Peter Brown portraitPeter R. L. Brown


 Peter Brown portrait, courtesy of Peter Brown


Scholarship and Imagination: The Study of Late Antiquity

Peter Robert Lamont Brown's concept of late antiquity recognizes few academic boundaries or disciplinary barriers. His writing cannot but stir the blood of young scholars. It promises a bazaar of possibility. Late antiquity, as defined in a recent handbook co-edited by Brown, is a distinctive and decisive period of history between around 250 and 800 C.E.:

It is not as it once was for Edward Gibbon, a subject of obsessive fascination only as the story of the unraveling of a once glorious and "higher" state of civilization. It was not a period of irrevocable Decline and Fall; nor was it merely a violent and hurried prelude to better things.... Not only did late antiquity last for over half a millennium; much of what was created in that period still runs in our veins. It is, for instance, from late antiquity that we have inherited the codifications of Roman law that are the root of the judicial systems of so many states in Europe and the Americas. The forms of Judaism associated with the emergence of the rabbinate and the codification of the Talmud emerged from late antique Roman Palestine and from the distinctive society of Sassanian Mesopotamia. The basic structures and dogmatic formulations of the Christian church, both in Latin Catholicism and in the many forms of eastern Christianity, came from this time, as did the first, triumphant expression of the Muslim faith.[1]
When the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation awarded Brown its 2001 Distinguished Achievement Award for scholars in the humanities, the foundation noted: 
Beginning with his broadly influential biography of St. Augustine, Professor Brown has demonstrated a remarkable range of talent. He is credited with having created the study of late antiquity, that crucial historical period in which paganism yielded to Christianity, and with opening up other new fields of inquiry. His own studies have been remarkably diverse, covering such subjects as the cult of saints, conceptions of the body, rhetoric and power, sexuality, and the rise of Christendom. In the process, his writings have illuminated distinctive features of late antiquity, while shaping the studies of successive generations of classical and medieval scholars.[2]
Augustine of Hippo: A Biography, Brown's first book, had appeared in a new edition a year before the Mellon award.[3] When originally published in 1967, it received immediate and widespread attention, garnering notices in London's Times Literary Supplement, the New York Review of Books, and the New York Times Book Review. Richard Southern called it "moving and absorbing" in the New Statesman. Brown's study also prompted consideration from a wide variety of academic journals. Among these was Robert M. Grant's review in Church History, which concludes: "This is a study which, both because of its learning and because of the clarity of its style, can be read by anyone but must be read by all who are concerned with the past and present of Christian life and thought. For me it has made Augustine come alive. He has become a real person living in the real world of the late Empire and facing the difficulties inherent in it." Brian Tierney, writing in the American Historical Review, called it a "sort of old-fashioned life and times."[4]

Brown's success stems from his mastery of and zest for source material, compounded with social insight, carefully digested historiographic and social theory, and a sharp eye for human beings, according to Oxford Don Robin Lane Fox.[5] Lane Fox continues:

Brown's books, articles, and lectures have spoken inspiringly to those who wished to find more in late antiquity than the exploitation of the "humble" and the in-jokes of unidentified senators. This audience has wanted more than [A.H.M] Jones' superb anatomy of how things were run [Later Roman Empire, 1966] and more than Syme's [1939] masterpiece, The Roman Revolution.... Into this vacuum, Brown brought a masterly sense of the workings and social relations of small societies and related them to the religious imagination and practice that had eluded older materialist historians.... Brown's wide but unobtrusive study of social anthropology sharpened his sense of which questions to ask. In 1969 he isolated precisely this use of anthropology for the purposes of the historian and exemplified it in a remarkable paper on sorcery... which attempted to relate accusations of it to the conflict between two social models - between traditional power vested in a traditional class and the new power attained by upwardly mobile courtiers.[6]
Since then, Brown's methodologies have varied, drawing on the work of social theorist Ernest Gellner, anthropologist Mary Douglas, and, by the 1980s, Michel Foucault, as his interests shifted to power, sexuality, and the self. These themes are developed in Brown's 1988 book The Body and Society: Men, Women, and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity, where Brown once again refocuses our attention on Augustine. Of The Body and Society, Brown writes: 
In that book I came to Augustine last of all. I first followed the theme of sexual renunciation and its impact on the relations between men and women... from the time of S. Paul onwards. I had taken the reader on a journey around the entire sweep of the Mediterranean and the Middle East before I returned, at last, to Africa, to view the once familiar figure of Augustine with the eyes of a traveler returned from strange lands....[7]
Brown's casting himself as a tour guide with travelers' eyes is more than a mere literary device. Influenced by anthropologists and anthropological theory, Brown explores the geographical sites of the events he describes, making fieldwork an integral part of his historical method. Lane Fox, one of Brown's most able protagonists in the interpretation of Late Antiquity, comments on this aspect Brown's work in his review of The Rise of Western Christendom: Triumph and Diversity, AD 200-1000 (Blackwell, 1996): 
With his talent for social observation, Brown has an incomparable feel for place, language, and people. It has often been hard to resist the suspicion that great medievalists, describing the "age of spirituality," were preparing at any moment to go off and pray in retreat. Peter Brown has preferred to travel to the sites which his subjects once occupied. Travel adds to his understanding of their context, at Lérins, opposite Antibes, for example, the training ground of ascetic Gallic bishops in the fifth and sixth centuries, which he understands as an "outpost of the wilderness of Egypt placed within sight of the sun-beaten slopes of the Alpes Maritimes... a Circe's Isle from which young men of noble family emerged transformed." At Nisibis, in Persian Mesopotamia, by contrast "unmarried young men, distinguished by a semi-monastic style of life and dress, settled in the cell-like rooms of a former caravansary."[8]

Brown, the rambler, born in 1935 in Dublin into a Protestant Irish family, was educated at Aravon School, Bray, County Dublin; Shrewsbury School; and New College, Oxford. A fellow of All Souls, Oxford, where he wrote Augustine of Hippo, Brown subsequently taught at Oxford, the University of London, and the University of California at Berkeley before coming to Princeton in 1983, where he is Philip and Beulah Rollins Professor of History. During those three decades he played a major role in the creation of the historical specialty of late antiquity, stimulating numerous colleagues, students, and interested readers by his "vivid expression and penetrating intuition that fire the imagination, put the familiar in a totally new light, and give relevance to the unfamiliar."[9]

Revealing of Brown's scope of interests and the vivid insight and intuition with which he approaches them, consider the following passages from what many rank among his most influential writings, the 1971 article "The Rise and Function of the Holy Man in Late Antiquity." [10]

Here Brown surveys the holy man at work in Syria, the "wild and woolly West" of Byzantine society:

First we must find our holy man. There was little doubt about this for Late Roman men: Syria was the great province for ascetic stars.... The holy men who minted the ideal of the saint in society came from Syria, and, later, from Asia Minor and Palestine -- not from Egypt.... [T]he ferocious independence, the flamboyant ascetic practices, the rapid rise and fall of reputations, and the constant symbiosis with life of surrounding villages--these are distinctly Syrian features.... They were virtuoso cadenzas on the sober score first written by 'The Great Men' of Egypt....[11]
Brown, characteristically, does not leave the matter there, precisely because he visited those places. He adds significantly, "This difference is written into the landscape and climate of the two areas...." Brown continues: 
We may come a little closer to the appeal of the holy man if, like the inquisitive layman in the Historia Religiosa, we climb up the ladder to Symeon Stylites and pose the crucial question: 'Are you human?' The answer for the sociologist was quite definitely, 'no.' In Late Roman society, the holy man was deliberately not human. He was the 'stranger' par excellence... the churchman in a chapel village in Wales, the dissociated medium in an African tribe." [12]
Among all his other attributes, the holy man is essentially a man of power, whose force springs from his ability to exorcise evil spirits:
Exorcism takes us into deeper waters. When little girls played games in fourth-century Syria, they played at monks and demons: one dressed in rags, would put her little friends into stitches of laughter by exorcising them. The history of exorcism in the ancient world has been carefully studied. Modern anthropological studies may help the historian see the wood for the trees. These studies have recently stressed the relation between the possessed and the community, represented, in this case, by the exorcist. Highly individual though the experience of possession may be, its handling tends to be acted out as a duet... each side has a role; each unconsciously follows a score. The dialogue between the possessed and the community, therefore, tends to have the stylized, articulated quality of an operetta. Possession and its working through is a way in which a small community can both admit and control disruptive influences by playing them out. [13]
Brown's work is filled with metaphor, literary allusion, and vivid expressions, drawing from exact detail of people, places, sights, and sounds. Another influential work, The Cult of the Saints: Its Rise and Function in Latin Christianity (1981), opens: "This book is about the joining of Heaven and Earth, and the role, in this joining, of dead human beings. " Brown then introduces us to Ambrose of Milan, an early church episcopal impresario who appropriated the cult of saints to serve the local church, its communal liturgy, and the community as a whole, including women and the poor. Brown writes:
Ambrose had not introduced the cult of the martyrs into Milan, still less had he merely acquiesced passively to previous practices. His initiatives had been firm and in many ways unusual: he had been prepared to both move bodies and to link them decisively to the altar of a new church. Rather, he was like an electrician who rewires an antiquated wiring system: more power could pass through stronger, better-insulated wires toward the bishop as leader of the community. [14]
Brown is looking for the mental and social constructs as well as the imaginative boundaries that characterize late antiquity. He has sought various means, perspectives, and approaches in order to see the wood for the trees. He has written, "Plainly, some solid and seemingly unmovable cultural furniture has piled up somewhere in that capacious lumber room, the back of our mind. If we can identify and shift some of it, we may find ourselves able to approach the Christian cult of saints from a different direction." [15] This shifting of lumber, of course, applies to all the objects of Brown's investigations. It is about imagination and scholarship.

Prolific author and influential historian, Brown is also a brilliant lecturer. In the Princeton student guide "Full List of Awesome Courses," an anonymous reviewer writes of History 343: The Civilization of the Early Middle Ages:

Peter Brown is a God, folks. I reserve that term for a very select few.... This guy speaks more than 15 languages.... I didn't bother testing him on how good his Old Norse is, but he's fluent in that too.... Brown has his preceptors act as Vandals and Visigoths when describing the fall of Rome. He's hilarious and brilliant, simultaneously. Take this course. 
We invite you to attend his public lecture and shift some cultural baggage.


[1] G.W. Bowersock, Peter Brown, Oleg Grabar, editors. Late antiquity: a guide to the postclassical world (Harvard University Press, 1999), ix-x. For a fuller excerpt: Late Antiquity / Transformation of Empire.
[2] (2) The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. "Recent Announcements," Nov. 7, 2001.
[3] Peter Brown, Augustine of Hippo: A Biography, New ed. with an epilogue (University of California Press, 2000). The main text is unchanged. 
[4]Augustine of Hippo: A Biography, reviews by: Robert Grant, Church History 37 (March, 1968):110; Richard Southern, New Statesman 74 (September 22, 1967):360; Brian Tierney, American Historical Review 74 (October, 1968):126.
[5] Robin Lane Fox, "How it Grew," New York Review of Books (April 24, 1997). Lane Fox is a Fellow of New College, Oxford, and a reader in Ancient History. His books include Pagans and Christians (Knopf, 1986), reviewed by Peter Brown in the New York Review of Books, March 12, 1997. 
[6] Peter Brown, "Sorcery, Demons, and the Rise of Christianity: From Late Antiquity into the Middle Ages," in Religion and Society in the Age of Saint Augustine (Faber and Faber, 1972), 119-146.
[7]Augustine of Hippo: A Biography, New ed., p. 500.
[8] Robin Lane Fox, "How it Grew," New York Review of Books (April 24, 1997).
[9] J.F. Matthews, Western Aristocracies and the Imperial Court, A.D. 364-425 (Oxford University Press, 1975), xii.
[10] Peter Brown, "The Rise and Function of the Holy Man in Late Antiquity," The Journal of Roman Studies, Vol. 61. (1971):80-101 (available from JSTOR to subscribers).
[14] Peter Brown, The cult of the saints: its rise and function in Latin Christianity (University of Chicago Press, 1981), 36.
[15]The cult of the saints: its rise and function in Latin Christianity, 13.

Text by John Rawlings, Medieval Studies Bibliographer, Stanford University Libraries (c)2002.

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