Quiet Revolution

Through the Eye of a Needle
Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350–550 AD
Peter Brown
Princeton University Press, $39.95, 759 pp.

A visitor to the city of Rome in the year 300 A.D. could traverse it without encountering one single building identifiable as Christian. It wasn’t that the Christian community wasn’t sizeable—indeed, the bishop of the city was already administering a large staff, distributing food to the poor, and communicating regularly through letters and emissaries with churches in other regions. But in Rome, as throughout the empire, churches were modest buildings, often in the style of domestic architecture, and could have easily been mistaken for private domiciles.

That was all about to change. A mere thirty years later, a visitor to Rome could not have missed the large buildings—such as the church on the site of the Lateran palace, dedicated to St. John—where newly public liturgies took place amid conspicuous splendor. Constantine’s benefactions to the Christian congregations in Rome paralleled larger gifts to those in Constantinople and in Jerusalem, where there were few Christians until Constantine established the city as a site commemorating the Resurrection, with a future as a pilgrimage destination and monastic homeland. His largesse legitimized Christianity’s public life while signaling its accumulation of riches and increasing exercise of power over the subjects and citizens of the empire. In this reading, Constantine’s victory over his rivals led to Christianity’s victory over Roman society and its conversion into a wealthy institution.

The eminent historian...

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About the Author

Robin Darling Young will join the theology faculty at the Catholic University of America in the fall.