Your Book Review: Through The Eye Of A Needle

Finalist #8 of the Book Review Contest

[This is the eighth of many finalists in the book review contest. It’s not by me - it’s by an ACX reader who will remain anonymous until after voting is done, to prevent their identity from influencing your decisions. I’ll be posting about two of these a week for several months. When you’ve read all of them, I’ll ask you to vote for your favorite, so remember which ones you liked. If you like reading these reviews, check out point 3 here for a way you can help move the contest forward by reading lots more of them - SA]

Rome, 401 AD. The great pagan Roman senator, Symmachus, sponsors games to celebrate his eighteen year old son becoming praetor. Romans who witness the pageantry were still talking about it a generation later. There were theatrical displays in a flooded amphitheater. Symmachus brought crocodiles from the Nile, bears from the Balkans, great Irish wolfhounds from Britain, lions from the southern mountains of north Africa, antelopes and gazelles trapped along the edges of the Sahara, Saxon prisoners of war to serve as gladiators (all twenty of whom, frustratingly for Symmachus, committed suicide before the games, strangling each other with their own hands in their prison cells). Powerful Romans had displayed their wealth and civic love in the same way for the greater part of a millennium.

Within a generation, much of the wealth of great senators like Symmachus was lost or slipped into the Christian church. Goths sacked the city of Rome. Vandals conquered wealthy north Africa and the great city of Carthage. Over the next hundred years, western Europe and north Africa completed their transformation from a classical pagan society to a medieval Christian one. It was not only a political revolution. "It was in this world that the conglomerate of ideas that medieval persons took for granted was first formed." This period rivals the Enlightenment as the most dramatic transformation of the West.

Background on the Author

Peter Brown, is an English historian and the Rollins Professor of History Emeritus at Princeton. He’s one of the great scholars of “Late Antiquity." He is sometimes regarded as the inventor of the field (per Wikipedia). I’m not a historian, but I am interested in the world of classical Rome and Greece. I'm interested in men and women struggling to maintain systems and hold off collapse. The end of the Roman society is probably the best documented and most accessible example. Thus I first came across Peter Brown’s work in the extremely readable “The World of Late Antiquity” from 1971. The short, introductory work got me hooked, so I read Brown’s 2014 book “Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350-550 AD.”

The core of the 530 page book uses the writings of the pagan Symmachus and the Christian writers Ambrose, Jerome, Pelagius, Augustine, Paulinus of Nola, John Cassian, Pinianus, Melania the Younger, and Salvian of Marseilles. I found these pieces of the book a little dry and overly theological. Their works are the primary sources from the era, so I understand why they were the focus of the book. If I was knowledgeable on Catholic theology and ancient heresies then it may have been more interesting. I don’t know much more than Sunday school level theology – I haven’t even read Augustine’s The City of God.

Brown uses these primary sources to narrate the entry of the rich into the Christian churches of the western Roman empire. Christ said, “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” The Church transformed the rich and the rich transformed the church. Many rich Christians gave their wealth to the church – during their life or after their death.

If the primary source gems in the book are a bit dull, I found the settings that Brown placed them in fascinating. Brown is a master of the field and a lively writer. He's up to date on all the latest research -- some of it contradicting his 1971 book. I had imagined late Roman society as proto-feudalism with the wealthy having withdrawn from urban society to create massive agricultural estates, “latifundium”, worked by slaves or serfs. Brown rejects that image. He constructs a much more dynamic and urban society, focused around hundreds of cities and populated by what we would call upper-middle class, small landowners.

Late Roman Economics: Simplified

There were two huge benefits of the empire for the economy. One was peace – less piracy and raiding. The other was a huge market. These two factors allowed for unprecedented trade and specialization. During the empire’s most prosperous centuries (especially 0-200 AD), Mediterranean peoples produced food and goods in greater abundance and variety than any other pre-modern time.

By the 4th century AD, the Respublica (Brown refers to the imperial state as “Respublica” which I think is a beautifully romantic word, especially when it referred to a state that no longer exists) laid a heavy tax burned on the empire. Consequently, there were two sources of income for the wealthy: 1) Agricultural income from land they owned or rent on that land, 2) Imperial supply or service, paid for in the emperor’s new gold coins. The income of most wealthy Romans was a mix of those two sources. The imperial service was a new phenomenon in the Respublica. “In many ways, the fourth-century age of gold had been unusual. An active imperial court had created a service aristocracy that was more fluid and more tied to the imperial center than had ever been the case previously.”

City Based Empire. In the introductory chapters, it was sometimes difficult to know whether Brown was describing how society functioned in the 4th century alone or how it had functioned over the past 500 years. He describes a Mediterranean world built around cities. There were some 2,500 cities in the Roman empire. In the west, the most densely urbanized areas were central Italy (including Rome), Sicily, northeastern Africa (including Carthage), and southern Spain. In those regions, cities were no more than 10 miles apart. A larger, less dense area where cities were located around 25 miles apart includes northern and parts of southern Italy, the Dalmatian coast (modern Croatia), the Mediterranean regions of Gaul (modern France), most of modern Spain and Portugal, much of north Africa within 60 miles inland. Brown refers to each city as a little social pyramid. The most massive pyramids were Rome, Carthage, and the center of the imperial court at Milan (the capital of the western empire was relocated to be closer to the frontier during the 3rd century). Rome and Carthage especially were massive cities with between 500 thousand to 1 million residents at their peaks.

Extraordinarily wealthy, old senatorial families with landholdings scattered across the empire sat at the top of the Roman and Carthaginian pyramids. Brown describes these families, “at the very top of this pyramid lay fortunes the likes of which would not be seen again in Europe until the millionaires of the industrial age.” Wealthy senatorial families could have annual incomes of 2,000 pounds of gold. Brown spends too much time trying to impress the reader by the amount of gold owned and received in annual revenue by this class. I understand that economic data is very limited, but it was difficult for me to contextualize pounds of gold into economic purchasing power. I looked up some estimates that said the total gold mined before Christopher Columbus was between 650,000 to 2,800,000 pounds. 2,000 pounds of gold per year for fifty years of adult life is between 15% and 4% of all gold in human hands at the time! An individual couldn’t stockpile all the revenue they received during their life, but clearly they controlled great wealth.

Constantine Reforms. Brown calls the 4th century an “age of gold”. Debased bronze and silver coins were pushed aside by the imperial system. From Constantine onward, the emperor paid his army and high officials in gold. The Respublica insisted on receiving as many taxes as possible in gold. The results drew a "poverty line" between the areas of society where the golden solidus circulated and a bleak social hinterland where the solidus was absent or difficult to obtain.” It seems similar to what I’ve read about the two currency system in Cuba or access to US dollars in countries with hyperinflation.

The gold solidus was in circulation among the wealthy in the urbanized areas around Rome and Carthage. It was also found along what Brown calls “corridors of empire.” For instance, the city of Trier (modern Germany, near Luxembourg) was an important imperial center near the Rhine frontier. A great deal of taxes and supplies flowed to Trier and to the armies of the Rhine. The wealthiest landowners and most splendid villas crowded along these corridors “tied to an imperial gravy train.”

Economic Pyramid. Smaller cities had populations of 2 to 5 thousand. The top of the social pyramid in these cities were the local wealthy. These competing petty noblemen owned most of the farmland and their villas clustered around the towns. “They were comfortable, but not outstandingly wealthy.” They were often members of the town council or imperial bureaucrats. Brown spends a good deal of time focused on the town councilors or “curiales” of smaller cities. The curiales took care of almost every task of government on behalf of Respublica, except for high justice and the army. Curiales were responsible for police, road maintenance, fortifications, and the collection of taxes. The power and status of being a member of the curiales also came a supreme burden – the curiales were responsible for making up any shortfalls in tax revenue. After the reforms of Diocletian and Constantine, some curiales became imperial bureaucrats in direct employ of the Respublica and exempt from taxation (the Christian church was sometimes also exempt from taxation). Curiales were not usually nobles.

Being a member of the curiales was great early in the empire – lots of power and more importantly, lots of honor. It became worse, as taxes rose and the loopholes to escape taxation (e.g., imperial service, Christianity) grew. Joining the curiales was a matter of wealth. Brown states an example where a man of humble origins joined the town council in a small African city. He needed 300 “solidi” (gold coins, 72 solidi = 1 pound of gold) of wealth, which he built up through land purchased after years of tenant farming. This man had been a “rusticuli”, a faceless little farmer. When he joined the curiales, he became honorable. He could no longer be flogged or tortured. Even though he was not much wealthier than some of the “little farmers”, he now had more in common with the wealthiest of senators than with local tenant farmer. The estimated 65,000 members of the curiales in the western empire alone were a constant source of talented and ambitious men to serve the Respublica.

Agriculture. The curiales were on the top of an agricultural economic pyramid. An estimated 60% of the empire was agricultural and 80% of the population was involved in the harvest. Curiales often had tenant farmers work their lands. The Respubilca’s primary revenue source was a land tax. The curiales would visit the farms surrounding their city to collect taxes on behalf of the empire, then return to collect what was owed to the curiales personally in rent. The tenant farmers would often pay in kind instead of in gold, for two reasons. 1) It was often very difficult to get access to gold. 2) Landlords often had economies of scale in selling agricultural products. A tenant farm could sell his produce in the city after harvest and take the local market price at the time. A landlord often owed storehouses, so he could sell when prices were highest. He also collected enough produce that he could economically ship it to higher priced markets.

Speculation on Curiales. This book made me realize the key role the “curiales” have played in almost all human history. In ancient Greece, I think you’d call these people the aristocracy or the oligarchs. They were always competing with the democrats for power. In Steinbeck’s “The Winter of Our Discontent”, the protagonist obsesses with getting back into the local town’s ruling aristocracy. That novel is set in the 1950s northeastern United States. Or Mr. Potter, the banker who owns half the town in “It’s a Wonderful Life.” What happened to those people? Are most cities and towns still run by a handful of old aristocratic families and I somehow have never noticed? Did something dramatic change in western society over the past 70 odd years? Is this the first time in history every little town isn’t run by a gaggle of wealthy families? I grew up in small town New England and there are definitely traces of old Brahmin aristocrats all over the place. They don’t seem to exist in the same way anymore.

Social Contract

Political speech was limited. “Wealth was not a topic to be analyzed in a systematic manner.” The imperial system was inseparable from economics. A criticism or inquiry into the source of wealth was tantamount to questioning the emperor. Romans put a great deal of thought into issues of personal behavior. “Put bluntly: to the ancients, how individuals acted mattered far more than did the structures within which they acted.” Social classes were seen as distinct groups of persons. “The rich were expected to be generous and good natured; the poor were to be suppliant and grateful.”

Romans had a virtue, “vercundia”, knowing your place within the social pyramid and behaving accordingly. Those social pyramids existed within each city of the empire. People were very proud of their city, their “patria”. The empire felt much more a confederation of city-states than a modern nation-state. To be a citizen of a city was often the greatest honor in the life of a tenant farmer or a plebian. In Rome, the citizens of the city, the “plebs Romana,” were probably slightly less than half the population of the city. Yet, they were the only ones given the privileged of free grain and access to other foodstuff at reduced prices. “During times of famine, the plebs collaborated wholeheartedly with the Senate to drive strangers out of the city.” The plebs did not receive food privileges on the basis of need. “They received them because they were members of a privileged group.” The plebs of Roman and other cities were not “the poor”. They were the ancestral citizens of that city. “The primary division of society was not that between rich and poor but between citizens and non-citizens.”

To be a rich citizen was to be greedy on behalf of your city and hungry for the love of your fellow citizens. Wealthy patrons would host games and fund civic construction. Their fellow citizens would reward the patrons with praise. Demonstrating civic love was super competitive – there was only so much gratitude and honor to go around. In this competition, a wealthy patron could not take the risk of insulting the citizens by giving to the non-citizen poor.

Civic Love. This civic love practice had started to fray by the 4th century. It had become more impressive to be beloved by the emperor than by your city, so civic love was practiced less than before. However, Christianity completely destroyed the civic love system. Christians were expected to give to ‘the poor’. Citizenship did not matter. More and more giving was channeled through the Christian church. Beginning in the 370s, the wealthy began entering the Christian faith in a significant way. Augustine, Ambrose, and other Christians saw a battles between “love of the city” and “love of the poor”. They saw a miserable and pathetic poor that desperately need aid. As Christianity triumphed, the concept of society changed. The honeycomb of civic organizations became a universal vision of rich and pathetic poor.

Constantine gave the Christian clergy privileges, because they took care of the poor. Originally, they were not allowed to recruit members of the curiales or even wealthy plebeians. Christianity reshaped the links between the rich and the poor. Before Christianity, civic giving and patronage had been the primary connection between social classes.

Patronage. Things that united the empire were taxes, the emperor, imperial service, vast absentee landlords, letters of patronage, dress codes and styles of living (for example, living in villas). Letters of patronage especially, united the wealthy across the empire. For any man of means, advancing in the world was a matter of patronage. Brown tells the story of St. Augustine. He was born into a curiales family, but only made it into the world of senatorial elites thanks to the patronage of richer men. At every step of his career, Augustine would impress a wealthier and more powerful man, who would then sponsor Augustine and introduce him into more and more elite and privileged circles. It’s through patronage that talented curiales could enter into positions of real power. It provided the imperial system with fresh talent and dynamism.

Personal loans were also another vital aspect of patronage. From what I’ve read on colonial Virginian and Roman landowners, a challenge with great agricultural holdings is their illiquidity. Even the most fertile farmland takes months or years to generate cash. In colonial Virginia, wealthy landowners like Washington and Jefferson were almost always in debt to British bankers. They perpetually bought on credit which they hoped to cover with the next harvest. Ancient Rome had few banking institutions, so personal loans to peers covered liquidity needs. These lateral loans fit in the wider system of patronage to weave society together.

Christianity from Game Theory Perspective

This is my own thinking – monotheism is much more competitive a creature than polytheism, because a monotheist faith is directly challenged by all other faiths. It was easy for a new pagan cult to join the existing pantheon. A monotheist cult at its inception opposed not just to all pagan cults, but all other monotheist cults as well. The stable equilibrium is something like 100% pagan cults or 100% a single monotheist cult. To “win” in this environment, a monotheist cult needs to turtle and remain separate from society in its infancy. As monotheists become a stronger, some strains can exit their shells and compete directly with the polytheism in the public sphere. The monotheist strains that adapts and exploits all available societal resources to crush competing cults will win.

Through the 4th and 5th century, we witness the evolution to find the most competitive strain of Christianity. The most successful version was one that united rich and poor while accumulating vast stores of donated wealth. As members of the same church and Christian community, rich and poor became more closely connected than the civic love system where the wealthy competed for acclaim. It was much easier for a rich bishop to assemble an angry mob than it was for a wealthy pagan. Churches that embraced wealthy Romans and encouraged them to donate became much wealthier and more competitive than those that did not. North Africa especially had several bitter fights between different Christian heresies. Those that combined the wealth of the rich, unity with the poor, the fervor of religious orders, and imperial favor replaced those that were less competitive. Christians of late antiquity commented on the “sad evidence of the decline of the church from a first moment of imagined virtue”. I think they were witnessing the competitive strategy flip from turtling (community of true believers removed from society) to dominance (embrace worldly power to become the dominant faith).

Brown’s book begins after the conversion of Constantine the Great to Christianity in 312 AD. Brown repeatedly states that Christianity did not seem like it was destine for power and wealth until the rich began joining the church in a significant way in the 370s. Brown emphasizes that the conversion of Constantine did not make Christianity the dominant religion and that it took the better part of a century after Constantine to reach that position. What I think he misses, is that it was impossible for a monotheist cult, like Christianity, to remain a minority religion in a polytheist society after being endorsed by the emperor. The Christian faith had to destroy all other faiths or retreat back to minority cult severed from the rest of society.

Collapse of the Respublica

The Respublica’s six hundred year rule of the West collapsed in a generation. The great pagan Roman senator Symmachus died in 402 AD at the age of 62. The empire had taken some serious blows during his life and Christianity had replaced state paganism as the dominant religion. Still, the empire was wealthy and the Respublica functioned as it had during the reign of Constantine, one hundred years before. The Respublica’s territory still stretched from northern England to the Sahara. By 440 AD, Respublica was fractured, much poorer, and in terminal decline.

Brown’s story of the decline is succinct. Barbarian militias, “little more than freelance pillagers and highwaymen,” were used by contending emperors in Roman civil wars. “Like any other desperate army at a time of civil war (Roman troops included), they were paid for their services by license to plunder…. Altogether, it was civil war – and no bloodthirsty drive of their own – that had moved barbarian militias from one end of the Roman West to the other in under a generation.”

In the 430s, the Vandals snuck into north Africa. They took prosperous Carthage and the surrounding region by surprise. The loss of the extraordinary wealthy region broke the “tax spine” of the western empire. “By 431, the tax revenues of the empire had probably dropped by 50 percent. After the loss of Carthage, they dropped further. The Respublica was left with a quarter of the resources it had enjoyed under the emperor Valentinian I [in 375 AD].”

Romans writing in the 450s blamed “barbarian invasions” for tearing the empire to pieces. Brown thinks they are wrong. He blames the fractional violence among the Roman elites. For the most part, barbarian militias did not set out to conqueror. They focused on raiding, not conquering.

The more I learn about history, the more I realize that conquest is overrated and raiding is underrated. Sometimes, history is generals devising grand plans for armies with thousands of men. They set out to destroy opposing armies and take permanent control of a large geographic area. More common though, is groups of tens or hundreds of men wandering over to the next town to steal whatever looks valuable and take some prisoners back home. I don’t think chimpanzees have ever launched a coordinated, ten thousand chimpanzee blitzkrieg. I do think that chimpanzees regularly launch raids into neighboring territory. The “barbarian invasions” in the 5th century had more in common with chimpanzee raids than any centralized plan for grand conquest.

Barbarian militias would not attempt to sack walled cities. Instead, they would go rummaging around the countryside, burning buildings, ruining crops, and taking prisoners. “Wealth came from plunder and, above all, from a lively slave trade.” Early on, the Romans would give barbarians tracks of land in an attempt to appease them. It didn’t work. They were warrior societies – young men had to fight to prove themselves and kings needed to fight to prove their worth as leaders. The greatest moneymaker for barbarians was to sell back to a pillaged region the captured inhabitants. Pious Christian giving of the era was focused on paying ransoms to rescue the baptized captives.

The Respublica was broken and could no longer pay the large imperial bureaucracy. Raiding and piracy destroyed the huge market for agricultural goods. The two sources of income for the wealthy dried up. Imperial service was no longer a path to an income in gold. The great absentee landlords lost access to their farms and rents. A 5th century writer observed, “Men rendered conspicuous by official honors, placed at the top of the empire by occupying high posts, with revenues drawn from everywhere and properties that stretched throughout the Roman world…now appear to us figures in a fairytale.”

The spoils from raiding allowed the barbarians to establish wealthy courts of their own. “Romans quickly learned that they could make their fortunes at barbarian courts in the fifth century (if on a smaller scale) much as they had done at the court of the emperors in the fourth century.” The standard of living for these “little big men”, the former curiales, declined, but they avoided poverty. They gave up their villas and moved to more modest town houses near the barbarian court they now served. Instead of spending on mosaics and private bathhouses, money was now spent on armed retinues. It becomes more difficult to distinguish rich from poor in the archaeological record.

Mediterranean trade declined. Piracy and raiding increased. In many places, olive oil went from a common commodity to “an almost supernatural luxury” used to fuel church lamps.

The economic decline was not evenly spread. Vandal north Africa remained prosperous. Vandal piracy brought in a great deal of treasury. “Freed from levies connected with the annona for Rome [the annual grain shipments for the Roman dole], African ceramics and African wines flooded in the market throughout the eastern Mediterranean.”

Italy also remained somewhat prosperous. Italy peacefully moved from rule by an emperor to a Gothic king without the raiding and violence of other regions. The wealthy members of the Senate in Rome maintained many of the traditions and ceremonies of the old Respublica. The annona, the food ration system, was revamped and continued. There were still splendid villas on the hills of Rome, but “they now stood in the midst of deserted gardens and the emptied, charred ruins of former, even greater palaces.” Around the Senate House, the facades of buildings were maintained even after their insides were full of rubble. The seats in the Colosseum were regularly repaired. Games were still held, though gladiators no longer fought. The lay elites attempted to maintain Rome’s historic civic life. At the same time, the bishops and clergy of Rome reached out to the population in the form of relief to the poor.

Gradually, the senatorial aristocracy in Italy grew poorer. They no longer had access to their overseas landholdings. Meanwhile, the Christian church grew richer and more powerful as it received donations of land. By 535 AD, this relatively prosperous, post-Respublica order in Italy came crashing down. The eastern Roman empire, led by emperor Justinian, launched a terrible invasion of Gothic Italy. By the end of Justinian’s wars, the remaining wealth of the senatorial elite had been mostly destroyed. “The church became the only great landowner left standing in Italy.”

Dominance of the Church

Again and again, Brown emphasizes that lay officials of the Respublica were usually more powerful than Christian bishops. It was the collapse of the Respublica that left the church in charge. “The Catholic Church did not come to replace the failing empire in a smooth and uncontested transition. The Respublica – the Roman state – remained a profane institution whose sense of its own majesty and traditions of hard rule owed nothing to Christianity. In the course of the fifth century, the Roman state handed over very little to the bishops. Eventually the empire went down fighting beneath the unloving eyes of many Christians, who considered it an empire that had failed to give effect to their own aspirations for a Christian society.” It doesn’t seem like there was ever a deliberate plan for the Christian Church to become the most powerful institution in the west – it was simply the strongest surviving institution in many regions after Respublica collapsed. Once it had power, the Church maintained it more or less for the next thousand years.

No Roman in Symmachus’ day would have expected the Respublica to collapse and for the Christian Church to move into the most dominant position in society. In hindsight though, it’s easy to see why the Church survived the collapse of the state whereas, the fortunes of individual senators did not. Like wealthy senators, the church had acquired great tracks of land all over the empire. Unlike senators, the Church was not a distant, absentee landlord. It had semi-independent bishops, priests, and holy orders in every region, administering the land. There was also a greater unity with the local poor and somewhat unity of vision - though competing heresies did have a tendency to splinter the church in a similar way to politics being splintered by completing claimants to the throne.

Wealthy and vigorous originations seem well suited to surviving a societal collapse. If our current society were to collapse, I’d put money on the Mormon Church as the strongest surviving institution in North America. As Putin exemplifies, the KGB seems to have survived and thrived after the collapse of the USSR.

Equilibrium

I tried to put on my “rationalist hat” to analyze the different systems during this period. To understand inefficient equilibrium, it’s helpful to look at societies other than our own. The late Romans found themselves in many “inefficient equilibrium.” Brown doesn’t use rationalist terms, but I think he’d agree with the following statements. The most obvious is the employment of barbarian tribes in Roman civil wars and their free license to plunder. When a wannabe emperor invited barbarian tribes to fight for him, he weakened the Respublica. Once this new tool was added to the arsenal of elite power struggles, it was difficult if not impossible to take power without using it. Attempting to outlaw useful tools is a classic prisoner’s dilemma. The optimal strategy is usually to be the first one to defect and use the outlawed tool.

Another inefficient equilibrium was north Africa growing grain for the Roman annona. The land should have been put to more productive uses. As soon as the Vandals took control of north Africa, the land was put to more productive uses. The annona was a system originally used to secure the loyalty of the citizens of Rome. Early in the history of the Respublica, the political whims of Rome determined who could rule. By the late empire, Rome was politically irrelevant. Still, the annona lived on. North Africa was required to grow grains for the politically irrelevant citizens of Rome. When the Vandals conquered north Africa, they unlocked “synergies” by allowing north Africa to become more productive. If the Respublica had used north Africa more productively, there would have been extra resources to maintain the empire.

The social order and balance of power in cities offers an example of moving from one equilibrium to another. The ancient system where wealthy citizens would perform acts of civic love to be rewarded with honors from their less wealthy fellow citizens was replaced. The new system built around Christian piety for the poor, primarily administered through the Christian churches. If I were a member of the curiales in 320 AD, I would have bemoaned the wasteful civic giving rat race and the needlessly expensive games. I never would have imagined the inefficient equilibrium was on the verge of disappearing.

The use of curiales to govern the cities was clearly broken by the end of the empire. It had been a stable system early on – curiales received honor, wealth, and power in return for administering the city on behalf of the empire. Gradually, the benefits of being a member of the curiales declined as imperial bureaucrats and Christian clergy received many of the same benefits, while avoiding the responsibilities. Those responsibilities became more onerous as the demand for taxes increased. As the bargain became worse, many of the families with the means to avoid being a member of the curiales did. A smaller number of less well-off families shared the taxation burden. The easiest way to correct the imbalance was to reduce or remove the burden of imperial taxes. It's no surprise that when barbarian courts offered the curiales an escape from the Respublica's tax burden many took it.

Takeaways

Obviously, I loved the book. Why else would I have written 5,000 words on it? Brown has a lot of information to share. In this review, I barely got into his main thesis – the entrance of wealth into the western Christian churches of late antiquity. His chapters on the collapse of the Respublica were riveting. I also appreciated that Brown whizzed past the traditional end date of 476 AD and gave a look into the post-Roman writings.

For future research, I want to understand if our current society is secretly ruled by local elites. If not, then what happened to them? As for life lessons, no system remains at one equilibrium forever. Inefficient equilibria can last for centuries (like the inefficient use of north Africa agriculture). And most obviously, don’t give barbarian militias license to plunder your country.