Tim O'Neill, History for Atheists, 29 Nov 2017

Catherine Nixey, The Darkening Age: The Christian Destruction of the Classical World, (Macmillan, 2017) 305 pp. Her publisher’s blurb informs us that Nixey’s book tells “the largely unknown – and deeply shocking – story” of how a militant Christianity “extinguished the teachings of the Classical world” and was “violent, ruthless and intolerant” in an orgy of destruction and oppression that was “an annihilation”. On the other hand, no less an authority than the esteemed historian of Late Antiquity, Dame Averil Cameron, calls Nixey’s book “a travesty”, roundly condemning it as “overstated and unbalanced”. And Dame Averil is correct – this is a book of biased polemic masquerading as historical analysis and easily the worst book I have read in years.

Nixey’s depiction of the Romans as rational, tolerant pluralists who had to be “pushed” by lunatic Christians and effectively forced into persecution and violence does not survive contact with the evidence for long. She says that, unlike their Christian successors, the pagan Romans had little interest in what people believed and only required certain, often quite minimal, actions to satisfy their sense of religious propriety – they enforced orthopraxy, not orthodoxy. When these required actions violated the deeply held beliefs of Christians, however, she is making a distinction without difference. And one that could and did get people killed in inventive ways if they refused to accept some governor’s sense of what is “proper” over their faith. Indeed Nixey has to do quite a bit of hedging around the concept of the Romans as religiously “tolerant” in contrast to the intolerant Christians. She admits in an footnote that “it is possible to argue that [the Romans] were not [tolerant], since true tolerance implies first disagreeing with what someone is doing, then allowing them to do it anyway.” (p.116) In the end she has to resort to saying merely that “the Romans were infinitely more tolerant than the Christians were”. In fact, the “tolerance” of the Romans had fairly narrow confines and any sect or faith that fell outside them could quickly learn how intolerant Nixey’s benign Romans could be.

Also counter to Nixey’s story is the evidence of temple repair and preservation, sometimes by Christian rulers and administrators, in the very period in which according to Nixey mobs were rampaging across the Empire tearing down every temple in sight. Several laws were decreed to protect art works (C.Th. 16.10.15) and esteemed buildings and temples (C.Th. 16.10.18) and Lavan notes “in regions such as Africa, Greece and Italy, temple preservation seems to have been a more prominent process than temple destruction” (p. xxxvii). Despite the selected examples Nixey emphasises and the rhetoric of both Christian and pagan sources, temple destruction was generally rare. What seems to have happened is that over the course of three to four generations from the conversion of Constantine, the elite sponsorship of pagan cults and therefore of pagan temples declined sharply. At the same time, conversion to the newly imperially-endorsed Christian faith became increasingly necessary for political advancement and this was given greater force by growing restrictions on the public practice of paganism by courtiers and administrators, further reducing the financial support for temple sites. At the same time, common people began to convert in greater numbers over this period, though almost certainly not as fully or in the vast numbers as Christian commentators of the time hopefully declared.

As a result of all this, we see a decline in the active use of temples which is, as Lavan suggests, analogous to the decline in the use of British country churches today.

John Damascene also noted Greek learning as a divine gift:

“I shall set forth the best contributions of the philosophers of the Greeks, because whatever there is of good has been given to men from above by God, since ‘every best gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights'”(Philosophical Chapters, Preface)

This was the position that won the debate. And as a result of it not only were Christian scholars able to read, study and copy the works that were considered “the best contributions of the philosophers”, but quite a bit more besides. As Edward Grant observes:

“The handmaiden concept of Greek learning was widely adopted and became the standard Christian attitude toward secular learning. …. With the total triumph of Christianity at the end of the fourth century, the Church might have reacted against pagan learning in general, and Greek philosophy in particular, finding much in the latter that was unacceptable or perhaps even offensive. They might have launched a major effort to suppress pagan learning as a danger to the Church and its doctrines. But they did not.”(The Foundations of Modern Science in the Middle Ages), Cambridge, 1996, p. 4, my emphasis)

While Nixey hedges her depiction with some subtle caveats about how the attitudes she highlights were held by “some Christians” or “hard-line Christian clerics”, she still presents the views of these hardliners as the norm and fails to balance this with the alternative Christian arguments that won out. This leaves her with something of a problem: if the rejection of pagan literature and learning was as severe as she claims, how is it that she can read Ovid, Aristotle, Plato or the smutty poems of Catullus at all? After all, these works only survive to us thanks to the work of centuries worth of Christian scholars, scribes and copyists preserving them.

Good history books, including good popular history, should give the reader a greater insight into the period and the subject. They should make the reader better informed and, in doing so, make them wiser. They should deepen understanding, so that anything else read on the subject from that point tends to add layers to that depth. Watts’ book does this. O’Donnell’s book does this. Duffy’s book does this. Nixey’s book does not. Anyone reading Nixey’s book is likely to come away thinking they know and understand more but will actually have learned things that would have to be unlearned or corrected later. Nixey’s is not a good history book. It is, as Dame Averil said so pithily, “a travesty”.