The Ascent of Wealth in the Western Roman Empire

Not long before Jesus’ death, a rich young man asked him what good thing he should do to have eternal life. Jesus told him to keep the six commandments that Jesus then listed for him. The youth, replying that he had always kept them, then said, “What do I still lack?” Jesus replied, “If you want to be perfect, go and sell whatever you own and give to the poor, and you will have a treasure house in heaven, and come follow me.” Hearing this answer, the youth walked away in sadness, for he owned many possessions. Jesus then commented to his disciples that it was difficult for the rich to enter heaven; in fact, he hardened this judgment with the strikingly impossible comparison that provides the title of Peter Brown’s thought-provoking new book about the meaning and purpose of wealth in the increasingly Christian society of the western portion of the later Roman Empire: Jesus proclaimed that “it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

His followers were stupefied by this observation—indeed, one version of the Gospels known in the very centuries that Peter Brown writes about reports that Jesus’ followers were not just astonished but also “intensely frightened” by what their master had just said. “Who is there then who can be saved?” they blurted out in their fear. Jesus replied, without elaborating, that this is impossible among human beings, while with God everything is possible.

The anxiety felt by the bewildered disciples of Jesus, to state it in the extreme form that his words prescribe, focused on whether we can only gain entrance to paradise on the paradoxical condition that we make ourselves penniless and homeless to ameliorate the material misery of the currently poor. The long and disputed process of working out a response to this deeply troubling question is the complex subject that Peter Brown presents in this impressively researched study of changing Christian attitudes and behavior concerning wealth in the fourth to sixth centuries AD in the western regions (Europe and North Africa) of ancient Rome’s imperial territories. This was the time when Roman government was losing its hold over these lands, never to regain it in full.

In the same period, however, Christian churches (there was not yet a single ecclesiastical administration recognized as supreme) were gaining control of unprecedented material riches in property and money. How are these contrasting trajectories to be explained, and what were their long-term consequences for the medieval era and, eventually, for our times as well? How did organized Christianity become rich and powerful in the western Roman world during the very same period that Rome’s imperial government faded away in that region, and why did the resulting changes matter then and afterwards?

No scholar is more skilled than Peter Brown at analyzing the copious evidence for the intellectual and religious changes in the western Roman Empire and suggesting, though not prescribing, ways to think about the answers to these questions. It is not much of an exaggeration to say that his scholarship has been incomparably influential, for professional historians and non-specialist readers alike, in putting the centuries of Roman history that are now called “late antiquity” on the (intellectual) map. That period roughly extends from the time of Constantine, the first Christian Roman emperor, in the fourth century AD through the “barbarian” migrations and incursions of the fifth century to the near complete erosion of effective Roman administration in most of the western empire in the sixth century. Rather than criticize this era as the “decline and fall of the Roman Empire” and attribute its losses to the failings of the degenerate descendants of strong-willed ancestors such as Cincinnatus and Augustus, many historians today agree with Brown in categorizing the developments of this time and place as transformations and adaptations made under very testing political, military, and economic pressures.

In this long and densely documented but engagingly written volume, Brown proceeds like an archaeologist to excavate for his audience both the physical remains of this epochal period in the history of western civilization and, above all, the many ancient texts surviving from it. Providing both breadth and depth, he reconstructs the conditions of physical life and the ideas embedded in the writings of numerous influential leaders and thinkers, mainly the Latin Church Fathers but also some non-Christians. It is a special quality of Brown’s style to be able to demonstrate the passion and energy with which these ancient Romans spoke and wrote to express their often-dissonant views concerning the correct role of wealth in a human life lived in righteousness and virtue.

He divides his discussion into five sections, followed by nearly two hundred pages of notes and bibliography, to offer a panorama of unprecedented scope on the topics he considers (only touching on military and political history). Part I outlines the economic situation at the start of the fourth century and describes the nature of euergetism (“doing good deeds”) in traditional Roman society. In the next section, Brown includes thirteen chapters focusing on the ideas of late-fourth century leaders, including the non-Christian but nevertheless successful Roman senator Symmachus. Part III exposes the series of crises that preceded and followed the sack of Rome, with special attention to the influence of Augustine and the Pelagian opposition to his views. The last two sections survey and dissect developments in the western Roman world into the sixth century as the financial balance reversed between the secular elite and the Church (to oversimplify the terminology), with the former becoming poorer and the latter richer.

For Christians in late antiquity, it had become clear that their most significant responsibility was to live so as to merit immortality with God and, furthermore, that for them wealth, which like the great majority of people they of course desired and did all they could to acquire, created a risk to reaching that goal, as Jesus had so bluntly declared. Brown peels back layer after layer of textual and archaeological evidence, which he engagingly brings alive through pointed quotations and color illustrations, to reveal how Christian thought evolved over time so that donating money and property to the churches and monasteries for the care of the poor—in whatever ways those institutions’ leaders, not the donors, determined served that goal—became a requirement for wealthy Christians if they expected to make their way to heaven.

In this way, churches and monasteries became the channels through which—and, increasingly, to which—charitable donations were made. Slowly but inexorably, the Church came to occupy the leading role in determining normative charitable behavior for all who possessed material resources—and itself to acquire more and more of that wealth. As Brown shows, Christianity had begun with believers from a broad economic spectrum in society, especially among those in the middle, and not just among the poor or powerless. By late antiquity, it had become the standard faith of the wealthy as well. And now the Church was increasingly gaining financial strength, along with the social and political influences that always flow from that source and whose impacts were greatly magnified as the traditional Roman taxation system and therefore the government’s financial clout melted away in the western empire.

A tradition obligating the rich to make philanthropic gifts had always existed in pagan Roman society, but this duty required them to be civic benefactors rather than specifically to act as supporters of poor citizens (though some did). Christianity in the western Roman world, as Brown describes it, changed the norms so that the rich came to see the Church, not the secular ancient city, as God’s intended destination for their donations. Most importantly, the purpose and the reward for their generosity were reconceptualized and amalgamated, so that they shifted from recognition by their peers in this world to salvation by God for the life to come. In this way, a transition in thought in late antiquity paved the way for Christian ideas on wealth and charitable giving that evolved as the standard view in the medieval and then modern ages in the west.

As Brown recognizes but could perhaps have emphasized more, it is important to point out that there was also a pagan tradition sharing, mutatis mutandis, the attitude that riches were not an unadulterated good and could even be a hindrance to a pain-free existence after death. As Virgil describes Aeneas’ descent to the underworld to receive moral direction about how to proceed to Rome’s destined future, one of the things the heroic founder of Roman glory learns is that “largest crowd” of the dead he sees suffering punishment in the afterlife had been condemned for sitting on their wealth and not distributing a part “to their own.” That is, like Christians, pagans were taught that wealth was to be used to support connections with other people, not hoarded for oneself. The distinction between pagan and Christian attitudes came to lie, as Brown clearly demonstrates, in the central importance of the poor—and of those who claimed positions as their advocates and protectors—in determining the proper utility of riches and the identity of “one’s own.”

The erudition and brilliance of Brown’s insights dazzle on every page, making this book a delight to read despite its heft. Equally striking is the deep unease that its conclusions imply. If as Acton famously remarked (concerning kings and popes), “power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” and if wealth is a primary form of power, as it surely is, then the question remains whether the Church, or churches if one prefers, can avoid corruption once they become repositories of great riches and become intent on protecting that wealth; frauds connected to medieval indulgences and modern Vatican bank scandals come to mind in this context. And still present for individual Christians are the exceedingly direct words of Jesus about one’s wealth and the poor. On this same topic, he warned that no slave can serve two masters, which he explained meant, “You cannot serve God and mammon.” Should we, like Jesus’ disciples, be frightened by his instructions to the young man of means?

The Gospels do not reveal whether the young man later changed his mind and followed Jesus’s instruction, or forever after agonized over his inability to follow the command to become perfect by divesting himself of all his possessions to give to the poor. That the issue remains painfully difficult for Christians to decide even today, two thousand years later, is witnessed by, to give only one recent example, the ongoing bitter dispute at Trinity Wall Street Church in New York, an Episcopal congregation, over whether it should sell more of its rich holdings to be able to donate more to the poor. It is a remarkable strength of Peter Brown’s book that its fair-minded arguments uncover how and why this unsettling moral uncertainty first came to be, provoking us to wonder, and perhaps worry, what Jesus would think of its abiding persistence.