In making my way through the Nov. 21 NYRB, I’ve reached the Brent D. Shaw review (only the first paragraph available without paying, alas) of Peter Brown‘s book Poverty and Leadership in the Later Roman Empire, which collects three essays on the transition from the ancient idea of poverty (the poor to be helped are those like you, in your community) to the more inclusive Christian one, which, however, by and large omitted two large classes: people outside urban areas—as Brown says, historians “must remember that mass poverty in both ancient and modern preindustrial societies was (and still is) overwhelmingly a rural phenomenon”—and slaves.
What struck me most, however, and impelled me to write about it here, is the section discussing the “extended argument about the place the new images of the poor and poverty had in the mainstream ideologies of Late Antiquity.”
Brown’s claim is that the Mediterranean-wide discourse on the poor that emerged in this period was strongly related to the new needs of the new imperial state to assert its presence. A hugely powerful and distant emperor and imperial court were simultaneously more present and more invasive at a local level than was the Roman state of the Augustan Age. Its officials and administrators were everywhere, regulating and reporting down to minute levels. What was needed was a discourse in which these extremes of power could be linked. The pervasive tyranny of the new imperial court needed a human face; its subjects needed to believe in the efficacy of its local presence.
The new Christian language of poverty was the most widespread Mediterranean discourse of entitlement, affecting all persons down to the most indigent; and so it was the most suitable, the most powerful, and the most effective rhetoric in which the weak and the suppliant could converse with the more powerful. The presence of God in all human beings, but especially in the most humble of them, was the touchstone of the dialogue’s authenticity. The ideological consequence of all of this, Brown argues, is that the intense debates over the nature of the Christian God that raged among bishops and their councils between the fourth and sixth centuries—the murderous in-fighting that created mortal enemies in Arian and Monophysite heretics (and others)—were not just arid theological disputes over the essence of the supreme deity. They were part of a reformation of the language in which this new society could speak about itself.
This gives me an insight into something I had always wondered about, the tremendous importance given by the wielders of worldly power to those church councils and the persecution of “heretics”; it also reminds me uncomfortably of the discourses promoted in this new age of “extremes of power.”