Title

Preaching poverty in late antiquity: Perceptions and realities

Publication Date

2009

Abstract

In 2002 the influential scholar of Late Antiquity, Peter Brown, published a series of lectures as a monograph titled Poverty and Leadership in the Later Roman Empire. Brown set out to explain a trend in the late Roman world observed in the 1970s by French social and economic historians, especially Paul Veyne and Evelyn Patlagean, namely that prior to the fourth century and the rise in dominance of Christianity, the poor in society went unrecognized as an economic category. This corresponded with the Greco-Roman understanding of patronage, whereby the state and private donors concentrated their largesse upon the citizen body. Non-citizens, for instance, were excluded from the dole system, in which grain was distributed to citizens of a city regardless of their economic status. By the end of the sixth century, rich and poor were not only recognized economic categories, but the largesse of private citizens was now focused on the poor. Brown proposed that the Christian bishop lay at the heart of this change. The authors set out to test Brown's thesis amid growing interest in the poor and their role in early Christianity and in Late Antique society. They find that the development and its causes were more subtle and complex than Brown proposed and that his account is inadequate on a number of crucial points including rhetorical distortion of the realities of poverty in episcopal letters, homilies and hagiography, the episcopal emphasis on discriminate giving and self-interested giving, and the degree to which existing civic patronage structures adhered in the Later Roman Empire of the fourth and fifth centuries.

Document Type

Book

Access Rights

ERA Access

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