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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
Princeton University Press, 2014
792 pp., $24.95
Andrew L. Wilson
Follow the Money
When you are dead, asked Salvian from his pulpit above Marseilles's teeming harbor, to whom will you leave your earthly possessions? It was not an idle question. Those were dire days for the Empire—around AD 430—and ripe for such otherworldly solutions. Barbarian hordes haunted the uneasy sleep of Salvian's flock. Someplace sure and incorruptible was needed for their treasures: place them in heaven, urged their monk-bishop. Write Christ directly into your will. There was only one hitch: Roman law did not recognize Christ as a legal beneficiary.
Money mysteries such as this one dominate the era, which is precisely why Peter Brown, whose long and laureled career has homed in on such dissonance with nothing short of prodigious insight, focuses on the subject in his latest (and perhaps greatest) work, Through the Eye of the Needle. The allusion, of course, is to the disappointing story of the rich young ruler, who sulked off after Jesus asked him to give away his wealth to gain heaven. He became the foil par excellence for an era of heroic renunciation, where a very few of "the richest private landowners of all time" gave it all up for Jesus. But alongside such giants as Paulinus of Nola stand countless small-scale donors whose plunking solidi and plinking sesterci raised churches, monuments, shrines, and monasteries throughout the Roman world.
Many others such as the retired general Sevso, whose unearthed silver platter—19 pounds' worth!—sports a token Christogram, seemed otherwise to live in "an imaginative universe in which Christianity was almost totally absent." The fact that most Christians never fully unburdened their camels has tended to fertilize a jejune morality tale, where a kind of institutionalized hypocrisy and otherworldly doublespeak gutted the virile civic life of Rome to fill church treasuries. That's the tale spread by Edward Gibbon's 18th-century masterpiece, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, which looms over the era like ...