PETER BROWN AND THE QUEST FOR LATE ANTIQUITY:
Augustine of Hippo: A Biography. 45th Anniversary Edition. University of California Press (Berkeley and Los Angeles), 2012. 548 pages; and
Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350-550 AD. Princeton University Press, 2012. 759 pages
By William Converse
Today many people still see Augustine of Hippo as a saintly figure, a giant of faith rather than a human being shaped by the tumult of the age in which he lived.
This lack of proper historical perspective goes back to the Middle Ages when Western churchmen shaped the traditional image of Augustine as they read, copied and commented on his works, including his letters and sermons. By this time, Augustine’s North Africa had ceased to exist; it already belonged to a little-known past.
If today we are better able to see Augustine in his own time and place, much of the credit belongs to Peter Brown.
Born in Dublin in 1935 to a family of Scots-Irish Protestants, Brown studied at Oxford, and has held positions at Royal Holloway College, the University of London, and the University of California at Berkeley. He is currently emeritus professor of history at Princeton University. He has received many awards for his pioneering studies in the field of Late Antiquity.
This review focuses on two works that conveniently bracket his career. Both serve to correct a number of misconceptions and dispel myths about the end of classical antiquity.
Augustine of Hippo: A Biography was first published in 1967, when Brown was only 32, and established his reputation as a scholar. Augustine was shorn of his hagiographical aura and presented as a person of flesh and blood. To mark the 45th anniversary of the original publication, the new edition published in 2000 was reissued with a new preface and two epilogues.
In the first of these epilogues, Brown shows how our understanding of Augustine has been broadened and deepened by new evidence. He also describes the directions that Augustinian studies have taken since 2000.
Prior to his death in August 28, 430, Augustine authenticated his writings and began putting his letters and sermons in order. However, he died before he could complete this task. It was a parlous time because the Vandals were laying siege to Hippo.
During the medieval period, Augustine’s letters and sermons were copied in manuscripts and circulated in various collections. With the introduction of the printing press, some of these collections were included with his collected works. Others were not. The task of tracing them was well-nigh impossible before the introduction of computers into research libraries.
In 1969 the Austrian Academy of Sciences launched a project to catalogue 15,000 known manuscripts of Augustine’s works held by the libraries of Western Europe. In the Bibliothèque Municipale de Marseilles Johannes Divjak discovered a manuscript that had belonged to René of Anjou containing 27 previously unknown letters, dating from the last decades of Augustine’s life. The “Divjak Letters,” as they are now known, provide important information about the political situation in North Africa at that time.
The second major discovery occurred in 1990 when François Dolbeau found in the Stadtbibliothek of Mainz a late manuscript that had belonged to the Carthusians of Mainz, with 26 of Augustine’s sermons. The “Dolbeau Sermons” were either previously unknown or known only from extracts made by medieval copyists. Augustine delivered them in Carthage in the summer of 397, the year he became bishop of Hippo. In the same collection there was a second group of sermons from 403-404.
Brown explains their historical significance:
“…Without knowing it, both the Carthusians of Mainz and the stylish copyist of the Divjak letters had cut down to a largely untouched, ‘fossil’ layer of evidence. The feature that had caused these particular letters and sermons to circulate so sluggishly in the Middle Ages was precisely the feature which makes them so gripping for us—their unremitting circumstantiality. The letters and sermons carry with them the sounds of a North Africa that had become as silent as a drowned city to those who read and copied them in the Northern Europe of the Middle Ages. Many of the letters speak at seemingly interminable length of incidents that took place on farms and in villages with strange names in which Punic was still spoken. Augustine’s work as a bishop took place within the framework of a legal system that still assumed that all roads led to Rome: much of the legal material contained in them would have been inexplicable, even unintelligible, to medieval readers. Above all, they are earthy letters, concerned almost exclusively with the day-to-day business of little men in small North African towns. Few were devoted to the eternal verities of Christian doctrine, to which medieval persons might turn with profit.”
The Dolbeau sermons are also important because they show how medieval copyists worked:
“In the case of the Dolbeau sermons, we can actually glimpse early medieval monks, in a far-distant Northern Europe, at work as they read through them, searching for passages relevant to their own times. Around 700, none other than the Venerable Bede read the longest of these sermons, preached on the occasion of the pagan New Year’s Feast of the Kalends of January. Faced with a rhetorical masterpiece of 1,543 lines, his eyes soon glazed over. For this was a glimpse of a world which was too ancient, too distant from his own. It spoke of a Christianity still engulfed in the murmurous, multi-faceted paganism of a great city of the Mediterranean. Of all its richness, Bede extracted under a hundred lines. The rest he left. The precise, sharp scent of a pagan city of the Roman Empire in its last days did not greatly interest him. The battle, with that particular form of paganism at least, had been fought and won by his time. Of this one mighty sermon we have had to be content, for fifteen hundred years, with a few short extracts, culled and circulated for their own purposes by clergymen in Northern Europe. It is only now that we can read such sermons in their entirety, and come upon Augustine, once again, in gripping close-up as he preached to the crowds of Carthage.”
Through the Eye of a Needle Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350-550 AD is Brown’s latest book and the one that he admits caused him the most difficulty. The title is taken from Matthew 19: 24, the story of Jesus’ encounter with the rich young man. The book is many-layered, nuanced and rich in detail. Six of its 29 chapters are devoted to Augustine, hardly surprising given that he was the most prolific author of Late Antiquity and the fact that so many of whose works have survived.
Brown explains his purpose in the opening paragraph of the preface:
“In this book I wish to examine the impact of wealth on the Christian churches of the Latin West in the last centuries of the Roman empire and in the first century of the post-imperial age, roughly from the middle of the fourth century AD to the consolidation of the post-Roman, barbarian kingdoms in the period conventionally associated with the ‘Fall of Rome.’”
Brown challenges the Enlightenment’s narrative of the end of classical civilization: for example, Edward Gibbon’s view that the Christian Church sapped the wealth of the later Roman Empire, diverting resources the state needed to counter the barbarian invasions.
Brown argues that this era was neither cataclysmic nor preceded by cultural and political decadence. Late Antiquity was a time of innovation and transformation in both the religion and culture of the later Roman Empire. He considers the fourth century an age of affluence. Wealth was not a moral issue when Christians were mostly poor. However, when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire in the fourth century, the wealthy began to enter the church in droves. They also brought with them the influence that wealth commands. This gave rise to conflict between Rome and Carthage: Jerome and Pelagius found themselves on one side and Augustine on the other. In Brown’s graphic phrase, it was a veritable Punic War!
Brown surveys all classes in the later Roman Empire, from aristocrats and great landowners to what he calls “the middling classes.” He includes the urban poor, he slaves as well as the Jews. We meet some very colourful and determined personalities. We learn a about the social and political movements as well as the Donatists, the Arians and the Pelagians. Brown covers the length and breadth of the Roman Empire and the centers of power.
Brown’s treatment of Christianity in North Africa is detailed and informative. The church of North Africa has tended to be neglected because it disappeared completely. However, its importance in this period demands an in-depth study and this Brown provides.
Brown’s impressive command of the vast literature and documentation, including archaeological, economic and sociological data, enables him assess in minute detail how the Christian Church overcame the dilemma that wealth presented and became exceedingly wealthy doing so. He uses the analogy of a modern state gone bankrupt while corporations and private foundations preserve their wealth.
There are over a hundred pages of endnotes and seventy-six pages listing works cited. The index runs to forty pages. The fascinating black-and-white and the coloured plates are gathered together at the end of Chapter 15. I highly recommend both Through the Eye of a Needle and the anniversary edition of Augustine of Hippo: A Biography.
©William Converse, 2014