Peter Brown Considers Constantine, Eusebius and the Future of Christianity

December 10, 2013
Peter Brown and Christopher S. Celenza
Sebastian Hierl, Peter Brown and Kim Bowes
Sebastian Hierl and the Academy thank the Friends of the Library
Guests at the Villa Aurelia
Peter Brown and Christopher S. Celenza
Guests at the reception
Professor Peter Brown
Betsy Brown, Peter Brown and Kim Bowes
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The Patricia H. Labalme Friends of the Library lecture was delivered on Thursday evening to a full house at the Villa Aurelia. This lecture also formed part of the ongoing New Work in the Humanities Series, overseen by Mellon Professor, Kim Bowes, FAAR’06. Simultaneous Italian translation was available and a reception followed the event.

Director Christopher Celenza, FAAR’94, welcomed guests and introduced the American Academy’s Drue Heinz Librarian, Sebastian Hierl, who discussed the library’s role as a premier research destination for classical studies. Dr. Hierl extended the Academy’s profound thanks to the Friends of the Library, whose support is crucial in maintaining and expanding the Academy’s treasured collections. Director Celenza then introduced the evening’s speaker, a pioneering scholar of the Late Antique.

Philip and Beulah Rollins Professor Emeritus of History at Princeton University Peter Brown has taught at London University and the University of California, Berkeley. His books include Augustine of Hippo (1967), The Rise of Western Christendom (1995, 2002), and most recently, Through the Eye of the Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome and the Making of Christianity in the West (350-550 AD) (2012). He has been the recipient of several distinguished awards for his research on the early Christian world, including a MacArthur Fellowship, a Distinguished Achievement Award from the Andrew Mellon Foundation, the International Balzan Prize and the Kluge Prize from the US Library of Congress. Speaking on “Constantine, Eusebius of Caesarea and the Future of Christianity,” Professor Brown attempted to add a new dimension to discussions of the early 4th century by asking how early Christians may have envisioned the future.

Professor Brown argued that an eerie grandeur has come to surround Constantine as the figure around whom Christianity solidified its dominance, yet this retrospective view often obscures the more cautious expectations that Christians themselves then had for the future of their creed. Over the course of his discussion Professor Brown painted a picture of the Christian worldview between 312 and 337 as one that envisioned a “thin universalism,” but could not yet imagine itself in a “majoritarian” position. “The insistent Christian,” Professor Brown explained, “is an anachronism,” for men like Eusebius and Constantine shared perspectives that had been shaped in the late 3rd and early 4th centuries and had no sense of the universalism to come. Their relative tolerance suggested the confidence of those who believed that God’s acts had succeeded and the Christian revolution had already taken place.

Historians often imagine it being but a short step from Constantine I to Theodosius I, but Professor Brown insists that these leaders were separated by a decade of intense change and that it was only in the maelstrom of a long 4th century that Christianity truly came of age. In attempting to reconstruct a vision of the future as seen by those in the past, Professor Brown engages in the most difficult kind of history, which acknowledges the innately subjective character of a discipline that can only be projected backwards and filtered through the eyes of the present.