Religion

The Myth That Christians Destroyed the Classical World Dies Hard

Catherine Nixey cherry-picks historical evidence in her unevenly researched book The Darkening Age.

Catherine Nixey, The Darkening Age: The Christian Destruction of the Classical World, by Catherine Nixey (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 352 pp., $28.00).

In what we would now regard as an excess of zeal, some Christians in the fourth and fifth centuries a.d. took to demolishing statues of pagan deities, either as symbols of idolatry or, in some cases, because they were thought to be the literal abode of demons. Catherine Nixey, an arts journalist at the Times of London, is in high dudgeon visualizing the scene: “Art lovers watched in horror as some of the greatest sculptures in the ancient world were smashed by people too stupid to appreciate them — and certainly too stupid to recreate them.” She has been moved to write a book, The Darkening Age: The Christian Destruction of the Classical World, bludgeoning the “stupid” Christians in her scenario.

It’s understandable that someone with a strong devotion to classical art should feel a sense of grief at contemplating what has been lost. For the sake of charity, I assume that something of the sort is her motivation. Speculating overmuch on such autobiographical tidbits as she has chosen to divulge — not only has she left Catholicism for atheism, but her parents were a former Catholic monk and nun — is probably pointless.

Nixey’s reflections on the destruction of ancient art might have made for a decent-enough article. Unfortunately, in writing a book, she has had to venture into areas where she is clearly out of her depth. The result is a shoddy work that fails to make the grade even as a polemic.

The book opens with an account of Syrian monks trashing a temple in Palmyra. As it happens, ISIS recently attacked the same site, leading Nixey to draw an equivalence both offensive and spurious — “monotheism,” it seems, makes people do bad things. Yet in order to demonstrate any similarity between ancient Christians and ISIS, Nixey would have to produce evidence of more than the destruction of objects. For the soldiers of the caliphate, after all, smashing antiquities was a mere preliminary to mass rape and murder.

One of Nixey’s attempts to blame Christians for death and mayhem is simply dishonest. In Antioch in the early 370s, Roman imperial agents arrested and tortured prominent citizens and burned their libraries. This episode is recorded by the late Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus, who also states that several pagan philosophers were executed. Nixey pulls a fast one when she presents this incident as an example of Christian repression.

A check of the relevant sections of Ammianus (29.1–2) reveals it to be nothing of the sort. An informant told the authorities about some nefarious “magical” goings-on. Certain prominent citizens had suspended a pendulum from a tripod and swung it so that it pointed to a series of Greek letters on a circular metal plate; the result was thought to be the name of the successor to the the current emperor, Valens. When Valens arrived in Antioch after overseeing a campaign against the Persians and learned of the report, he flew into a rage and ordered a crackdown. (None of these details are recounted in The Darkening Age.) When questioned under torture, the participants in the ritual were quick to implicate others. As usually happens in such cases, many innocent people were caught up in the hysteria and punished.

The only link between these events and Christianity is that Valens was a Christian (albeit of the heretical Arian variety). But any Roman emperor, always on the lookout for conspiracies, would have objected violently to an attempt to conjure up his successor (regardless of the means employed to do so). Hence pagan emperors had also tried to ban magical and divinatory practices, seeing in them a prelude to treason.

There was one notorious case of a murder committed by Christians in late antiquity, and Nixey milks it for all she thinks it’s worth. In Alexandria in 415, the mathematician and Neoplatonist philosopher Hypatia was brutally lynched by a mob of Christians — slashed to death with potsherds and her body burned. The relevant chapter in The Darkening Age presents Hypatia’s murder as the culmination of a straightforward Christian-vs.-pagan conflict, when it was something more complex.

As the conflict over the philosopher Hypatia escalated, Nixey writes, the Alexandrian aristocrats were ‘perhaps repelled by the Christians’ violence.’ She neglects to mention that most of the ‘aristocrats’ of Alexandria were Christians.

Nixey cites Maria Dzielska’s exhaustively researched study Hypatia of Alexandria (1995) in her bibliography but shows few signs of having assimilated its contents. Dzielska emphasizes the class-stratified nature of the conflicts in Alexandria. Christians were to be found on both sides of the line, among the educated elite and the urban rabble.

Educated Christians were among Hypatia’s inner circle of students and found their beliefs and her Neoplatonism to be compatible. Chief among these was Synesius of Cyrene, who became bishop of Ptolemais (in Libya) some time between 410 and 412. From Ptolemais, he continued to send admiring letters to Hypatia. (He predeceased her and so was mercifully spared from learning about the cruel nature of her death.) Synesius goes bizarrely unmentioned in The Darkening Age (aside from a couple endnotes) — “bizarrely” because his letters are one of our main sources concerning Hypatia.

Hypatia’s death was occasioned by an increasingly violent power struggle between Cyril, bishop of Alexandria (now a saint in both the Catholic and the Orthodox churches), and Orestes, the city prefect (and a Christian). Cyril drew support from the urban mob and from a band of militant monks adept at goonery. Hypatia backed Orestes. As the conflict escalated, Nixey writes, the Alexandrian aristocrats, “perhaps repelled by the Christians’ violence,” closed ranks behind Orestes. She neglects to mention that most of the “aristocrats,” specifically the archontes (city officials) of Alexandria, were Christians.

Dzielska describes the dénouement as follows: “Cyril’s people found a way to exploit Hypatia’s detachment from the common people: they devised a subtle scheme of negative propaganda among the urban mob.” Rumors quickly spread depicting Hypatia as a practitioner of black magic who had Orestes under her spell. Stirred up by this propaganda, a mob led by a church lector named Peter did its dirty work in March of 415. It was a horrific crime, unequivocally condemned by the contemporary Christian chronicler Socrates Scholasticus (whose statement on the topic Nixey relegates to an endnote). Yet “proliness” as much as holiness was responsible for Hypatia’s death (though this is not necessarily to exculpate Cyril, whose behavior during the affair was suspicious, to say the least).

***

With the chapters of The Darkening Age dealing with the transmission of classical literature — or, rather, the non-transmission of said literature, for which Christians are allegedly to blame — the bottom drops away. The level of the discussion plunges downward into a dismal netherworld marked by non sequiturs, suppression of contrary evidence, and odd misapprehensions of fact.

Nixey states the following, as if it were the whole story: “The evidence from surviving manuscripts is clear: at some point, a hundred or so years after Christianity comes to power, the transcription of the classical texts collapses. From ad 550 to 750 the numbers copied plummeted.”

The endnote points to L. D. Reynolds and N. G. Wilson’s well-regarded work Scribes and Scholars — but to a chapter specifically dealing with the post-Roman West. After the collapse of the Western Empire, the Latin-speaking West experienced barbarization, impoverishment, and a consequent drop in literacy rates. (The clergy were the only class to maintain standards of literacy.) This is only half the story. Is Nixey unaware that the Greek-speaking East followed a different trajectory? The East evolved into the entity we now call the Byzantine Empire and maintained a greater degree of cultural continuity, even under Christian management.

Christians in the surviving, eastern half of the empire kept the traditional curriculum mostly in place. Not one word about this appears in Nixey’s book.

In the East, the presence of classical texts in school curricula played a major role in their survival. In antiquity, the four core authors taught in the schools were Homer, Euripides, Menander, and Demosthenes. In the fourth century a.d., the raunchy Aristophanes displaced Menander as the representative of comic drama; thereafter it was Aristophanes’ plays that were copied, right on into the Byzantine era. Nixey claims that prudish Christians refused to copy texts with sexual content; the survival of Aristophanes obviously undermines that notion. (Look for Aristophanes in the index of The Darkening Age and nothing turns up.)

In other words, Christians in the surviving, eastern half of the empire kept the traditional curriculum mostly in place. Not one word about this appears in Nixey’s book. Scribes and Scholars summarizes how it happened, so she ought to know about it (unless, of course, she didn’t read the book but only cherry-picked from it).

Jaw-droppers abound, as when Aristotle’s name appears in a list of authors allegedly “erased” by monasteries. Aristotle? Then why, one wonders, do we possess over a thousand Greek manuscripts of Aristotle’s works? Why are the scholia to Aristotle (marginal comments, some of which draw on ancient material) so voluminous that they have not yet been fully published?

With respect to Plato, Nixey notes that “the Church” in the eleventh century pronounced an anathema against those “who devote themselves to Hellenic studies and instead of merely making them a part of their education, adopt the foolish doctrines of the ancients and accept them as the truth.” Specifically, it was the Orthodox Church in Byzantium that issued the anathema. (Nixey never seems to distinguish between the Catholic and Orthodox churches — does she think they’re the same thing?) It sounds punitive, but closer examination reveals that it wasn’t very.

The anathema originated during a controversy over a scholar named John Italos. A faction in the Church thought that his lectures on Plato showed too great an acceptance of elements in Platonic thought that contradicted Christian doctrine. Italos was acquitted of heresy in 1076–77 but then convicted during a second trial in 1082. He was ordered to stop teaching, but Plato’s dialogues continued to be read in Byzantium. Nor does there seem to have been any attempt to destroy Italos’s own writings, some of which survive to this day.

Moreover, the text of the anathema itself accepts the legitimacy of reading ancient authors for educational purposes. N. G. Wilson describes it this way: “The notion of education implicit in this saving clause is typical of Byzantium; the literary study of the ancient authors does not commit one to acceptance of their views, nor does the falsehood of their views on many questions disqualify them from being suitable material for a school syllabus.”

It seems mild, coming as it does in the middle of what Nixey describes as “a thousand years of theocratic oppression.” Come to think of it, the Byzantine view of education also seems advanced when compared with the atmosphere on certain of our campuses, where snowflakes shriek at the very thought of encountering a contrary opinion. But I digress.

***

As we have time-jumped forward to eleventh-century Byzantium, let us consider another figure from the period: John Mauropous — scholar, court orator, and bishop of Euchaita (in Anatolia). He wrote a poem bestowing the highest praise on Plato and Plutarch. No, he’s not entirely representative of his society, any more than Tertullian and the other figures in The Darkening Age who denounced classical learning were of theirs. But Mauropous’s poem (below, in Robert Browning’s translation) indicates that there are more things in heaven (maybe) and earth than are dreamt of in Nixey’s philosophy.

If you are willing to spare any pagans from your punishment, my Christ,
May you choose Plato and Plutarch for my sake.
For both clung closely in word and in deed to your laws.
If they did not know that you are Lord of all,
Only your charity is needed here,
Through which you are willing to save all men for nothing in return. 

Richard Tada — Richard Tada holds a Ph.D. in ancient Greek and Byzantine history from the University of Washington.

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