The Darkening Age by Catherine Nixey

A mob surged from the city streets with destruction on their mind. Their destination was the hated temple of Serapis in Alexandria, one of the wonders of the ancient world.

in AD 392 a bishop, supported by a band of fanatical Christians, reduced it to rubble

Catherine Nixey’s The Darkening Age is a revisionist history, accumulating much academic writing of the last few years. For centuries, Christian writers have argued that monks were the last defenders of the ancient world. Whilst much of humanity turned from learning, this dedicated few preserved the knowledge of the ancients by diligently copying out tomes and storing them safely in their monasteries.

The truth was very different. In the five centuries following the death of Jesus, Christians set about systematically annihilating what they called the ‘pagans’ and their cults. They did such a good job that by the year 500, almost nobody considered themselves a follower of the Olympian gods. Christianity ruled supreme and the battle had not been pretty.

Statues, the very seat of the demons themselves, suffered some of the most vicious attacks. It was not enough merely to take a statue down; the demon within it had to be humiliated, disgraced, tortured, dismembered and thus neutralized. A Jewish tractate known as the Avodah Zarah provided detailed instructions on how to properly mistreat a statue. One can desecrate a statue, it advised, by ‘cutting off the tip of its ear or nose or finger …’

The story of the fall of the Roman Empire usually follows the argument that the old gods disappeared because nobody believed in them anyway. All those stories about Apollo and Venus were just hogwash. It was obvious that Christianity with its promise of eternal life would supersede such primitive faith.

However, look at the paragraph quoted above. The language is all about ‘demons’, but these are actually the Olympian gods. The urge to destroy their statues does not come from a motivation to remove a belief in stories and myths. In fact, it seems to me that some of the early Christians actually believed the Olympian gods were real. Why else would they talk about them as ‘demons’, as living beings, albeit ones from an supernatural realm? Why else would they seek to destroy the statue, not to eradicate a mistaken belief, but to trap the ‘demon’ within it?

Here is an area where I diverge from Nixey. She often bemoans the loss of temples and statues as the destruction of works of art. However, to the early Christians, these statues were not decorative objects. Their destroying statues like those of Apollo and Dionysus was no different from the former citizens of the USSR disposing of giant busts of Lenin and Stalin.

No matter how well-crafted a Nazi statue was, we would still tear down such an abhorrent object today.

Nixey also argues that the Christians did everything they could to eradicate the influence of the old gods over modern life.

At a time in which parchment was scarce, many ancient writers were simply erased, scrubbed away so that their pages could be reused for more elevated themes … Only one percent of Latin literature survived the centuries. Ninety-nine per cent was lost. One can achieve a great deal by the blunt weapons of indifference and sheer stupidity.

We have to be careful when historians cook up statistics relating to ancient times. Where does this 99% come from? How can you quantify things which were lost?

Furthermore, I am not sure that the Christians really set out to erase the old gods from history and from thought. Language gives us a clue. In most European languages, the days of the week are still named after the old gods. Tuesday is named after the God of War, Mars (Catalan: dimarts, French: mardi, Italian: martedì, Spanish martes). Mars also gives his name to the month ‘March’ in English, one of  several named after gods, including ‘January’ after Janus and ‘June’ after Juno.

If the Christians really wanted to remove the old gods so completely why didn’t they change something as basic as the names of the week or the months? Other people did. After the French Revolution, the new government redesigned the calendar and created all new names for the months. Likewise, in modern Portuguese, the days of the week are now ‘second day’, ‘third day’ and so on (segundo-feira, terça-feira).

So people can and do change things, but sometimes they leave well enough alone. I am not convinced that the early Christians really did want to eliminate all vestiges of what they considered paganism.

These are minor quibbles because this is a great book. It takes something that is well known in the ivory towers and brings it down to the hoi polloi so we too can look at the past with new eyes. I found it fascinating and devoured it in two sittings. Even though I dispute some of Nixey’s arguments, I am sure that she would be very pleased for me to do so because her book is also a call for people to discuss, debate and share ideas rather than try to scrub them away like the fading text on a medieval parchment.