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Arts and Letters

The Anti-Gibbon

Journeys of the Mind: A Life in History

Peter Brown

Princeton, pp. 736, $45.00


On October 15, 1764, while visiting Rome on one of those European Grand Tours that constituted a rite of passage for so many upper-class eighteenth-century Englishmen, Edward Gibbon had a visual experience which inspired him to write his History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. As the young man sat, “musing amidst the ruins of the Capitol,” he chanced upon a group of barefooted Franciscan friars, chanting their vespers in what he believed to be the Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus, the most important state sanctuary of the Roman Republic. It was the sheer contrast, he tells us, between the lowliness of these beggars in rags and the grandeur of the building they occupied that prompted him to investigate the “principal causes” by which antiquity’s mightiest empire, “which continued to operate in a period of more than a thousand years,” could have sunk into such obscurity.

Every time he passes through the Eternal City, Peter Brown is accustomed to meditate upon another juxtaposition of images. Just a stone’s throw northwest of Gibbon’s Temple of Jupiter, up the Cordonata Capitolina and into the Piazza del Campidoglio, there stands at the center of the Capitoline Museum the great bronze equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius, staring across at the head of a colossal bronze Constantine. Seated in between these two, Brown finds himself “musing on the nature and the causes of the distance between these two . . . so very ‘classical,’ one challengingly ‘late antique.’” Yet whereas for Gibbon this distance was marked by an unbridgeable chasm between two fundamentally different ages of mankind—the ancient and the medieval—for Brown it suggests the “emergence, after classical times, of yet another, surprisingly creative phase in the history of the ancient world.” And it is this “hauntingly in-between” quality of the Roman society reflected in the Capitoline Constantine, neither classical nor intelligible apart from its classical roots, that he has spent his lifetime exploring.

Peter Robert Lamont Brown, Fellow of the British Academy and the Rollins Professor of History Emeritus at Princeton University, has, over the course of his more than half-century-long career, worked so thoroughly to shift scholarly perceptions of the cultural vitality of the late Roman Empire that he has often been likened to a kind of anti-Gibbon. And there is in fact much truth in this assessment. Not only has his name become synonymous with anti-declinist narratives of the last several centuries of Roman life; he also holds an uncontested claim to have created an entire historical discipline centering this perspective: “Late Antiquity,” a term he first employed in his 1971 World of Late Antiquity to re-periodize the era from the accession of Marcus Aurelius to the rise of Mohammad as a coherent unity, which deserved to be treated in its own terms as the last great epoch of the ancient Mediterranean world.

And if Brown can justly be considered the Anti-Gibbon, then it is clear that he and his acolytes have thoroughly buried the old codger. When he started his research as an undergraduate at New College, Oxford in the early 1950s, Roman civilization was thought to have essentially died with the political, economic, and military crises of the third century A.D., before being delivered its symbolic coup de grâce with the deposition of the western emperor Romulus Augustulus by the barbarian chieftain Odoacer in 476. The centuries from the reign of Constantine to the Arab conquests of the seventh century, while they might have been fruitful picking grounds for Patristic theologians, dedicated Byzantinists, and scholars of Dark Age Europe, were not worth the serious attention of those trained in the rhetoric of Cicero and the historiography of Tacitus.

In 2023, to express such sentiments would mean immediately to be laughed out of the academy. Over the past fifty years in the Anglosphere and Europe, entire university departments of History, Classics, and Archaeology have been restructured to reflect research and teaching agendas in “late antique” subjects. Graduate students who would have once stuck to Latin and Greek are now routinely expected to master an array of “non-classical” languages of the early first millennium such as Coptic, Syriac, Armenian, Ethiopic, Middle Persian, and Arabic, as well as to familiarize themselves with a wide variety of early Christian, rabbinic Jewish, and early Islamic literatures. Whereas the original 1923–1939 edition of the Cambridge Ancient History, that most persistently conservative of scholarly barometers, ended at 324 A.D., the most recent edition spans into the seventh century.

Yet in spite of their manifold oppositions, Gibbon and Brown are actually more similar than one would initially think, and it is these similarities that come to the fore of Brown’s long-anticipated intellectual memoir, Journeys of the Mind: A Life in History, which attempts to trace, in the author’s own words, “the development within me of a historical sense,” as well as to paint “a portrait of an age—of the remarkable half century after the end of World War II in which the study of Late Antiquity in its present form came into its own in England, America, and Europe.”

First and foremost, as their Capitoline musings should suggest, Gibbon and Brown are closely united by their possession of what has often been called the historical imagination. This is an ability, rare among even the most seasoned historians, to conjure up, from the flux of source documents, material evidence, analytical relationships, and piecemeal reconstructions, a creative and holistic visualization of past worlds that is not reducible to the sum of its parts. It is, in other words, the comprehensiveness of perspective necessary for anyone who would attempt to completely re-characterize a period of five hundred years or trace the trajectory of an entire civilization over six volumes. As R. G. Collingwood famously observed, this ability is often biographically linked to a tendency within the historian for a kind of re-enactive daydreaming. Thus have generations of poets, novelists, and playwrights from Wagner to Cavafy found artistic inspiration in Gibbon’s self-admitted propensity for fantasizing about his subject matter, from his thorough probings of the psychological character of emperors (often on the basis of one or two terse sentences of the ancient chroniclers) to his exquisitely detailed topographic description of Constantinople (which he never visited).

Brown is much more cautiously academic about how far he allows his imagination to inflect the page, but he is nonetheless notorious for initiating his analyses by way of evocative historical vignettes, in which a sustained meditation upon an image—a marble portrait bust, a church mosaic, a fabric textile, even a metaphor within a theological treatise—might serve to take the spiritual pulse of an entire time and place. He fully owns this “historicization of my imagination” and provides his reader with ample opportunities to see his visionary powers in action. From his boyhood days in Dublin, squinting, through “glass panes that were covered with dust and dead flies,” at the Manichaean Kephalaia codex of the Chester Beatty library while pondering the mystery of its scorched Fayyumic burial, to “grow[ing] new eyes” as a senior scholar to capture the same glimpse of a vegetal Paradise that Gregory of Tours might have encountered in the mosaics of sixth-century Ravenna, we are reminded again and again of just many hours of his life Peter Brown has spent staring at artifacts and how integral this has been to the development of his work: “Scholars have become medievalists for a variety of reasons. . . . I became a medievalist through my eyes.”

Where Gibbon was content to let the development of his historical imagination lie unexamined, Brown carefully theorizes his own. He credits Ferdinand Braudel, the founder of the French Annales school of historiography, with attuning him to the importance of physical environments in shaping the rhythms and contours of daily life, society, and culture over the longue durée of historical time spans. If some of these environments still endure, then following the Viking ship routes Brown used to paddle up the Thames to Godstow or tracing the horse trails of Sasanian kings that he charted through the valley of the Tang-e Ab might genuinely serve, he thinks, as a form of communion with past cultures. On the other hand, his obsession with creative visualization is equally borne of a profound melancholy over the “irrevocable past-ness of the past,” whose lost worlds we can scarcely recapture no matter how hard we try to condition our minds to receive them. This is a book, Brown tells us on the very first page of the memoir, about “the primal sadness of all historians,” whose final inability to recover the past bleeds over even into the memories of their own early lives. For this “perpetual awareness of living beside an immense, strange country,” he claims a large debt to an early encounter with the great Dutch historian Johan Huizinga’s Autumntide of the Middle Ages and its provocative opening lines:

To the world when it was half a thousand years younger, the outlines of all things seemed more clearly marked than to us. The contrast between suffering and joy, between adversity and happiness, appeared more striking . . . Honours and riches were relished with greater avidity and contrasted more vividly with surrounding misery. We, at the present day, can hardly understand the keenness with which a fur coat, a good fire on the hearth, a soft bed, a glass of wine, were formerly enjoyed.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given their devotion to imagination, Gibbon and Brown are also two of the greatest English historical prose stylists of their days. Gibbon’s rigorously symmetrical periodic sentence and paragraph structures give his writing an almost monumental quality that was praised by his contemporaries and has spurned generations of imitators, even among those who find severe faults in his history. Similarly, Brown’s penchant for dazzling writing is so well known that its ability to enchant readers out of their critical faculties has always been both the chief contention of his detractors and the lodestar of many a budding graduate student. This distinctive “Brownian” style—which weaves together highly ekphrastic descriptions of (often opposing) sets of individual images that then emerge, through a kind of literary Ken Burns effect, as a harmonious panoramic portrait—is clearly the product of his reflections upon his own imaginative encounters. But it is arguably also the result of an unapologetic commitment to write for an educated public instead of in the technical idiom of the ivory tower. Gibbon lamented the “cold annalists” of his time, whose obsession with historical minutiae “must destroy the light and effect of those general pictures which compose the use and ornament of a remote history,” while declaring himself an “industrious manufacturer,” who has taken these scholarly raw materials and molded them into something beautiful for the public at large. Brown informs us on multiple occasions of his promise to always write “for my aunts,” those middling Dublin Protestants who constituted Yeats’s “folk of few books”—literate, intensely curious about the world, and sharing a deep pride in their own intellectual interests, but who never had the opportunity to receive a formal university education. And indeed, this promise modulates his prose with an unmistakably Irish orality: “At least half of my books and articles,” he reveals, “have grown out of rhetorical occasions . . . Whenever possible, I have tended to reproduce, in print, the rhythms of speech.”

A deep frustration with the narrowness of the Oxford establishment of their times—and the crucial role that this disaffection played in shaping their intellectual trajectories—is another theme that curiously connects the early lives of both of our historians. As an extremely precocious fifteen-year-old, Gibbon enrolled at Magdalen College in 1752 with the expectation that his voracious appetite for the Latin and Greek classics would be met “in the discipline of a well-constituted academy, under the guidance of skilful and vigilant professors.” Instead, he found a society of fellows whose “conversation stagnated in a round of college business, Tory politics, personal anecdotes, and private scandal. . . . The names of Wenman and Dashwood more frequently pronounced than those of Cicero and Chrysostom.” It was those fourteen months at Magdalen, “the most idle and unprofitable of my whole life,” that prompted the young Gibbon to move to Lausanne, Switzerland, to continue his education, where he soon came into contact with a world of Francophone scholarship and those publications of the Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres that would prove so vital to his Decline and Fall.

Two hundred years later, Brown’s complaints about what he calls the “‘grown-up’ history” that dominated the Oxford of his youth—history seen as “a training ground for civil servants, colonial administrators, and lawyers,” which was designed to produce people “good at passing exams,” was “largely limited to England alone,” and featured a “narrow emphasis on political and institutional history” and “an avoidance of grand topics such as religion and the history of ideas”—sound eerily similar to Gibbon’s own. This “tweedy philistinism” threatened to thwart his project at every turn: as an undergraduate and later tutor, it forced him to devote the majority of his daily efforts to mastering and teaching “The List” (those books and topics that might appear on final examinations); as a doctoral student it dramatically circumscribed the research topics he could pursue if he hoped to gain academic employment (his original D. Phil. dissertation was to be on the Wars of the Roses). Yet this served only to galvanize his energies—“I wanted to throw down the gauntlet”—drawing him, “like a water-diviner, hoping against hope to touch some new, fresh spring,” into the recesses of the Bodleian and Ashmolean libraries, where strange new European periodicals, challenging various aspects of the received narrative of late Roman decline, glittered before him like hidden treasures. It also inspired him and a cadre of “revolutionary insiders,” led by the prominent medievalist Richard Southern, to advocate tirelessly for syllabus reform, in the process forcing them to articulate the conceptual contours of their newly proposed field of study. The watershed moment came in 1966, with the introduction of “Byzantium and Its Eastern and Northern Neighbours, 500–700 A.D” as a Further Subject in the Modern History curriculum, a development which allowed Brown, for the first time, to give lectures and tutorials on late antique subjects to a generation of eager students—John Matthews, Chris Wickham, Philip Rousseau, to name just a few—who would go on to make substantial interventions in the field of Late Antiquity.

But if Oxford was Brown’s greatest obstacle, it also proved his saving grace. Just as Gibbon’s timely inheritance of his father’s estate supplied him with the leisure time and financial security necessary to embark on such a sweeping six-volume venture in relative isolation from the pressures faced by career writers of his time, it would be difficult to overstate the importance of the prestigious All Souls fellowship Brown won in 1956—which granted him seven years of untrammeled freedom to pursue his own studies and provided him with institutional connections that allowed him to bypass concerns about academic employability—in shaping the course of his early research. In fact, it was through a “gentleman’s agreement” with another All Souls fellow, Charles Monteith, the literary editor of Faber and Faber, that he was given the opportunity to drop out of his doctoral program and write his first book with a prominent trade publisher: a biography of Augustine of Hippo which sought, for the first time, to analyze its subject not primarily as a bishop or a theologian but as a remarkably convincing reflection of a still vigorous Roman imperial culture. It was the success of Augustine of Hippo that catapulted Brown to public attention and set the tone for all of his later work.

Readers of this magazine will be especially interested in still another respect in which Gibbon and Brown prove kindred spirits: that is, in the indebtedness of their work to a sustained engagement with Catholic interlocutors. Gibbon’s own youthful conversion to Catholicism is well known; less frequently realized is the critical role played by seventeenth- and eighteenth-century French Catholic historiography in the shaping of Decline and Fall, from the Histoire des empereurs et des autres princes qui ont régné durant les six premiers siècles de l’Église of Louis-Sébastien Le Nain de Tillemont (“the sure-footed mule” and “the indefatigable Tillemont”) to the grand twenty-seven volume Histoire du Bas-Empire en commençant à Constantin le Grand of Charles le Beau (“a gentleman and a scholar”) to the Abbé de la Bléterie’s biographies of the later Roman emperors, whose paraphrases of ancient sources Gibbon often quotes in lieu of those sources themselves.

First, as an Oxford undergraduate, we find Brown, the Irish Protestant boy whose primary school had deliberately served a meat stew on Fridays, thrust into the center of a campus enthralled with Brideshead Revisited and “riddled with High Anglicanism, Neo-Thomism, and sheer unbelief,” his dorm mates boldly proclaiming that, although they were of course atheists, “the only Christianity worth either fighting or adopting was Catholicism.” This atmosphere proved dangerously intoxicating, provoking our author to nearly read himself, like Gibbon, into a conversion, after being recommended Karl Adam’s Spirit of Catholicism by his Catholic friends. As Brown’s time at Oxford continued, he became immersed, through channels like the legendary 1963 Oxford Patristics Conference, in the world of French Catholic Patristics scholarship, reading and eventually meeting such luminaries as Jean Daniélou, Henri de Lubac, Marguerite Harl, André-Jean Festugière, and “my hero since undergraduate days,” Henri-Irénée Marrou. Many of these scholars, whose own historical studies were rooted in larger public debates about the crises of post-war Christian European culture, had already begun to challenge the characterization of late Roman culture as ossified, derivative, and degraded. In fact, it was Brown’s initial encounter with Marrou’s 1937 Saint Augustin et la fin de la culture antique and its corresponding 1949 Retractatio—read on a punt under Magdalen Bridge—that introduced him to the term Marrou used to describe this period, “antiquité tardive” (late antiquity), in the first place. The influence of these French patrologists was fortified, in Brown’s imagination, by his acquaintance with a cast of homegrown Catholic and Anglo-Catholic characters—the Oxford Dominicans Gervase Mathew and Robert Markus, the Anglican priest-professors Henry Chadwick, Derwas Chitty, and John Burnaby—that we meet in Blackfriars Hall, where we find Brown cutting his teeth on the thick, heavy volumes of Jacques-Paul Migne’s Patrologiae cursus completus, or in the library of Pusey House, where he scans the Theodosian Code as “the scent of incense that percolated upward from the High Church chapel below” conjoined “contemporary Anglo-Catholic piety and the world of a distant empire where it had all begun.”

Brown’s early indebtedness to Catholic scholarship was not limited to his engagements with Patristics scholars and medievalists. As he began to solidify his status as the torchbearer of a new historical discipline after the success of Augustine of Hippo, he came under the sway of British cultural anthropology at the height of its post-war “Catholic moment,” associated with the ascendancy of the Catholic convert E. E. Evans-Pritchard and his Catholic disciples Mary Douglas, Victor Turner, Godfrey Lienhardt, and David Brokensha. It was the work of Douglas in particular, whose 1970 magnum opus Natural Symbols was stimulated by its author’s dissatisfaction with the liturgical reforms of the Second Vatican Council, that, in its rejection of a “two-tier model” of the relationship between popular and elite piety, Brown credits with offering him “an entirelnew way to look at the relations between religion and society.” Douglas’s influence on Brown’s work can be seen most especially in his famous 1971 article “The Rise and Function of the Holy Man in Late Antiquity” and in his 1981 Cult of the Saints, both of which, in their own ways, utilize Douglasian structuralist analysis to assail the historic Protestant notion that the veneration of holy people and places in Late Antiquity represented a “vulgar” recrudescence of a primitive, pagan practice that could be separated sociologically from the “pure,” heady monotheism of early Christian bishops and theologians.

After abandoning his All Souls dinner tuxedo on a bench in People’s Park and taking a professorship at a U.C. Berkeley still in thrall to the Sixties counter-culture in 1978, Brown’s Catholic dialogues took yet a third, surprising turn. Not only were the cries of sexual liberation still on the lips of so many of his new Bay Area colleagues; having visited the University of Notre Dame at the height of its turbulent Hesburgh administration three years earlier, he had found that debates over the future of clerical celibacy were consuming his Catholic friends as well. Intrigued by the extent to which both sides in this conversation drew upon historical arguments to support their positions, Brown was equally struck by their mutual presupposition, whether they considered it a good or a bad thing, that “the constant sexual nature [of mankind] had been unremittingly repressed throughout the ages.” His 1988 Body and Society emerged as a direct challenge to this unexamined common wisdom, portraying early Christian sexual renunciation as a practice motivated not by an attempt to master or extinguish a morass of dark, enslaving sexual energies but rather by a desire to transform the whole social and theological basis of the ancient pagan city, to provide “a language of hope” with which the political relations of the heavenly city might be prefigured in earthly communities. Brown found his greatest ally in this new scholarly undertaking in the person of Michel Foucault, whose own colossally misunderstood History of Sexuality repudiated the “repressive hypothesis” and genealogized sexual liberation as a late modern discourse of social control. Indeed, in his memories of imbibing with the Godfather of Post-modernism at Berkeley’s infamous Bear’s Lair Tavern while the two confessed their mutual love for Daniélou, Mondésert, and de Lubac’s Sources Chrétiennes Patristic commentaries and the pleasures of working in the library of the Dominican Order at Le Saulchoir, Brown shows us a Catholic side of Foucault that has been consistently and unjustly neglected by scholarship.

For all of the above, however, Journeys of the Mind is a book remarkably unlike Gibbon’s own Memoirs of My Life and Writings. If Gibbon’s autobiographical narrative was comprehensive enough to include, by the meddling hand of Lord Sheffield, even a first-hand account of its subject’s death, Brown’s claims to be nothing more than a representative sampling of the first half of its author’s career. Leaving our protagonist in 1987, at the very beginning of his time at Princeton, we find him again in 2023, as an eighty-seven-year-old retiree and a “creature of regular habits,” whose almost monkish daily routine has him rise around 4:00 A.M., cycle through his office of prayers, and practice three or four of his twenty-six languages, all before the breaking of the dawn. The almost thirty-five years and more than seven important books in between are glossed over in a mere ten pages.

Neither is Journeys of the Mind a personal book in quite the same way as Gibbon’s Memoirs. The reader will nowhere discover a Brownian equivalent of Suzanne Curchod, Gibbon’s romantic muse (Brown’s first marriage is mentioned only once in passing), or anything analogous to Gibbon’s political ruminations on the future of English society in the wake of the French Revolution. To be sure, Brown’s personal disclosures are often quite intimate, yet they are also guarded and elliptical in a way that somehow makes them more compelling. So, for example, we learn that his encounters with the piety of an array of religious communities during a trip to pre-revolutionary Iran inspired our author to resume attendance at a Christian church “after a lapse of twenty years”; yet what it was about this experience that brought him back to a specifically Christian faith we are never told. Similarly, as a MacArthur Fellow living and researching in Venice in the summer of 1982, Brown recounts a thunderstorm he watched light up the dome of the Chiesa del Santissimo Redentore from his apartment window, in which “lightning flashes threw the great figure of Christ into ever-sharper relief, so that it seemed, in the shimmering broken light of the storm, that he was walking ever closer to me, down from the dome of the church.” Are we to interpret this as a mystical vision, a suggestive optical illusion, or something in between?

Neither, still, is the book merely a personalized history of the development of the academic field of Late Antiquity, as the author’s humility leads him to suggest. For one thing, the sheer range of non-academic figures from whom Brown claims an intellectual inspiration—from the Iranian peasant farmer who taught him about divine justice to the Urantian cab driver in California who provided him insights into late antique angelology—would draw scoffs from the unabashedly elitist Gibbon. For another, the veritable crash course in twentieth-century intellectual history that its narrative provides will capture the attention of persons with no particular knowledge of or interest in late antique studies as such. Indeed, the book’s Index of People alone could provide a lifetime’s reading list in all manner of subjects only tangentially related to the history of the late Roman Empire. And this, I think, is the book’s greatest contribution—that it is also an invitation. To follow the journeys of Peter Brown’s mind over the course of these seven hundred pages is necessarily to begin making journeys of our own.

John Ladouceur is a Ph.D. candidate in the Program in the Ancient World at Princeton University.