By the sixth century, the church was wealthy and full of wealthy people. How did the rich get their loads through the eye of the needle into the kingdom of heaven? How, in other words, did an institution pledged to recognize the blessedness of the poor gradually reconcile itself to unprecedented wealth? Peter Brown's latest, very substantial, book, 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) gives a deliriously complicated answer.
Brown follows the money from Rome to Milan, to North Africa, to Gaul. He takes the measure of superrich pagans like Symmachus, as well as Christian leaders who wrote about riches, like Ambrose, Augustine, Paulinus, Priscillian, Popes Damasus and Gelasius, Jerome, John Cassian, and Salvian. As usual, Brown leaves no stone unturned in his search for insight and evidence. He examines texts, of course, but he pays close attention to architecture and archeology and late Roman art. He paints a colorful social setting for early church debates about theology and ethics without becoming reductively sociological, and often overturns accepted mytho-history in the process. He quietly draws on contemporary theory but typically lets ancients speak for themselves because his aim is to introduce us to an exotic world. Through it all, he focuses the masses of details by treating attitudes, beliefs, and practices about wealth as a "stethoscope" to hear the heartbeat of late Roman and early Christian civilization. In a brief review, I can do more than hit some highlights.
A New Model of Pastoral Power
Wealth did not immediately inundate the church in the aftermath of Constantine's conversion. The "Age of the Camel" begins in the 370s, not the 310s. Through the central decades of the fourth century, rich Christians continued to spend their money much like their pagan counterparts. Wealthy believers were more likely to bestow their gifts on their city than on the church or the poor.
The transitional period between 370 and 430 was pocked with a series of debates on wealth. Paulinus of Nola set a standard of voluntary poverty. Jerome clashed with many people about many things, but the question of wealth recurred throughout his embattled life. Brown intriguingly examines the Pelagian controversy (over the doctrine of original sin and the role of free will in attaining righteousness) as a controversy about wealth. When the ceasefire finally came, Augustine had triumphed over Pelagian ideas of salvation and economics alike, the criminalization of riches and the rich. For Augustine, wealth was a means of expiation, alms and benefactions as the sump pump by which sinners clear the sewage that daily seeps into their souls.
According to Brown, the Roman way of life did not slip away into that good night; the empire went down raging. Yet barbarian attacks on Rome itself were devastating. Many saw fortunes accumulated over centuries carried away; other wealthy Romans fled to Carthage, where they tried to maintain their Roman ways but soon got embroiled in the Pelagian controversy.