Acceptance Speech – Bern, 18.11.2011


Peter Brown

2011 Balzan Prize for Ancient History (The Graeco-Roman World)

For his exceptional contributions to the historical interpretation of late antiquity through highly original studies of strong impact and extraordinary influence, with works on the cult of the saints, the body and sexuality, the emergence of Christianity, and poverty and power.

Mr. Federal Councillor,
Members of the Balzan Foundation,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

To receive the prize of the Balzan Foundation is to be reminded of the two places between which Eugenio Balzan came to live his vivid and courageous life. Both places speak to a scholar of the Roman empire in its last centuries.
To the south, there is Milan. Milan, the Città di Sant’Ambrogio – the city of Bishop Ambrose, who baptized none other than Saint Augustine in the baptistery that can still be seen beneath the floor of the medieval Duomo.
To the north, there is the Switzerland where Edward Gibbon conceived and completed (against the background of the vibrant Franco-Swiss culture of Lausanne) his majestic History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

It is a humbling honor to receive such a prize, from a Foundation which unites two such strands in the culture of Europe.
But we must always remember that such honors are made, not to the person, but to the field. It is on behalf of the field that I must express my deep gratitude to the Balzan Foundation for having chosen, as one of its principal fields for this year, the study of the ancient world. To favor so distant a field is an act of faith in the long memory of Europe, which stretches back to the days of Greece and Rome. To honor those of us who study late antiquity – the history of the dramatic last centuries of the ancient world – however, is more than that: it is an act of faith not only in the memory of Europe but also in the future of Europe.
For we have learned, through our study of the period between 200 and 800 AD, to step out from under the shadow of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall. For us the period is no longer one which witnessed only the sad end of a Golden Age.
We have come to see it instead as an age that opened itself up to new forces, especially in the field of religion. It witnessed the formation of rabbinic Judaism, the spread of Christianity, and the emergence of Islam.
It was also an age in which the frontiers of Europe opened up. The rise of Christianity brought into the classical world languages and cultural forms that were deeply rooted in the populations of the eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East. As a result, classical Latin and Greek came to be flanked by the languages of the Christian Orient – Syriac, Coptic, Armenian and Georgian. This widening of the classical world has enabled us to place both the rise of Christianity and of Islam against the backdrop of Eurasia, in which western Europe was only one part.

These discoveries are not merely academic. They bring with them a breath of hope. We do not live in a comfortable age. It is easy, in such a situation, to follow Edward Gibbon and his epigoni – to speak, in alarmist terms, of our own world as if it were a beleaguered empire, threatened by imminent ruin.
But this was not what late antiquity was like. Through studying the late antique period we have learned to appreciate the capacity of a great civilization to transform itself, to accept the challenge of new intellectual and religious forces, and to adjust to an ever widening world. In learning this, I trust that we, as scholars, have contributed something to the moral and imaginative resources which enable us to face, with clarity and patience, our own, uncertain future.

Peter Robert Lamont Brown

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