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2012 Jacques Barzun Prize

2012 award presented in November 2013

Peter Brown

The 2013 recipient of the American Philosophical Society’s Jacques Barzun Prize in Cultural History is Peter Brown in recognition of his book Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350-550 AD, published by Princeton University Press in 2012.

Peter Brown’s magnificent new book crucially revises several long-held assumptions about the ending Roman Empire and the rise of Christianity in the West. The story of renunciation of riches epitomized in Christ’s evocation of the rich man whose entry into the kingdom of God will be harder than a camel’s passage through the eye of a needle is so central to the period that Brown says he is tempted to call it the Age of the Camel. But many rich men managed another passage. Instead of renouncing their riches, they gave them to the church, and thereby ‘altered the texture of Christianity itself’. Brown concentrates on the neglected ‘middling classes’ of the late Roman West, and on the ‘minor nobility’ of Rome and the provinces, who all played a larger part in the time’s changes than has been imagined. Through the theme of wealth - debated, renounced and above all deployed - and through studies of a series of distinctive figures - from Symmachus and Ambrose to Augustine, Paulinus of Nola and Jerome - Brown recreates two hundred crowded years of what he calls ‘a world before our world’ - long before it, but still firmly present in ‘many of our own views on wealth and poverty’.

Peter Brown, the Philip and Beulah Rollins Professor of History Emeritus at Princeton University, is credited with having created the field of study referred to as late antiquity (250-800 AD), the period during which Rome fell, the three major monotheistic religions took shape, and Christianity spread across Europe. A native of Ireland, Professor Brown earned his B.A. in history from Oxford University (1956), where he taught until 1975 as a Fellow of All Souls College. He joined the Princeton faculty in 1986 after teaching at the University of London and the University of California, Berkeley. Professor Brown’s primary interests are the transition from antiquity to the Middle Ages and the rise of Christianity, and he has pursued them through investigations into such diverse topics as Roman rhetoric, the cult of the saints, the body and sexuality, and wealth and poverty. He is the author of more than a dozen books. He was elected a member of the American Philosophical Society in 1995.

The Barzun Prize selection committee consisted of Michael Wood (chair), Charles Barnwell Straut Professor of English, Princeton University; Glen W. Bowersock, Professor Emeritus of Ancient History, Institute for Advanced Study; and Jeffrey Hamburger, Kuno Francke Professor of German Art & Culture, Harvard University.