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Power and Persuasion in Late Antiquity: Towards a Christian Empire (Curti Lectures) [Paperback]

Peter Brown
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Book Description

31 Oct 1992 Curti Lectures (Book 1988)
Peter Brown, a known authority on Mediterranean civilisation in late antiquity, traces the growing power of early Christian bishops as they wrested influence from the philosophers who had traditionally advised the rulers of Graeco-Roman society. In the new "Christian empire", the ancient bonds of citizen to citizen and of each city to its benefactors were replaced by a common loyalty to a distant, Christian autocrat. This transformation of the Roman Empire from an ancient to a medieval society, Brown argues, is among the most far-reaching consequences of the rise of Christianity. In the last centuries of the Roman Empire, the power of the emperors depended on collaboration with the local elites. The shared ideals of Graeco-Roman culture ("paideia"), which were inculcated among the elite by their education, acted as unwritten constitution. The philosophers, as representives of this cultural tradition and as critics and advisors of the powerful, upheld the ideals of just rule and prevented the abuses of power. Between the conversion of Emperor Constantine to Christianity in 312 and the reign of Theodosius (379-395), however, both Christian bishops and uneducated monks emerged as competitors to the traditional educated elites. Claiming as Christians to be the "true philosophers", they asserted their own role in swaying the emperors to mercy and just rule. Brown shows how charity to the urban poor gave bishops such as Saint Ambrose a novel power base - the restless lower classes of the empire. The lines of power that led from local society to the imperial court increasingly fell into the hands of the church, as clerics exercised their power to ensure the peace in cities, secure amnesties, and convey to the emperor the wishes of his subjects. Brown also points out how churchmen expressed their new local power through violence against rivals: Jewish synagogues and Roman Temples were destroyed, and Hypatia, one of the few women with a public role as a philosopher, was lynched in Alexandria. Brown demonstrates how Christian teaching provided a model for a more autocratic, hierarchial empire: the ancient ideals of democracy and citizenship gave way to the image of a glorious ruler showing mercy to his lowly and grateful subjects. Drawing upon a wealth of material - newly discovered letters and sermons of Saint Augustine, archaeological evidence, manuscripts in Coptic and Syriac - he provides a portrait of a turbulent and fascinating era.

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Product details

  • Paperback: 184 pages
  • Publisher: University of Wisconsin Press (31 Oct 1992)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0299133443
  • ISBN-13: 978-0299133443
  • Product Dimensions: 23 x 15 x 1 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 403,401 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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"A new book by Peter Brown is clearly an event. . . . Peter Brown is a writer of highly emotive as well as extremely clever prose. . . . The Curti lectures complete the sequence of studies of the Christianisation of late antiquity on which Peter Brown has been engaged since the publication of "Augustine of Hippo" (1967). One by one, these studies have illuminated the world of late antiquity (the term he has made his own) by reference to what has preceded it. "--Averil Cameron, "London Times Higher Education Supplement"

About the Author

Peter Brown is the Rollins Professor of History at Princeton University. He has also taught at Oxford University, the University of London, and the University of California. Among his many books are "The Body and Society, The Cult of the Saints, Society and the Holy in Late Antiquity," and "Augustine of Hippo."

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Customer Reviews

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
By Jeremy Bevan TOP 500 REVIEWER
Did Christianity begin to `go wrong' with Constantine's conversion and the faith's subsequent adoption as the empire's `official' religion later in the same century ? That's one frequently-heard view, and in this fascinating little book (originally the 1988 Curti lectures at the University of Wisconsin), Peter Brown examines how Christianity went from `outsider' cult to (occasionally contrary) prop and mainstay of Roman power and authority. Drawing on a wide range of ancient sources, especially Libanius, he shows how, essentially, the Christianisation of empire took place as a result of the church `slipping into the skin' of existing cultural and political forms. Over the course of a few decades, the bishops, themselves frequently trained in the classical tradition, increasingly replace local pagan notables in roles of civic authority, albeit frequently in alliance with wealthy local families. As this change takes place, they become on the one hand responsible for inculcating loyalty to the empire (`devotio'), and on the other active in defence of the local populace against Rome's ever more authoritarian rule.

To do this, they make use of the same model of civic behaviour that had been nurtured in their predecessors through `paideia' (education emphasising courtesy and self-control) - though they expanded somewhat the circle of those deemed worthy of their protection to include, for the first time, the poorer non-artisan classes. Their Christian insight adds, too, an understanding of the importance of a Christlike humility to the governor's role.

But in taking over these forms, they are sometimes guilty of gross abuses: Brown recounts how Cyril of Alexandria resorted to bribery on a shocking scale to ensure Nestorius' condemnation at the Council of Ephesus.
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Amazon.com: 4.6 out of 5 stars  5 reviews
41 of 41 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Petrus Brown deus est 14 Oct 2003
By Michael Taylor - Published on Amazon.com
Peter Brown, professor of History at Princeton University is the father of the field of Late Antiquity and this monograph is yet another invaluable contribution. While most people believe the popular fallacy that the Roman Empire was in a state of decline in the 4th Century, Professor Brown shows us the Roman state at the peak of its power. He discusses what bound the various local elite to the emperor, arguring that a shared sense of education and culture provided a crucial sense of coherency to the Empire. In addition, he discusses the nature of public largess in the late empire, how local nobles maintained their positions as "nourishers of the cities."
He chronicles a world undergoing intense change, and the focus of the book is largly how the Christian clergy adopts traditional methods of "power and persuasion" to establish itself as the leading power in cities.
Students of Classics tend to ignore the 4th and 5th centuries, brusquely declaring them "medieval" and thus inconsequential to a student of Rome's classical glory. Brown's book brings to life a dynamic and important moment in Roman history, a moment at once rooted in traditional Roman values, yet at the same time caught up in a whirlwind of religious change. As always, Professor Brown writes with a humane and style, making the book a joy to read.
14 of 15 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent and exciting presentation of a key historical moment 12 Mar 2008
By Wes Howard-Brook - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Peter Brown is one of the greatest living historians of the 4th-6th centuries and this book is a fine example of the quality and incisive nature of his insights and writing.

In four clear and concise chapters, Brown offers deeply clarifying and engaging examples of how the Roman Empire was "christianized:" not in moving closer to embodying the Way of Jesus Christ, but in shifting power from the old urban elite to the bishops and their clergy. The key theme is the shift from focus on the power of local elites to contain and control imperial governors to the "love of the poor" which expanded and transformed the social understanding of civic identity and its relationship to "the center" of imperial power in Rome. Brown shows clearly how theology and politics are never separate by offering numerous illustrations of how the state of the Roman Empire greatly shaped the power shift he documents and describes so clearly.

These lectures are an easy to read foundation for understanding both the Roman world of the 4th-6th centuries and the ways in which that world shaped the christological doctrines that have remained at the heart of the creeds professed by Catholics and Protestants alike to this day.
4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Persuasive History! 18 Sep 2012
By Bror Erickson - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
I recently told a friend that I don't study history so as to avoid repeating it. That is an exercise in futility. I study history so that when it repeats, I can ride along in style.
We live in a time when things are changing, perhaps more than they ever have in the history of man. The times are volatile, and there is no common footing, mutual understanding, the narratives have been destroyed, our leaders no longer even know their history much less understand it. The problems of the third fourth and fifth centuries, the problems of late antiquity have returned.
For that reason Peter Brown's insights into that fateful era are of infinite worth for understanding what is happening today, and perhaps understanding what needs to be done to help things along, to ride it out, to capture influence. The book gives phenomenal insights into the economy of power, what gained a man power, how power was to be wielded, what went in to being a citizen, and what was at stake. Perhaps I betray my own Christian background when I say these things have not changed, perhaps they have morphed a little since then, but people are people. We still need the same things, we want the same things, and our deepest needs and wants are sometimes things we are unaware of. This book allows a person to reflect on the differences and parallels to our own times and society.
As always Peter Brown writes in a fascinating and engaging manner with interesting insight gleaned from what could pass as boring material if you were someone else. In short he understands the paideia of which he writes. In doing so he elucidates late antiquity with daylight of understanding, rectifying false interpretations of history, perhaps correcting myths of understanding. I could not put this book down. Peter Brown shows why a degree in political science is really a degree in history.
For pastors, this book is of incredible value. This is a period of time in which giants of the church and theology took great strides in shaping and forming who we are as Western Christians. It was a time when the church began, perhaps not as innocently as we would like to believe, to wield power. But that power came with a price. As bishops and other church men took over positions of power in the politics of empire, and the Bible came to replace Homer, interpretations of the Bible were given new meaning. When the position of "philosopher", who was to be a buffer and arbitrator, was taken over by priests, monks, and holy men then the ascetic lifestyle of the philosopher came to be their lifestyle. To this day this is reflected in the piety a pastor or priest is supposed to have, a piety not so much derived from scripture, as it is from the philosopher's paideia, the his learning, instruction and manner of life which gave him power in the face of governors and emperors. The idea of being baptized later in life, after you had sown your oats, and were willing to truly take on "true Christianity" as the higher paideia of the philosopher, came about at this time, and is reflected in the life of Gregory Nazianzen. This became a time when becoming a bishop was good reason to divorce your wife, and then to converse with her for the purpose of taking care of family business was reason enough to be deposed. (Pg. 138, ftn 93.) One can see from this how the idea of digamy, and not, bigamy, polygamy or womanizing, comes to form the interpretation of 1 Timothy 3 as justification for this new form of asceticism among the clergy, in a letter meant to speak out against such asceticism!
2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Important insight and solid history from one of the best 29 Jun 2012
By Aceto - Published on Amazon.com
Truth telling is ordinarily irrelevant or annoying to power. Most media is mere echo chamber for the talking points of whatever power happens to be in. Similarly, for most Greeks and Romans of means, Demosthenes and Cicero were more fairytale figures in stories these peoples wanted to believe about themselves. We are familiar with many a golden age gone dross.

The Emperor was the Decider. You may be permitted to trundle in from your province and speak your piece. But killing the messenger was rather commonplace, especially if there was anything except the respectful silence and sotto voce groveling once the Emperor had risen from his seat. Professor Brown mentions a delegation from Sardis (the one before the popular Broadway bar), feeling afterwards for their heads, making sure they were still attached.

Still, in a far reaching empire of 104 districts, the local elites held both the benefit of belonging and the benefit of distance. Emperors spent not much time on their roads apart from summer vacation to the villa. Mostly, they dispatched limited term governors who were best served by keeping peace with their local elites, especially with the Legions away on the frontiers. Pilate washing his hands comes to mind.

That most Greek of cultural cornerstones, liberal education, featuring rhetoric, formed their virtual highway upon the Roman road. As once was true in sport as in war, personal excellence in education and rhetorical skill are what really persisted into and flourished with the Roman Age.

"Timing is everything." The stand-up will tell you. So a polished speech must delivered with perfect poise, deportment, carriage and bearing. Those are much to put over all as one appearance. Think of the perfect balance and stance of the Greek statue, extend it to voice and movement, to launch the perfect words. Here is the staged harmony of content, appearance and sound. Then think of Ross Perot. "Can I finish?" No, not with a spear in your neck.

You needed every and any psychological edge. Anger carried stigma; worse, it invited corporal punishment, always a prerogative of the state.

The Philosopher became the special emissary of truth. Highly educated and well spoken, the Philosopher was freed from normal society and free to intervene. Fearless, the Philosopher was sometimes burnished by torture - the ticket to the show. Death was rare; after all, 90% of gladiators retired comfortably. Death did come to Hypatia, the great Greek Mathematician Philosopher in Egypt, at the hands of Christian terrorists. You might like the film Agora which is nicely faithful and unusually accurate to the history. Rachel Weisz dies more gently but gives a commanding performance as Hypatia.

Professor Brown is no soppy romantic idealist. He states clearly that the term "philosopher" has become shop-soiled from abuse. He is one of the best Classical scholars of any age. He has done landmark work in late antiquity and in the rise of Christianity. He recently completely rewrote his masterpiece on this subject because of feverish scholarship and discovery in this field since he first published - no mere revised edition.

The Philosopher still, in the post Demosthenes and Cicero Age, could become the privileged advisor. Themistius, we are told, who was made proconsul of Constantinople under Constantius II, refused the grand salary. Thereby he remained advisor to the many subsequent Emperors for thirty years.

Enter the Christians. In particular here come the monks. Suddenly they were everywhere. And they were not much popular with the local notables, whose world was being turned upside down. The educated elite of the old classical world were being overwhelmed by the popular crowd. "Any old woman", Augustine quipped, could be baptized into the inner circle. This was still tat time when the bible, so to speak, was accessible by all. Holy Cow, for want of a better image, the last really can be first. Big time, to quote Jerome. The Church Fathers could have been strictly Via Madison types, Ambrose and these just mentioned - - all Madmen.

As the fourth century wore on, the shift to Christianity was appreciated by the local notables, who jumped on the cart. The bishop became a vital connection to the Imperial government. Here is Professor Brown:

In the name of a religion that claimed to challenge the values of the elite, upper-class Christians gained control of the lower classes of the cities.

De facto temporal power thus accrued to the bishops. Flavian of Antioch dashed off to see the Emperor Theodosius, attempting to head-off a wagon wreck. Fabian, sorry, Flavian had a media moment. He engaged the boys' choir to sing the petitions. They brought down the house; and Theo bawled like Peter Ustinov into his cup. As Professor Brown understates: It was a good sign.

In case you are curious, the Flavian flap was over the Riot of the Statues in 387. The statues of Theodosius and his Empress were toppled and dragged into talcum powder. It was a more convincing predecessor of the Sadam statue, where the camera, in the unofficial footage, panned back to a square empty of people. Cheers were dubbed later.

Professor Peter Brown wrote his lectures of 1988 at University of Wisconsin at Madison, honoring Merle Curti, into this 1992 book of just 158 pages of important scholarship.
0 of 5 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Power and Persuasion in Late Antiquity 8 April 2013
By Annette Cole - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
This book is an easy read but extremely scholarly and dogmatic. I am reading because it is required. Would recommend to those engaged in a rhetoric program.
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