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‘The Darkening Age’ Lays Bare The History Of Early Christianity’s Excesses On Pagans 

The cover of Catherine Nixey’s The Darkening Age: The Christian Destruction of the Classical World.
Snapshot
  • Nixey’s The Darkening Age gives an excellent glimpse into the tumultuous years of Late Antiquity and the savage birth of Christian Europe.

Nixey, Catherine. The Darkening Age: The Christian Destruction of the Classical World. Basingstoke: Macmillan Publishers, 2017. 352 pp.

"The destroyers came from out of the desert. Palmyra's Temple of Athena must have been expecting them: for years, marauding bands of bearded, black-robed zealots... had been terrorising the region. Their attacks were primitive, thuggish, and very effective." Utter destruction followed in their wake. "Great stone columns that had stood for centuries collapsed in an afternoon; statues that had stood for half a millennium had their faces mutilated in a moment; temples that had seen the rise of the Roman Empire fell in a single day. This was violent work, but it was by no means solemn. The zealots roared with laughter as they smashed the ‘evil, ‘idolatrous’ statues; the faithful jeered as they tore down temples, stripped roofs and defaced tombs. Chants appeared, immortalizing these glorious moments."

"When the men entered the temple they took a weapon and smashed the back of Athena’s head with a single blow so hard that it decapitated the goddess. The head fell to the floor, slicing off that nose, crushing the once-smooth cheeks. Athena’s eyes, untouched, looked out over a now-disfigured face. Mere decapitation wasn’t enough. More blows fell, scalping Athena, striking the helmet from the goddess’s head, smashing it into pieces. Further blows followed. The statue fell from its pedestal, then the arms and shoulders were chopped off. The body was left on its front in the dirt; the nearby altar was sliced off just above its base... On the floor, the head of Athena slowly started to be covered by the sands of the Syrian desert."

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You might be thinking that I am describing terror outfit Islamic State's destruction of classical era structures in Syria in February 2017 but you would be mistaken. This was the destruction wrought by Christians in circa 385. For over half a millennium since the Roman Emperor Constantine's conversion to Christianity and the Edict of Milan in 312, Christianity aggressively destroyed all signs of paganism as it spread across Europe. Catherine Nixey's The Darkening Age: The Christian Destruction of the Classical World does not quite chronicle the tragedy – that would be too long a book – but gives an excellent glimpse into the tumultuous years of Late Antiquity and the savage birth of Christian Europe.

The Darkening Age jumps back and forth as it weaves its narrative – with each chapter and theme, the historical era is begun afresh. After a historical overview of Late Antiquity, Nixey elaborates on the brutal influence of Christianity on the law, the fine arts, and religion. In doing so, she dispels several powerful myths in the Christian tradition that have survived for centuries and are now cemented in the mainstream historical memory. In doing so, the reputations of several church leaders are severely tarnished – by 21st century sensitivities, we might call them terrorists and mass murderers. Yet Nixey is too good a scholar to allow such crude, ahistorical judgments to creep in. Instead, she lets the values and mores of the era serve as a template and allows contemporaries of these Christian saints and martyrs evaluate their vandalism and philosophy – or lack thereof.

The rise of Christianity spelled not just the death of pluralism and tolerance around the Mediterranean but also a fundamental reworking of epistemic categories. Before the ascendance of Christianity, despite the long presence of Judaism, few people considered religion to be a marker of identity. The fluidity of primary religions maintained an easy permeability between the various sects and the state did not care to interfere as long as these cults did not upset the law and order. It was Christianity that introduced a rigidity that plagues the world to this day – Christians were correct, and others were not just wrong but sick, insane, evil, damned, disgusting and inferior.

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The new cult observed its difference aggressively: in a letter to one of his faithful, Augustine advised the man that even if a Christian is starving and on the point of death, food that had been contaminated by pagan sacrifice was to be rejected with fortitude. In a pattern that is now all too familiar to those who have observed the effects of exclusivist monotheism on societies, Christians first held themselves apart and then assaulted others.

For a faction with a humble founder, Christians saw themselves as soldiers in an army (of Christ) and applied the word "pagan" – which had originally meant civilian – to the pluralistic religions of the region. To these militants, allowing someone to remain outside the Christian faith was not to show tolerance but to damn them. As Augustine railed, to allow someone to continue in an alternative form of worship or a heretical form of Christianity was not to allow religious freedom; it was to allow Satan to thrive.

Constantine saw the sign of the cross in October 312, and his soldiers, their shields painted with Chi-Ro, defeated Maxentius shortly. One of the new emperor's first edicts was to give Christianity official recognition as equal to the faiths of Rome. It would prove to be a tipping point in world history: in less than a century, Christianity would ruthlessly root out Rome's indigenous religions and destroy its temples, libraries and customs. Before Constantine had come to power, Rome had 28 public libraries and many private ones; by the end of the 4th century, there were none.

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In 325, a law was passed to restrict the "pollutions of idolatry" and December 25, until then celebrated the birth of the Mesopotamian god of shepherds, Dumuzid, became the birthday of Jesus. Similarly, other pagan rituals and festivals were either banned or usurped. In 341, Constantine’s son, Constantius, banned sacrifices; by 356, it had become illegal – on pain of death – to worship images. A law passed in 388 forbade any discussion of religion in public, and in 399, pagan temples were all ordered to be torn down.

A law in 407 banned the old merry ceremonies and in 529, the year the Academy finally closed its doors, the Christian State decreed that "every single person in the empire who had not yet been baptized now had to come forward immediately, go to the holy churches and ‘entirely abandon the former error [and] receive saving baptism’. ‘We forbid the teaching of any doctrine by those who labour under the insanity of paganism’ so that they might not ‘corrupt the souls of their disciples’."

Although it was Constantine himself who first and publicly moved against the pagan temples, it was not just the new Christian state that perpetrated this cultural genocide – Christian mobs went about in an orgy of vandalism. Moreover, the men leading these campaigns of violence were not the over-zealous fringe elements of a new faith. St Benedict, St Martin, St John Chrysostom, St Marcellus – these were figures at the very heart of the church.

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The statues in the public parks and temples were the first to go; the beautiful statue of Athena at the Acropolis, for example, was mutilated, beheaded, and finally placed face down in the courtyard to be trampled upon by Christians for eternity. It was clearly not enough to pull down a statue: the tradition it represented had to be humiliated, disgraced and tortured. The destruction did not stop at public property. Christian mobs began to enter houses to remove any signs of pagan culture from them which, when found, would be publicly burned. As Nixey insightfully comments, today, the destruction of Michelangelo’s Pieta would be considered a terrible act of cultural vandalism – but it wouldn’t be sacrilege because Christians do not hold the statue to be sacred. Statues in pagan temples, on the other hand, were.

It is not that there were no contemporary critiques of Christianity, and many modern ones echo the same objections. Have the rules of an allegedly omniscient god changed over time? many wondered. If so, then who is wrong – Moses or Jesus? Or when the father sent Jesus, had he forgotten what commands he gave to Moses? Celsus, for example, found the new cult stupid, pernicious and vulgar; he worried that it would spread and bring ruin to Rome. Pliny the Elder described Christianity as nothing more than a "degenerate sort of cult carried to extravagant lengths". What the philosophers could not understand is how anyone could revel in their own ignorance. "Wisdom in this life is evil, but foolishness is good," taught Corinthians. Critics' arguments were usually replied with clubs, quietly at first and then more boldly after Constantine.

Priests were frequently attacked and beaten. Christians took to throwing a concoction of caustic lime powder and vinegar – the earliest acid attacks – into the eyes of unsuspecting prominent pagans in the marketplace, thereby blinding them. Judges who dared to uphold the law against Christians were also beaten and killed. So severe was the Christian reign of terror that even the very Christian emperor, Theodosius, had to quietly admit that his monks commit many crimes. The church, however, defended these acts, comparing them to a gangrene that had to be cut away or cauterised, advising people to turn a deaf ear, like surgeons, to the cries, out of compassion.

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People watched in stunned inaction as the culture which they had followed for over a thousand years was dismantled. The Empire suffered far more at the hands of Christians than it did in all the waves of barbarian invasions. Libraries closed, books were severely censored or burned, and the entire edifice of academia was suspect. As Tertullian was fond of saying, "What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem?" implying that Christians did not need philosophy because they had god. Philosophy went from having different schools of thought to having the wrong view and the correct, Christian view.

Literature suffered similarly – works that praised the old gods or were considered too prurient were destroyed. What little survived was because the iota of civilisation in some of the church leaders won out and a few works were imaginatively reinterpreted in service of Christ rather than burned. Even then, translations were deliberately timid and their authority accrued the weight of the ages – some poems had to wait until the late 20th century to be accurately translated! It has been estimated that less than 10 per cent of all classical literature has survived into the modern era. For Latin, the figure is even worse: it is estimated that only one hundredth of all Latin literature remains.

In an attempt to divert attention from their own crimes and justify their actions, Christians have also claimed victimhood at the hands of Romans. Nixey demolishes these claims, arguing that of the three waves of repression in which Christians found themselves caught, not one was directed exclusively at Christians. "We know of no government-led persecution for the first 250 years of Christianity," Nixey claims. "There were simply not that many years of imperially ordered persecution in the Roman Empire. Fewer than thirteen – in three whole centuries of Roman rule." Furthermore, The Darkening Age delves into contemporary sources to argue that Rome's only problem with Christianity was one of law and order. Many of the Christians who found themselves afoul of the law were actively seeking martyrdom rather than being oppressed for their faith.

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Again reminiscent of jihadists, tempting celestial terms were offered to martyrs: scripture was supposed to have promised them "multiplication, even to a hundred times, of brothers, children, parents, land and homes". The emperor Trajan explicitly ordered, conquirendi non sunt – these people must not be hunted out. When Emperor Julian refused to execute Christians for their crimes, he was begrudged by the church for denying Christian 'combatants' martyrdom! Even Origen had to admit, the numbers of martyrs were few enough to be easily countable and Christians had died for their faith only occasionally. George Bernard Shaw is said to have acidly observed over a millennium later, martyrdom is the only way a man can become famous without ability! As the author remarks, Rome clearly did not wish to exterminate Christianity; if it did, it would have succeeded without much effort.

Rome wanted obedience, not martyrs. Nixey cites several documents in which Romans are shown pleading with Christians to make just the token gesture to escape punishment. In one tale a Roman prefect named Probus asks the Christian on trial before him no fewer than nine times to even lie to escape execution; the prefect begs the Christian to think of his weeping family, to spare himself pain, to go free. Such grace and liberalism would never be on offer to pagans in Christian courts barely a century later.

Of particular importance in The Darkening Age is Nixey's argument that the establishment of Christianity in all spheres of Western existence is so complete that Western views cannot help but be biased without even the realisation. For over a millennium and a half, theologians and scholars packaged and repackaged Christian values, smoothing its edges each time, that the church could eventually speak in a secular accent. Silvio Ferrari, of the University of Milan, has argued that the modern secular state owes its origins to Christianity and is not culturally neutral but rather draws inspiration from Christian theology; Ferrari even warns against its transplantation to cultures with different intellectual development.

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The whitewashing of Christianity's cultural genocide is particularly noticeable in academia. Historians, for example, have recently discarded the term, 'Dark Ages' to describe the centuries immediately after the fall of Rome. They argue that there was much development going on if not necessarily of a grand nature. Christopher de Hamel has even gone on to suggest that under pressure from barbarian attack, Rome ‘saved its identity by reinventing itself as a Christian empire’! In what one only hopes was a misjudged sense of humour, the 1965 edition of The Penguin Dictionary of Saints remarks with amusement that Martin of Tours ‘was not averse to the forcible destruction of heathen shrines'.

As Nixey points out, modern histories rarely describe Christian acts violent, or vicious, or thuggish: they are merely zealous, pious or enthusiastic. John Pollini, from the University of Southern California, agrees that "modern scholarship, influenced by a Judeo-Christian cultural bias has frequently overlooked or downplayed such attacks and even at times sought to present Christian desecration in a positive light."

But these are not just 20th century sensitivities – one 19th century scholar defended the vicious censorship by Basil of Greek and Latin literature by passing it off as the "educational theory of a cultured man" rather than the "anxious admonition of a bigoted ecclesiastic". Johannes Geffcken, another influential 19th century scholar, considered it absurd that the rise of Christianity and the destruction of paganism were related in any way. Chrysostom's condemnation of the Jewish canon was eagerly reprinted by the Nazis.

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Not only have Christian excesses been dismissed, many have not even made it into the history books. As Eusebius explained the role of history and historians, it was not to record everything but instead only those things that would do a Christian good to read. These views were then sustained by institutional support – until 1871, the University of Oxford required that all students were members of the Church of England, while in most cases to be given a fellowship in an Oxford college one had to be ordained.

The Darkening Age is not written in the typical turgid academic prose one is accustomed to from scholars, nor does its end notes run for almost as long as the manuscript itself. In fact, there is the uncommon – and evocative – presence of a strand of emotion in the narrative. The purpose of writing this book, the author tells us, is to make more people aware of the history of early Christianity and the damage it wrought to the pagan world that came before it. Nixey makes a strange claim – that much of what transpired in the remaking of Europe in the Christian mould is not well known. At first glance, this comes as a surprise to any lover of the classics, yet Nixey may well be correct in that the classics have gone underappreciated or molested by critical theory since the postmodern turn. That is what makes The Darkening Age an even more important work.

It is not just lovers of the Classical World who might not be surprised by Nixey's arguments: the author's focus is on Europe when she claims that there are no true pagans left but there are plenty remaining in other parts of the world such as India. The experience of these pagans is not much different, though separated by over a dozen centuries, from those of their Roman brethren. Whenever it came up against a foreign culture, Christianity has found it disturbingly easy to tap into its reservoir of primordial fervour and zealotry to fight it. The Crusades and the Age of Imperialism are the most obvious examples of this but so is the post-Enlightenment secular world order. Though beaten to it by others, some Christian armies did despoil Indian temples and architecture; moreover, rhetoric of conversion still rhymes with the angry frothing at the mouth of Marcellus or the 5th century Alexandrian bishop Cyril.

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The Darkening Age is an informative book for those not well versed in the classics but it is also a gentle goad to others to inquire epistemologically at the webs of meaning that bind us. It is this second order of thinking that makes this book invaluable to everyone, even those who could not care less for the city of marble that Agrippa left behind. The internet has made it easy to import ideas from one part of the globe to another but without context and a dab of reckless politics, it could be deeply destabilising and extend the cultural genocide begun circa Constantine. Nixey exposes secularism for a simulacrum though in all fairness, that was probably not her intent; regardless, the easiest way to know whom the simulacrum benefits is to challenge it.

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