Rome, empire and christianity: Politics of poverty and purity

Mike Macnair reviews: Peter Brown, 'Through the eye of a needle: wealth, the fall of Rome and the making of Christianity in the west, 350-550 AD'. Princeton 2012, pp758, £27.95

It is a curious coincidence that the Catholic church should elect a pope who takes his papal name from the notorious advocate of clerical poverty, St Francis of Assisi, and who claims to stand for ‘a church for the poor’, within 12 months of the publication of Peter Brown’s book, which explores in depth the relationship of the Latin church to wealth and poverty in the later Roman empire. (The story of the Greek, or ‘orthodox’, church is a separate one.)

However, it is clearly not a coincidence that towards the end of his book Brown explores the role of the church’s relationship to wealth in the formation of the idea of clerical celibacy (pp517-22). In the last 15 years the church has been dogged with sex abuse scandals. Even if the idea common among Protestants and liberals that sex abuse results from clerical celibacy is quite untenable - it is clear that most sex abuse takes place within the family home - the scandals take some of their force from, on the one hand, the massive contradiction between the image of sexual purity as a form of holiness projected by clerical celibacy, and, on the other, a world of abuse of power carried on in the shadows with a view to sexual gratification. For Brown to have written in the 2000s a book about the development of the Latin Christian church in the society of which it was part in 350-550 and not discussed the origins of clerical celibacy would, therefore, have looked odd.

Brown’s book takes its title from a Jesus story in the synoptic gospels (Matthew 19.16-26; Mark 10.17-27; Luke 18.18-25). A young man asks Jesus what he should do to have eternal life. Jesus first tells him to keep the ten commandments; when he says that he has done so, Jesus says: “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.” The questioner, who “had great possessions”, goes away sorrowful; and Jesus says to his disciples: “Truly, I say to you, it will be hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again, I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of god.” The sharpness of this comment is then considerably mitigated by what follows (whether original, or introduced in transmission): “With men this is impossible, but with god all things are possible.”1

The story of St Francis of Assisi is a story of how, even with the final mitigation, the passage about the camel and the eye of a needle was a ‘problem text’ for the medieval church, which had become one of the wealthiest institutions in medieval society. Bishops and the larger monasteries were major landowners, and the papacy transmitted enormous sums of money, which made it from the 13th century a major client for the new institutions of banks and bills of exchange. St Francis and the Franciscan friars set up in his name were ‘assimilated’ into the clerisy; other prophets of the poor were channelled into anti-Semitism; yet others led peasant and urban revolts, which the landlord class and the clerical elite crushed.2 Church wealth remained an issue in the 16th century Protestant reformation.

Through the eye of a needle tells the story of how this problem arose: that is, of the contradictory and developing relationships of the Latin church to wealth over the period Brown studies.


In spite of the dates in the title, Brown actually begins this period with the conversion to Christianity of the emperor Constantine in 312. In part 1 - ‘Wealth, Christianity and giving at the end of an ancient world’ - we are given an overview of the economy and society of the age of Constantine and his immediate successors, the social profile of the church in this period, and the role of wealth and poverty in the larger society and in Christian doctrine.

The Roman empire spanned, west to east, from what are now Wales and Portugal to Armenia and northern Iraq, and north to south from Northumbria to southern Egypt. The eastern or ‘Greek’ part was governed from Constantinople (modern Istanbul). The western or ‘Latin’ part, covering what is now England and continental Europe west of the Rhine, south of the Danube and west of what is now Croatia, and north Africa west of Egypt, was governed at various times from Rome, Trier, Milan and Ravenna.

In Brown’s description, this was a world of many, many cities - large ones like Rome itself, and small ones no bigger than a modern village - each of which was to a degree self-governing and had its own elite. The elites in turn were tied into an empire-wide system which exacted taxes from the cities, and in doing so gave the city elite power over the poorer citizens and the unenfranchised country folk. At the top were the super-rich; either the self-consciously ‘old money’ of the senatorial aristocracy, or the ‘new money’ of the higher imperial bureaucracy and of landowners who did well out of the tax and supply spines joining some of the provinces to the western capitals and to the armies on the frontiers.

Brown emphasises the spectrum of wealth; the traditional view of a society highly polarised between the super-rich and the very poor has, he argues, been exaggerated through over-reading Christian and other polemics about wealth. Below the super-rich there were middle layers, including the local elites of the cities; and below these were junior bureaucrats, artisans and so on. Christianity was, he argues, at the start of the period a phenomenon of these middle layers - part of the same world as artisan collegia, trade guilds and other urban mutual-benefit societies.

Roman elite super-wealth was accompanied by a sort of pagan cult of wealth as abundance and healthiness. However, in the traditional world, the wealthy were expected to give - but to give their ‘own’ cities magnificent public buildings, gladiatorial games and similar displays, and endowments for various purposes, the practice historians call ‘euergetism’. In return, the citizens honoured them with acclamations, inscriptions and statues. This was not a legal obligation; but aristocrats who were thought to be hoarding wealth in conditions of harvest failure could be threatened with riots and being burned out.

The book ends in part 4 at around 600 AD; now, the west Roman state has been broken up; the great elite fortunes, which depended on the reach of the Roman state, as they were based on owning land in distant provinces, have been broken, the church emerges as a relatively very wealthy institution, and the fundamental medieval conception of a society divided into those who work (peasants and artisans), those who fight (military aristocracy) and those who pray (clergy) is emerging. But the church’s wealth is sanctified as being in some sense ‘for’ the poor; and celibacy emerges as the clerics are ‘othered’ to separate this sanctity from the continuing wealth of local lay and ‘barbarian’ aristocrats.

In between is a narrative. The organising device is a series of individuals whose writing, or at least whose memory, has at least partially survived till modern times, treated in chronological order. Part two of the book, titled ‘An age of affluence’, covers the later 4th century through the ‘last pagan’ senatorial aristocrat, Symmachus (c345-402); Ambrose, bishop of Milan 374-94 when it was an imperial capital, who appealed to ‘the poor’ against the emperor; the young Augustine (354-430) and his passage from rhetoric-teacher in Milan, through the Manichean ‘heresy’, to conversion to Catholicism and a new kind of monasticism in Hippo; the Gallic (in modern terms French) ‘small aristocrat’, Ausonius (c310-94); Paulinus of Nola (c354-431), a high aristocrat who ‘gave away’ much of his wealth, but created an opulent monastic church, over which he presided; Damasus (pope from 366 to 384) and the evolution of the Roman clergy between Constantine’s time and his; Jerome (c347-420), the translator of the Bible into the ‘Vulgate’ Latin version, and his struggles with rivals for patronage, including discussion of the role of aristocratic women - Marcella, Paula, Melania the elder - in intellectual patronage more generally around 400.

Part 3, ‘An age of crisis’, covers the period of the collapse of the western Roman empire, beginning around the sack of Rome by the Visigothic army in 410, and with the high aristocrats, Melania the younger and Pinianus, who at this time sought to give their assets away more radically than Paulinus (incidentally producing protests from the slaves, who they ‘emancipated’ en masse, since the slaves’ view of this piece of ‘charity’ was that they were being sacked (p296)); the relationships of high-aristocratic refugees in Africa with Augustine; the ‘heretic’ Pelagius (active in the early 400s) and his followers’ radical critique of wealth; back to Augustine, his sermons as addressed to the rich and to the citizens of Hippo, his critique of Pelagianism, and the ‘Pelagian controversy’ in the churches beyond Africa and in the western Empire; and the ‘crisis of the west’ beginning with the failure of the Rhine frontier in 405 and culminating in the Vandal seizure of Africa in 439, which broke the ‘tax spine’ of the western empire, seen partly through the eyes of Paulinus of Pella (376-459) and Sidonius Apollinaris (430-c480/90).

Part 4, ‘Aftermaths’, begins with the intellectual and monastic milieu of southern Gaul round Marseilles, Arles and Lérins in the early 5th century, and the individuals, John Cassian (a migrant from the east in this period), Hilary, bishop of Arles 440-49, and Prosper of Aquitaine (c390-c455). This provides context for the writings of Salvian of Marseilles, who wrote in the 440s scathing critiques of the Roman tax system as an engine for the oppression of the poor. From Gaul the book now moves, as Prosper of Aquitaine did, to Rome, and there to the sermons of Leo (pope from 440 to 461), to aristocratic patronage of churches, and to aristocratic concerns that property given to the church may be abused. These, in turn, lead into the final evolution in part 5, the idea of clerical wealth as a trust for the poor and the ‘othering’ of the clergy.

This extremely bald, indeed skeletal, summary may make the book appear as a boring series of individuals. In fact, it is anything but this. The individuals, particularly writers and preachers, are placed in dialogue with their contexts. And their contexts are deeply explored using all the resources of the historiography and of archaeology, ‘reading’ not only texts, but surviving pictures and buildings and even the footprints of buildings dug up by archaeologists. Brown brings his characters and their age to life.

As a result, what could be a tedious narrative of the evolution of Christian doctrine about wealth in abstraction from its context - or, on the other hand, yet another schematic structural account of the fall of the western Roman empire - becomes a narrative of human choices, both individual and collective, made under changing objective social conditions and constraints. Brown is not a Marxist; however, his characters “make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past” (Marx).3 As he rereads the authors he studies in their specific contexts, their arguments and rhetoric begin to be comprehensible to us as the arguments and rhetoric of actors fully engaged in the circumstances, in the political and social lives of their times. The book is a great read.


Why should 21st century Marxists read a book which is on its face about the evolution of religious doctrine at the time of the fall of the western Roman empire, 1,600 years ago?

At one level the answer is the obvious one. The story Brown tells is of the creation of the idea of the Catholic church as custodian of vast wealth ‘for the poor’, and of the social forces which underlay the beginning of the representation of this role as trustee for the poor through clerical celibacy. This idea is still alive: both in the claims of pope Francis and in the reality of the Catholic child abuse scandals.

But there is also a level below this. Marxists have traditionally analysed historical social orders in terms of the ‘mode of production’. From this point of view, Brown analyses a part of the transition from the antique mode of production to feudalism. We may be tempted by the idea that what he is analysing is ‘legal and political superstructure’ or ‘forms of social consciousness’. But this would be mistaken.

The idea that social production in any society could be wholly organised by private-choice institutions (family, private property and markets, or other forms of owner-to-owner interaction, like gift exchange, the assembly of feudal clients, etc) is an illusion of liberal political economy. The private necessarily entails its negation, the aut sacrom aut poublicom (sacred/public): most obviously in the form of public ways and spaces. The sacred/public necessarily includes public institutions of redistribution, which may have a state character or a religious character or both. These are part of the economic base, not of the ideological superstructure. Brown correctly draws attention to aspects of ancient civic euergetism as redistributive operations which enable the continued functioning of the productive economy in spite of episodic harvest failures. His story ends with a different set of redistributive institutions, those of the developed form of Catholicism. This transition was a necessary aspect of the transition from antiquity to feudalism.

This underlying point has as much present political relevance as the immediate point about Catholicism. Classical liberalism and neoliberalism are both utterly mistaken on the necessary role of the sacred/public. The result is that liberal anti-collectivist policies cannot suppress the objective need for collectivism. They merely repress secular collectivism: but by doing so they make collectivism as such resurface in the form of traditional religious, redistributive institutions. With the latter come the traditional sexist and nationalist forms of purity politics. The irrational religious right in the US, political Catholicism and Islamist politics - up to and including Salafism and jihadis - are the natural and probable consequences of the recent period of ascendancy of economic liberalism.



1. From the version in Matthew in the revised standard version, as (partially) quoted by Brown at pviii.

2. Prophets of the poor: N Cohn The pursuit of the millennium Paladin 1970, though distorted by the continual ‘spin’ of Cohn’s rightist political bias, contains a good deal of useful information; for the early development of anti-Semitism and related matters, see RI Moore The formation of a persecuting society Blackwell 1987.

3. www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1852/18th-brumaire/ch01.htm.