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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.

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