Catherine Nixey, The Darkening Age: The Christian Destruction of the Classical World, (Macmillan, 2017) 305 pp. Her publisher’s blurb informs us that Nixey’s book tells “the largely unknown – and deeply shocking – story” of how a militant Christianity “extinguished the teachings of the Classical world” and was “violent, ruthless and intolerant” in an orgy of destruction and oppression that was “an annihilation”. On the other hand, no less an authority than the esteemed historian of Late Antiquity, Dame Averil Cameron, calls Nixey’s book “a travesty”, roundly condemning it as “overstated and unbalanced”. And Dame Cameron is correct – this is a book of biased polemic masquerading as historical analysis and easily the worst book I have read in years.
“Overstated and Unbalanced”
But this is the kind of book that gets reviewers’ attention and so shifts units. Journalist Thomas W. Hodgkinson, writing in The Spectator enthuses about Nixey’s lurid anecdotes of temple destruction and the murder of philosophers saying “this certainly isn’t the history we were taught in Sunday school.” Libertarian pundit Matt Ridley manages to lasso Nixey’s book into an article in The Times about politically correct censoriousness, in which he refers to “an eloquent new book …. by Catherine Nixey” and claims it warns against fanatics. Others who really should know better have joined the chorus of praise. Also in The Times, historian Gerard De Groot raves about it as “a delightful book about destruction and despair”, saying “Nixey combines the authority of a serious academic with the expressive style of a good journalist”. Bestselling popular history writer Dan Jones has provided a similarly enthusiastic dust jacket blurb, stating “Nixey’s debut challenges our whole understanding of Christianity’s earliest years and the medieval society that followed” and declaring her “a formidable classicist and historian”. And fellow pop historian and TV presenter Dan Snow gave Nixey a high-profile platform on his popular history podcast “Dan Snow’s History Hit” (Nov 5th 2017) where he interviewed her at length while giving her book high praise.
Perhaps these last three can be forgiven to some extent for not realising that Nixey’s argument has major problems. De Groot is a specialist in modern history, Jones focuses on late medieval England and, as a pop history celebrity, Snow is something of a jack-of-all-trades; though both his questions and his comments in his interview show clearly that he has a limited grasp of the relevant topics in the history of Late Antiquity. But it is usually a bad sign when the enthusiasm for a history book is in inverse proportion to the reviewer’s grasp of the relevant subject matter. Writing in The Sunday Times, Oxford Classicist Peter Thonemann seems to have taken some guilty pleasure from Nixey’s enthusiastic narrative, but he understands the period and the material enough to know sleight of hand when he sees it. “It is easy to imagine the shade of Christopher Hitchens wriggling with pleasure at all this” he writes, “Like every good polemic, The Darkening Age is sardonic, well-informed and quite properly lacking in sympathy for its hapless target. But the argument depends on quite a bit of nifty footwork.” And he goes on to note just some of the fiddling, misrepresentation and selective evidence Nixey has to use to sustain her thesis.
In Literary Review, University of Exeter medievalist Levi Roach’s review is rather more kindly than Nixey deserves, but Roach does not pull his punches when he focuses on the problems with Nixey’s book. “Perhaps most worryingly” he observes “Nixey ends up endorsing the long-debunked view of the Middle Ages as a period of blind faith and intellectual stagnation”. And he notes, with considerable understatement, “it is hard not to detect a degree of anti-Christian animus”. Averil Cameron was certainly able to “detect” Nixey’s clear and almost visceral anti-Christian bias. “Catherine Nixey is a lively writer and likely to go far,” she writes, “but unfortunately in her first book she has rather unimaginatively bought into the old ‘blame the Christians’ model. She drives it through with a steely-eyed determination, unrelieved by nuance or counter-argument.” Cameron’s review, which is in the Catholic paper The Tablet and so unlikely to be read by the people who would most need its correctives, has the brisk tone of an academic who has spent years pulling apart undergraduate essays by bright students who have not yet managed to grasp the concept of objective and balanced analysis. In a succinct but deft critique, Cameron identifies the major flaws in Nixey’s thesis and zeros in on its emotional biases as its primary problem. “A quick look at the citations in Nixey’s footnotes shows what she has been reading,”she observes, “with several references to the same names from among a small group of like-minded historians equally hostile to Christianity.” And she pinpoints the likely source of this bias – Nixey’s “very limited early religious upbringing” – and concludes “it is a shame that Nixey has been encouraged to over-react [to this] so dramatically and to produce such an overstated and unbalanced counterblast”.
Monks, Nuns and Demons
Nixey is not exactly shy about her fairly unusual Catholic upbringing. In a feature in The Times Magazine which coincided with the publication of her book, she describes how her father had once been a Catholic monk who, on leaving his vocation in the years after the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, met and married a woman who had once been a Catholic nun. The editor of the article spiced this up somewhat (“their relationship shocked the Church”), but this was a period of upheaval in Catholicism and when a number of former religious ended up marrying each other, for fairly obvious reasons. Nixey also makes no secret about her upbringing in the preface to her book, and in doing so gives some insights into a childhood that she reports was happy, but also seems decidedly strange. She notes that her family, unsurprisingly, were devout practitioners of their faith; attending Mass, saying grace before meals and praying regularly. She talks of play-acting First Holy Communion with her Catholic cousins, but seems to think this was “a terrible sin”, for some reason. She reassures her readers that her parents’ faith was “never dogmatic”, but – oddly – supports this by noting:
“If I asked about the origins of the world was more likely to be told about the Big Bang than about Genesis. If I asked where humans come from, I would have been told about evolution rather than Adam.” (p. xxx)
It is hard to tell if she is contrasting Catholic views on these matters with evangelical Protestant ones or if she thinks more “dogmatic” Catholics than her parents would have condemned scientific ideas as contrary to faith. If her parents were not Biblical literalists, they certainly had some peculiar ideas about other things. In her The Times Magazine article she talks about how she only began wearing lipstick at university because of parental disapproval and the surreptitious thrill of hearing pop music on the radio in the cars of the parents of childhood friends, because this was forbidden at home. Her parents may have left their respective vows behind, but seem to have practised a lay asceticism well beyond anything found in most Catholic households.
So it is perhaps not surprising that the monks and ascetics of Late Antiquity are often the villains of Nixey’s narrative. Early in her book she describes the lifestyle of the desert hermit Anthony and the ascetics he inspired, effectively establishing the long Christian tradition of monasticism in the process. Her portrait of these anchorites is not admiring, calling them “the strangest players in this story …. monks who, for the love of God, lived out their entire lives standing on pillars, or in trees or in cages” (p. xxxvii). Their beliefs are described in tones bordering on overt mockery, particularly the ones about how the world was a battleground between demonic forces and the forces of good. A balanced writer would note that these, to us, very odd ideas and practices actually sprang from earlier non-Christian antecedents: Jewish proto-monasticism and ascetic practices, the disciplines of the Stoics and widespread Greek and Roman ideas about the pervasive influence of daímones. But to do that would undermine some of what Nixey strives to achieve: presenting the Christians in a manner that makes them seem as irrational, alien, dogmatic and bizarre as possible and depicting their non-Christian opponents as wise, rational and more or less like “us”. So we are not given similar portraits of the asceticism of some pagan philosophers or many anecdotes about, for example, the pious celibacy of some neo-Platonists, Cynic mendicants barking at passers by like dogs or Diogenes masturbating in public to make a philosophical point. Instead she contrasts these Christian fanatics with the anatomist and proto-scientist Galen, who used Christians as his primary example of irrational “blockheadedness” (p. 29).
In fact, Nixey’s descriptions of Christians in her book are peppered with words like “stupid” and “ignorant”. In one of her more lurid passages, Nixey does not exactly restrain her feelings:
“Intellectuals looked on in despair as volumes of supposedly unchristian books – often in reality texts on the liberal arts – went up in flames. 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. The Christians could not even destroy effectively: many statues on many temples were saved simply by virtue of being too high for them, with their primitive ladders and hammers, to reach.” (p. xxxiv)
It is very hard to take this kind of ham-fisted rhetoric seriously, but the book is full of stuff like this. Exactly where Nixey got this idea about Christians and “their primitive ladders and hammers” from is hard to tell – her imagination, most likely. I suppose that when these “stupid” people came to construct the great dome of the magnificent Hagia Sophia in Constantinople – 31 metres wide and 55 metres high- they must have found some old “pagan” hammers and ladders to use.
Nixey is at least aware of her biases to some extent. Her preface contains something of an apologia:
“This is a book about the Christian destruction of the classical world. The Christian assault was not the only one – fire, flood, invasion and time itself all played their part – but this book focuses on Christianity’s assault in particular. This is not to say that the Church didn’t also preserve things: it did. But the story of Christianity’s good works in this period has been told again and again …. The history and the sufferings of those whom Christianity defeated have not been. This book concentrates on them.” (p. xxxv)
A couple of Nixey’s less competent online defenders seem to believe this gets her off the hook and means she is instantly absolved of any bias. After all, they have argued, if she states outright that she is writing to redress the balance then surely she cannot be condemned for giving her book her intended slant. As we will see, however, there is a marked difference between putting some emphasis on a neglected perspective while maintaining balance and objectivity and what we find in Nixey’s book.
“Terrific race, the Romans! Terrific!”
Much of Nixey’s work is a study in artfully constructed contrasts – modern Christianity versus its ancient forms, Roman sophistication against Christian barbarism, Greek learning compared with Patristic denunciation of philosophy and so on. So before telling her story of repression and persecution by Christians, Nixey works to downplay the persecution that preceded: the persecution of Christians by the Romans. Here she draws heavily on the arguments of Candida Moss in her book The Myth of Persecution: How Early Christians Invented a Story of Martyrdom (2013). Nixey, like Moss, argues that the later hagiographies of the various martyrs greatly exaggerated the size, duration and nature of the Roman persecution of Christians. This is not exactly controversial, as scholars have long recognised that many or even most of the later martyr stories were little more than pious legends and some of the alleged martyrs did not actually exist. Moss, however, goes much further than this and tries to cast doubt on well-attested incidents of persecution such as that of Nero (though Nixey does not follow Moss on this point) and also includes a chapter that draws the modern American “Christian Right” into her narrative to make some political points – always a dubious thing for a historian of the pre-modern past to do.
Nixey uses many of the same arguments to downplay the idea of her supposedly “tolerant” Romans killing large numbers of people over their religion. She writes that “there were simply not that many years of imperially ordered persecution [of Christians] in the Roman Empire”, noting there were “fewer than thirteen [years of persecution] … in three whole centuries of Roman rule” (p. 58) This is true, but only so long as we restrict things to “imperially ordered persecution”. This ignores the fact that a Christian killed in the many and various local and sporadic persecutions that happened in the rest of those 300 years were just as dead as the ones killed in the briefer Empire-wide, “imperially ordered” ones of Decius, Valerian, Diocletian and Galerius. And she goes to remarkable lengths to downplay the death toll in the Great Persecution of Diocletian. On this she cites Henry Dodwell’s Dissertationes Cyprianae of 1684 (!), from whom she gets her chapter title “On the Small Number of Martyrs”. Only slightly less dusty is her citation of anti-Christian polemicist Edward Gibbon writing back in 1776 (!!), noting with approval his estimate of “‘no more that one hundred and fifty [martyrs executed] per year during the years of the persecution'” (p. 61). A little later she at least manages to find an authority from within the last fifty years or so, this time quoting W.H.C. Frend as saying the martyrs numbered “‘hundreds, not thousands'” (p. 76). Her endnote gives the citation as Frend, Martyrdom and Persecution in the Early Church (Oxford, 1965) p. 413, but if a reader bothers to check Frend’s book they will find he is not estimating the total number of martyrs, just the number for the short-lived persecution by Decius in 250 AD. Later in the same book Frend gives his estimate for the much more sustained and widespread Great Persecution of Diocletian as “a grand total of 3,000-3,500 victims” (Frend, p. 357). I suppose the most charitable explanation for Nixey’s misrepresentation of the Decian Persecution estimate and her total silence on the later, much larger one is sheer incompetence.
Nixey is also keen to emphasise the actually fairly unsurprising fact that the Roman governors who were responsible for periodically persecuting Christians were not the leering cartoonish villains of later pious Christian legends. She depicts them as urbane administrators who found Christians puzzling and vaguely annoying and who could not understand why they did not just sacrifice to the emperor and avoid torture and death. This is all fairly accurate and even – to us, at a safe distance of one thousand seven hundred years – perhaps slightly amusing. But it is hard not to get the strong impression that Nixey shares the Romans’ lofty disdain. In her telling, the governors are perfectly reasonable chaps who are just getting on with the business of keeping order, by Jove, whereas the Christians are absolute pests who essentially volunteer to be killed. She takes later exaggerated praise of martyrdom at face value as evidence that most martyrdoms were essentially deranged examples of “suicide by cop” and presents exceptional cases as though they were the norm. So the Circumcellions of North Africa are used as an example of fanatical zealots who sought out martyrdom and, despite some caveats about how Augustine and others condemned them as lunatics, her heavy implication is that these people represented a much wider sentiment.
Nixey’s Roman persecutors are, by contrast, eminently reasonable, restrained and actually concerned for the welfare of the people brought before them. She describes Pliny, as governor of Bithynia, writing to Trajan to ask advice on how to deal with the Christians he had found in his province. He is not writing to ask if he should kill them, but rather how many of them exactly he should kill – all of them or just some? To Nixey, this represents a restrained man who “would really rather not execute large numbers of people” and who simply “sees them as ‘perclitantium’, ‘in danger'” (p. 74), though this depiction is undercut somewhat by her admission “he of course is the agent of that peril and if pushed will put them to death”. Quite. But the strong implication here and elsewhere is that he and others like him are “pushed” by those pesky Christians who, inconveniently, had the temerity to actually take their beliefs seriously. One passage of Nixey’s narrative here is indicative of her general tone:
“The prefect Maximus, who had alternately attempted to bribe and then reason the veteran Julius into [avoiding execution] was told the money he was offering was ‘the money of Satan’ and that ‘neither it nor your crafty talk can deprive me of the eternal light’. It is not without some sympathy that one reads the prefect’s terse response. ‘If you do not respect the imperial decrees and offer sacrifice, I am going to cut your head off’. Julius replies boldly but somewhat ungraciously that ‘to live with you would be death for me’. He is beheaded.” (pp.76-77)
There is absolutely nothing wrong with presenting the perspectives of both sides of a clash of ideas so that the reader can understand the past better; in fact, a good, objective historian should strive to do just that. But when the writer assumes a threat to behead someone will be read with “some sympathy” and vehement defiance of this threat is presented as “ungracious”, we seem to be quite far from anything that could be called objective.
Nixey’s depiction of the Romans as rational, tolerant pluralists who had to be “pushed” by lunatic Christians and effectively forced into persecution and violence does not survive contact with the evidence for long. She says that, unlike their Christian successors, the pagan Romans had little interest in what people believed and only required certain, often quite minimal, actions to satisfy their sense of religious propriety – they enforced orthopraxy, not orthodoxy. When these required actions violated the deeply held beliefs of Christians, however, she is making a distinction without difference. And one that could and did get people killed in inventive ways if they refused to accept some governor’s sense of what is “proper” over their faith. Indeed Nixey has to do quite a bit of hedging around the concept of the Romans as religiously “tolerant” in contrast to the intolerant Christians. She admits in an footnote that “it is possible to argue that [the Romans] were not [tolerant], since true tolerance implies first disagreeing with what someone is doing, then allowing them to do it anyway.” (p.116) In the end she has to resort to saying merely that “the Romans were infinitely more tolerant than the Christians were”. In fact, the “tolerance” of the Romans had fairly narrow confines and any sect or faith that fell outside them could quickly learn how intolerant Nixey’s benign Romans could be.
For the Romans, their traditional religion was definitely the true one and others were tolerated mainly so long as they conformed, more or less, to the Roman conception of what a “proper” religion looked like and, preferably, if its gods could be mapped onto Roman religious ideas. So British Celts could still worship their goddess Brigantia or Arabs could worship Al-Lat because, to the Romans, they were actually Victoria and Minerva respectively. Gallic Romans could still worship Epona because she represented a type of deity and a form of worship that the Romans regarded as licita – “allowed”. But deities and forms of worship that were too far from Roman conceptions or offended Roman propriety were suppressed, often with great savagery. Cassius Dio sums this up in a speech he gives to Augustus’ friend and counsellor, Gaius Maecenas addressing the emperor:
“You should not only worship the divine everywhere and in every way in accordance with our ancestral traditions, but also force all others to honour it. Those who attempt to distort our religion with strange rites you should hate and punish, not only for the sake of the gods … but also because such people, by bringing in new divinities, persuade many folks to adopt foreign practices, which lead to conspiracies, revolts, and factions, which are entirely unsuitable for monarch.” (Dio Cassius, Hist. Rom. LII.36.1-2)
And the Romans did “hate and punish” various foreign cults at different times. For some, such as the cults of Cybele and Attis, initial hostility, suppression and restrictions eventually softened and they came to be accepted. Others were savagely repressed. The sect of the Celtic druids was annihilated in Gaul and Britain, with their last stronghold on the island of Angelsey falling in a major military operation by Gaius Suetonius Paulinus in 60 AD. In 186 BC the Bacchanalian sect was considered too foreign and uncontrolled to be allowed and the Senate launched an investigation, arrested several thousand people and had many of them imprisoned or executed. The Romans respected religions that had antiquity, so they spared the Jews, despite finding their religion both incomprehensible and disgusting – writing with visceral distaste, Tacitus said the “practices of the Jews are sinister and revolting, and have entrenched themselves by their very wickedness” (Histories V.5). New sects were considered “superstitions” and fell outside the parameters of religio licita, which is why the Mithraic cult took on the trappings of a Persian god despite the fact it seems to have arisen in Rome.
The other key point to note here is that the parameters of what the Romans would tolerate in the religious sphere could and did change over time. Sometimes this meant cults that were previously disapproved of could come to be accepted. Or sometimes it meant the opposite. After the upheavals of the third century AD, with its years of military anarchy, rebellions, usurpers and barbarian invasions, the Roman government took on more of the character of a military junta and emperors and their administrators became more obsessed with rigid, central control. It is in this context that the Great Persecution of Diocletian and Galerius took place, but this was part of a growing tendency for imperial control reaching into new places. The Manicheans, for example, also suffered a persecution at Diocletian’s hands, despite having been previously tolerated. So far from being some radical new departure, the increasing attempted imperial control over religious affairs that we see in the Christian emperors of the fourth and fifth centuries were actually in a tradition of narrowing Roman tolerance and increasing imperial control. Far from being tolerant pluralists who were “pushed” to persecute Christians, the Romans of Diocletian’s court were taking the sentiments of Maecenas’ speech above very seriously. On the eve of the Great Persecution the anti-Christian neo-Platonist Porphyry asked rhetorically:
“What kind of punishments may fugitives from ancestral customs, who have became zealots for the foreign mythologies of the Jews which are slandered by all, not be subjected?”
Despite Nixey’s attempted downplaying and obfuscation, the Roman answer to that question was soon shown to be “none”.
Statues, Temples and Sacrifice
One thing I can say about Nixey’s book is that it does not lack for dramatic flair. With one eye on recent news headlines, she begins her story with a picture of “black-robed zealots” descending on the ancient city of Palmyra armed with “iron bars and an iron sense of righteousness” and destroying temples and statues “that had stood for half a millennium”. Her lengthy description of their orgy of destruction ends with the ominous statement that “the ‘triumph’ of Christianity had begun”. (pp. xix-xxi). Nixey is an art critic, and so it is not surprising that her book really hits its stride in the chapters about the Christian destruction of beautiful temples and iconic works of classical art. Here she gives a catalogue of ancient and venerable sites being (literally) desecrated and beautiful statues being torn down, decapitated or crudely carved with the cross symbol of the barbaric new Christian faith. These include references to vandalism of buildings very familiar to modern readers, such as the Parthenon in Athens, and detailed accounts of the destruction of ones less well-known now but famed through the ancient world, such as the Serapeum in Alexandria. Some of the details of this narrative come from pagan sources, decrying the destruction, such as the Oration of Libanius, but most of it comes from Christian accounts: the triumphant praise of Theodoret, Eusebius, Firmicus Maternus and various saints lives for the destruction of “the sanctuaries of falsehood”.
At one point in this, after detailing another saint’s life giving an account of its hero, this time Benedict of Nursia, smashing statues and destroying sacred groves, Nixey pauses to warn that “hagiography is not history and one must read such accounts with … caution”. But she goes on to assure her readers “even if they do not tell the whole truth they certain reveal a truth …. many Christians felt proud, even jubilant, about such destruction.” (p. 110). This was clearly so, but the problem is that, here as in so many other parts of Nixey’s book, she is using sources uncritically when it suits her agenda and is extrapolating from selected examples to imply a wider whole that does not actually exist.
A casual reader of Nixey’s book would come away with the impression that if they see a ruined Greek or Roman temple they must be witnessing the handiwork of Nixeys’ black-robed Christian fanatics. Her account is full of assurances that the examples she details are just part of an Empire-wide frenzy of destruction. After all, she cites the 399 AD law of Theodosius that made the destruction of the temples official, which declared “if there should be any temples in the country districts, they should be torn down … for when they are … removed the material basis for all superstition will be destroyed.” (C.Th. 16.10.16, p. 108) What could be more clear than that? Taken with the archaeological examples she gives, the gloating Christian sources and the laments of pagans, it may seem that Nixey’s depiction is solidly based. At least one of Nixey’s enthusiastic reviewers certainly thought so. Writing in a “books of the year” article in The Spectator, journalist Thomas W. Hodgkinson reflected on a ruined temple:
“I recently visited the temple of Poseidon, just south of Athens. Its beautiful surviving pillars stand out against the brilliant blue backdrop of sky, in defiance of… what? Not time. It was Christians who trashed the temple, on the orders of the Emperor Arcadius. This is just one example of Catherine Nixey’s theme in her sizzling, scintillating book ‘The Darkening Age’ …. about the hooliganism of early Christianity.”
But was the temple in question really destroyed by Christians? Nixey does not actually mention this particular temple, so Hodgkinson seems to have assumed this from her book and from some tourism material that attributes its destruction to Arcadius. Except if we look to the archaeological data we find that, actually, this temple was sacked and destroyed by the Visigoths during Alaric’s 396 AD rampage through the Peloponnesus (see Ann E. Beaton and Paul A Clement, “The Date of the Destruction of the Sanctuary of Poseidon on the Isthmus of Corinth”, Hesperia 45 (1976) 267-79). A defender of Nixey could, I suppose, note that the Visigoths were by this stage Arian Christians, but it is highly unlikely Alaric’s warriors had theology on their minds at the time – this was just another easy target to be stripped and then burned.
There are actually multiple problems with Nixey’s depiction of this supposed systematic destruction of temples and classical art. To begin with, the Theodosian decrees she quotes, like all the other such “laws” she refers to in her book, were not quite the rigidly-enforced directives she seems to think. Despite the increasing attempts by later emperors to control affairs across their domains more closely, the Roman Empire was still rather ramshackle in its administration of laws compared to later states. Laws of this kind usually began as a suggestio: a report or statement of a situation needing attention. Officials in the Imperial consistory would then meet and frame a response and, if this response was acceptable to various counsellors and advisers, it would be submitted to the emperor for approval. It would then be distributed to the praetorian prefects, who often added amendments and additions, and then distributed by them to regional governors, who in turn could add to it or amend it to fit local conditions. Finally, it was up to these local officials to see the edict implemented and to enforce it as much as they could. This all meant that what began as a statement of the emperor’s desire could get watered down as it passed down the administrative chain and could also be largely unenforced if the local prefect or diocesan governor was not enthusiastic about the decree. And even if he was, many of these broad statements were very difficult to enforce with any uniformity. As a result, what various laws and decrees said and what actually happened on the ground were often two very different things. The fact that some laws of this kind had to be repeated several or even many times shows that subsequent emperors recognised that previous decrees had gone essentially unenforced and there was often little they could do about this.
As Nixey herself notes, the gloating reports of wrecked temples found in saints’ lives need to be read with great caution. These were often written long after the time of the saint in question and were expressions of idealism rather than straight historical narratives. The same can be said for some of the triumphal statements of Christians like Eusebius and Theodoret, which certainly reflect what these enthusiasts would like to have been the case, but are not reliable guides to what actually happened. Even the laments of pagan writers have to be taken with a grain of salt, given that they too had an interest in exaggerating the extent of the destruction and no rhetorician of the time could be accused of restraint when it came to hammering home their point.
So we have to turn to archaeology to get an idea of how extensive the destruction was and, when we do, we find a very different picture to Nixey’s dramatic histrionics. The best recent survey and analysis of the relevant evidence is to be found in Luke A. Lavan and Michael Mulryan, (eds.) The Archaeology of Late Antique ‘Paganism’ (Brill, 2011). Lavan and Mulryan’s book is a superb, detailed collection of articles that survey the relevant evidence from across the Empire and one that has won high praise from their fellow archaeologists. So it is decidedly odd that Nixey makes no reference to it, given the emphasis she puts on archaeological evidence in key parts of her argument. Or perhaps this is not so strange, given that the evidence in this collection in general and in Luke Lavan’s excellent introductory essay in particular totally undermines her whole argument. Lavan’s conclusions stand in stark contrast to Nixey’s depiction:
“As a result of recent work, it can be stated with confidence that temples were neither widely converted into churches nor widely demolished in Late Antiquity. …. In his Empire-wide study, Bayliss located only 43 cases [of desacralisation or active architectural destruction of temples] of which a mere 4 were archaeologically confirmed.” (Lavan, “The End of the Temples: Toward a New Narrative?” in Lavan and Mulryan, p. xxiv)
Drawing on surveys of the evidence by Penelope J. Goodman, Richard Bayliss and several others, Lavan shows that the tales of widespread, systematic destruction and desacralisation are artefacts of rhetoric and not reflected in the hard archaeological evidence. He notes that “only 2.4% of all known temples in Gaul have evidence of being destroyed by violence” (p. xxv). The picture is the same elsewhere: only a few examples are to be found in Africa, all in the city of Cyrene, only one example in the whole of Asia Minor and just one in Greece (and that is the temple destroyed by the Visigoths mentioned above). And so it goes on: just one example in Italy, three in Britain and just seven in Egypt – including the Serapeum, to which Nixey devotes a whole chapter. The exception to this rule seems to have been the provinces of the Levant, which “seems to have been a hot spot of temple destruction: 21 of 43 cases of temple destruction/desecration cited by Bayliss come from this zone” (Lavan, p. xxxviii). So, unsurprisingly, many of Nixey’s explicit examples come from this region, even though its level of destruction was unusual, not (as she claims) typical.
Also counter to Nixey’s story is the evidence of temple repair and preservation, sometimes by Christian rulers and administrators, in the very period in which according to Nixey mobs were rampaging across the Empire tearing down every temple in sight. Several laws were decreed to protect art works (C.Th. 16.10.15) and esteemed buildings and temples (C.Th. 16.10.18) and Lavan notes “in regions such as Africa, Greece and Italy, temple preservation seems to have been a more prominent process than temple destruction” (p. xxxvii). Despite the selected examples Nixey emphasises and the rhetoric of both Christian and pagan sources, temple destruction was generally rare. What seems to have happened is that over the course of three to four generations from the conversion of Constantine, the elite sponsorship of pagan cults and therefore of pagan temples declined sharply. At the same time, conversion to the newly imperially-endorsed Christian faith became increasingly necessary for political advancement and this was given greater force by growing restrictions on the public practice of paganism by courtiers and administrators, further reducing the financial support for temple sites. At the same time, common people began to convert in greater numbers over this period, though probably not as fully or in the vast numbers as Christian commentators of the time hopefully declared.
As a result of all this, we see a decline in the active use of temples which is, as Lavan suggests, analogous to the decline in the use of British country churches today. Like those churches, the temples first saw dwindling numbers of congregants, then were closed but maintained by locals, then were, usually much later, either used as sources of building materials or converted to other uses over time. Not all of this was purely due to the conversion to Christianity. Roger Bagnall has noted evidence of temples having financial woes in Egypt well before Constantine’s time (see R. Bagnall, Egypt in Late Antiquity, Princeton, 1993, pp. 261-268) and temples and their rituals were expensive to maintain. We also see a marked decline in the building of new temples, beginning in the second century, with even fewer built in the third century. Alongside all this we have clear evidence that religion was already changing in nature and focus and moving away from blood sacrifice as its central ritual.
Sacrifice had always been largely an elite expression of piety, as it was expensive and required large temple staffs of priests, attendants, haruspices to read the entrails and slaves to cook and distribute the sacrificed flesh. For most people, about 98% of the population, this was well and truly out of their price range. In the two centuries before the conversion of Constantine, more and more people were making do with smaller, more private devotions, such as votive offerings before a small idol or placed in a grove or spring. The elite came to turn to spiritual exercises and mystery rituals and some prominent intellectuals such as Porphyry and Philostratus actively preached against blood sacrifice as primitive, vain and wasteful. Plotinus is said to have declined an invitation to attend a sacrifice by saying “the gods ought come to me, not I to them” and Philostratus wrote a whole book, On Sacrifices, criticising cities that were known as centres of sacrifice – which in itself indicates wide regional variation when it came to this practice.
When all of this evidence is considered a very different picture to that presented by Nixey emerges. Yes, there were some eruptions of violence against pagan statues and temples, but they were the exception, not the rule. Imperial edicts about closing temples were issued and periodically re-issued, but they were more indications of the emperors’ preferences and there is little evidence of their widespread enforcement. Temples closed and then crumbled or were converted to other uses (churches, meeting halls, even museums) over a very long period of time. And religious observance had already been moving away from temple-based sacrifice long before the rise of Christianity and so it did not need Nixey’s imaginary armies of temple-smashing zealots to bring it to an end. The “apostate” emperor Julian was being a idealistic reactionary when he thought he could revive the flagging fortunes of the temples. In 363, on the eve of his ill-fated Persian war, the enthusiastically pagan emperor was in Antioch and decided to visit the famous sacred grove of Apollo at Daphne. In his book Misopogon he describes what he thought he would find there:
“I imagined in my own mind the sort of procession it would be, like a man seeing visions in a dream, beasts for sacrifice, libations, choruses in honour of the god, incense, and the youths of your city there surrounding the shrine, their souls adorned with all holiness and themselves attired in white and splendid raiment.”
What he found was something of a let down:
“But when I entered the shrine I found there no incense, not so much as a cake, not a single beast for sacrifice. For that moment I was amazed and thought that I was still outside the shrine and that you were waiting the signal from me, doing me that honour because I am supreme pontiff. But when I began to inquire what sacrifice the city intended to offer to celebrate the annual festival in honour of the god, the priest answered, ‘I have brought with me from my own house a goose as an offering to the god, but the city this time has made no preparations.'”
One old priest and a goose – I suspect even Julian could see the funny side. Imperial disapproval and some limited Christian violence did indeed help the demise of classical religion, but overall it died a natural death, as most religions do, from indifference and a shift in people’s priorities. Of course, that does not make for a very exciting story, stroke some modern prejudices or sell books for Macmillan.
Fairy Tales – The Serapeum and Hypatia
Nixey’s overblown depiction of toppled statues and burned temples aside, the parts of her book which are likely to excite the New Atheist usual suspects are the ones where she depicts the Christian destruction of ancient learning. And no such polemic can be complete without some mention of the libraries of the Serapeum and the murder of Hypatia. Her account of the destruction of the great Temple of Serapis in Alexandria is a centrepiece of her catalogue of temple destruction, though her version of the story is, predictably, curiously warped. She begins it by claiming the villain of her story – the radical bishop of Alexandria, Theophilus – had “stolen the most sacred objects from two temples and paraded them through the streets for Christians to mock” (p. 86). I suppose “stolen” sounds more dramatic than “found the objects in the basement of an abandoned temple that Theophilus was having converted into a church”, which would be a more accurate representation of what Sozomen actually reports (see Historia Ecclesiastica, VII.15). She then gives a very brisk and rather kindly account of the pagan reaction to this, emphasising that they were “shocked and enraged” and saying that “Christians afterwards were attacked and even killed by outraged worshippers” but quickly brushes this aside saying that “unedifying though [this] incident was, it would be utterly eclipsed by what was about to follow.”
The “unedifying incident” in question which Nixey thinks was “utterly eclipsed” by the subsequent events is described in much more detail by Sozomen:
“The pagans, amazed at so unexpected an exposure, could not suffer it in silence, but conspired together to attack the Christians. They killed many of the Christians, wounded others, and seized the Serapeum, a temple which was conspicuous for beauty and vastness and which was seated on an eminence. This they converted into a temporary citadel; and hither they conveyed many of the Christians, put them to the torture, and compelled them to offer sacrifice. Those who refused compliance were crucified, had both legs broken, or were put to death in some cruel manner.” (Historia Ecclesiastica, VII.15)
This is, of course, from a Christian source, but there is good reason to believe this happened, given that the subsequent stand-off between these pagan terrorists and the troops of the city’s prefect is multiply attested. Rufinus of Aquilea describes the same events:
“So, when large numbers of our people were wounded and some even killed outright, the Gentiles would flee to the temple [of Serapis] as to a citadel, taking with them a number of Christian captives. These, they forced to sacrifice at the burning altars and tortured and killed any who refused. Some they fixed to forked-shaped yokes, they broke the shins of others, and they cast them into caves which a long past age had built carefully to be receptacles for the blood of sacrifices and other impurities of the altar. They did these things by day, at first from fear, then in confidence and desperation, and being shut up within their temple they lived by rapine and plunder.” (Ecclesiastical History, Book X)
Nixey also neglects to mention that the people who led this murderous gang were not simply “outraged worshippers” but prominent neo-Platonic philosophers. Their leader was Olympius, a neo-Platonist of the defiantly pagan school of Iamblichus, and he was supported by other leading philosophers of this school, including Helladius and Ammonius. The Christian historian Socrates Scholasticus later studied under the latter two in Athens and reports they often proudly boasted of their role in the murders and torture in the Serapeum, with Helladius claiming he had personally killed nine Christians. Among the victims whose bodies were found in the temple later was the esteemed Christian rhetor and scholar Gessius, who was (judging from a later mocking poem by Palladas) starved, crucified, possibly had his legs broken and was then thrown into a pit. Strangely, Nixey neglects to mention any of this violence or who perpetrated it.
My point here is not to make any value judgement on these distant events and certainly not to imply that the pagans involved were somehow “worse” than the Christians. I am making quite the opposite point, in fact. This was a violent age and both the Christians and the pagans in these incidents were people of their time. While Nixey does indeed detail several incidents of Christian violence and several more of Christian destruction, the problem is that she highlights these while neglecting or lightly skipping around other, similar incidents perpetrated by her heroes, the pagans. This makes for a good story – one with clear “good guys” and “bad guys” – but it is hopelessly biased, deliberately distorted and bad history.
Because she skips virtually all of the events that led to the confrontation at the Serapeum, Nixey’s account of the destruction of the temple begins as though the whole thing was spontaneous: “One day, early in 392, a large crowd of Christians started to mass outside the temple …” (p. 86). By Nixey’s telling, this “crowd of Christians” just assembled for no reason, with no mention of the band of pagan terrorists who were holed up in the temple, torturing and crucifying people. She also makes no mention of the fact the crowd was watching as troops dispatched by the prefect besieged the temple compound in a stand off with Olympius’ gang. She makes no mention that the stand-off continued for weeks, that the emperor Theodosius was called on to adjudicate the stalemated situation or that he ruled to spare the terrorists’ lives, but that the temple should be destroyed. All this context is conveniently excised and instead we get a fairy tale about a spontaneous crowd of Christian vandals who began to destroy “the most beautiful building in the world” all, according to Nixey “to the distress of watching Alexandrians”. No sign that the demolition was actually done by the soldiers. And no hint that the crowd that joined in were Alexandrians, given that Alexandria had long been a majority Christian city.
And, of course, this fairy tale would not be complete without a reference to the Serapeum as the last surviving centre of the Great Library of Alexandria:
“The tens of thousands of books, the remnants of the greatest library in the world, were all lost, never to reappear. Perhaps they were burned. …. A war against pagan temples was also a war against the books that had all too often been stored in them for safekeeping …. Over a thousand years later, Edward Gibbon raged against the waste: ‘The appearance of the empty shelves excited the regret and indignation of every spectator, whose mind was not wholly darkened with religious prejudice.'” (p. 88)
Which all sounds terrible, except both the “empty shelves” and the regretful and indignant spectators of Gibbon’s lurid passage existed entirely in his imagination. The destruction of the Serapeum is one of the best attested events in the ancient world, with no less than five accounts surviving to us, from both Christian and pagan commentators. None of them mention any libraries or books. As I have detailed in my article on the myths surrounding the Great Library of Alexandria, not even the hostile accounts by the Novatian Socrates Scholasticus or by the pagan scholar Eunapius make any mention of any libraries or books being destroyed, and this is despite the fact Eunapius spends most of his account railing against the stupidity and barbarism of the Christians involved. Further, the earlier description of the temple by Ammianus Marcellinus, written some decades before the end of the Serapeum, refers to its libraries using the past tense – indicating that by his time no libraries still existed in the complex. Yet again, Nixey has gone with the story that suits her purposes, not with something that can be sustained by the sources.
Nixey takes up the story of the Great Library again later when she introduces her account of Hypatia’s murder. Correctly, she says reports that the Library at its height had held 700,000 volumes are “nonsense”, but then endorses the equally unlikely claim that it held “500,000 scrolls”. As I have detailed elsewhere, it is more likely to have held about a tenth of that number. She then claims Hypatia’s father Theon studied at the Great Library, despite the fact that its last remnants had been destroyed by Aurelian before Theon was even born. Hypatia, she says correctly, was a great scholar and an intellectual celebrity who took an active role in the civic life and politics of Alexandria. She claims, however, that since the destruction of the Serapeum “the city’s intellectual life had suffered …. [m]any of the Alexandria’s intellectuals had gone too, fleeing to Rome or elsewhere in Italy, or anywhere they could to get away from this frightening city” (p. 131). She supports this claim of intellectuals fleeing Alexandria with an reference to Maria Dzielska’s excellent monograph, Hypatia of Alexandria (Harvard, 1995), pp. 82-3. Except anyone who bothered to check that reference would see exactly which intellectuals Dzielska is referring to: Olympius, Ammonius, Helladius and Palladas – i.e. the merry crucifixion-and-torture gang who sparked the Serapeum siege and who were spared by Theodosius. These were not noble intellectuals seeking refuge from wicked fundamentalists, they were terrorists fleeing the scene of the crime. If Nixey has read Dzielska’s book or several of the others she refers to she would know all this, but she carefully curates the information she selects to ensure she can shape the story in a very particular way.
Then we get the usual hoary Gibbonian version of the murder of Hypatia, complete with the twistings and distortions found throughout Nixey’s book. The bishop Cyril is the black-hearted villain here and so the beginnings of the conflict that led to Hypatia’s assassination have to be his fault. This means the fact that the whole thing began with a deadly attack on Christian worshippers has to be obscured – according to Nixey there was “a complicated chain of reprisals that climaxed in a Jewish attack on some Christians” (p. 133), when in fact the chain of events began with that attack. The whole conflict is depicted as a clash between “Christians and non-Christians”, instead of what it was: a faction fight for civic political dominance with Christians on both sides. So she has Cyril leading “the Christians”, at the head of his gang of thuggish desert monks “in their dark and foul-smelling robes” (p. 135) and, in her account, doing everything short of twirling his black moustaches while cackling maniacally.
To suit her purpose Nixey has to ignore the fact that no source from the time attributes Hypatia’s death to anything to do with her learning and scholarship. On the contrary, the near contemporary account of Socrates Scholasticus details the high esteem in which she was held for her intellectual achievements and goes on to say that, despite this, “even she fell a victim to the political jealousy which at that time prevailed”. As both Dzielska and the recent book on Hypatia by Edward J. Watts make clear, this was a political dispute. It was not about religion. It was not about gender. It was not about classical learning. So Nixey has to ignore the careful analysis of Dzielska and Watts (both of whom can be found in her references) and lean on the much later account of John of Nikiu, written a whole 200 years later. Nikiu, writing in a different age when the idea of a female pagan teacher would have to be synonymous with evil, took Socrates Scholasticus’ account as his source, but added his own lurid embellishments, claiming Hypatia was “devoted at all times to magic, astrolabes and instruments of music, and she beguiled many people through (her) Satanic wiles” (Chronicle 84.87-103). Dzielska uses Nikiu with great caution, aware that he is most likely unreliable. More recently, Edward J. Watts makes it very clear that while Nikiu does sometimes supplement his sources (mainly Socrates and John Malalas) with material we find in other Egyptian texts, the details he adds to the Hypatia story are most likely of his own invention. As he shows “John [of Nikiu] skillfully repackaged the details of Socrates narrative in a way that makes Hypatia rather than Cyril the primary driver of these events” (Hypatia, Oxford, 2017, p. 132). These references to instruments of astronomy, magic and “Satanic wiles” are Nikiu’s additions, designed to turn her murder into a good thing in the eyes of his readers, given that Nikiu presents Cyril as a hero in his story.
But it suits Nixey’s purposes to ignore the scholarship on this point and accept an uncritical reading of a much later source. So she turns a tit-for-tat political killing, where Hypatia is murdered in revenge for the death of one of Cyril’s faction, into “the Christians” murdering an esteemed scholar out of hatred for her learning. And, of course, she lays it on with a trowel:
“They then dragged Alexandria’s greatest living mathematician through the streets to a church. Once inside, they ripped the clothes from her body then, using broken pieces of pottery as blades, flayed the skin from her flesh. Some say that, while she still gasped for breath, they gouged out her eyes.” (p. 136)
Little of this lurid account can be found in the sources. Socrates says that they “murdered her with tiles (ὄστρακα)” and Gibbon decided this must have meant “pottery sherds” and so invented the idea she was flayed alive. The word ὄστρακα actually means “oyster shells”, but seems to refer to the roof tiles used in Alexandria, because the corrugated appearance of the roofs resembled that of oyster shells. These roof tiles also made handy projectiles in riots, so it seems she was stoned to death with them. The detail about gouging out her eyes, introduced with a very Donald Trump-style “some say”, is found nowhere at all and seems to be Nixey’s own invention.
“What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?”
Nixey’s version of the murder of Hypatia leads into her depiction of the Christian destruction of or neglect of classical philosophy and learning. And here we find the usual quotes from various Church Fathers about the perils of “pagan” learning, the foolishness of the ancient philosophers and the necessity of studying the Bible over the “foolish” worldly works of the “Hellenes”. As usual, the famous rhetorical questions of Tertullian has a central place in her account:
“As the Christian orator Tertullian put it: ‘What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem?’ He went on: ‘What concord is there between the Academy and the Church? … Away with all attempts to produce a mottled Christianity of Stoic, Platonic and dialectic composition! We want no … inquisition after enjoying the gospel! With our faith, we desire no further belief.’ No need for knowledge, for the philosophy of the Stoics, or the Platonists or indeed anything else. One had faith; that was enough.” (pp. 148-9)
Nixey supports these, to her, clear anti-intellectual statements with various other disparaging references to the study of philosophy, poetry, plays and other classical works, of which there are certainly no shortage. The problem here is that, yet again, Nixey is being carefully selective with her evidence and presenting just one side of what was actually an ongoing debate within early Christianity as to the value of “pagan” learning. Her readers would not glean from what she presents that there even was such a debate, let alone that the people whose quotes she highlights lost it.
Nowhere does she present the other side of the argument – that given by those who saw value in the wisdom of pre-Christian and non-Christian writers and who saw all knowledge coming ultimately from God. Writing not long after Tertullian, Origen framed an argument in defence of the study of non-Christian works that came to dominate thinking on the suitability of these books:
“I wish to ask you to extract from the philosophy of the Greeks what may serve as a course of study or a preparation for Christianity, and from geometry and astronomy what will serve to explain the sacred Scriptures, in order that all that the sons of the philosophers are wont to say about geometry and music, grammar, rhetoric, and astronomy, as fellow-helpers to philosophy, we may say about philosophy itself, in relation to Christianity. Perhaps something of this kind is shadowed forth in what is written in Exodus from the mouth of God, that the children of Israel were commanded to ask from their neighbours, and those who dwelt with them, vessels of silver and gold, and raiment, in order that, by spoiling the Egyptians, they might have material for the preparation of the things which pertained to the service of God.” (Letter to Gregory)
Clement of Alexandria, writing a little earlier and again, it should be noted, writing in the scholarly centre of Alexandria, went further:
“We shall not err in alleging that all things necessary and profitable for life came to us from God, and that philosophy more especially was given to the Greeks, as a covenant peculiar to them — being, as it is, a stepping-stone to the philosophy which is according to Christ” (Stromata, VIII)
And John Damascene also noted Greek learning as a divine gift:
“I shall set forth the best contributions of the philosophers of the Greeks, because whatever there is of good has been given to men from above by God, since ‘every best gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights'”(Philosophical Chapters, Preface)
This was the position that won the debate. And as a result of it not only were Christian scholars able to read, study and copy the works that were considered “the best contributions of the philosophers”, but quite a bit more besides. As Edward Grant observes:
“The handmaiden concept of Greek learning was widely adopted and became the standard Christian attitude toward secular learning. …. With the total triumph of Christianity at the end of the fourth century, the Church might have reacted against pagan learning in general, and Greek philosophy in particular, finding much in the latter that was unacceptable or perhaps even offensive. They might have launched a major effort to suppress pagan learning as a danger to the Church and its doctrines. But they did not.”(The Foundations of Modern Science in the Middle Ages), Cambridge, 1996, p. 4, my emphasis)
While she cannot make a case for the wholesale destruction of ancient works, given that obviously a substantial amount has survived thanks to Chrisitian preservation, she has to resort to arguing that the loss of many works was due to the neglect of Christians, who inconveniently did not know which works twenty-first century post-Christians would find more interesting than their commentaries and sermons. But as I have argued elsewhere, (see “The Lost Books of Photios’ Bibliotheca“) the argument that the loss of pagan works was largely due to Christian neglect does not stand up to scrutiny and all pre-printing texts were lucky to survive at all. She also confidently endorses a dubious thesis that classical works “were deliberately selected to be deleted and over-written” as palimpsests – a theory that rests on slender evidence (p. 165, referring to Rohmann, pp. 290-4).
While Nixey hedges her depiction with some subtle caveats about how the attitudes she highlights were held by “some Christians” or “hard-line Christian clerics”, she still presents the views of these hardliners as the norm and fails to balance this with the alternative Christian arguments that won out. This leaves her with something of a problem: if the rejection of pagan literature and learning was as severe as she claims, how is it that she can read Ovid, Aristotle, Plato or the smutty poems of Catullus at all? After all, these works only survive to us thanks to the work of centuries worth of Christian scholars, scribes and copyists preserving them. Nixey cannot admit that she has presented only half the story, so she falls back on a dubious argument whereby some Christians had to reluctantly embrace the vastly superior works of the pagans because their own stuff was so primitive, badly-written and sounded, to educated people, so stupid:
“And so, in part from self-interest, in part from actual interest, Christianity started to absorb the literature of the ‘heathens’ into itself. Cicero soon sat alongside the psalters after all. Many of those who felt most awkward about their classical learning made best use of it. …. Everywhere, Christian intellectuals struggled to fuse together the classical and the Christian. Bishop Ambrose dressed Cicero’s Stoic principles in Christian clothes; while Augustine adapted Roman oratory for Christian ends. The philosophical terms of the Greeks – the ‘logos’ of the Stoics – started to make their way into Christian philosophy.” (pp. 150-1)
This rather feeble argument is, as we can by now expect, a tendentious distortion. The truth is that these Christian intellectuals were not aliens who descended on the ancient world from another planet – they were born, raised and educated in that world and were very much a part of it. Edward J Watts’ excellent book The Final Pagan Generation (California, 2015) paints an eloquent and carefully-supported picture of the world in which these Christian and pagan intellectuals lived and worked and it stands in quiet contrast to Nixey’s lurid cartoon. Watts shows how carefully intertwined the actors in this world were, noting how the complex networks of patronage, study and political status meant that – for all the declarations of imperial decrees or the hardline rhetoric of zealots on both sides – extremism tended to be softened in practice (see Watts, p. 126). So Nixey tries to claim that neo-Platonism posed some major problem for this kind of integration (p. 159), whereas, in fact, as the dominant philosophical school a the time, it was part of the air breathed by Christian intellectuals. Far from rejecting this school of thought, it was embraced by influential Christian thinkers like Augustine. As John Marebon notes:
“[Augustine] might easily have decided that all pagan Platonism was itself inextricably tied to polytheism, but he seems, rather, to have concluded that there was strictly monotheistic, proto-Christian gold to be found in the pagan writings, hidden but not essentially corrupted.” (Pagans and Philosophers: The Problem of Paganism from Augustine to Leibniz, Princeton, 2015, p. 27)
Nixey grudgingly admits that this integration of pagan and Christian thinking took place, but claims that only works that could be fitted to Christian ideas survived. She notes, as an example, that “[a]ny theories that stated the world was eternal – for that contradicted the idea of Creation – were …. also suppressed”. This is nonsense. Aristotle’s work taught that the universe was eternal and his work was not “suppressed” but was taught widely in the Greek speaking Christian East, picked up by Muslim scholars and, via them, became the dominant authority in the medieval West. Likewise Plato taught the transmigration of souls and mentioned this in several works that were copied and studied widely by Christian scholars. They did not “suppress” him, they simply said he was wrong. Even Lucretius’ De rerum natura, with its Epicurian atomism, survives to us because of a long line of Christian scribes that found it interesting even if they disagreed with many of its key ideas. Nixey is quite a fan of Greek ideas that seem to fit with our own and mentions the atomism of Democritus twice, blaming the Christians for the fact that none of his work survives. What she does not seem to realise is that many of the schools she mentions were dwindling long before the rise of the Christians and Democritus is likely to have been little more than a name even before Constantine. She depicts the pre-Christian classical world as a merry pluralist paradise where all ideas competed equally, but by the fourth century the neo-Platonism of Plotinus had come to dominate and even earlier thinkers were not quite as benign as Nixey fondly imagines. Diogenes Laërtius tells us “Aristoxenus in his Historical Notes affirms that Plato wished to burn all the writings of Democritus that he could collect”(Lives of Eminent Philosophers, VII.40). Perhaps it is not too surprising that there was not a strong school of atomists for Christians to “suppress” by the time Constantine converted. The Stoics and Epicurians still get mentioned occasionally in Christian responses to the philosophical schools, but nowhere near as often as the neo-Platonists.
The Closing of the Academy
As its subtitle indicates, Nixey’s book is about “destruction” and so her overblown claims about the rejection of classical thinking and her selective evidence about how and why it was, in fact, not actually rejected but substantially preserved will not quite do. To depict actual “destruction” of ancient learning Nixey leans heavily on a single book – Dirk Rohmann’s Christianity, Book-Burning and Censorship in Late Antiquity: Studies in Text Transmission (DeGruyter, 2016). Rohmann’s work is certainly far more scholarly than Nixey’s book, though some of his arguments are dubious. So when Nixey begins to talk about “forbidden books” being sought out and books being burned, she does some fancy footwork to make it seem she is talking about books of classical learning, when often what are being talked about are books by Christian heretics and books of “magic” and, particularly, divination. The targeting of works on divination and Sibylline books that could be used to predict the future comes up again and again in sources from the fourth and fifth centuries, largely because Roman emperors were paranoid about people seeking signs that the emperor could be overthrown. This paranoia was not new and predates the Christian emperors by centuries, but when we hear of books being hunted out and burned it tends to be in this context. Both Nixey and her key source, Rohmann, claim that the discovery of works on divination and magic were merely “a pretext” for the suppression of philosophers (Nixey p. 162; Rohmann, pp. 65 ff.), but if this was the case then it is strange that we do not see it more often. The target does seem to have been the practice of divination, for purely political reasons. But given that some branches of philosophy – particularly the neo-Platonists of the school of Iamblichus – used divinatory practices and books and secretive “theurgical” rituals, it is not surprising some of these were caught up in these political purges.
Nixey regularly extrapolates from the particular to the general when it suits her, so often when she talks about some suppression of “philosophy” or “philosophers” examination of the incidents she refers to reveals that she is actually talking about the Iamblichan school. Watts gives a useful summary of this system of thinking and practice:
“Iamblichus crafted a sophisticated philosophical system that combined the Pythagoreanizing mathematics of Nicomachus with the innovative philosophical approaches of …. Plotinus and ritualistic elements inspirted by the third-century Chaldean Oracles. This intricate system ultimately promised to lead its followers to a higher level of interaction with the true, divine principles of the universe.” (Hypatia, p. 32)
The Iamblichan school differed significantly from other branches of neo-Platonism. Hypatia, for example, was very much of the more traditional and less mystical school of Plotinus. Whereas Olympius, Ammonius, Helladius – the violent radical pagans of the Serapeum confrontation – were all Iamblichans. This form of philosophy was far more wedded to ritual and pagan religious practices, which is why it tended to be overtly (or, as we have seen, even violently) anti-Christian. It also kept its rituals secret and practised “theurgy”, both of which made its adherents suspicious to paranoid emperors.
Which brings us to the set piece of histrionics with which Nixey closes her book – the suppression of the Platonic Academy in Athens. Nixey begins the story with typical bombast. After mentioning the law of Justinian forbidding pagan teachers to be paid from the public purse, she declares:
“This was this (sic) law that forced Damascius and his followers to leave Athens. It was this law that caused the Academy to close. It was this law that led the English scholar Edward Gibbon to declare that the entirity of the barbarian invasions had been less damaging to Athenian philosophy than Christianity was. This law’s consequences were described more simply by later historians. It was from this moment, they said, that a Dark Age began to descend upon Europe.” (pp. 236-7)
Dramatic stuff. In fact, despite the eighteenth century thunderings of Nixey’s favourite authority, Gibbon, it was actually nothing like this. To begin with the Academy that was closed down in Athens as a consequence of this law could not trace its “history back in an unbroken line …. to Plato himself, almost a thousand years before” (p. xxvii) – it actually only dated back to the late fourth century AD, when it had been established by the neo-Platonist scholar Plutarch. The original Academy of Plato had ceased to exist centuries before. More importantly, the law that brought about the end of this new Academy was not aimed at shutting it or any other school down, just at removing the dwindling number of pagan teachers from the public purse – a key element that Nixey dismisses as “a finicky detail or two about pay”. As the always sensible Edward J. Watts details comprehensively in his article on the subject (“Justinian, Malalas and the End of Athenian Philosophical Teaching in A.D. 529”, The Journal of Roman Studies, 94, 2004, pp. 168-182) the more general imperial decree was used by local Christian authorities to cripple the Academy led by the overtly anti-Christian and Iamblichan Platonist teacher Damascius. But this was not some great Empire-wide crackdown on “philosophy” generally – just a local affair that affected an anti-Christian school.
Of course, Nixey dresses the incident up with typically ponderous drama, detailing how Damascius and his followers decided to abandon the Roman Empire and seek out sunnier philosophical climes in Persia, at the court of the new King Khosrow I. I suppose that would have made a suitable ending for her book, with the descent of “a Dark Age” and the poor philosophers riding off into the sunrise, seeking sanctuary from Christian oppression in the wisdom and tolerance of the east. Except even Nixey could not distort things that badly, so she has to relate the sequel – the Persian king turned out to be an idiot and the philosophers pleaded to be allowed to return home. Then the supposedly terrible Christian emperor accepted them back and they were allowed to continue to teach privately, just not on the public purse. That part of the story gets swept under the carpet in Nixey’s telling and when discussing this with Dan Snow on his podcast she seemed happy when Snow vociferously condemned the whole episode as some great example of Christian “barbarity”. Obviously her version had had the desired effect.
The Book Nixey Did Not Write
This article is long and it could be much longer. There is barely a page of Nixey’s book that does not have some form of selective presentation of evidence, evasion of counter-examples, dismissal of alternative views, misrepresentation of information or overstatement of an idea. It is a genuine pity that she has taken a fascintating period and an interesting subject and produced such an overwrought, distorted mess. There are a number of other books on much the same subject that are vastly superior. I have already mentioned Edward J. Watts’ The Final Pagan Generation, which is everything Nixey’s work is not: measured, scholarly, erudite and balanced. Despite both being on the transition from a pagan world to a Christian one, it is almost as though they are describing alternative realities. Watts shows that the transition was gradual, largely without upheavals and that the Christians and the pagans were more like each other than any reader of Nixey would think. Interestingly, Nixey mentions Watts in her “Acknowledgements” and it seems he read her book in manuscript. I find myself wondering what his unfiltered assessment of it would be.
Also highly recommended is James J. O’Donnell’s Pagans: The End of Traditional Religion and the Rise of Christianity (HarperCollins, 2015). O’Donnell is more of a contrarian than Watts and something of a provocateur (e.g. his chapter on Julian’s abortive pagan revival calls him “the first Christian emperor”), but like Watts he shows how both the Christians and pagans were alike in many ways, and unlike Nixey he resists presentism and the temptation to reduce history to simplistic moral fables with “good” and “bad” characters. O’Donnell makes clear points that seem to have eluded Nixey completely. As already noted, he sees both the authoritarianism of the early Christian emperors and the impulses driving the Great Persecution as results of and reactions to the chaos of the third century. He also notes how paganism was already changing in form, practice and focus and how the rise of Christianity was entirely in step with those changes. We see this in the decline of the importance of blood sacrifice rituals, the drop in the number of new temples being built and the rise of new, more personal and more mystical religious cults. We also see it in the increasing tendency for philosophical ideas about an over-arching divine entity becoming more common in religious expression; as seen in the almost-monotheistic focus of the Platonism of Plotinus and Porphyry and the rise of theurgy as a way to commune with “the One” through ritual. As O’Donnell puts it:
“Serious people – philosophers, intellectuals, theologians of whatever stripe – now viewed all religious practice from a loftier plane. Porphyry and Iamblichus did as much to weaken traditional practices as did Constantine and Constantius. (p. 178)
It is not yet released, but early in 2018 we will also see Bart Ehrman’s contribution to the question of how Christianity, of all sects, came to conquer the Roman world, in his upcoming The Triumph of Christianity: How a Forbidden Religion Swept the World (Simon & Schuster, 2018). Interestingly, some people are already responding to his pre-publication tweets about it with assurances that he needs to educate himself by reading, of all people, Nixey.
Of course, it could be countered that Nixey was not simply writing a book on the transition from paganism to Christianity in the Roman world, but was writing a different book – one that set out to highlight the neglected story of Christian violence and repression in this period and redress a (supposed) imbalance in the way the story is normally told. Maybe so. Nevertheless, the fact that she has done this in a way that distorts history rather than balances it means if this is the case, she has missed an opportunity.
This is because it is possible to present a new perspective on an old subject, redress previous imbalances by introducing new angles and examining old ideas in a new way and – more importantly – do this without allowing partisan bias warp the presentation of history. For example, for a very long time the presentation of the English Reformation tended to focus, understandably, on the Reformers; what motivated them, what they changed, how and why. This means histories of the Reformation in England tended to come from a traditionally Protestant default; they implicitly assumed the Reformation was “a good thing”, that it was essentially inevitable and that the enthusiasm with which it was received in some regions (mainly the south-east and the larger towns) was normal. Then in 1992 Eamon Duffy released The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England, 1400-1580 (Yale, 1992) and depicted the Reformation from a very different angle. He argued that popular religion in England on the eve of the Reformation was vigorous, healthy and vibrant, not moribund and corrupt. He focused not on what replaced Catholic religion in England, but on what was dismantled. And he did not look at the events entirely from the perspective of the Reformers, but mainly from that of those whose cherished traditions were taken away and who, very often, reacted with protest, resistance and sometimes violence and rebellion. As Richard Rex notes in an insightful essay on the impact of Duffy’s book and other revisionist works like it, it probably took until the late twentieth century for this new perspective to be possible, since it was only by then that Britain “ceased to be a Protestant nation”.
Duffy’s book was not without its critics, but their criticisms were on points of detail or maybe different ideas about how he could have tackled his analysis – he depends almost entirely on data and sources from rural parishes, for example, whereas things were very different in the towns. But as a skilled historian with a clear sense of objective analysis, his book is judicious and well-reasoned and thus recognised as a fine contribution to the field to this day. Nixey is not a skilled historian – she is not a historian at all, she is a journalist. And it shows.
Good history books, including good popular history, should give the reader a greater insight into the period and the subject. They should make the reader better informed and, in doing so, make them wiser. They should deepen understanding, so that anything else read on the subject from that point tends to add layers to that depth. Watts’ book does this. O’Donnell’s book does this. Duffy’s book does this. Nixey’s book does not. Anyone reading Nixey’s book is likely to come away thinking they know and understand more but will actually have learned things that would have to be unlearned or corrected later. Nixey’s is not a good history book. It is, as Dame Cameron said so pithily, “a travesty”.