Peter Brown (historian)

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Peter Robert Lamont Brown (born 26 July 1935) is Rollins Professor Emeritus of History at Princeton University. His principal contributions to the discipline have been in the field of Late Antiquity and, in particular, the religious culture of the later Roman Empire and early medieval Europe.


Peter Brown was born in Dublin, Ireland, to a Scots-Irish Protestant family. He was educated at Aravon School, the oldest preparatory school in Ireland and one of its most distinguished, and then at Shrewsbury School in Shropshire, one of the great "public" schools in England. From 1953 to 1956, he read Modern History at New College, Oxford. His potential was recognised by the award of the Harmsworth Senior Scholarship at Merton College, Oxford, and a seven-year Prize Fellowship at All Souls College, Oxford.[1]

Following his graduation Brown began, but did not complete, a doctoral thesis under the external supervision of Arnaldo Momigliano (at that time Professor of Ancient History at University College London). All Souls College subsequently elected him a Research Fellow in 1963 and a Senior Research Fellow in 1970. The Modern History Faculty of the University of Oxford appointed him a Special Lecturer in 1966 and a Reader (ad hominem) in 1973. He was elected a Fellow of the British Academy in 1971. Brown left Oxford to become Professor of Modern History and Head of the Department of History at Royal Holloway College in the University of London (1975–78). He subsequently left Britain to become Professor of Classics and History in the University of California at Berkeley (1978–86) and then Philip and Beulah Rollins Professor of History at Princeton University (1986–2011). He was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1979 and a Resident Member of the American Philosophical Society in 1995.[2] Following his earlier books, he has received some prestigious and substantial research grants, including the MacArthur Fellowship in 1982 and the Distinguished Achievement Award for scholars in the humanities from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation in 2001.

Brown has delivered a substantial number of named lectures. These include the Carl Newell Jackson Lectures at Harvard University (delivered 1976); the Stenton Lecture at Reading University (delivered 1976); the Haskell Lectures at the University of Chicago (delivered 1978); the ACLS Lectures in the History of Religion (delivered 1981-2); the Curti Lectures in the University of Wisconsin, Madison (delivered 1988); the Raleigh Lecture in History in the British Academy (delivered 1992); the Tanner Lectures at Cambridge and Yale (delivered 1993 and 1996 respectively); the Sigmund H Danziger Jr Memorial Lecture at the University of Chicago (delivered 1997); the Menahem Stern Lectures in Jerusalem (delivered 2000); a Presidential Lecture at Stanford University (delivered 2002); the Charles Homer Haskins Lecture ("A Life of Learning") for the American Council of Learned Societies (delivered 2003);[3] the Ronald Syme Lecture at Oxford University (delivered 2006); and the Fr. Alexander Schmemann Lecture at St. Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary, NY (2013).


Brown has received a large number of honorary degrees. From outside the USA, he has received honorary doctorates from the University of Fribourg, Switzerland (1974), Trinity College Dublin (1990), the University of Pisa (2001), Cambridge (2004), the Central European University in Budapest (2005), Oxford (2006), King's College London (2008), The Hebrew University of Jerusalem (2010), the Aristotle University in Thessaloniki (2010), and the University of St Andrews (2014). His US honorary doctorates include the University of Chicago (1978), Wesleyan University (1993), Tulane (1994), Columbia University (2001), Harvard University (2002), Southern Methodist University (2004), Yale University (2006), Notre Dame University (2008)) Amherst College (2009), and St Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary, NY (2013).

He is an Honorary Fellow of Royal Holloway College in the University of London (1997), and of New College at Oxford University (1998).

Brown has received several major prizes. He is a winner of the Heineken Prize for History from the Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (1994), the Ausonius Prize for Ancient History from the University of Trier (1999) and the Premio Anaxilao from the Municipality of Reggio di Calabria (1999). In 2008 he was the co-winner, with Indian historian Romila Thapar, of the Kluge Prize for Lifetime Achievement in the Study of Humanity, from the US Library of Congress.[4] In 2011, Brown was awarded the prestigious International Balzan Prize for his works on Graeco-Roman antiquity.

He is a Foreign Member of the Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (1991), a Corresponding Member of the Royal Academy of Letters in Barcelona (1997), an Honorary Fellow of the Italian Association for the Study of Sanctity, Cults and Hagiography, and an Honorary Member of the Royal Irish Academy (2010).

He is a Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters in France (1996).


Brown, who reads at least fifteen languages, established himself at the age of 32 with his biography of Augustine of Hippo. He published a new edition in 2000, with two new epilogues, one focusing on new evidence and the other on new interpretations. A steady stream of books and articles has since appeared, and currently, Brown is arguably the most prominent historian of late antiquity. Brown has been instrumental in popularising late antiquity, the figure of the "holy man" and the study of the cult of the saints.

In his book The World of Late Antiquity (1971), he put forward a new interpretation of the period between the third and eighth centuries AD. The traditional interpretation of this period was centred around the idea of decadence from a 'golden age', classical civilisation, after the famous work of Edward Gibbon The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1779). On the contrary, Brown proposed to look at this period in positive terms, arguing that Late Antiquity was a period of immense cultural innovation.

Brown was influenced in his early works by the French Annales School, and specifically the figure of Fernand Braudel. Following this school, Brown analysed culture and religion as social phenomena and as part of a wider context of historical change and transformation. The Annales influence in Brown's work can also be seen in his reliance on anthropology and sociology as interpretative tools for historical analysis. Specifically, Brown received the influence of contemporary Anglo-American anthropology.[5]

His research has been devoted chiefly to religious transformation in the late Roman world. His most celebrated early contribution on this subject concerned the figure of the 'holy man'. According to Brown, the charismatic, Christian ascetics (holy men) were particularly prominent in the late Roman empire and the early Byzantine world as mediators between local communities and the divine. This relationship expressed the importance of patronage in the Roman social system, which was taken over by the Christian ascetics. But more importantly, Brown argues, the rise of the holy man was the result of a deeper religious change that affected not only Christianity but also other religions of the late antique period – namely the needs for a more personal access to the divine.

His views slightly shifted in the eighties. In articles and new editions Brown said that his earlier work, which had deconstructed many of the religious aspects of his field of study, needed to be reassessed. His later work shows a deeper appreciation for the specifically Christian layers of his subjects of study.[6]

His current research focuses on wealth and poverty in late antiquity, especially in Christian writers.

Selected bibliography[edit]

  • Augustine of Hippo: A Biography (1967/2000) – ISBN 0-520-22757-3 -- new edition, with new epilogue, ISBN 978-0-520-22757-6
  • "The Rise and Function of the Holy Man in Late Antiquity", The Journal of Roman Studies, 61 (1971): 80–101.
  • The World of Late Antiquity: AD 150–750 (1971/1989) – ISBN 0-393-95803-5
  • The Making of Late Antiquity (1978) – ISBN 0-674-54321-1
  • The Cult of the Saints: Its Rise and Function in Latin Christianity (1981) – ISBN 0-226-07622-9
  • Society & the Holy in Late Antiquity (1982) – ISBN 978-0-520-06800-1
  • "Late Antiquity" ([1985] 1987) in Paul Veyne, ed. A History of Private Life: 1. From Pagan Rome to Byzantium.
  • The Body and Society: Men, Women, and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity (1988) – ISBN 0-231-06101-3
  • Power and Persuasion: Towards a Christian Empire (1992)
  • Authority and the Sacred: Aspects of the Christianisation of the Roman world (1995) – ISBN 0-521-49904-6
  • The Rise of Western Christendom (1996/2003) – ISBN 0-631-22138-7
  • Chapters 21 & 22 in The Cambridge Ancient History, Volume XIII, The Late Empire, A.D. 337–425 (1998) – ISBN 0-521-30200-5
  • Poverty and Leadership in the Later Roman Empire (2002)
  • "A Life of Learning" (ACLS, 2003) online edition, autobiographical
  • Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350–550 AD (2012) – ISBN 0-691-15290-X


  1. ^ See Who's Who, "Brown, Peter Robert Lamont".
  2. ^ See Who's Who, "Brown, Peter Robert Lamont".
  3. ^ 'A life of Learning' Charles Homer Haskins Lecture for 2003, by Peter Brown
  4. ^ .Announcement of Kluge Prize at Princeton University Website; News from the Library of Congress
  5. ^ See the collection of articles (including one by Brown himself) in Symbolae Osloenses 72 (1997).
  6. ^ For example, Peter Brown, Authority and the Sacred: Aspects of the Christianisation of the Roman World (Cambridge, 1995), chapter 3, involves a reappraisal of the role of the holy man on substantially different lines from those proposed in Brown, "The Rise and Function of the Holy Man in Late Antiquity", Journal of Roman Studies 61 (1971).


  • Stanford site about Peter Brown.
  • Bound to Please by Michael Dirda, p. 22–25, W.W, Norton, 2005

External links[edit]