Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350-550 AD, by Peter Brown. Princeton: University Press, 2012. 759 pages.
Peter Brown, whose writing spurred the development of Late Antiquity as a study, returns to familiar territory. Through the Eye of a Needle revisits individuals and events he knows well and has written about brilliantly: sexuality, Jerome, Augustine, the Pelagian controversies, and the shifting sense and meanings of authority. This book is practically a sequel to The Body and Society in Late Antiquity: Men, Women, and Sexual Renunciation in early Christianity (1988).
Brown illumines new perspectives, however, in two important ways. First, he has not written before about wealth and how Christians came to exercise the power wealth confers so explicitly. Second, scholarship since the 1980s has revealed with greater clarity and breadth the shifting tensions and textures of Romanness as imperial power receded. Brown consistently and brilliantly invokes findings from archaeology, art, numismatics, geography, and other areas to supplement familiar themes and reveal newly-discovered worlds within worlds. For example, at the very time that large estates were falling fallow in Gaul, trade and agriculture were booming in valleys of the Italian Mezzogiorno (south and east of Rome).
Brown consciously adopts and extends helpful concepts from other historians. For example, his discussion of “local” versus “central” Romanness (he avoids the more traditional term romanitas) is based on work by Paul Halsall and Peter Heather. Brown extends their language when discussing the alternative power structures that were developing in the southern valley of the Rhone and elsewhere as Rome itself became increasingly a stage set for the Senate, an archipelago of islands of settlement in an sea of urban dissolution.
I took a long time reading this book, in part because findings so new and arresting required diving into the end notes. “This has been the most difficult book to write that I have undertaken,” Brown notes (p. xxvi) He hopes that the reader will catch “something of the excitement (this scholarship has) inspired in me, as (it) opened a window through which I saw what I never thought I would see –a vista of Roman society” that is new and unfamiliar, “as thrillingly different from our conventional ideas of what late Roman society and late Roman Christianity were like as are the first images of the surface of a distant planet beamed back to earth by a space probe.” (p. xxvii) Brown vividly conveys his astonishment at the revelations of the very field of study he did so much to found. This is a magisterial and entirely readable book by a historian who will be long remembered as one of the Old Masters of the field.