In making my way through the Nov. 21 NYRB, I’ve reached Brent D. Shaw‘s review (only the first few paragraphs 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.”


  1. And provides an eerie quasi-insight into the murderous fights that could erupt over prepositions–“with”? It’s “through”! Heretic! Heretic!

  2. I’m surprised that you’re surprised. 🙂

    Seriously, I know this is my cup of tea, and no doubt it helps that I was raised in an extremely language-sensitive tradition, but it’s always seemed clear to me that the history of religion (at least, of most religions — certainly those “of the book”) is pretty well impossible to extricate from the history of language, and vice versa. Theological development and linguistic development go hand in hand, and most of the earliest texts in the languages we speak today are explicitly religious. The stakes are especially (though not uniquely) high in Christianity, where you have canonical scriptures in two and a half languages (three and a half for post-Tridentine Catholics or twentieth-century fundamentalists) and the Son of God identified with the Word, a pure principle of language itself. At minimum, then, students of those church councils have long realized that much Christological debate had to do with what language and what categories people chose to speak about it in. (To take the most obvious example, homoousios and consubstantialis don’t mean quite the same thing, and neither is a concept found in any of the available scriptures. Working through that accounts for the best part of three of the seven “ecumenical” councils right there. 😉 “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us” — the one phrase Augustine said he couldn’t find in his “Platonic books” — is a neat encapsulation of both the theological and linguistic problems raised during the Christological controversies. And of course Peter Brown, who’s done excellent work on late antiquity for decades, has a very good point about the rhetoric of poverty in particular — it would come up again, in a Western Christian context, during the later Middle Ages alonside the rise of the mendicant orders, a spate of new councils, and the rise of theological literature in the vernacular.

  3. (By the way, I think you’d really like Averil Cameron’s Christianity and the Rhetoric of Empire. Really really a lot.)

  4. #2: Comment of the week! Makes me glad I posted in the first place, since it elicited such a learned and elegant response.

    #3: Thanks, I’ll look for the book.

  5. Could Christian neglect of the rural poor have something to do with the two meanings of pagan?

  6. I got an OED question 🙂
    XVIII c. usage of the verb “to regulate” (yes, you guessed it … the idea is that it meant “to generously equip”)

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