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".