and Imagination: The Study of Late Antiquity
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.:
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.
When the Andrew
W. Mellon Foundation awarded Brown its 2001 Distinguished Achievement Award
for scholars in the humanities, the foundation noted:
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.
Augustine of Hippo: A Biography, Brown's first
book, had appeared in a new edition a year before the Mellon award.
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."
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.
Lane Fox continues:
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
 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.
Since then, Brown's methodologies have varied, drawing on the work of social
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....
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
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."
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
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." 
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....
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."
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.
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:
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.
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."
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
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.
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
Text by John
Rawlings, Medieval Studies Bibliographer, Stanford University Libraries (c)2002.
by Ever Rodriguez