- The Darkening Age: The Christian Destruction of the Classical World by Catherine Nixey
Scholarship, like the heavenly orbs, has its cycles. For the better part of two centuries, the narrative of Christianity's role in Rome's fall followed a path laid out by the philosophes in the eighteenth century—a story of a robust, enlightened, and sexually liberated civilization brought low by a swift descent into barbarism and superstition (readers will recognize the footprints of Edward Gibbon). Then, about fifty years ago, a new narrative exploded into view with Peter Brown's exuberant World of Late Antiquity (1971). Rejecting the model of "decline and fall" as artificial, scholars in this new field insisted on understanding the centuries between Rome's high point in the second century and the fragmentation of the Middle Ages as a time of "change" rather than "decline." The problem with the old view, these scholars argued, was that it focused almost exclusively on the fledgling states of western Europe, treating vital parts of this new culture as either foreign (the eastern Roman empire, now relabeled "Byzantium") or hostile (Muslims in Spain and North Africa). Then came the inevitable pushback, about twenty years ago, when more traditional scholars began to complain that their colleagues in Late Antiquity were ignoring clear signs of political disintegration and cultural decline, and most of all the baleful impact of Christianity.
Seemingly, Catherine Nixey's The Darkening Age is just another broadside in this ongoing battle: even its title harks back to a time when "the Dark Ages" that followed Rome were dismissed as "a thousand years without a bath." But Nixey has an entirely different agenda. Her target is not a bunch of greybeards but all those complacent readers in the West who reacted with shock and indignation when the Taliban blew up millennia-old Buddhist statues in Afghanistan or, more recently, Islamic State did the same to the monumental temples of Palmyra. Nixey wants this audience to know that their forebears did all this and much more to the treasures of the ancient world. With vigorous prose and an eye for graphic detail, she writes of the destruction of ancient temples like the Serapeum in Alexandria and [End Page 708] the Parthenon in Athens, the murder of the philosopher Hypatia and relentless condemnation of her peers, and the burning of classical texts and statues.
Nixey tempers this dismal story with disarming candor and wit, and her prose sparkles. But her point comes at a cost. Readers of this journal will frequently catch themselves saying, "Yes, but…," for Nixey's account is frequently one-sided, ignoring a broader context that, admittedly, would not excuse the destruction she narrates but would give readers a better perspective on the world in which it happened. Christian judges, for instance, did torture pagan philosophers, as she writes in chapter 16, but as Ramsay MacMullen noted long ago, elites had lost their exemption from torture much earlier, in a process that Christians had nothing to do with ("Judicial Savagery in the Roman Empire." Chiron, 16 , 147–66). Similar observations could be made about the contrast Nixey draws between the playfully sexual banter of an Ovid and the stern moralizing of Christian homilists. As Nixey herself points out, "an increasingly moralizing tone" had emerged in the four centuries that separate Ovid from John Chrysostom, and "the rise in Christianity might even have been in part a symptom of such moralizing" (p. 191).
This deliberately one-sided account is by design, justified by what Nixey sees as the whitewashing that Christianity has gotten in modern scholarship (p. 107). Specialists will lament the missed opportunities to draw wider conclusions about causality (by juxtaposing, say, the defiant language philosophers hurled at their torturers with the similar language of Christian martyrs). But that would be to call for a different book. If the one Nixey has written leads non-specialists to recognize that, just as Christian thugs do not define their faith...