Through the Eye of a Needle – how Christianity swallowed antiquity and birthed the West

By Razib Khan | January 21, 2013 3:03 am

One of my resolutions for the New Year was to read two books on approximately the same period and place in sequence, The Fall of Rome: And the End of Civilization, and Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350-550 AD. Despite a very general similarity of topicality it would be misleading to characterize these two books as complementary, or with one as a sequel to the other. Rather, they use explicitly different methods and espouse implicitly alternative norms in generating a map of the past. As I have explored in depth Bryan Ward-Perkins’ The Fall of Rome is to a great extent a materialist reading which reasserts the contention that civilization as we understand it did truly collapse in a precipitous and discontinuous manner with the fall of Rome. In other words, in all things that matter the year 400 was much closer to the year 300 than it was to the year 500. But it is critical to qualify what “matters.” As an archaeologist with a penchant for economic history Ward-Perkins’ materialist narrative might be reduced down to a metric, such as productivity per person as a function of time. In such a frame the preponderance of evidence does suggest that there was collapse in the Western Roman Empire in the years between 400 and 500. But specific frame is not something that we can take for granted. Peter Brown, the author of Through the Eye of a Needle might object that there is more to man than matter alone. A major distinction between the years 400 and 500, as opposed to 300, is that in the first quarter of the 4th century the Roman Emperors starting with Constantine began to show special favor to the Christian religion, which by 400 was on the way to being the exclusive official faith of the Empire, a process which was complete by 500. The Rome of 300 was indisputably a pagan one. That of 400 arguably Christian, and 500 most definitely Christian.

Constantine, first Christian Emperor

At this point many readers may be confused. After all, did not Constantine the Great make Christianity the official faith of the Roman Empire between the Edict of Milan in 313 and the First Council of Nicea in 325? No! This confusion is common enough that it needs elaboration. Peter Brown in Through the Eye of a Needle outlines explicitly throughout the narrative why a Christian Roman Empire was only truly imaginable in the years after 370, nearly 50 years subsequent to the First Council of Nicea. This is not a central concern of the book, but the reason for this assertion is so plain in the literature that it bears some repeating. First, we need to state what it means for a religion to be an “official religion.” Today we have explicit formal constitutions, and elaborate institutional systems to handle the relationship of religion and state. Such was not necessarily the case in the ancient world. The concept of “separation of church and state” would have made little sense, because all states were implicitly sacred, and so naturally required the beneficence of the gods. But the Reformation model can provide us with a window into societies where there was a rupture between the old religion and the new. In Protestant nations the Roman Catholic Church as an institution was proscribed, its properties confiscated, its priests expelled or defrocked. It makes reasonable sense to state that at some point in the 16th century Roman Catholicism was no longer the official religion in a host of northern European nations.

Theodosius, Emperor who made Rome Christian

Such a rupture never occurred with the plethora of cults which we bracket under the term ‘paganism’ for nearly a century after Constantine’s conversion to Christianity. Why is 370 such an important date then? Because only in the decades between 370 and 400 did the legitimacy of subsidies to customary pagan cults come under scrutiny by the Emperors and their court. The disestablishment of paganism in the late 4th century, decades after Constantine, and subsequent to the expiration of his dynasty, was initially more a matter of the rollback of paganism’s customary privileges, and the default role it played at the center of the Imperial high culture, rather than an assertion of the exclusive and universal role of Christianity. Only in the last decade of the 4th century did the attack on pagan privileges shift from one where Christianity attempted to attain parity, and then superiority, to the intent to extirpate public paganism (the elimination of the Serapeum in Alexandria in 391 being exemplary of the trend). The overall point here is that between the conversion of Constantine to Christianity and ~375 what one had was a pagan Roman Empire which was anchored by an Imperial court with a Christian flavor (I say flavor because though aside from Julian all the Emperors were avowed Christians, and Christians were over-represented among the courtiers, many of the notables around the court remained pagan). The period between 375 and 400 manifests a more genuine conflict, as a critical mass of high status individuals who were partisans of the new religion (e.g., St. Ambrose) began to take aim at the supremacy and the prerogatives of the staunchly pagan elite families (e.g., the Symmachi) of Rome by marginalizing their symbols and rites by pushing them into the private realm. Only after 400 was there a rush by the great pagan families of Rome into the new faith, and even then many remained unconverted or crypto-pagan for decades (e.g., the great late Roman general Marcellinus who flourished in the 460s was an avowed pagan).

Before the end of the 4th century a Christian Roman Empire was a vague dream even for believers within the Empire. They had been a prominent sect which received particular favor at the Imperial court, but in Through the Eye of a Needle Peter Brown observes that for all their new found privilege the Christians remained predominantly an urban movement of non-elites. In Brown’s words Christianity and Christians were a “mediocre” affair. The central question of Brown’s treatment, how the rich and powerful could ascend to heaven despite the anti-elitist stance taken by the Gospels and the early Church, was not a question at all before 375, because so few Christians were part of the elite class of the Roman Empire to whom great wealth was their patrimony, and from whom generosity was expected.

The background for this tension is rather well known. In ancient Greece and Rome civilization revolved around cities, and a great proportion works of what we in the modern era would presume would be the purview of the “public sector” was taken on by prominent families. At the most extreme end of this pattern Augustus Caesar stated that he found “found Rome a city of bricks and left it a city of marble.” Much of the wealth of the Roman Empire during his lifetime was for all practical purposes his private property, but it was expended in public works as well as games and subsidies for citizens. On a smaller scale the wealthy of each town or locality took it upon themselves to be generous patrons, who would benefit from the glory which would accrue to their little nation.

In copious prose Peter Brown outlines how prominent Christian thinkers such as St. Augustine squared the circle of an ancient Christianity which was decidedly modest with the inclinations and needs of aristocratic converts whose blood demanded reflections of their greatness. The standard story is that at some point the great and mighty began to leave their wealth to churches and build monastery complexes. The humble Christianity of antiquity began to transform itself into the grand and awe inspiring religion which gave rise eventually to Gothic cathedral because the great and might captured the Church after converting to Christianity. If you accept the thesis in  Through the Eye of a Needle this necessitated a great deal of intellectual dispute among the Christian intellectuals of Late Antiquity to prevent the process from getting out of hand. In one corner you have representatives of the demotic Christianity of old, such as St. Augustine. It would be a mistake to characterize St. Augustine as a plain person. He was from the local elite of his home region in North Africa. He was also famously well educated in Latin and influenced by Neo-Platonism. But he became the leader of a North African Christianity which had deep roots far earlier than the conversion of Constantine, and was based firmly in the urban middle class, from which it drew its material resources. Against St. Augustine Brown posits that Christian intellectuals such as Pelagius could flourish only because of the independent patronage they received from wealthy converts to Christianity at the Roman center. This new money, so to speak, led to a proliferation of alternative voices of Christianity religious activity, and the crystallization around charismatic preachers and thinkers of various heterodox ideas shielded by the wealth and power of their patrons.

Through the Eye of a Needle runs over 500 pages of narrative text. But much of this consists of attacking the same issue over and over again through glosses upon ancient commentaries and correspondence. Peter Brown clearly has deep command of the primary literature, but frankly the method of focusing upon text after text leaves me cold. I would rather have some economical and spare economic history, rather than the umpteenth exegesis upon the letters of an obscure Christian preacher from the 5th century. And yet there is a method to the madness, as Brown outlines how the this-worldly Roman pagan elites shifted the nature of their generosity toward a more conventional Christian variety of patronage where their alms given to the poor translated to the purchase of real estate in heaven. The previous sentence outlines the matter in far too crass a manner, but it strikes at the heart of the issue. Public patriotism seems to be replaced by individualist religious self-interest. Though he does not mean to do so I can’t but feel that Peter Brown’s argument actually lends support to the argument that Christianity sapped the public spirit of the Roman elite.

The reality is that I don’t think Brown shows any such thing. While for him intellectuals seem to drive the action of Late Antiquity, my own sense is that these intellectuals are indicators, effects and not causes. Their argumentation can serve as a marker which points us to underlying economic and political conditions, but in and of itself argument does not move history. After 400 the elites of the Mediterranean became at least nominally Christian, and with that Christianity by necessity was going to change. The slow evolution of Christianity from an idiosyncratic preference of the court of Constantine to the established public religion of the Roman Empire over the course of a century was an organic process, and therefore requires the unpacking which Through the Eye of a Needle attempts. But ultimately this cultural evolution may strike some as secondary to the fact that the political and institutional order which Christianity took for granted, the Roman Empire, began to collapse all around it.

With his laser like focus on individuals St. Augustine and St. Paulinus of Nola I feel that Brown neglects the reality that in much of Europe Christianity spread not through the charisma of individuals, but the fiat of monarchs. The Roman case was to some extent sui generis, because despite the image of autocracy in the Dominate of the later Empire, Rome was a minimal state where local elites held much sway. The victory of Christianity in the public square was not assured so long as the Roman Senate and other assorted public institutions with historical heft demurred. Not so in the north. As outlined in The Barbarian Conversion the conversion of much of northern Europe occurred in a model which was much more Constantinian in reality, rather than ideal. The conversion of the monarch was a sharp rupture with the past, and the whole nation was brought along by fiat in short order. To a great extent the proto-nations of northern Europe came into being only with the emergence of Christian central monarchies. Though focused on a narrow band of time and space, the issues which are tackled in Through the Eye of a Needle are best addressed in a more explicitly comparative framework. I will attempt to do so in a follow up post! (seriously)

CATEGORIZED UNDER: History

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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com

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