Twilight Zone Of Antiquity

The Dark Ages debate over the price of a soul

Books History
Monetised intercession: Constantine the Great, pictured in a mosaic from Haghia Sofia

If historians resemble their subjects, Peter Brown is the first consul of late antiquity. Urbane and judicious, Brown has toured the tottering administrations of the provinces, taken the temperature of the Christian sects, and assessed the depredations of the barbarians. On his travels, Brown noticed that Latin Christians developed more elaborate theories on the afterlife than pagans, Jews, Muslims, or even Greek Christians. In The Ransom of the Soul, he explains why this happened, and how early Christian debates on the pneuma fostered the institutions of medieval Christendom. It is a brilliant and readable study in the kind of history that Nietzsche called the “pneumatic interpretation”.

For an early Christian like Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage between 248 and 258 AD, only martyrs got to heaven. Like the pagans, the Christians believed in an instantaneous union with the divine; they differed mainly in the enthusiasm with which they pursued it. Martyrdom, Tertullian wrote, was “a death for God, new and extraordinary”. Pagans, soaked in the bloody circus culture, thought this merely “abnormal”, a form, Marcus Aurelius wrote,  of “stage heroics”. Those Christians who preferred to remain in the audience expected not so much an afterlife as a refrigerium interim, a “refreshing interlude” before the cosmic resolution of the Resurrection and Last Judgment reunited their souls and bodies.

Four centuries later, the focus of the Catholic drama had shifted from a martyr’s death to a believer’s life, in this world and the next. Theological controversy lay not in the “Big Future” of the Revelation, but the “little future” of the individual soul: intense debates over the afterlife, on intercession  for the souls of the dead, and on compensation for sin through prayer and alms. The result was the monetisation of the Christian soul, and an elaborately hierarchic vision of the afterlife.

After the conversion of Constantine, wealthy upper-class Romans joined the church. A “low-key” church developed a family resemblance to the grand but tottering empire. The better class of convert preferred to accumulate “treasure in heaven”, not by martyrdom but by building family mausoleums around sacred tombs. In portraits, Christ and the emperor merged. The saints became patroni, carrying prayers to God like noblemen petitioning at the imperial court.

The rich had more treasure on earth than the bishops, and they expected the church to give value for money. The centrepiece of Brown’s story is St Augustine’s struggle to resist the “discreet weight of wealth”, as well as theologies that might increase its influence. Besieged in his study at Hippo by wealthy Pelagians who arrived there after the Goths sacked Rome, Augustine resembles the headmaster of a crammer trying to explain to the parents why not every pupil can get into Oxbridge. The rival schools were also a problem. No, Augustine told his friend Paulinus of Nola, burial beside a saint would not aid the soul’s passage. Nor, he told the Manichees, would funerary rites do the trick. No, he told Evodius of Uzalis, the Neoplatonists were wrong: the soul had no material “sheath”, linking the worlds of the living and the dead. As for the Pelagians, they too were wrong: sin was ubiquitous, and giving alms was the way to expiate it.

“Our Lord God wishes us to be merchants of a kind,” Augustine explained. Giving alms to the poor was like a merchant’s traiecticium, an investment whose trajectory landed invisibly but profitably. Almsgiving was also essential socially. The poor flooded the churches, changing almsgiving from a proof of solidarity with “brothers” to a purchase of social peace from “others”. Instead of a leisured “waiting room”, the expanded afterlife resembled a “modern city marathon”. An elite pack of saints broke away from the field; the toiling, suffering masses staggered onwards; a cohort of sinners that never passed the starting line. The masses, caught between the inarguably saintly and the irredeemably sinful, were the non valde boni and the non valde mali, the “not wholly good” and the “not wholly bad”. Churchmen coached the souls of the masses towards the finishing line.

Brown traces the origins of transactional ideas in religion to the monetisation of the ancient economy in the sixth century BC. But it might be a perennially human impulse. Existential urgency, and a remaking of “metaphors to live by” are reliable symptoms of political and social crisis. Abraham negotiates with God over the punishment of Sodom; Moses negotiates after the Israelites have dallied with the Golden Calf. After 476 AD and the end of the Roman Empire in the west, Augustine’s theology of “penitential piety” became the bridge that linked the Roman Empire to the Latin kingdoms of medieval Europe.

By 650 AD, Catholics had turned the old bond between the living and the dead into a discrete sphere, a “twilight zone” of the soul. In Gaul, the nobility adopted a “half-ascetic courtly lifestyle” and subsidised the monasteries. Monetised, prayer was outsourced to factories of intercession. The bishops became the bouncers of God’s nightclub, The Eye of the Needle, where the party never stopped for the kings who inherited Constantine’s idea of Christian monarchy. The masses, in life and death, were outside in the cold, strugglers in an elaborate hierarchy.

For Pope Gregory the Great (590-604), dreams and visions showed the misty outlines of the “grey zone” between death and heaven; as if, Brown says, the afterlife were “bathed in the soft dawn of the end of time”. This dawn was also a sunset, the “end of time” not just for Roman civilisation, but also for a “very ancient view of the world”: late antiquity, indeed.