crisis

    • CHAPTER 18 “The Eye of a Needle” and “The Treasure of the Soul” Renunciation, Nobility, and the Sack of Rome, 405–413
      (pp. 291-307)

      What is commonly known to us as the Pelagian Controversy has often been treated as a theological event involving a fundamental clash of ideas between Augustine of Hippo and the followers of Pelagius. In these two chapters, however, we will look at the controversy from a different angle. The Pelagian controversy was also an incident in the history of the christian aristocracy of Rome. It coincided with a crisis of wealth within this aristocracy, occurring at a time when the Gothic invasion of italy and the subsequent sack of Rome in 410 ensured that Christian debates on wealth, renunciation, and...

    • CHAPTER 19 Tolle divitem: Take away the rich The Pelagian Criticism of Wealth
      (pp. 308-321)

      Pelagius’sLetter to Demetriaswas a celebratory manifesto, written for a very special aristocratic occasion. Concentrated on the convergence in the young virgin Demetrias of nobility of birth with a “natural” nobility of the mind, it shunned the issue of the huge wealth of her family. Altogether, on the issue of wealth Pelagius tended to be thoroughly conventional. A typical mentor writing for wellto-do disciples, he stressed un-wealth, not poverty. A teacher should be above money. His students, like the “saints” addressed in theEpistlesof saint Paul, should avoid snobbery and undue concern with petty social distinctions. It was...

    • CHAPTER 20 Augustine’s Africa People and Church
      (pp. 322-338)

      For the next three chapters and for much of the fourth, we will find ourselves in Africa. This means, of course, that we will return to Augustine. But we will not return only to Augustine. We will find ourselves in an extensive and strange landscape in which Augustine, for all his prodigious output as a writer, was no more than one figure among many. He was not necessarily the most important figure. Indeed, as we shall see, many African Christians (perhaps, indeed, the majority) regarded him as an unwelcome interloper who attempted to forward the claims of his own church...

    • CHAPTER 21 “Dialogues with the Crowd” The Rich, the People, and the City in the Sermons of Augustine
      (pp. 339-358)

      In late antiquity, a bishop was supposed to be aseminator Verbi—a “sower of the Word.”¹ He did not have to write books, but he was expected to preach. Augustine preached ceaselessly. In the thirty-five years in which he was bishop of Hippo (between 396 and 430) he preached over six thousand sermons. He was a magical speaker. In reading sermons of Augustine, we can usually be certain that we are not reading carefully reedited texts (as was the case with Ambrose). We are reading his own words as they were first heard. This is because rich members of...

    • CHAPTER 22 Dimitte nobis debita nostra: Forgive us our sins Augustine, Wealth, and Pelagianism, 411–417
      (pp. 359-368)

      In the last chapter we followed Augustine in action as a preacher. In his sermons of the 400s, he had come to frame a distinctive attitude toward wealth and its uses in the African churches. The arrival from Rome of patrons and supporters of Pelagius constituted an unwelcome intrusion. For a moment, Augustine’s intense but somewhat isolated world—the world of African Christianity—was thrown open to views that challenged those to which he had become wedded as a result of decades of preaching and activity at Hippo and in Carthage. Let us see how Augustine and his African colleagues...

    • CHAPTER 23 “Out of Africa” Wealth, Power, and the Churches: 415–430
      (pp. 369-384)

      There was a saying among the ancient Greeks and romans:Ex Africa semper aliquid novi: “Out of Africa there is always something new.”¹ In the 410s and 420s, the churches of Africa, with Augustine as their spokesman, brought yet another startling set of novelties from their strange land. The rallying of the church of Africa behind Augustine against the views of Pelagius involved maneuvers that were unprecedented in the history of Latin Christianity. An entire provincial church gathered in councils attended by up to two hundred bishops so as to condemn the views of a single lay teacher. No...

    • CHAPTER 24 “Still at That Time a More Affluent Empire” The Crisis of the West in the Fifth Century
      (pp. 385-410)

      This chapter will deal with the general crisis of the western empire throughout the fifth century A D. It will describe the onset of the crisis that reduced the empire, within a generation, to a shell of its former self. It will then linger on the adjustments the wealthy of the provinces most affected by this crisis were forced to make (and the opportunities many of them seized) in an increasingly regionalized world. It will end by pointing to the survival of the empire in some of these regions and to the loyalty it could still inspire in many figures...

  5. PART IV Aftermaths

    • CHAPTER 25 Among the Saints Marseilles, Arles, and Lérins, 400–440
      (pp. 411-432)

      Up to the end of the empire in the West—until the 470s—Provence and the southern valley of the rhone (from Lyons to Arles and Marseilles) remained an imperial enclave. The region also stood out as a distinctive cultural and religious landscape. In this chapter, we will follow the debates among Christian intellectuals in Provence—mainly of monastic background—on topics that ranged from the nature of wealth in the monastery, through the qualifications for leadership in the churches, to the fate of the foundering empire. In the next chapter, we will consider the roman empire in the West...

    • CHAPTER 26 Romana respublica vel iam mortua: With the empire now dead and gone Salvian and His Gaul, 420—450
      (pp. 433-453)

      The most vivid and by far the best known commentary on the state of the roman empire in the 430s and 440s was provided by yet another refugee to Provence—salvian. It is to one work of salvian in particular, hisDe gubernatione Dei—On the Government(that is: [On the providential rule]of God)—that all historians of the social history of the later empire turn so as to learn about the social ills of the Roman empire in the fifth century.¹ Writing in 1899, Samuel Dill could say of Salvian:

      He feels a burning indignation against the selfishness...

    • CHAPTER 27 Ob Italiae securitatem: For the security of Italy Rome and Italy, ca. 430–ca. 530
      (pp. 454-480)

      In 439 count Aetius returned to Rome after a series of wide-ranging campaigns in Gaul. The roman senate celebrated his return by erecting a golden statue to him in the Atrium Libertatis—a building near the senate house at the top of the Forum. The base of the statue has survived. It is a modest block covered with elegant, small letters that now stands beside the entrance of the senate house unnoticed by passing tourists. In this inscription, the senate praised Aetius for victories that had “ returned Gaul to the roman empire.“But they thanked him above all” for the...

  6. PART V Toward Another World

    • CHAPTER 28 Patrimonia pauperum: Patrimonies of the poor Wealth and Conflict in the Churches of the Sixth Century
      (pp. 481-502)

      In the course of the fifth century, the face of western europe changed irrevocably. This time, the revival of an imperial order, such as had followed the dislocations of the third century, did not take place. The Latin West became a post-imperial world. Regional power blocs replaced the former western empire. The wealthy suffered as the ambitious engine of enrichment driven by the needs of an imperial state was brutally dismembered. Parts of this engine survived, but it worked now on a more local level and at a lower scale of intensity. On all levels of society (and not only...

    • CHAPTER 29 Servator fidei, patriaeque semper amator: Guardian of the faith, and always lover of [his] homeland Wealth and Piety in the Sixth Century
      (pp. 503-526)

      It is a thrill for a historian of the west Roman empire in its last days to arrive (through rooms devoted to a clutter of Victorian chinaware) at the small exhibit of early medieval tombstones in the Museum of the Carmarthenshire Antiquarian society in southwest Wales. The crude inscriptions carved in local sandstone speak of a region in western Britain that was fast losing its Roman face. One local figure, named voteporix, still bore the roman military title ofprotector. But his name was also carved in Irish ogham script on one side of his tall memorial stone. He was...

    (pp. 527-530)

    The changes that took place between the years 500 and 650 proved decisive. A new conglomerate of notions about the use of wealth, about the nature of the Christian community, and about the destiny of the Christian soul slid into place. In all later centuries, this particular conglomerate of notions—which linked together the wealth of the church, the care of the poor, and the fate of the soul—became fixed in the minds of the populations of western, Catholic europe.

    By the year 1000, western Europeans were supposed to take this inherited conglomerate with them wherever they went, even...