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Having reviewed over 1200 books on this blog, I have now written two myself. Motherdarling is a story about a search for a missing Will which reveals long-hidden family secrets. The Kids of God is a thriller set in a dystopia ruled by fascist paramilitaries. Both are available as paperbacks and on Kindle through Amazon. I live in Canterbury, England. I lived for more than thirty years in Bedford. Having retired from teaching; I became a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Liminality. I achieved my PhD in 2019. I am now properly retired. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Saturday, 14 July 2018

"The Darkening Age" by Catherine Nixey

The prevailing perspective is that the glories of the Roman Empire were destroyed by the Barbarian invasions and that learning during the European Dark Ages was kept alive by monks in their scriptoria. Nixey radically revises this thesis. She shows that fanatical Christians destroyed a largely tolerant Roman culture and that Christianity was, to a large extent, responsible for the darkness.

First, she suggests that Roman persecution of Christians was largely a myth. In three centuries there were thirteen years of persecution:
  • Roman Emperors wanted obedience, not martyrs.” (p 78) 
  • Trajan tells Pliny "these people must not be hunted out.” (p 73) 
  • As the early Christian author Origen admitted, the numbers of martyrs were few enough to be easily countable.” (p 61) 
  • It is now thought that fewer than ten martyrdom tales from the early Church can be considered reliable.” (p 62) 
  • The Romans did not seek to wipe Christianity out. iI they had, they would almost certainly have succeeded.” (p 62) 
  • In this world today, there are over two billion Christians. there is not one single, true ‘pagan’.” (p 100)

In fact, it was the other way around. After centuries of tolerance, “From almost the very first year that a Christian emperor has ruled in Rome in AD 312, liberties had begun to be eroded.” (p xxvii - xxix) and within fifty years there were laws banning paganism. 

Many authors acknowledge that there were iconoclasts. “Classical statues were knocked from their plinths, defaced, defiled and torn limb from limb. Temples were razed to their foundations and burned to the ground.” (p xxxi) But they seem to excuse them. “In modern Histories those carrying out and encouraging the attacks [against heathen shrines] are really describe as violent, or vicious, or thuggish: they are merely ‘zealous’, ‘pious’, ‘enthusiastic’ or, at worst, ‘overzealous’.” (p 115)

People were also attacked, often by gangs of marauding monks: “Monks - anonymous, rootless, untraceable - were able to commit atrocities with near impunity.” (p 215) People were mutilated. “Eyes of the erring were gouged out because those who couldn't see the true religion were ‘blind’ anyway. Another Bishop was seized, his hands chopped off and his tongue, which had preached falsehoods, cut out.” (p 223) This could be excused. Citing Deuteronomy the learned Doctor of the Church St Jerome suggested that “a Christian might take the defeated prisoner, enjoy them, rape them - so long as they mutilated them first.” (p 164) The parabalani were “de facto militaries of the faithful” who threatened violence and killed the philosopher Hypatia (p 127) Even this was excused. Fanaticism perverts morality. “Murder committed for the sake of God, argued one writer, was not a crime but actually ‘a prayer’.” (p 222) Justice was rare. “Courtrooms in the east of the empire with disrupted by sinister groups of dark-clad, psalm-chanting monks.” (p 225) Judges fled.

Christianity has a reputation for condemning slavery but even this was perverted by the early church.“When one bishop advised slaves to desert their masters and become ascetics, the church was appalled and promptly excommunicated him.” (p 204)

As for sex. “Male homosexuality was outlawed.” (p xxxiii) “It would be well over a thousand years before Western civilisation could come to see homosexuality as anything other than a perversion.” (p 196) It seems to use that we live in a uniquely tolerant time; one wonders and worries that a cultural pendulum will swing back in the future. But this book suggests that it is perhaps the last millenniium and a half that has been the aberration and that what is 'unnatural' is not gay sex but the intolerance that leads to its condemnation.

Culturally perhaps the most damaging consequence of Christian fanaticism was the destruction of ancient writings. “It has been estimated that less than ten per cent of all classical literature has survived into the modern era ... It is estimated that only one hundredth of all Latin literature remains.” (p 166) In an age when manual copying was the only way to preserve ancient texts then simply ignoring an author could consign their work to obliteration. But worse was done. A shortage of parchment led to overwriting: “Palimpsests - manuscripts in which one manuscript has been scraped (psao) again (palin)” repeatedly show Christian texts overwriting classical texts." (p xxxii). And, of course, books were burnt.

Christians distrusted knowledge “To a proto-empiricist like Galen ... intellectual progress depended on the freedom to ask, question, doubt and above all, to experiment. In Galen’s world, only the ill-educated believed things without reason. To show something, one did not merely declare it to be so. One proved it, with demonstration. To do otherwise was for Galen the method of an idiot. It was the method of a Christian.” (p 30) 

There were reasons why Christians hated pagan learning. First of all, it was sexually frank:
  • The famously learned St Jerome, himself an inveterate reader, weighed in advising against ‘adultery of the tongue’.” (p 141)
  • Marcus Aurelius, with queasy precision, described sexual intercourse as ‘the friction of a piece of gut and, following a sort of convulsion, the expulsion of some mucus’.” (p 142) 
  • Catullus (Carmen 16) says “I will bugger you and I will fuck your mouths.” (p 141)
  • Martial’s Epigram 1.90 describes lesbianism as “rubbing cunts together ... to counterfeit the thrusting of a male.” (p 141)
  • In the Greco-Roman pantheon, not only did brother fight against brother but, worse, brother sometimes did quite unmentionable things with sister. Or with anyone else they could get their hands on.” (p 143)

Perhaps, worse, classical learning challenged Christian ideas. This was made worse because “it was painfully obvious to educated Christians that the intellectual achievements of the ‘insane’ pagans were vastly superior to their own.” (p 150):
  • Roman intellectuals had a version of evolution: “The distinct species of animals were explained by a form of proto-Darwinism ... Nature put forth many species. those that had useful characteristics ... survived, thrived and reproduced.” (p 36) 
  • Ovid’s Metamorphoses ... opened with a version of the Creation myth that was so similar to the biblical one that it could hardly fail to make an interested reader question the supposed unique truth of Genesis. ... Where the biblical Creation begins with an earth that is ‘without form’, Ovid’s poem begins with a ‘rough, unordered mass of things’. ... a god appears and ‘rent asunder land from sky, and sea from land’ before instructing the seas to form and the ‘plains to stretch out’.” (p 39)
Philosophy actually dared to challenge religious beliefs, including Christianity:
  • The works of Greek and Roman philosophy were full of punchy one-liners poking fun at religion.” (p 143)
  • Celsus points out that the crucifixion was seen by many but the resurrection by very few. (p 35)
  • Celsus asked why did Jesus prefer sinners? “What evil is it not to have sinned?” (p 35)
  • Why did God wait so long to send Jesus? Porphyry asked: “what has become of the men who lived in the many centuries before Christ came? ... [Why] did He who is called the Saviour withhold Himself for so many centuries of the world?” (p 47)

The non-Christians urged tolerance and freedom of thought. Pliny the Elder wrote that “God ... is one mortal helping another.” (p 44) Symmachus (a pagan) said: “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?” (p 121) But this didn't duit the narrow-minded Christians. “Heretics were intellectual therefore intellectuals were, if not heretical, then certainly suspect.” (p 148)
Other fascinating asides:
  • The feast of the Liberalia was on 17th March ... at which Roman citizens celebrated a boys first ejaculation” (p 177)
  • Young men didn't go to the baths with their fathers for fear of the uexpected erection; even for liberal Romans, it seems that seeing one's son's hard-on was felt to be a bit much.” (p 194)
  • Is it not true that we are dead and only seem to live ... or are we alive and is life dead?” (Palladas; p 169)
  • Hypatia was “devoted to the life of the mind rather than of the flesh and remained a virgin. ... it is said that one of her students fell in love with her ... Hypatia responded briskly. She brought some of her sanitary towels and threw them before him.” (p 127)
  • Hypatia's father, Theon, wrote commentaries on Euclid that “were so authoritative that they form the foundation of modern editions of his texts.” (p 130)
  • Demons stalk through the pages of Augustine's City of God.” (p 14). 
  • One consequence of the concept of demons was that wicked thoughts were the fault of the demon not the man ... the monkish id is laid bare as monks confessed to being tormented by visions of naked women” (p 17) 
  • Temples to the old gods served as centres of demonic activity. Here they settled in swarms, gorging on the sacrifices made by Romans to their gods. Creep into a temple late at night and you would hear petrifying things: corpses that seemed to speak.” (p 19)
  • Those who criticized Christianity, warned the Christian apologist Tertullian, were not speaking with a free mind ... because they were under the control of Satan and his footsoldiers.” (p 21)
  • Strepitus mundi, the ‘roar of the world’” was “the sound of Christianity pouring, as unstoppable as a tide, across towns, countries and continents” (p 23)
This is a fascinating book which authoritatively challenges a fundamental trope of western history. Coming at a time when western Europe is appalled at the cultural vandalism being wrought by groups such as the Taliban, and ISIS it is a timely reminder that suppression of art and culture and thought and learning is not a trait of one particular religion but seems to be a consequence of people believing that there is only one God.

A must-read. July 2011; 247 pages

I recently came across corroborative evidence for Nixey's thesis when reading the Preface to Giorgio Vasari's Lives of the Great Artists (which was written in 1550) in which he says “Christianity ... strove to cast out and utterly destroy every least possible occasion of sin; and in doing so it ruined or demolished all the marvellous statues, besides the other sculptures, the pictures, mosaics and ornaments representing the false pagan gods.

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