Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350-550 AD
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Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350-550 AD

4.18 of 5 stars 4.18  ·  rating details  ·  169 ratings  ·  41 reviews
Jesus asserted it's easier for a camel to go thru the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter heaven. Yet by the fall of Rome, the church was becoming rich beyond measure. Thru the Eye of a Needle is a sweeping intellectual & social history of the vexing problem of wealth in Christianity in the waning days of the Roman Empire, written by the world's foremost schol...more
ebook, 806 pages
Published September 2nd 2012 by Princeton University Press (first published August 13th 2012)
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Clif Hostetler
This book provides a virtual time-machine fly through of the Western Roman Empire from 350 to 550 AD with special attention being given to the ways in which the Christian Church dealt with wealth. This is a problem for the Christian religion because it is based upon the teachings of Jesus who is quoted in the New Testament as saying that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich man to enter heaven. For the first three hundred years of Christian church hi...more
Margaret Sankey
This is the kind of book for which the word magisterial was intended. I've been reading Brown's work on the late Roman Empire since undergraduate classes, and this is the culmination of immersion in the big ones--Augustine, Jerome, Ambrose as well as the many congregants, faction leaders, bishops, donors and well-educated widows of the imploding Roman world. This book traces the fascinating process by which a church founded on humble poverty came to be an Imperial religion and then a replacement...more
An excellent, magisterial investigation into the history of Latin Western Christianity from 350-550 through a focus on material wealth, its handling, and its influence.

The author demonstrates well how this time period is crucial to explain the shifts that take place between "ancient" and "medieval" Christianity. He uses modern research, recently discovered texts, and archaeological evidence to question the prevailing narratives about the rise of prominence of Christianity in the Latin West and p...more
Adam Shields
Short Review: Long, but interesting look at the variety of ways that the church of the Late Roman Empire looked at wealth and how it should be used. Interesting to reflect in the different ways we currently think about wealth. My knowledge of the history of this period is pretty weak. But Brown does take some alternative views from others that I have read. His understanding of Augustine (especially around celibacy and Agustine's desire to turn all clerics into monks) is different from what I rea...more
Sometimes it is best to contemplate current difficulties from the perspective of the past. Better than any I've read, this book unravels the tangled threads of spirituality and money, showing us, from the vantage of late Rome, that in times of cultural collapse, people put their faith in wealth and the illusions of control it affords.

For those of you who have not read Brown, he is perhaps the finest historian of late Rome and the rise of Christianity. He recreates for us the lives and perplexiti...more
This was fascinating. I didn't know much about the topic, but the author provided very adequate background regarding attitudes towards wealth in the late Roman Empire. The changes in Christian thought on wealth were well explained. The various people profiled were described in a very engaging way which illustrated the changing views on wealth over hundreds of years. My only complaint was that, as a non-expert, I was unfamiliar with the scholars the author frequently quoted, and also that the lev...more
This is an exquisitely dense study of the shift in the Mediterranean world of the Roman empire to the early hegemony of the Roman Catholic Church.

Before reading it I had some vague knowledge that Romans partied themselves to death and then Constantine decided he was a Christian and everyone lived happily ever after ( or at least saved).

The story of this book is much more rich. Not only does Brown show a wide range of personalities and philosophies at their steady work, he quietly reminds us th...more
High four. A simply Herculean effort of scholarship that perhaps likes the coherence or ambition I thought it would have: I kinda wanted it to make good on its promise of explaining the formation of Modern views on wealth/materialism in at least a more obvious and precise way. Brown was on the other hand dealing with an absolutely massive corpus of material: the archaeology, the treatises, sermons and letters of Augustine, the sermons of Ambrose, Jerome's oeuvre, even the 900 letters of Symmachu...more
Tony Gualtieri
Working with what seems like a fairly prosaic theme, Peter Brown has written a tremendous history that suggests that the relationship of the Church in late antiquity to wealth and the wealthy is a key driver of the establishment of Christianity in the West. By quoting extensively from major intellectual figures of the day such as Ambrose, Augustine, Jerome and others, creates a picture of a society whose ideas have as rich a subtlety and complexity as those of any age. I constantly found myself...more
This is the finest work of history that I have read. Brown takes the reader to the period between 350 and 550 ad in Western Europe and North Africa to trace the transition from the Roman empire to Christian Europe. He takes on many myths, such as the idea that the conversion of Constantine simply transformed the empire and in great detail, decade by decade, shows just how complex a process this transformation was. Using texts and archeological findings [some very recent] he creates a picture of...more
Richard Anderson
Very informative about the period, if a bit tedious towards the end.
Allen Roth
Well known and lesser known Church personalities populate the pages of this always interesting and insightful study of the impact of the Church's changing attitude towards wealth had on the Church's early development, which culminated in the Church of the Middle ages. As usual, Brown brings to life such figures as St. Augustine, Saint Jerome, Saint Ambrose, and largely forgotten figures who played substantial (and often controversial) roles in the Church's adaption to the changing social scene i...more
Erik Graff
Oct 20, 2013 Erik Graff rated it 3 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: late Western Roman antiquity fans/mediaevalists
Recommended to Erik by: no one
Shelves: religion
This is a massive, subtle examination of the changing position of the Church and Christians in area of the Latin-speaking Roman Empire as regards the appropriation of wealth from the reign of Constantine to the end of the sixth century. Simply put, Brown propounds the idea that up until the fourth century the Church saw wealth as opposed to holiness, a position which changed by the mid-sixth century when a much richer Church saw its wealth as something to be managed in its own interests as Chris...more
Earl H
When one says “ as Rome goes, so goes the world” or “Through the eye of a needle” what does that mean and what are they attempting to say? Anyone attempting to understand those remarks needs to read this book. The insight Brown delivers to the reader from the time period of 250 CE to 600 CE of the Roman Empire will enrich the seeker to find a Latin Church perspective of culture, societies, political frameworks, geography, and religious practices that information of the complexities associated wi...more
"In sum, the populus was not the poor and did not wish to be treated as the poor. For a civic benefactor to look past the populus by showing generosity to the many thousands of beggars and immigrants who lingered on the margins of the city was not an act of charity. It was a snub to the citizen body. Only the most arrogant could threaten to do that. Ammianus Marcellinus noted one such insufferable maverick [Lampadius]. [...] But the whimsical gesture of Lampadius showed, without a hint of Christ...more
This is still on my "to-read" shelf. I do not know if I'm going to be convinced by Peter Brown's take on what Anabaptists have called "the long apostasy." I know Brown writes well (I've read his biography of Augustine)--and I'm quite interested in Brown's take, as a Catholic apologist, on the alignment of Christianity with the Empire.

From the Guardian's review:
" Brown calls the fourth century the "age of gold", after the coin known as the solidus that sym...more
This is a superb book from a brilliant scholar. It is, in fact, the culmination of Peter Brown's ground-breaking work on Late Antiquity and demonstrates the depth of his scholarship and insight. His analysis of wealth in the Western half of the Empire by itself is worth the price of the book, but his analysis of Christian reactions to wealth from the fourth to sixth centuries is excellent. Like all scholars, he has his likes and dislikes (Ambrose comes off quite badly as do ascetic bishops), but...more
Mostly this book is excellent. Its emphasis is on the creation and use of wealth from 350-550 AD, and it traces the transfer and use of wealth from the individual/state to the early church. Along the way it provides useful details on famous pagans and Christians of late antiquity and on imperial/ecclesiastical/local history of fourth to sixth century CE Europe. It is not a general history about the fall of empire and the rise of the fourth and sixth century churches and one would probably be dis...more
This book covers the time period known as late antiquity. It is history that I have not spent much time exploring and was a bit challenging to stay on track at times. I now have a much better understanding of the latter years of the Roman Empire and the development of the Christian church in that region. It challenged me to compare the geography of the 4th to 6th centuries with what we see on our modern maps. I found the study very interesting but have to admit that I'm anxious to return to my p...more
A bit of a long slog -- but worth it. A cultural history of late antiquity through the lens of the debate about wealth and how it should be used. It concentrates on the western church in north Africa, Italy and Gaul. Paints a very different picture to what I imagined in many cases. Many of the tribes that brought the empire down, such as the Vandals who seized Carthage in 439, were already Christian. They were Arians, followers of Arius, who had differences with the Catholic position on the trin...more
Brown writes a massive history addressing the force of wealth in Latin Christianity between 300 to 600 AD. As in previous books he's written, Brown is concerned about the power and patronage elements evident in this history. Each chapter focuses on historical personalities (including Augustine, Jerome, Ambrose) and the traditional historiography of Christianity's rise. This book is close to 530 pages and effectively written prose. Not too academic for lay readers, but the notes and sources Brown...more
I was disappointed with this book. I could only recommend it as a resource book. The information isn't clearly presented, is rambling and disjointed in style, and really a bit of a mess. There's no coherent argument, but it is full of pieces of information that perhaps make up some kind of whole. It's almost like a large number of notes that have been compiled into some kind of order. Of interest perhaps to those writing an essay, looking for information. But otherwise, compared to his other wor...more
Jason Fritz
Brown weaves a most impressive and comprehensive narrative of the interplay of culture, politics, and religion in the late Roman empire. Using the writings of Ambrose, Jerome, and Augustine as the axle upon which this book revolves, Brown examines debates within the early church on topics such as sin, wealth, and free will. He explains in great detail how the winners of these debates, whose writings we still refer to today, won over ideas, such as Origen and Pelagius. Brown also does an excellen...more
Selby Bateman
I had to throw in the Roman toga on this one. A masterful, exhaustive history of how wealth among Christians in the late Roman Empire period helped to make Christianity in the West what it became. But, for me, it was overwhelming and exhausting in its depth and breadth. Too much information and too detailed, I think, for the general reader. But, for those readers with special or strong interest in the formation of Christianity in Roman times and the accompanying socioeconomic changes, give it a...more
Wealth, power, the commerce involved in getting one's treasure to heaven-- Brown's fascinating and detailed study of the Church's increase in wealth is worth the page count.
I'm interested to read Leithart's work, Gratitude, now. It sounds like it would be a wonderful theological consideration of many of Brown's historical insights.
This was the first work by Brown that I've read. I'm more than excited to start another. I haven't so enjoyed reading history since reading Kagan in school.
Dave Peticolas
Fantastic. Very thoroughly researched history of how wealth and Christianity intersected during the end of the Roman Empire and the start of the Medieval era.

If you want to understand western Christendom in the formative stages in the post Constantinian period, you must read this book. Placing St Ambrose, St Augustine and the Pelagian heresy in there proper context is essential. Also understanding the necessity for a marginal religion to develop a doctrine in handling new found wealth turns out to be the key to the period. The best book on the subject I have read hands down.
Becky Yamarik
Fantastic well written book, very slow read... Cd often only do 10 pages a day but so worth it. Fascinating look at how the church took over power as the Roman Empire fell and how much of our modern views on the church and its attitude to wealth were formed. It was almost apocalyptic how things got really bad as the empire stopped functioning and the church tried to step in. Peter brown writes so well.
Stan Lanier
I know this book is only for those with specialist interests, but it is an extraordinary work of scholarship. And, to my great delight, it absolutely devastates the misconception that Constantine becoming emperor led, immediately, to the dominance of Christianity in Rome. It contextualizes the Pelagian Controversy as part of a struggle about the understanding of and the use of wealth. Amazing.
Lauren Albert
Historians of the period seem to be awe struck by Brown's newest book. I guess because they are aware of the extent of scholarship demonstrated as well as the newness of his arguments in a way I'm not. I think it was a bit overwhelmingly detailed for me. Do note that while the book is long, it is not as long as it appears since 200 pages of the page count are back matter.
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There is more than one author with this name

Peter Robert Lamont Brown (born 1935) is a historian and professor of history.

More about Peter R.L. Brown...
Augustine of Hippo: A Biography The World of Late Antiquity 150-750 (Library of World Civilization) The Cult of the Saints: Its Rise and Function in Latin Christianity The Rise of Western Christendom: Triumph & Diversity 200-1000 The Body & Society: Men, Women & Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity

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