This is a massive book the title of which is taken from Matthew 19:24.
All of Peter Brown's previous works, books and articles,are magnificent, and this one is no exception. A leading scholar of Late Antiquity he writes in a way that compels reading. In this book of 806 pages no less than 107 are notes with a further 76 pages that list the cited works. Despite this, Brown's book, heavy though it is, is very hard to put down.
Using eloquent and precise prose his book begins in 350 AD. It is organised in short chapters-some only 5-10 pages. He takes as his theme wealth and expenditure and charitable giving. Brown points out that the Romans did not recognise 'the poor' as such. They distinguished citizens, rich or poor-and non-citizens. Hence Jesus was at odds with the Romans when he frequently focused on the poor.
Brown describes many classes that have been previously been ignored, for example the lower and middle classes of the towns. H
e also gives us fascinating detail about individuals such as Petronius Probus and the poet Ausonius.
Peter Brown has meticulously reconstructed the culture of late Roman society. It is unlikely to be bettered.
Readers might like to read also a new book by Geza Vermes:'Christian Beginnings:From Nazareth to Nicaea AD 30-325'. This compliments Brown's book beautifully.
on 14 October 2013
In this book, Peter Brown describes the development of Christian society between 4c and 6c with particular regard to the use of wealth. He traces the change in attitudes towards almsgiving, from the late classical notion of civic responsibility to Christian ideas of free giving to the poor and the ideal of temporal poverty itself. There is a huge amount of very learned research here and Brown writes with generosity towards other scholars and with the authority of his own acclaimed scholarship. Physically it is a big heavy book, but the style is light, and considering the enormous amount of sheer material it contains, this is not oppressive in tone. The subject is unusual and the historical period covered not one that will be immediately familiar (or necessarily attractive) to most readers, but I approached it in almost complete ignorance and have found it fascinating.
on 15 November 2015
A brilliant, imaginative grappling with the change from classical Roman to medieval attitudes in Western Europe - focusing on one key social aspect, how Christianity changed the philanthropy of the rich, and in so doing, how this shifted the locus of prestige and power.
The joy of reading Peter Brown is that he is a gifted storyteller, narrating history via the lives of a wide range of individuals and their writings or inscriptions (albeit mostly well-known to historians). He has a fine sense of the many layers and imperceptibility of change. His (lightly worn) scholarship is second to none.
However, he is not your man for quantitative analysis of how many people were affected in what way - and indeed there is virtually no 'data' available on which to base this sort of approach. Nevertheless, it would be interesting to read, for instance, his guess as to what rough proportion of the population in the west by (say) AD 400 and AD 600 were nominally Christian; and if a minority or majority of these truly believed. The fact that Brown does not give any sense of how broadly different segments of the population were influenced by the trends he describes must, to some extent, qualify the authoritativeness of what he has to say.
Brown is not dealing here with the religious appeal of Christianity, but I still think he unduly neglects the egalitarian, personal and millenarian aspects of Christianity, which had their part to play in changing attitudes to wealth and the poor. Equally, we might learn much by comparing what happened in the far more secure Eastern half of the empire (but that is to ask too much).
The book is convincing on the broad thrust of social (and ultimately political) change which this highly challenging and aspirational creed brought to a culture which, by the fourth century, was dull and fissiparous. He paints a vivid picture of the massive effects of rich Christian patronage and almsgiving on those at the top of society - shifting the focus of social value from the city and civic honour to the church and gifts to the poor. In truly valuing 'treasure in heaven', the commitment to the Imperial centre and to an essentially secular network of patronage was radically modified - ushering in the semi-egalitarian, great age of the Catholic Church.
This was nothing less than an imaginative revolution at least as profound as the scientific revolution of the modern era - and was the basis of the ensuing Middle Ages.
on 28 February 2014
Paradoxically one might call this volume a treasure house of late Roman social history, as well as a deeply instructive reflection on early church history. And many of Professor Brown’s conclusions, as in previous books, strike anyone at all familiar with the period with that satisfying feeling of recognition: “of course – yes, it must have been like that. I knew it, somewhere, all along, but my mind was too slow to see it: now, it is as clear as day.”.
One fault I found with this book. Classicists are people who revere detail, and as a British classicist I am constantly (though inadvertently) proof-reading the books I read. I was disappointed here to find myself constantly brought up short by catachreses such as “center”, “labor”, “honor”, “program”, “artifact” or “behavior”. Brown himself is Irish, but has perhaps been in America long enough to become assimilated to Noah Webster’s pointedly revolutionary spelling. Be that as it may, for the benefit of those of us who have not, it would have been more professional for Princeton University Press to have corrected its usage to English norms for distribution in Britain (after all, it does boast that it publishes in Oxford as well as its home city). May we hope that Professor Brown will prevail on them to do a more thorough job if it runs to another printing?
on 4 November 2013
,This offers a fresh insight into an historically important era in a novel manner -- tracing the ways in which wealthy Christians gave part of their wealth to the Church, thus storing up treasure in heaven. What a shame this ideology is not more widespread today, where the super rich and the dirt poor coexist in staggering numbers.