Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350–550 A.D.
by Peter Brown
806 pp., $39.95
In A.D. 313, just one short decade after a massive, bloody persecution of Christians, the Emperor Constantine granted religious toleration to the small Christian churches in the Roman Empire. Flash forward two centuries. In 476, the Emperor was deposed at Ravenna, effectively ending the Roman Empire in the West. On the former date, the empire was vast and Christianity was marginal; by the latter, the empire was fractured, and Christianity had become the dominant religious and social movement in the Mediterranean world.
In his magisterial new study of this era, acclaimed classical historian Peter Brown attributes this transformation to the evolution of wealth and, in particular, philanthropy in Christian churches.
Make no mistake: this was an era of massive wealth. “From Constantine onward,” writes Brown, “the Roman state flooded the economy with gold.” Enormously productive countryside villas fueled the economic growth of cities. The senatorial class was augmented by viri clarissimi—newly minted aristocrats. Farmers and merchants rose to the rank of town councilors. By modern standards, inequality was vast, but by ancient standards, a large middle class had emerged.
In an age of gold, these “middling persons,” or mediocres, found themselves possessed of wealth. As a Spanish mediocris described his station:
“It is not for us to live in houses sheathed in marble, to be weighed down with gold, in flowing silks and bright scarlet. But all the same we have our little places in gardens and by the sea-side. We have good quality wine, neat little banquets, and all that goes with a sprightly old age.”
It was among the class of mediocres that many Latin Christians were found, and from this class that clergy were drawn. The wealth of the era, then, was already flowing into churches. Even churches in small provincial cities might have expensive mosaics and gold or silver Eucharistic vessels. This sort of giving, Brown notes, was significant but on a much smaller scale than the vast entertainments and building projects of the senatorial classes.
Indeed, Christian philanthropy grew out of a culture that Brown refers to as an “empire of gifts.” The charitable donation was deeply embedded in Roman cultural norms. (The college of Vestal Virgins, for example, was one of Rome’s tax-exempt organizations.) “The [late] Roman empire was held together by personal ties expressed and cemented through massive giving.”
Much of this traditional Roman philanthropy—almsgiving, hospitality—has been obscured by acts of what Brown calls “civic euergetism,” major acts of giving for improvements and events that dominated civic life. Giving theaters, games, temples, public art—these acts of generosity marked the donor as an amator patriae, or lover of one’s hometown. “It was the most honorable love that a wealthy person could show,” Brown writes. (In his narrative, civic euergetism bears a striking resemblance to the universities, museums, and concert halls that today’s big donors give—and to the acclaim they receive.)
The Rise of Christian Philanthropy
There are a few ways to understand the response of Christian leaders to the wealth and philanthropy of the late Roman world. A cynic might say, as Brown does in an off-handed remark, that the bishops “knew a rival for the wealth of the rich when they saw one.”
But Brown also describes the Christian response as a righteous reply to the way that Roman euergetism favored citizens over the poor. The annona, Rome’s grain distribution and a gift from the emperor, went only to citizens, a relatively small proportion of the general population. The bishops attempted to reframe wealthy attitudes from love of the city to love for the poor.
Brown offers a sophisticated analysis of this development in Christian preaching, and how it affected giving. First, preachers described the plight of the poor in colorful and melodramatic terms (“a man showing two eyeless sockets directs his straying, faltering footsteps with a stick”), in effect “pauperizing” the poor. “For the logic of Christian preaching was to reach out to the poor in such a way as to join the very top of society to the very bottom,” Brown explains.
Second, the teaching of bishops like Ambrose of Milan drew strongly on the Old Testament, in which the poor come before the rich not in search of alms but of justice. The poor of Israel were lowly in condition, not spirit. They were part of God’s chosen people. They had virtual family ties with the rich of God’s people. “It is not anything of yours that you are bestowing on the poor,” explained Ambrose. “Rather, you are giving back something of theirs.”
The poor of Israel were thus more analogous to the plebs of a Roman city—“vulnerable persons compared with the rich but by no means beggars.” The churches drew their wealth from the middle classes, spent their wealth on the poor, and united the groups together with familial ties. “[I]t was the redefinition of the Christian poor (derived from the Old Testament) that did the most to secure the eventual triumph of Christianity in the cities in the course of the fifth century,” Brown writes. “Ultimately the Christian bishops rose to prominence neither through fostering the very poor nor through persuading the very rich to switch their generosity from the circus to the churches. It was through winning the middle.”
Another way in which the bishops challenged civic euergetism was in how they framed the gift transaction. Donors to the city could expect their amor patriae to be returned by the citizens, through honors and praise. In contrast, donors to the church would be accumulating “treasure in heaven,” in Jesus’ words. This was an appealing idea to donors in a culture in which one spent time trying to earn earthly immortality through bravery or good deeds. And it was effective at reducing class distinctions among donors. “To place treasure in heaven empowered the average donor,” notes Brown. “For the reward of the gift was thought to be utterly out of proportion to the gift itself. Heroic giving was no longer seen as the monopoly of the truly rich.”
Ambrose, Augustine of Hippo, and other bishops of this period were laying the groundwork to pair a donor’s desire for a pious life with the needs of the churches and the poor they served. They were preparing the way for the trickle of wealth into the churches to become a cataract.
How Should We Then Give?
Easter Sunday, 394, marked a major event in the history of Christianity: a senatorial fortune was surrendered to God. Paulinus of Nola, who owned major landholdings in Italy, Gaul, and Spain, renounced his wealth. “For the first time,” Brown writes, “Christian ascetic teaching had touched a male member of the super-rich.” Brown is an expert on renunciation in Christianity (both sexual and financial—and they often go together), and he offers a powerful account of Paulinus’ act and how it was received by the bishops and in the Roman world. Paulinus’ Christian forebears had not felt the need to renounce their wealth so long as they could use it for pious purposes; the rich could remain “at ease in the world.” Paulinus could not. “He said that he would follow to the letter Christ’s command to the Rich Young Man.”
Even in purported poverty, Paulinus was a sensation. Ambrose and Augustine celebrated him. He eventually became bishop of Nola. He had viewed his wealth as a gift from God, and he had given it back to God—a “spiritual exchange” for which he received treasure in heaven.
Paulinus also represented an increasingly popular choice of beneficence for donors. His principal philanthropic project was a shrine to St. Felix at Cimitile. As Christianity expanded to include more of the rich, donors became increasingly interested in the Christian counterparts to civic institutions—something like Christian euergetism. They gave gifts and bequests of their money and goods to build new churches and monasteries. They gave mosaic floors and encrusted marble walls, and expensive candles to keep churches lit throughout the night. Women even gave their precious silks to make opulent curtains for the churches. Giving became a central part of the church service, with the faithful proceeding to the altar with their gifts and the names of donors being read aloud. Christian donors in the late Roman era gave for the glory of Christ and his church.
But Paulinus-style renunciation, though held up as exemplary, was not mandatory across the churches of the Roman west. The disposition of wealth was a subject in the Pelagian and Donatist controversies, but Augustine’s understanding seems to have emerged victorious—and “Augustine kept close to the contours of the possible when facing a real audience of rich and powerful persons in a late Roman city.” “Let them be rich in good works,” Augustine preached. The bishop of Hippo posited giving as expiatory for day-by-day sinning.
Brown argues that Paulinus’ and Augustine’s approaches to philanthropy became the dominant ones. “What won out was a combination of Paulinus of Nola’s poetic sense of the romance of treasure placed in heaven by a spiritual exchange with Augustine’s sad emphasis on daily giving as the remedy for daily sin. To this was added the dry view upheld by later Augustinians that wealth itself was a gift of God that demanded forms of management as strict and as careful as that exercised by any procurator on an imperial estate.”
And as much as Christian giving looked like Roman civic piety, it took on a different cast thanks to Augustine and Paulinus. “Donations were no longer seen as made for the community and for the honor of the family,” says Ville Vuolanto, “but became a personal matter between God and individuals.”
Christianity in a Changed World
Christianity had other advantages, most notably its status as the empire’s official religion after 380—although paganism continued to flourish for decades in the rich senatorial families of the West. But the incursions of barbarian tribes into the Roman West starting in the fifth century, combined with Christian understandings of philanthropy, led to a surge of church power. The disruptions decimated the economy that fueled the cities, and especially the taxes and tributes paid to Rome. This weakened the economic position of the Roman plebs—making them poorer. The churches, with their service to the poor and unity of social classes, became more attractive. They also became increasingly important sources of alms and repositories of wealth.
The power of the bishops came about in part because wealth poured into churches even as civil law was unclear about the corporate status of the churches. In the end, civil law extended its pre-existing understanding of corporate entities and tended to recognize the bishop as the dominus of his church—the legal authority figure, with full power over the administration of his church’s funds.
By the time Romulus Augustulus capitulated to Odoacer in 476, Brown argues, Europe’s Christian conversion was progressing inexorably. Why? “It was the entry of new wealth and talent into the churches from around the year 370 onward, rather than the conversion of Constantine in 312, which marks the turning point in the Christianization of Europe,” he writes. “From then onward, as members of a religion that had been joined by the rich and powerful, Christians could begin to think the unthinkable—to envision the possibility of a totally Christian society.”
A Convincing Case
The late Roman era foreshadows many latter-day issues in philanthropy. Rich Christians patronized their churches and monasteries with beautification. Even if they renounced their wealth, they continued to benefit from a high social position. Some at the time argued against this kind of ostentatious giving. Sounding like nothing more than one of today’s social justice advocacy groups fulminating against opera funding, Jerome wrote, “The parchment page is dyed deep in purple, the letters are a trickle of gold, the bound volumes are dressed in gems—and the naked Christ lies dying at the gate.” (As Brown notes ironically, “Ascetic piety such as that favored by Jerome cost money. It involved the transfer of large sums to monastic settlements in Egypt and the Holy Land”—much of which went to scholarship, libraries, and books.)
Through the Eye of a Needle is full of fascinating asides with contemporary relevance. A donor named Valila includes a donor intent clause in his gift of land and churches—calling for it to revert to his heirs should a future bishop “detract in any way from this little oasis of splendor.” After he renounced his wealth, Paulinus faced a struggle many wealthy people have even after making a major commitment: money keeps making money. It took Paulinus more than a decade to unwind his estate and personal wealth, and he had plenty of money during those years for major philanthropic projects.
But most consequential is Brown’s argument about how Christian wealth and philanthropy shaped the fall of Rome and the emergence of the Latin church as the dominant institution in society. Brown’s tightly but elegantly written stories of towering individuals—Symmachus, Ambrose, Augustine, Paulinus, Jerome—combine with his deep knowledge of original sources and recent scholarship to make his interpretation convincing.
“Human decency, alas, finds few historians,” writes Brown early on in the book. The field of philanthropy—vibrant, fascinating, and curious—draws little attention. We who study and practice it are lucky that a scholar of such skill has given us such a gift.
Evan Sparks is managing editor of Philanthropy.