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A Cartoon History of Late Antiquity

By: A.M. Juster
February 21, 2018

y only positive comment about Catherine Nixey's The Darkening Age: The Christian Destruction of the Classical World is that the book is upfront about its anti-Catholic bigotry from the very first sentence. The prologue begins by comparing Christians of Late Antiquity entering the city of Palmyra to the ISIS terrorists who recently destroyed many of Palmyra’s remaining structures. It then tries to drive home that point by describing these early Christians as “marauding bands of bearded, black-robed zealots” and adding that “(t)heir attacks were primitive, thuggish and very effective.”The prologue concludes sarcastically with “(t)he ‘triumph’ of Christianity had begun.” 

The author, a former classics student, is an arts journalist for The London Times who by her own account has rejected her parents’ Catholicism. Her views about Late Antiquity fuse the venomous anti-Catholicism prevalent among nineteenth-century British classical scholars with today’s more extreme identity politics.

The author clearly lacks the knowledge, perspective, and discipline to write a thoughtful history of any aspect of Late Antiquity, much less a topic as complex as the Church’s responses to the classical traditions in art and literature. The book started as “a sort of historical travelogue,” but morphed into a retelling of anecdotes that provoke petulant rants about damaged classical statues and “the sufferings of those whom Christianity defeated.” For instance, without citing any evidence, Nixey opines on two hundred and seventeen years of history in this nails-on-blackboard fashion:

The savage “tyrant” was Christianity. From almost the very first years that a Christian emperor had ruled in Rome in AD 312, liberties had begun to be eroded. And then, in AD 529, a final blow had fallen.

These vapid sentences are not an outlier; Nixey constantly spews grandiose falsehoods without even trying to bolster her morality tale with facts: “For two and a half centuries the Roman imperial government left Christianity alone.” “It is likely that almost all Christians in times of persecution simply sacrificed and escaped death.” “Christian belief, if anything, led to a lowering of moral standards in the community.”

Often Nixey’s inability to jettison her modern belief structure makes her anachronistic observations unintentionally funny:

Why did people sign up for such an unappealing life? It is possible they didn’t know the full extent of its austerity when they joined. Monks (sic) who entered Shenoute’s monastery were not presented with a comprehensive contract at the door, or read their rights upon arrival.

Consumer protections and Miranda warnings are part of the intellectual architecture of the twentieth century, not the fifth. Moreover, the author seems unaware that—in most locations during most of Late Antiquity—young men and women who joined a religious community could change their minds and leave before taking their vows. She also seems unaware that monastic life was for many people a huge improvement in their economic quality of life and personal security.

Any thinking person who has tried to appreciate classical art feels grief about the masterpieces we have lost. What is problematic is Nixey’s response that deliberate destruction of art—mostly statues in temples—was unique in history and  that the destruction of art by early Christians made them morally inferior to the makers of that art. She goes so far to argue that the Christian destruction of statues was “unprecedented” when, in fact, Rome financed much of its expansion by looting and melting down exactly the same sorts of religious artifacts in nations it conquered. Nixey also conveniently ignores the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, the suppression of the mystery cults, and other facts that contradict her cheery view of Roman history.

Nixey seems unaware of Rome’s practice of damnatio memoriae—the destruction of the writing and representations of public figures who displeased emperors.  She also seems unaware that the ancient Greeks, the ancient Egyptians, and others engaged in similar practices.

Nixey creates her fictions by cherry-picking anecdotes, clogging them with loaded words, and then clumsily imposing modern constructs upon them. She typically portrays Romans as positively as possible. Tellingly, she ignores the crucifixion of Jesus as well as Rome’s use of crucifixion to intimidate and punish Christians. She seems to have no understanding that separation of church and state is largely a product of the American and French revolutions; her repeated efforts to portray Roman religion as tolerant of other religions gloss over the reality that Rome regularly required deference to its state religion on pain of death. While it is true that Rome often allowed subjects who acknowledged Roman gods to retain some elements of their old religious practices, early Christians were also often similarly pragmatic—which is why many of us recently had Christmas trees in our homes.   

The author’s cartoon version of the early centuries of the Christian era relies on the techniques of conspiracy theorists and Holocaust deniers to minimize the number and cruelty of Christian deaths at Roman hands. As blogger Tim O’Neill has ably discussed, Nixey grossly mischaracterizes the scholarship in order to reduce dramatically the number of Christian martyrs. Some of her rationale depends upon a confused and specious distinction between “imperial” and “local” persecutions.  Other parts of her argument peddle the unsupportable notion that most victims of Roman persecutions were executed simply for being “unruly” rather than for being Christians.

Nixey is more than happy, however, to embrace the propagandist aspects of the martyrologies that present their martyrs as joyous to suffer for Christ—and the crueler their suffering the better. For her this aspect of the martyrologies absolves Rome of moral responsibility for butchering Christians. Indeed, she veers close to arguing that brutal Roman executions were a needed service for the Christian faithful—in other words, the Romans were righteous because their Christian victims were asking for it.

Most of The Darkening Age reads like an underachieving college sophomore's term paper.  Nixey stacks up superlatives for Romans, Greeks, and their culture as well as hate-drenched words for early Christians and their culture. She includes long paragraphs in the passive voice that make the reasoning impossible to follow, and even makes the bizarre observation that “thoughts were policed.” She footnotes inconsequential statements, but almost never footnotes the most sweeping (and usually false) claims. She uses words incorrectly (“assure” for “ensure” and “breathless” for “breathtaking”). She even has trouble with complete sentences, mixed metaphors, and noun/verb agreement.

These sophomoric errors pale in comparison to the inaccurate pronouncements about Late Antique history and literature. The book latches onto three words of a private letter by Trajan to declare an enduring and yet previously unnoticed “imperial policy” about the prosecution of Christians: “But for the first 250 years after the birth of Christ, the imperial policy toward them was first to ignore them and then to declare that they must not be hounded.”

The book is equally inaccurate when it comments on Late Antique literature: “Unlike the centuries before Constantine, the centuries afterward produce no rambunctious satires or lucidly frank love poetry.” Nixey's lack of familiarity with Late Antique literature results in her casual banishment of Symphosius, Ausonius, Ennodius, Maximianus, and Luxorius from the ranks of saucy and satirical Late Antique poets.

The author is also confused about other poets. Although there is debate about whether the ten books of Lucan’s De Bello Civili are complete, it is inaccurate to refer to them as “a single fragment.” Moreover, the primary reason for the loss of Lucan’s other works is that Nero prohibited their publication, a fact excluded from Nixey’s conspiratorial accounts. Similarly, we have only nine lines of Cornelius Gallus, the originator of love elegy and the model for Ovid, Propertius and Tibullus, because Octavian ordered that Gallus’ work be destroyed.

Since the author is short on examples of willful Christian destruction of classical texts, she resorts to the unsupportable claim that Christian “indifference and sheer stupidity” caused the loss of most classical literature. Surely, the early Christians had strongly mixed feelings about their literary predecessors, but the vast majority of them were at least grudgingly charitable about Virgil, Ovid, Horace, and other great writers. Moreover, classical poetry, including the bawdy and satirical verse favored by Nixey, would not have survived if monks had not gone to heroic efforts to protect it—despite their often grave reservations about the contents. War, worms, water, and fire were the main enemies of classical manuscripts, not wild-eyed monks.

Early Christians did destroy a massive number of Roman and Greek religious statues, but the author’s palpable distress about that fact leads her to create dangerous fictions about the context. Romans of this era did not have museums to which they could have moved these statues and often did not view these statues as “art” in the way that Nixey does—many people would have seen statues of gods and goddesses in part as instruments of the official state religion and would not have expected them to endure after the official religion changed. Despite the author’s protestations to the contrary, the Romans regularly did exactly what Christians did. Late Antique Christians never eradicated an entire major culture in the way that Rome famously annihilated Carthage.  

More than a thousand years after Christians took control of the Roman Empire, British authorities and mobs looted and destroyed hundreds of Catholic monasteries, churches and charitable institutions. In recent decades people have pulled down statues of Lenin, Saddam Hussein, and generals of the Confederacy. Any fair-minded review of the historical record makes it impossible to label early Christians as uniquely destructive of art.  

It is easy to understand why an intolerant esthete would write a book as egregiously awful as The Darkening Age: The Christian Destruction of the Classical World. What is impossible to understand is why the Royal Society of Literature financially supported this book and why a publishing house as prestigious as Macmillan published it. Perhaps we should be concerned that our age is darkening.