A wry view of life for the world-weary

Book Corner – February 2018 (2)

The Darkening Age – Catherine Nixey

History, they say, is written by the victors but there is a growing trend in modern historiography to explore events from the side of the losers or those whose views were never represented – women, the working classes, the poor etc. Nixey’s mission, in this stimulating and controversial book, is to explain just how the Christian religion and culture destroyed and almost obliterated the Greco-Roman culture. As a student of the Classics and an agnostic, intuitively I was on her side.

The book has a modern relevancy as Westerners wring their hands and decry the destruction of ancient sites by fanatical Moslems. But here in England we have had our own round of religious-inspired destruction when Henry VIII’s acolytes took their axes and hammers to the abbeys and monasteries which were the bastions of Roman Catholicism. All this, if Nixey’s account is to be believed, was knocked into a cocked hat by the systematic and mindless iconoclasm of the early Christians who set about crudely to damage and destroy the many statues of and temples built in honour of the old gods.

The Christians were concerned by the ability of the demons of the old gods to pollute them and cause them to deviate from the true path, worshipping their one and only God. Decapitating statues, gouging eyes, knocking off body parts, hacking at stone pediments was, to them, a cathartic process. They were particularly concerned about the demonic qualities of the smoke and stench of sacrifices to taint their souls. Perhaps there is an innate Christian spirit in me which comes to the surface from time to time when someone suggests a barbie.

Roman religion was polytheistic which was quite handy because it allowed the assimilation of new gods and those who had served their purpose to be quietly dropped. Christianity, however, was decidedly monotheistic and had no truck with any namby-pamby ideas of co-existing with or being assimilated into a polytheistic society. Although it is hard to conceive of Roman society as being in any way liberal, perhaps the modern take on this story is that when a determined group of religious fanatics take on a more easy-going society, there is only going to be one winner.

And the Christians were an odd lot, scorned by the Romans for being uncouth, illiterate and unclean. Extreme Christians delighted in the ascetic aspects of their religion, not washing for fear that the sight of their naked flesh would overcome them with lust, wearing uncomfortable clothing – hair shirts were the least of the strange apparel chosen to mortify their sinful flesh – and putting themselves through unimaginable physical trials to demonstrate their holiness.

Christianity, after all, is essentially a masochistic religion and, perhaps, the desire to torment yourself was a perverse reaction to the end of imperial persecution. Nixey, I think, underplays the degree of persecution that the early Christians underwent – there were certainly waves of imperially-sponsored persecutions – and she paints tragi-comedic scenes of Christians queuing up, begging to be martyred, the golden ticket to paradise. Perhaps it is necessary to do this to counter her accounts of the systematic destruction of the old culture and ways. In both aspects I think she is a little fly with the evidence and asserts things which are probably more suppositions than hard facts.

That said, the Christian persecution of the pagans, as they became known, did occur. From 330CE temples were destroyed, Athena’s head was decapitated in the sack of the temple in Palmyra in 385, the magnificent temple of Seraphis was destroyed in 392. The list goes on. And then there was the attacks on the intellectual communities including the murder of the mathematician, Hypatia, in 415 and the closure of Plato’s Academy in 529. Worse still was the destruction, deliberately or through neglect of most of the Classical canon. It is a miracle, and I use the word deliberately, that as much has survived as it has.

Nixey’s book sheds light on a rarely told tale of the consequences of the so-called triumph of Christianity. My only quibble is that her narrative is not as certain as she makes out.

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