The New York Times recently ran a piece on a new book, the book being The Darkening Age: The Christian Destruction of the Classical World by Catherine Nixey. The book looks to be an evisceration of the notion that Christianity has so pristinely added so much to the world, as well as perhaps putting paid to the claim that the Dark Ages weren’t really that dark.
As the NY Times states:
Using the mutilation of faces, arms and genitals on the Parthenon’s decoration as one of her many, thunderingly memorable case studies, Nixey makes the fundamental point that while we lionize Christian culture for preserving works of learning, sponsoring exquisite art and adhering to an ethos of “love thy neighbor,” the early church was in fact a master of anti-intellectualism, iconoclasm and mortal prejudice. This is a searingly passionate book. Nixey is transparent about the particularity of her motivation. The daughter of an ex-nun and an ex-monk, she spent her childhood filled with respect for the wonders of postpagan Christian culture. But as a student of classics she found the scales — as it were — falling from her eyes. She wears her righteous fury on her sleeve. This is scholarship as polemic.
Nixey writes up a storm. Each sentence is rich, textured, evocative, felt. Christian monks in silent orders summoned up pagan texts from library stores with a gagging hand gesture. The destruction of the extraordinary, frankincense-heavy temple of Serapis in Alexandria is described with empathetic detail; thousands of books from its library vanished, and the temple’s gargantuan wooden statue of the god was dismembered before being burned. One pagan eyewitness, Eunapius, remarked flintily that the only ancient treasure left unlooted from the temple was its floor.
Christians became known as those “who move that which should not be moved.” Their laudable appeal to have-nots at the bottom of the pile, both free and unfree, meant that bishops had a citizen-army of pumped-up, undereducated young men ready to rid the world of sin. Enter the parabalini, sometime stretcher-bearers, sometime assassins, who viciously flayed alive the brilliant Alexandrian mathematician and pagan philosopher Hypatia. Or the circumcellions (feared even by other Christians), who invented a kind of chemical weapon using caustic lime soda and vinegar so they could carry out acid attacks on priests who didn’t share their beliefs.
When we get thoroughly depressed at the Islamic extremists of the world wilfully destroying history in the name of their own religion and theological convictions, it is worth bearing in mind that Christianity has already trodden this path with heavy boots.
Indeed, that parallel is only too evident:
But the spittle-flecked diatribes and enraging accounts of gruesome martyrdoms and persecution by pagans were what the church chose to preserve and promote. Christian dominance of academic institutions and archives until the late 19th century ensured a messianic slant for Western education (despite the fact that many pagan intellectuals were disparaging about the boorish, ungrammatical nature of early Christian works like the Gospels). As Nixey puts it, the triumph of Christianity heralded the subjugation of the other.
And so she opens her book with a potent description of black-robed zealots from 16 centuries ago taking iron bars to the beautiful statue of Athena in the sanctuary of Palmyra, located in modern-day Syria. Intellectuals in Antioch (again in Syria) were tortured and beheaded, as were the statues around them. The contemporary parallels glare. The early medieval author known as Pseudo-Jerome wrote of Christian extremists: “Because they love the name martyr and because they desire human praise more than divine charity, they kill themselves.” He would have found shocking familiarity in the news of the 21st century.
Nixey closes her book with the description of another Athena, in the city of her name, being decapitated around A.D. 529, her defiled body used as a steppingstone into what was once a world-renowned school of philosophy. Athena was the deity of wisdom. The words “wisdom” and “historian” have a common ancestor, a proto-Indo-European word meaning to see things clearly. Nixey delivers this ballista-bolt of a book with her eyes wide open and in an attempt to bring light as well as heat to the sad story of intellectual monoculture and religious intolerance. Her sympathy, corruscatingly, compellingly, is with the Roman orator Symmachus: “We see the same stars, the sky is shared by all, the same world surrounds us. What does it matter what wisdom a person uses to seek for the truth?”