Ruby Shao profiles Peter Brown, “inventor of late antiquity:”

The fall of the Roman Empire ushered in a dark age, replete with decay and barely worth studying. Or so scholars thought until history professor emeritus Peter Brown invented the field of late antiquity, which spans 250–800 A.D. “Looking at the late antique world, we are caught between the regretful contemplation of ancient ruins and the excited acclamation of new growth,” he wrote in his 1971 book “The World of Late Antiquity.” Brown’s discovery of the era’s dynamism has driven his career. Specializing in the transition from ancient to medieval times, as well as the rise of Christianity…

Born to Irish Protestants in 1935, Brown grew up on two of the continents that he has explored in a scholarly context, Europe and Africa. For the first four years of his life, until World War II broke out in 1939, Brown spent every winter and spring in what was then the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan. His father worked as a railway engineer in Khartoum, having struggled like many other Protestants to find employment in his intolerant Catholic homeland. He alone, of all Brown’s direct kin, held a university degree.

Each summer and fall, the heat caused men to send their wives and children out of Sudan. Brown and his mother, a homemaker, returned to a small, quiet, rainy seaside town called Bray on the east coast of Ireland.

“I grew up with two imaginative worlds: one the world of the Middle East, one the world of basically Dublin, Ireland,” Brown said. In the Sudan, he saw hippopotami, crocodiles, and camels under starry skies. Such experiences affected him long after. “Living in the Sudan put in me a love of the Middle East, a real interest in it, distant memories of a very sunny world with large, dark Sudanese servants in long white robes,” he said. …

He received a scholarship to attend Shrewsbury School in England at the age of 13. The institution included students from various socioeconomic classes, including farmers’ sons who left classes every Friday to help their fathers transport animals to the market. Brown intended to study science, but his headmaster discouraged him from doing so because he had performed so well. He instead pursued classics, then the most prestigious and challenging subject, renowned for disciplining the mind. New lessons in Greek added to the Latin and French that he had studied in Ireland. At 15, he switched to history. He added that whereas classics concentrated on the great works of the past, history allowed him to explore the more ordinary topic of how people lived in the past. …

Brown impressed upon his students that they needed to learn by traveling, not just reading. He taught them to understand history from the perspectives of the people involved, rather than from a supposedly omniscient Western historian’s viewpoint, Michelson said. Occupying a place enables a scholar to envision the setting of a community when writing about it, Brown explained. Brown inspired his students to pursue big questions and synthesize seemingly unrelated cultures into a common story, according to Sahner. …

Brown recommended that scholars aspiring to emulate him start from a specific object that they love, with the goal of avoiding information overload, which hampers progress. “You should always think small and intensely, and then radiate outwards,” Brown said. He added that researchers should mine unfamiliar and embarrassing developments, like the cult of saints or the monastic movement, which often conceal cultural tensions. …

Fifty years after the publication of his first book, “Augustine of Hippo,” Brown is researching a book on the meaning of the Christian notion of universalism in late antiquity. “What did it mean to preach to all nations? Did they really think they could convert everybody, or simply bring the gospel to everybody? Those are two different questions…”

I wasn’t familiar with Brown before reading this. What a life.