Laureation address – Professor Peter Brown
Professor Peter Brown
Laureator: Professor Greg Woolf
Thursday 26 June 2014
Chancellor, it is my privilege to present Professor Peter Robert Lamont Brown for the degree of Doctor of Letters, honoris causa.
Peter Brown is the greatest living historian of Late Antiquity. Born in Dublin, he has practised the historian’s craft in Oxford and London, Berkeley and Princeton, and gathered more prizes and honours than I could list even if I devoted the whole of his laureation to enumerating them. Instead, let me say a few words about his work.
Peter Brown is like an explorer who discovers a new continent, and then spends a lifetime mapping it. The continent in question is The World of Late Antiquity, the title of one of the first of his many books. Late Antiquity – as Brown defines it – begins at the high point of the Roman Empire in the second century of the Common Era, and lasted until the eighth century. Others – Edward Gibbon above all – had told this story in terms of Decline and Fall, but in Peter Brown’s hands, Late Antiquity became an age of marvellous transformation. Empires fell but great religions rose: with new senses of the sacred came new arts, new philosophies and new literatures. Others had told the story of how classical civilization became mediaeval Europe, or of how the Mediterranean Seas united by the Romans came to divide civilizations in the Middle Ages. Peter Brown’s vision is much broader. For him the centre of gravity has always lain in the eastern Mediterranean. Some of the saints whose lives (and afterlives) he documented were Coptic speaking monks in Egypt, or the Syriac hermits of Mesopotamia, or lived in distant Armenia, the world’s first Christian kingdom perched above and between the rival empires of Rome and Persia. For Brown, Islam and Byzantium are as much the heirs of Rome as are the Latin barbarians of the west. Today we take his vision so much for granted it is difficult to imagine how narrowly we once thought about these things.
How did Peter Brown arrive at this point? His command of languages – ancient and modern – is legendary. But he has never limited himself to the written word. He finds new senses of the sacred in the bright mosaics of Byzantium, the solemn stone portraits of philosophers and churchmen, in the illuminations of the oldest manuscripts. And like a poet he can summon up an image in words. Here is his description of the boyhood of Augustine, the greatest of the fathers of the Church, born in Roman North Africa:
‘Our imaginations are dominated by the Africa of Carthage, the Africa of the Mediterranean coast. Augustine, however, grew up 200 miles from the sea, and 2000 feet above it, cut off from the Mediterranean by great forests of pine, by high valleys of corn and olives. As a boy, he could only imagine what the sea was like by looking into a glass of water’.
No other historian of antiquity can match Brown in simultaneously summoning up the vast panoramas of the past, and the tiny horizons of its inhabitants.
Peter Brown is a very modern historian. His descriptions of past landscapes have always been deeply informed by a knowledge of ancient ecologies and environments. He drew deeply on anthropology and the social sciences for his studies of Roman Magic, long before it was fashionable to do so. But he is wary of following the trend. He once memorably began an address to the Association of Social Anthropologists with the observation that when academics from different disciplines meet, their discussions often take place in an atmosphere ‘that suggests the observation of an African chieftain on a neighbouring tribe: “They are our enemies. We marry them”. Matchmaking [he went on] should be a cautious process’.
Peter Brown is a great narrator and the stories he brings back from his newly discovered continent are always human stories. Reading his histories is like looking down on a chessboard, and then suddenly seeing the game through the eyes of a knight or a bishop. Quite a few bishops in Brown’s case!
One of these bishops was Ambrose, whom Brown describes growing up with a widowed mother and a pious elder sister. Young Ambrose watched amazed as visiting bishops held out their hands to be kissed by the noblewomen. One day Ambrose himself would return and hold out his hand to be kissed, perhaps only half in jest. And from this anecdote Brown plunges into an exploration of the women of the Roman aristocracy, who were the first to convert to Christianity, and of struggles to control the bodies of young heiresses. Would they make marriage alliances for their fathers? Or follow the advice of their mothers’ and fathers’ confessors and become Holy Virgins, leaving their wealth to the church? And what happened when the accumulated wealth of generations passed quietly to the church, how did it change Christianity? And why then did so many young Ambroses agree to seek power as priests instead of as imperial officials, and so on…
Brown’s World of Late Antiquity is in some senses still with us today. A world in which extremes of wealth and poverty coexist with a universal insistence on the value of charity. A world in which women’s sexuality has become a key site for power struggles between men. A world of the global village, but one in which some children are still born who have to imagine what the sea is like by watching the water slop back and forth in a cup. His latest great work, The Eye of the Needle, tells a subtle story of how the enrichment of the few was accompanied by the impoverishment of the many, and of how a religious movement founded in poverty and demanding justice gave rise both to ascetics who rejected the world entirely, and also to mighty bishops who could command emperors.
Brown is a gentle humanist. He never preaches, but very often as we watch him unravelling yet another aspect of the transformation of the ancient world, we catch a glimpse of ourselves. This is the historian’s magic, and Peter Brown does it better than anyone else.
Therefore, Chancellor, in recognition of his work and his life as an exemplary historian, I invite you to confer on Professor Peter Brown the degree of Doctor of Letters, honoris causa.