Peter Brown (historian)

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Peter Brown
Peter Brown Balzan Prize Ceremony 2011.JPG
Brown at the Balzan Prize Ceremony, 2011
Born Peter Robert Lamont Brown
(1935-07-26) 26 July 1935 (age 80)
Dublin, Ireland
Alma mater University of Oxford
Occupation Historian
Notable work Augustine of Hippo: A Biography (1967; 2000); The World of Late Antiquity (1971); The Body and Society (1988); Through the Eye of a Needle (2012)
Awards Heineken Prize for History (1994); Kluge Prize (2008); Balzan Prize (2011); Dan David Prize (2015)

Peter Robert Lamont Brown, FBA, (born 26 July 1935) is Rollins Professor of History Emeritus at Princeton University. His principal contributions to the discipline have been in the field of Late Antiquity. His work has concerned, in particular, the religious culture of the later Roman Empire and early medieval Europe, and the relation between religion and society.[1]

Early Life[edit]

Peter Brown was born in Dublin, Ireland, to a Scots-Irish Protestant family. He was educated at Aravon School, then an old and distinguished preparatory school in Ireland, and subsequently, from 1948, at Shrewsbury School in Shropshire, one of the prominent "public" schools in England. When asked to comment on his intellectual formation, Brown has indicated that he completed his public schooling a year early, returning to Ireland (as he had done for school holidays) in 1952, the year he turned 17. It was then in Dublin that he read Mikhail Rostovtzeff's The Social and Economic History of the Roman Empire (1926), which he borrowed from the lending library of the Royal Dublin Society at Ballsbridge. He went on to read Modern History at New College, Oxford, from 1953 to 1956. In his final academic year, he undertook a Special Subject on The Age of Augustine, and was particularly influenced by the writings of Marrou and Piganiol.[2]


Employment and Professional Memberships[edit]

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). The potential he had shown as an undergraduate was recognized by the award of the Harmsworth Senior Scholarship at Merton College, Oxford, and a seven-year Prize Fellowship at All Souls College, Oxford.[3] At a time when it was normally possible to remain in the College after the Prize Fellowship, 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 1970 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, a Fellow of the Medieval Academy of America in 1988, and a Resident Member of the American Philosophical Society in 1995.[4]

Before joining the tenured faculty at UC Berkeley and Princeton, Brown held visiting professorships at both institutions: at UC Berkeley in 1975, and at Princeton in 1983-6. He has also held visiting professorships at UCLA and in Italy. Other engagements as a visiting teacher have taken Brown to Toronto (in the 1970s), and since 2000 to Hungary and Iceland. At Princeton, Brown was given the President's Award for Distinguished Teaching in 2000. A significant number of his former students in the UK and US have gone on to substantive academic posts.

Speaking Engagements[edit]

Brown has delivered several named lecture series. These include the Carl Newell Jackson Lectures at Harvard University (1976); the Haskell Lectures at the University of Chicago (1978); the ACLS Lectures in the History of Religion (1981-2); the Curti Lectures in the University of Wisconsin, Madison (1988); the Tanner Lectures at Cambridge and Yale (1993 and 1996 respectively); the Menahem Stern Lectures in Jerusalem (2000); the Lectures in Human Sciences at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna (2012); and the James W. Richard Lectures at the University of Virginia (2012).

He has also delivered a multitude of named single lectures. These include national academic occasions in the UK and US: the Raleigh Lecture in History in the British Academy (1992); and the Charles Homer Haskins Lecture ("A Life of Learning") for the American Council of Learned Societies (2003).[5] Other named lectures include the Stenton Lecture at Reading University (1976); the Sigmund H Danziger Jr Memorial Lecture at the University of Chicago (1997); a Presidential Lecture at Stanford University (2002); the Clark Lecture at Trinity College, Cambridge (2004); the Gennadius Library Lecture at the American School of Classical Studies in Athens (2007); the Fr. Alexander Schmemann Lecture at St. Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary, NY (2013); the Annual Distinguished Lecture in Religion at Rutgers University (2013); the Nicolai Rubinstein Lecture at Queen Mary College, University of London (2013); the Patricia H. Labalme Friends of the Library Lecture at the American Academy in Rome (2013); the Burke Lecture, University of California, San Diego (2014); the Corish Lecture at Maynooth College, Ireland (2014); the Etienne Gilson Lecture at the Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies, Toronto (2014); and the inaugural Costan Lecture at Georgetown University (2014). He has also been a named lecturer (usually in retrospect) in all the universities at which he has held substantive posts: lectures include the Magie Lecture at Princeton (1991); the Pritchett Lecture at UC Berkeley (1993); the Hayes-Robinson Lecture at Royal Holloway College, University of London (1997); the Ronald Syme Lecture at Wolfson College, Oxford, and the Dacre Lecture in the History Faculty at Oxford (2006 and 2010 respectively).

In 2007, Brown gave an inaugural talk at the opening of the Oxford Centre for Late Antiquity. In 2015 he was hosted by the Group for the Study of Late Antiquity at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel, in a public discussion with Paula Fredriksen.

Brown has also frequently been a keynote speaker at conferences and congresses. These include the International Congress of Medieval Studies at Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo (1986); the International Medieval Congress at Leeds (1999); and the Sewanee Medieval Colloquium (2012). He gave the inaugural address at the first Coloquio Internacional "Nuevas perspectivas sobre la Antigüedad tardía" in Segovia (2009).[6]

Editorial Work[edit]

For several decades, Brown has been General Editor of the book series 'The Transformation of the Classical Heritage', published by the University of California Press. The first volume in the series was published in 1981. The full published list to date now exceeds fifty-five titles.

Research Grants[edit]

Following his earlier books, Brown 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.[7]


Brown, who has a knowledge of at least 26 languages,[8] has been instrumental in bringing coherence to the study of late antiquity as a field. Within this broad field, he has also been central in the study of Augustine, monasticism (both the eremetical "holy man" and coenobitic alternatives), the cult of the saints and the practice of sexual renunciation. More recently, he has made fundamental contributions to the study of power relations in late Roman society and to the study of financial giving. He has produced a steady stream of articles (several being classics in the field) since 1961, and a steady series of influential books since 1967.

Brown was influenced in his early works by the French Annales School and, in particular, Fernand Braudel, analyzing 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 use of anthropology and sociology as interpretative tools for historical analysis. Brown was influenced by Anglo-American anthropology, himself noting the role of both a largely British tradition of social anthropology and a largely American tradition of cultural anthropology.[9]

A 6th century picture of Augustine of Hippo

1960s and 1970s[edit]

Brown's research has been devoted chiefly to religious transformation in the late Roman world. He established himself in 1967 (at 32) with his acclaimed 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.

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.

His most celebrated early paper 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.

1980s onward[edit]

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.[10]

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


Brown has received formal recognition for his academic achievements from at least twelve countries on three continents.

Honorary degrees and college fellowships[edit]

He has received some twenty honorary degrees. From outside the USA, he has received honorary doctorates from the University of Fribourg, Switzerland (1975), 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).[11]


Brown has received several major prizes, including 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 semi-regular Kluge Prize for Lifetime Achievement in the Study of Humanity, from the US Library of Congress.[12] In 2011, Brown was awarded the prestigious International Balzan Prize for the Humanities, for his works on Graeco-Roman antiquity.[13] He shared the Dan David Prize for the Past in 2015.

Foreign centres, societies and academies[edit]

Brown 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 also Honorary President (2012) of the Centro Internacional de Estudios sobre la Antigüedad Tardía 'Teodosio el Grande', in the Universidad Nacional de Educación a Distancia, at Segovia.

Foreign public recognition[edit]

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

Book prizes[edit]

Brown has also won several distinguished book prizes. Augustine of Hippo: A Biography (1967) won the Arts Council of Great Britain Prize. The Body and Society: Men, Women, and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity (1988) won the Vursell Award of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the Ralph Waldo Emerson Award of Phi Beta Kappa. Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350–550AD (2012) won the Jacques Barzun Prize in Cultural History from the American Philosophical Society, and the Philip Schaff Prize from the American Society of Church History. It also secured the R.R. Hawkins Award (the top prize in a tiered structure) at the American publishing industry's annual PROSE Awards.


  1. ^ Faculty Page at Princeton University. See also American Philosophical Society at
  2. ^ P. Brown, 'SO Debate: The World of Late Antiquity Revisited', Symbolae Osloenses 72 (1997), 5-8.
  3. ^ See Who's Who, "Brown, Peter Robert Lamont".
  4. ^ See Who's Who, "Brown, Peter Robert Lamont".
  5. ^ "A Life of Learning", Charles Homer Haskins Lecture 2003
  6. ^
  7. ^ MacArthur Foundation at; Mellon Foundation at
  8. ^ See American Philosophical Society at
  9. ^ See the collection of articles (including one by Brown himself) in Symbolae Osloenses 72 (1997).
  10. ^ 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).
  11. ^ Royal Holloway:; New College:
  12. ^ .Announcement of Kluge Prize at Princeton University Website; News from the Library of Congress
  13. ^

Selected bibliography of works by Brown[edit]

External links[edit]

  • Stanford site about Peter Brown.
  • Peter Brown International Balzan Prize Foundation
  • Bound to Please by Michael Dirda, p. 22–25, W.W, Norton, 2005
  1. ^