Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the fall of Rome and the making of Christianity in the West, 350-550AD has been hovering around the middle of my to-read pile for some time. Fascinating topic, fascinating period, but 530 pages of text, 758 pages with all of the accoutrements, made it just a bit daunting. Perfect for the holidays though, and so gripping that I ripped through it in three rainy days.
This is a period of the history of the West of Rome that we’ve tended to regard as dark and mysterious, but Peter Brown reveals that there’s a huge amount known. By starting with a theological debate, which has ripples and echoes throughout Christian history, he’s create a frame that doesn’t particularly grab me personally, but it creates a logic for exploring all over the western empire, primarily through the lives of prominent Christian figures, but in the process shedding lot of lots of obscure but fascinating corners that usually barely get a mention.
One key theme running through it is the persistence of what the Romans called Amor civicus, as embodied in the endowment of improvements: “At Calama for instance (modern Guelma in Algeria, which stood at the head of the Seybouse valley on the edge of the plateau of Roman Numidia, Annia Aelia Restituta received no less than five statues, and one of her father, so as to render thanks for her exceptional liberality to her fellow citizens in adding stateliness to her home town.” This continues, Brown attests, with bounteous evidence, well into the fourth and fifth centuries, and was a cause of considerable angst to Christian leaders, who thought the money should have been going into the church. Even in 421 the nobles of a blackened Trier sought from the newly created emperor Constanitius II funds to celebrate his accession through circus games – this was what was though to hold the city together in tough times, not the prayers of saints.
Another concept that proved both persistent but also malleable was otium. “It had unmistakable aristocratic overtones. Symmachus [one of Brown's key characters] and his friends enjoyed long periods of otium in the countryside outside Rome or in Campaniea. ‘Tired of the affairs of the city’, they liked to ‘tame their great minds in solitude’ on their estates. ‘Turning over the learned writings of the men of old’ in the well-watered gardens of their villas, they renewed their allegiance to the culture that was supposed to make them truly noble.” When Augustine was seeking to encourage his followers, he put forward a programme for such a period – of Christina writings and reflection, aiming to show it was “possible to enjoy, through contemplation, the supreme happiness of a life lived in the presence of God”.
After Symmachus, Ausonius is one of the next key characters in Through the Eye of the Needle. “His family nursed a claim to ancient nobility that had been lost a century before in the civil wars of Gaul of the 260s. Ausonius’s grandfather had come to Aquitaine as a refugee from Autun … In reality, he and his family were little more than local landowners and town councillors who had risen by their talents. … One suspects that Valentinian I looked on favor on Ausonius in part so as to establish a comfortable relationship with Bordeaux and with Ausonius’s pupils, the landowners of Aquitaine. [How the empire had come down in the world.] In 379 he even became consul for the year. The old professor (now in his mid-sixties) was put on display. He was dressed in the same set of heavy, gold-stitched consular robes that had once been worn by none other than the emperor Constantius II.”
Otium gives him the chance to explore in a poem his “little family estate” – one of the most precise pictures we have from antiquity of what wealth was. Sounds pretty pleasant really – about 650 acres, of which 430 were woodland, a source of timber plus pitch for ships and wine amphorae, 124 for the plough, 100 for vineyards and 50 for meadows. Its warehouses could hold two years’ store of food. It was an account of what he saw as modestly appropriate wealth – which would have brought in around 1,000 solidi a year.
As both those sets of details show, this is no dry theological tome; Brown is seeking to present a complete, detailed picture of his characters’ lives and those of their contemporaries. Not a time machine, but almost as close as we are likely to get.
Brown also drops in an occasional fascinating comparison with Confucian China coming to terms with the arrival of Buddhism. He compares the 4th-century empire, with Christian taking hold, to “that of the Chinese mandarins …. An official of the Ming empire reported that the Buddhists in his province had shown great zeal for building bridges. This was a public venture of which any traditional Chinese gentleman was bound to approve. But the official learned that the Buddhists were building bridges for entirely the wrong reasons. They were acting on the belief that they would gain personal karmic merit in another existence by contributing to the building of such a bridge…. The mandarin was shocked…. ‘This is all contrary to the spirit of good works!’”
He’s also exploring big themes, such as the rise of the villa in Roman life. He doesn’t deny that these often show, and were designed to flaunt, great wealth, but he denies the certainty of this wealth and that there was a “lost middle” between their inhabitants and the poor. Country wealth was never independent of the cities and the government, he says. “Aquitaine was a rich agrarian region, which furnished supplies to the Rhine frontier … even if not all of its members had made their way to Trier to become courtiers as Ausonius had done. ” Rich villas only appear, Brown adds, “in regions that served as corridors of empire”. This was the last flowering of a belle epoque he says – “the moment that the Roman state and its fiscal energy began to wobble, as a result of civil wars and barbarian invasions … many villas survived as economic centres. They served as places for storage and processing wine and oil. But they became faceless. Their owners left no strong impression on them. For they no longer served as the blazons of new wealth.”
Brown’s also big on trying to get into the heads of the ancient world, rather than accepting later, sometimes lazy, understandings. So, he says, the frequent complaints about religious ascetics, such as Priscillian, (an interesting character who welcomed women followers as the equal of men – bound to get him into trouble) were not for the same reasons that shocks us – not the self-mortification, the denial or marriage or the abandonment of social duties, but the fact that such ascetics built close links with wealthy donors. He quotes the pagan emperor Julian “They are men … who by making small sacrifices … gain much … from all sources … levying tribute on specious pretenses which they call ‘alms’.”
Brown explores both the continuity of the period, and its shocks. So he finds that while Ausonius’s contemporary and friend Paulinus had renounced his wealth in the 390s, as late as the late 6th century a descendant of his brother, Leontius, the last of the line and bishop of Bordeaux, had refurbished his ancestor’s villa at Preignac, and lying back on the traditional Roman stibadium couch, was still referring back to Ausonius’s poetry.
He also looks at the various ways in which individuals came to terms with the collapsing of the empire. Prosper went for the irrelevance of the state: “his Augustinianism convinced him that nothing in the past contributed to what happened in the present, just as nothing – no social advantage, no cultural gift, no ascetic labour – could precede the workings of grace in the individual heart.” More practically, the super-rich noble families, with estates spread across the empire, could no longer control them, they had to settle down to one local region, one area where they could exert personal control – and so it was that the church, which hadn’t really got that rich in form terms, came to be one of the richest forces going. And families husbanded their recourses by dedicating girls to the church as forced nuns, to save on dowries, and boys pushed into the clergy, renouncing their family wealth, which didn’t please the church, which hoped they’d bring it with them.
One certainty is that wealth was always a source of contention and strife, as well as comfort.