Again and again, Brown considers traditional interpretations major events and personalities in this period, and then offers a new interpretation, sometimes his own, but more often a condensation of an emerging consensus among Late Roman scholars. He is very much a cheerleader for recent developments in the study of this period, often citing and complementing, the work of others. This book is not simply a narrative study, although it does generally progress chronologically. It is also an exploration of how historians work, and a lesson in interpreting sources. Brown is a confident but unpretentious guide through a territory about which I knew nothing aside from a few offhand generalizations. As I near the end, I not only feel that I have a vivid and insightful understanding of some of the major figures (Augustine, Jerome, Paulinus of Nola), but also a real sense of how people's ideas and feelings about wealth evolved, and how these developments interacted with the wider context of a disintegrating empire and an emerging new order.
Brown studiously avoids both political history and discussion of doctrinal differences, both of which are fascinating, but available elsewhere. So you won't learn anything consequential about who the emperors were, or theological beliefs of the Manicheans or Arians or Donatists. It is a bit jarring at times to skip over what seems like essential information, but I have to grudgingly admit that Brown's precise, unwavering focus pays off. In the end, the vision of evolving attitudes towards wealth is unclouded by any distractions.
The book is long, and the topic obscure, but if that doesn't scare you off, this is a rewarding experience
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