Review – Catherine Nixey “The Darkening Age”

Review – Catherine Nixey “The Darkening Age”

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 Averil is correct – this is a book of biased polemic masquerading as historical analysis and easily the worst book I have read in years.

Catherine Nixey
Catherine Nixey

“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”.

The Temptation of St Anthony

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.

Roman tolerance

“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 of Christianity:

“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”.

The destruction of the Serapeum

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 almost certainly 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. This made sacrificing cults expensive to maintain and, for most people – i.e. about 98% of the population – animal sacrifice 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.

Roman school

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 by both pagans and Christians (she had students from both traditions) 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, weirdly, can be found in her references) and lean on the much later account of John of Nikiu, written a whole 200 years after the events. 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 in another much later and highly dubious source, but it lends theatre to one of Nixey’s set piece dramas.

Book burning

“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 at least 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 patent 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 – superficially –  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 Epicureans still get mentioned occasionally in Christian responses to the philosophical schools, but nowhere near as often as the neo-Platonists. Democritus gets mentioned not at all – thanks to the neo-Platonic pagans, he was already a dead letter.

Plato's Academy

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 in almost all cases 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 much more often and far more consistently. In fact, 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.

James J. O'Donnell


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 Averil said so pithily, “a travesty”.

108 thoughts on “Review – Catherine Nixey “The Darkening Age”

  1. Tim, I enjoy your posts so much – I look forward to reading every one. I heard about the whole “scraping with sea shells” story from Yulia Latynina (also a journalist) several times, thinking to myself “hmm, I do not recall that.” Your article helps trace the myth and provides a succinct and helpful explanation. Thank you once again!


  2. I’m amused by the timing of this post, as I recently served a short ban on a sub-reddit for being rude about this work and its authoress and her (lack of) credentials as an academic (or any other kind of) historian.

    Needless to say, I am now feeling very vindicated by Dame Averil’s judgement of its (lack of) merits.


  3. Well Tim,

    It took a while but one can see why and it was well worth the wait. Perhaps some of the reviewers deserve greater blame than the writer (they should have known better). This would make an excellent chapter of a book and I hope it soon will be.


  4. Hi Tim! Good article as always. One have to wonder when these sort of rehashings of outated popular history will ever stop to be written in favour of popular history that is balanced and grounded in actuall scholarship.


  5. Another highly detailed and informative work. One of the best parts of these long and convincing posts is the fact that Tim provides a number of references to influential and important monographs on the subject that I’d be otherwise unaware of, and now, to my joy, I can look forwards to eventually reading them and revisiting this article to refresh my memory on some important points made.


  6. Nice work, Tim.Really enjoyed this.

    I’m glad you’re still providing the historical voice of reason in this sphere. It was the hard-earned lessons I learned from you back in the days of RDF forum that made me properly sceptical of meretricious commentaries.

    Good stuff.


    1. Thanks. And good to see you here mate. Compared to many atheist fora these days, the old RDF forum was actually pretty reasonable. In the end I had to abandon its successor – “Rational Skepticism” – when the loons and Mythers took over the asylum and where they still reign supreme.


      1. Aye. It wasn’t just the mythers, either. It seems to have been largely taken over by trolls and those who couldn’t think their way out of an open gate, and aren’t interested in learning.

        I abandoned it myself some time ago. These days I hang around Twitter and make a nuisance of myself with a blog.

        I’m still in touch with a few from the old haunt.


        1. No. I was getting tired of Quora’s “be scrupulously nice to idiots” policy, but in the end it was their strange changes to their answer-ranking algorithms that did it for me. Once upon a time, if you wrote an answer that got the most upvotes, yours was the top answer – which makes sense. But then they decided they wanted more new answers at the top to keep up the variety on the site (I assume). So I’d spend half a day writing a detailed, well-researched answer that got thousands of upvotes, only to see it trumped by some idiotic answer with a handful of votes, for no readily apparent reason. Questions to the admins about why this kept happening were ignored. In the end I decided that place was a waste of my time.


          1. Ironically, my favorite thing to do every morning was signing into Quora and reading Tim’s put-downs of idiots.


  7. To join in the chorus, thank you again, Tim.

    I’d suggest that it was this modern age, with its inability to grasp nuance, that is responsible for simplistic “goody” and “baddy” material like Nixey’s, but looking back through the history of historians it’s quite apparent that partisan polemic has been around as long as pen and ink, maybe stone tablet and chisel.

    I will, of course, point anyone who attempts to use Nixey’s work in an argument to your latest magnum opus. Whether they’ll be able to grok it… well that’s another matter.


  8. there’s another process at work here—a conflation of the East and West, the neat elision of what’s happening in one to the other

    the sweeping Germanic hordes are identified with the takeover of Christianity (since they started the Christian Middle Ages, while the Christian era of the Empire is a mere footnote to the Romanitas xenophiles are interested in)

    in this view the Visigoths in general are on Christianity’s head since they ruled early medieval Iberia; Ambrose and Augustine are heralds of the West’s fall to these Germans, not exponents of a thousand-year City; the monastic copyists used parchments of Roman writers not because they’d been copied a few centuries before by earlier generations of monks, but because they’re Christians/medievals/Westerners trying to overwrite everything Roman they can get their hands on

    we can of course blame Gibbon for this East-West muddle, saying the blow that began the Western Dark Ages was the one that took Hypatia’s life in Egypt (since the Eastern Empire hardly existed for him): the Christianity of the post-Theodosian, post-Justinian East is therefore only a marker of its medievalness, rather than something “Roman” in any way


    1. “the monastic copyists used parchments of Roman writers not because they’d been copied a few centuries before by earlier generations of monks, but because they’re Christians/medievals/Westerners trying to overwrite everything Roman they can get their hands on”

      That is absolute nonsense.


      1. oh absolutely, I’m not forwarding that proposal at all: but (with or without any East-West rivalry) that’s a view crucial so much badhist–Sagan, Greenblatt, even the Wikipedia article


      2. He is describing the idea, not endorsing it. He is saying that ‘Dark Ages’ proponents perceive ‘good’ Rome as pagan, which they separate from ‘bad’ Rome as Christian.


  9. Re: gouging out eyes — Apparently that comes from Suidas, who was well afterward, but who said he was quoting a now-lost work called the “Vita Isadori” by Damascius. (Don’t know the Greek name. But yeah, written by the same Neo-Platonic guy.)

    Not a nice thing to do, but well within the range of stuff that could happen to anyone in Alexandria. OTOH, I don’t know if Damascius was there, or what his sources were. I am also having a hard time finding any footnotes in the books quoting Damascius on these points, which is annoying if one wishes to check the references.


  10. Re: kids playing Mass or First Communion — Traditionally, this was something that Catholic kids did. It wasn’t a sin; it was viewed not only as normal but as a good sign. (Particularly for boys who wanted to play priest.) Many pious Catholic families would assemble Mass playsets for their kids, if they showed any interest at all, or would make play vestments for their sons. This shows up a lot in saint biographies.

    (St. Athanasius notoriously baptized his playmates as a kid. The bishop was watching the kids play, complimented A on how well he’d done, and found out that A had actually used the real ceremony with real intent. This made it Serious Business, and the bishop had to tell the kids’ parents that they were now baptized Christians and were going to have to study up and go to the full Mass.)

    OTOH, if girls wanted to play priest, that was also viewed as a normal stage that they would grow out of, as well as a good sign that they loved Mass. Again, it shows up in saint biographies.

    In the Seventies and Eighties, this child tradition almost died out, possibly because the new Mass was stressful for adults, or because Catholic kids often lived in neighborhoods without any other Catholic kids. But a lot of young Catholic parents in the Nineties started to notice their kids playing Mass, didn’t know what to think, and were immediately reassured by Catholics from previous generations. You can now go online and buy “Mass kit” playsets, or get suggestions on how to make them, or how to help your kids make them.

    I’m sorry for Nixey, if she thought ill of herself for doing something kids do.


  11. Hey Tim, long time-lurker here, thanks for your detailed post, like many others I find your articles refreshing and an enjoyable read.

    I don’t know if many people have asked you before, but do you have some type of “general advice” for readers such as myself for combating against “New Atheist Bad History”? Unfortunately, I’m one of those people who used to believe every myth in your “About History for Atheists” section of the website before discovering you on quora and later subscribing to your blog. Your articles help massively, but I’m not nearly as [and I imagine most people aren’t either] skilled as yourself at spotting bad history, I didn’t take any history classes in college. Is it enough to simply read history books and hope you aren’t being lied too / mis-informed? Or should a dedicated reader try and take the time to learn about something like historiography himself? Your blog is a great start, but I’m somewhat lost on what I need to do next in order to take “the next step” so to speak, any help would be appreciated Tim, thanks.


    1. Sorry for the slow reply Andre. My advice would be the usual advice on any claims you find in the popular sphere – ask yourself how qualified the person is to comment and check where they are getting their information. Claims made without reference to scholarship or source material should immediately be treated with initial scepticism and fact-checking. Reference to popular books or other unqualified writers ditto. And even when there are some relevant scholars being referenced, it’s always worth checking if there are other perspectives and counter arguments (as there usually are).

      It’s a tricky business, but keep in mind that scientists are not experts in other fields and are usually not very well-versed in history, including the history of science (though some like to think they are). Even historians who specialise in a particular period can be highly unreliable when talking about eras outside their expertise – Bettany Hughes is a repeat offender when talking about periods other than Classical Greece, for example.

      Above all, be alert to agendas, particularly modern political ones, and watch for signs of bias.


    2. my advice is to remember that people aren’t arguing about facts and details, but deeply-held worldviews
      when a fundamentalist Protestant insists that fossilization can happen overnight or that abortion causes breast cancer, they’re seeing themselves as champions of humane religion against a eugenicist technocracy trying to reduce people to animals and thence to numbers
      when an unbeliever insists that Nazareth didn’t exist or that Christianity has pagan roots or that the Church banned literacy or covered up the Black Death for a hundred years, they’re motivated not by “reason” but by a belief that history has been a perpetual war between those who want us to obey and those who want us to think, between kneeling and standing, authority and freedom
      so the problem is you can’t win on the facts, you have to understand what works to hit at their motivating worldview


  12. DeGroot is an interesting character. He’s always been a remarkable scholar, but he’s also dogmatic and cynical. This unfortunately leads him to ride certain hobby horses halfway to death. His book on the First World War is better than Marwick’s, for example, but it is weird to find comments about Scargill and the Tories over the 1984-85 Miners’ Strike scattered through it (he sees them both very negatively). His biography of Haig is also somewhat notorious for painting a picture of unrelieved negativity. My guess would be he liked the conclusions (a la one or two admirers of Irving who I could name but won’t) and therefore didn’t question the arguments closely.

    Thank you for another very interesting read. It is however rather concerning to find that something like this from somebody who is quite open on the internet about her bias, her ignorance and her inexperience, has been published through a mainstream house. It doesn’t say much for their quality control processes.


  13. Great review. One of the strangest claim she makes (and there is plenty to choose from) is the claim that the “perspective” she is offering is something unknown and new and radical. And she does this constantly referring to Gibbon and with the title of of her book playing on the notion of “The Dark Ages” and much more. Perhaps a part of this is simply marketing (you know, offering something “shocking” and “new”). But because she refers to this supposed distorted perspective that is supposed to dominate our view of late antiquity and Christianity so often, this is most likely a notion she has and I can just wonder how she came to this conclusion. In fact I think it’s much easier to make the opposite claim. That we have a too rosy picture of antiquity and a too dismissive and caricatured one of the Middle Ages.


  14. The New Atheists will tell you that Hagia Sophia was a form of reparation that the pagan made to the Christians, due to the persecutions they brought into themselfs


    1. “almost all the written material we possess from the ancient world has come to us through the agency of Christians copyists.”

      I must have missed all of those monastic scriptoria full of cuneiform tablets….


        1. Actually, I was nitpicking David Daintree. I’d also dispute that the habit of classicists and ancient historians of referring to Graeco-Roman works (and the Bible, if they feel generous) as if they represent the totality of surviving written material from the ancient world to be more than a nitpick but a significant problem in discussions of antiquity both generally and in public contexts.

          But not especially relevant to this discussion, no.


    1. I have bought the book that extract is taken from but I have yet to get time to read it. I think I’ll do that before commenting on his claims, but suffice it to say that, yet again, Carrier is going against the consensus of historians in his overstatement of the state of Roman science.


      1. The weasel tried discrediting you yet again in a recent entry of his shitty blog. Don’t you find it odd that a non-scientist is writing that? And to be invited to talk about fine-tuning that one time, when he’s not a cosmologist. Seriously, his “popularity” and inclination to talk about stuff outside his field is getting ridiculous


        1. “The weasel tried discrediting you yet again in a recent entry of his shitty blog”

          Was that the stuff about Pliny? He claims “Pliny goes on to say he only just learned of their beliefs after interrogating the very Christians he’s talking about”, except Pliny actually says nothing of the sort. He simply says that he interrogated them and then details their practices and ideas. Nowhere does he say he “only just learned of their beliefs”. Carrier bungles again.


          1. Oh yea, l was debating one Carrier minion and well, you know, they come in packs. One actually said that none of what he said can be contradicted. The other one called you “a wannabe crank” when l pointed your rather informative site; particularly the one where you deconstruct him point-by-point. Imagine that


  15. I’m wondering whether Christian archeologists can reliably detect whether a temple was destroyed 1,600 years ago. Likely they can detect, sometimes, whether temples were 1) literally pulled apart, and collapsed to the ground. Or sometimes, 2) when they were burned. But 3) what about temples that were destroyed, merely in the sense that their sacred contents were removed?


        1. That’s part of it. But also many churches were built on top of pagan temples. So to get permission to dig, we have had to deal with local patriarchs. In this case, mostly Catholic and Greek Orthodox. And most often, privately swearing allegiance to or reverence for these churches, is a de facto condition for being allowed to go in. If at all.

          Then too, many digs can find funding only from religious donors. Who are anxious to have their beliefs verified.


          1. And you’re seriously trying to claim this means, therefore, professional archaeologists are skewing their findings, published in peer reviewed academic journals, to make Christians feel happy?”


          2. Not entirely. As expected, the most obvious abuse takes place in results that don’t make it to the major professional journals. But typically even major articles become deliberately oblique when repeating results contrary to accepted church dogma.

            For example? If we say that archeology “can’t confirm” more than two or three pagan churches destroyed, it isn’t made clear that in science, “can’t confirm” Is not the same as “disproved” the remainder.

            (In science it is often thought you can’t prove a null hypothesis.)


          3. “For example? If we say that archeology “can’t confirm” more than two or three pagan churches destroyed, it isn’t made clear that in science, “can’t confirm” Is not the same as “disproved” the remainder.”

            Utter gibberish. Lavan cites Bayliss saying that surveys of the evidence indicate only 43 cases of desacralisation or active architectural destruction of temple, of which only 4 were confirmed arcaheologically. Neither he nor Bayliss is saying that this means the other 39 are not cases of desacralisation or active architectural destruction. The point is that, given the many thousands of temples in question, a mere 43 examples does not support the idea of some kind of Empire-wide orgy of destruction.

            And your stuff about how archaeologists have to conform to Christian expectations is one of the stupidest things I’ve read in some time.


  16. It was you yourself who used the above language. I am pleased that you now choose to make it clear that you did not intend to cast doubt on those temples whose destruction by Christians could not be confirmed. Conceding that they might have in fact been destroyed in such a way. Even though that has not yet been confirmed by archeology.

    The kind of ambiguous way you earlier used language, if not found in this particular scholarly corpus, is often found however, in many other writings.

    And certainly in the explication of them by popular interpreters, pro and con.


    1. “It was you yourself who used the above language.”

      I quoted Lavan.

      ” I am pleased that you now choose to make it clear that you did not intend to cast doubt on those temples whose destruction by Christians could not be confirmed. “

      That was already perfectly clear. I’m not responsible for your errors of comprehension. Neither is Lavan.

      “The kind of ambiguous way you earlier used language”

      Again, I quoted Lavan.

      I think it might be time for you to go away.


  17. Tim, I really like your blog.

    Have you heard about a Spanish engineer who claims to have spent 20 years doing research and now has “irrefutable evidence” that Christianity was invented in the year 303, that there were no Christians before that time, that the gospels were written by the same people and that Jesus never existed?


      1. It doesn’t surprise me that he’s an engineer, though.
        (I’m an engineer: I get to say that. I assume the Salem Hypothesis is known in these parts?)


    1. No, but there is no end of amateur crackpots with private kooky theories. There is a guy here in Australia called Pete Brown aka “Mountainman” aka “KookaburraJack” with a similar theory.


      1. The guy I am talking about (Fernando Conde Torrens) shocked Hispanic media, which is not a surprise, because the media in Hispanic countries pays attention to pure nonsense. A website even said “Conde Torrens dismantles 2000 years of history in his book”.

        I told several people “What this old guy is saying is nothing new. People like Richard Carrier and Robert Price, who have relevant credentials, have been writing about this since long ago and no important website talks about them, so why do you pay so much attention to a crank who has no credentials in the area he is talking about?”

        I wonder what Hispanic media would say if I told found out about Carrier and Price’s books, which I don’t really care about, but they were written by people who KNOW about the subject and they at least have a PhD.

        According to Conde’s fanboys, “no one has responded to him”. If I were Richard Carrier, I’d call them liars for not knowing what they are talking about. Dr. Antonio Piñero, New Testament scholar from the University of Madrid, responded to him time ago, but his response was quite dubious, because he has never touched Conde’s book.

        Now that I actually think about it, Conde and Carrier share some characteristics:
        -They both come up with excuses to avoid being refuted.
        -They both insult people they don’t agree with.
        -They both tell people to read their respective books if they are cornered.
        -They both wrote a 700-page book denying the historicity of Jesus.
        -They both promote fringe history.
        -They both say that the Testimonium Flavianum and any other mention of Jesus (Tacitus, Pliny the Younger, etc) is a forgery.
        -They both have an army of fanboys who know nothing about history but they defend their leaders from people who actually know what they are talking about.
        -They both respond to anyone who dares to say something negative about them. The difference here is that Carrier writes long responses on his blog and Conde goes to the forum or video where he is mentioned.
        -Everyone who dares to disagree with them is a fanatic.

        Just google ‘Fernando Conde Torrens’ and check out what he is promoting. He promotes bad history and atheists worship him, saying that his book is a “nuclear bomb”, so I think this should interest you.

        By the way, Merry Christmas.


        1. Given all those Parallels , could we make a case that the Spanish engineer Is Carrier in desguise and that he never existed?, could we make this the Conde- myth Thesis.


          1. Interesting hypothesis, but the thing is, that really little people know about this guy. Plus, Conde was born in 1945, so Dick Carrier would be a copy of Conde, not the other way around.


        2. Can we keep things on topic please. There is a “Contact the Author” link at the top of every page of the blog for general inquiries to me. Please don’t use the comments section unless your comment is relevant to the article in question. Conde and Mythicism are not remotely relevant here.


  18. Hi,
    Of the alternatives you mention in the review (Marebon, Watts, O’Donnell), which author offers a good look specifically at the history of the transmission of religious and philosophical ideas from the period of late antiquity to the early middle ages? I am curious about the social and political influences that advanced or impeded different ideas or schools of philosophical thought, around the time of the dissolution of the western empire, and that made your review especially fascinating. Thanks!


    1. Well, of those three, probably Marebon more than the other two. Watts is more focused on social relationships and O’Donnell’s book is largely on religion and stops well short of the medieval period.


  19. Fair play Tim.

    I’ve read a bit of your work for a while Tim. Vox day linked to your articles and I’m impressed. I myself am a Catholic history teacher and its always refreshing to see that not all atheists are historically illiterate.
    I also want to give you special praise for highlighting Nixey’s book. I have not come across a single reviewer who has criticised her for her inaccurate portrayal of history (not surprising she is a journalist). Kudos to you for doing something that Catholic papers or true history experts should be doing.
    I hope you take this comment well.



    1. As I note in my critique, the positive reviews have tended to come from non-historians or from historians/classicists who specialise in much earlier periods. I suppose to a newspaper editor one ancient historian is much like another, but Late Antiquity is a particular specialisation and someone with a background in Classical Greece simply isn’t going to have the technical, textual or archaeological knowledge to notice what Nixey gets wrong. Tim Whitmarch from Cambridge gave the book a largely positive review in the Guardian a couple of days ago, though with a few comments about it’s rather old fashioned Gibbonian perspective. When confronted with my critique on Twitter yesterday he defended himself saying “it’s certainly a polemical single-issue book that has split readers.” But when the fact that it is more than just “polemical” and shown that Nixey is blatantly deceptive he fell silent. Whitmarsh is well qualified to wrote about Tacitus or the transmission Greek works in the Roman world, but his bibliography displays no specialist knowledge of the relevant periods covered in Nixey’s book. So why was he asked to review it?

      Likewise, Emily Wilson is an eminent Classicist whose recent new translation of Homer’s Odyssey has won high praise. But that does not qualify her to assess a book that cover subjects well outside her field. Yet she too reviewed Nixey’s book with all the gushing praise of someone who has just been educated on the relevant subjects by the very book she’s reviewing. Her review is garbage as a result. Luckily Twitter means these people can be confronted with the fact they don’t really know what they are talking about. And these days my review comes up in the first few links of any Google search on Nixey’s name or the title of her book.


      1. “So why was [Whitmarsh] asked to review it?”

        I think that must have had much to do with his publication of Battling the Gods: Atheism in the Ancient World in 2015. Which of course doesn’t make him, automatically, qualified to judge studies (or even polemics) about Late Antiquity, as you rightly pointed out.


      2. May I say that it is chilling that Prof. Whitmarch told you on Twitter that he needs to read the relevant sources on the Serapeum?
        This confirms that this area is outside his expertise…


        1. To be fair to Whitmarsh, he did say he would have to “go back to the sources”, so we can’t assume he’s never read them. Not that it matters – as I noted in my response to him, the problem is not that Nixey has misread or misrepresented the sources about the circumstances of the Serapeum’s destruction, it’s rather that she doesn’t refer to them at all. Her wicked Christians just spontaneously turn up at the Serapeum, with no hint as to why they were there, let alone any reference to the pagan gang holed up in the temple or the troops besieging them. It’s also interesting that Whitmarsh has no problem with Nixey’s “one-sided polemic”, but objected to my perfectly accurate description of the pagans in the temple as a “pagan terrorist gang”. I think he needs to watch out lest his own biases begin to trip him up in public. Unlike Nixey, he has an academic reputation to maintain.


  20. In Cambodia, under the Khmer Rouge, the regime destroyed virtually every Buddhist Pagodas in the country (only a few survived to see 1979). Cambodia’s ancient religious-cultural heritage was destroyed in a span of three-and-a-half years. As awful as much of the Christian intolerance toward paganism’s structures were, they are not the only in history. Atheists, Muslims, etc. have all been guilty of this kind of intolerance in some matter or form.

    My main problem this Catherine’s book in the constant insistence of the “Dark Ages” narrative (clearly said in the title). As well as her near-denial of the religious persecution of Christians in Ancient Rome.


    1. No. Certain black legends speak even of “mechanoclasty” or Luddite tendencies; as a supposed prohibition of the railway in the pontifical states promulgated by Pope Gregory XVI and Pius IX. “The pope made some administrative, judicial and economic reforms, was not, as has often been repeated, hostile to the railway, and introduced some new features such as steam ships, the metric system, the vaccine and insurance, allowing credit banks and chambers of commerce “; La Iglesia Del Siglo XIX: Entre la Restauración y la Revolución – Página 69 de Juan María Laboa.


  21. I have a few questions about your text.

    The full quotation by John of Damascus is:

    “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. But whatever is opposed to the [bible] truth, has been identified as the darkness of the satanical error, as an invention with which to destroy our souls.”

    Likewise, Origen goes on to say that the whole of the wisdom of the Greeks is like the golden calf of idolatry and that those parts contrary to the bible will lead people into heresy.

    Clement of Alexandria (your quotation is from Stromata 6.8) says the same and he also calls Greek philosophers thieves and liars – only those bits that agree with the bible came from God.

    How does, then, any of these authors support your statement that they “saw all knowledge coming ultimately from God”, when in reality only the bible knowledge came from God – unless you heavily quote-mine all of these authors?

    You wrote:

    “both the “empty shelves” and the regretful and indignant spectators of Gibbon’s lurid passage existed entirely in his imagination.”

    Which source does Gibbon mention in this context? Has he imagined that source or does it exist?

    Where on p. 65ff. does 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.)?

    Do you have evidence for your assertion that Aristotele’s view that the world was eternal “was taught widely in the Greek speaking Christian East”? Any evidence that Plato’s idea of transmigration of souls was “studied widely by Christian scholars”?

    Do you have evidence for your assertion that “a long line of Christian scribes … found it [Lucretius] interesting”? Or indeed evidence for any medieval reader other than the original scribe?

    How many of the titles mentioned in Photius’ bibliotheke (from the period of Byzantine humanism, after the loss of books in antiquity had occurred) are classical/pagan (up to c. 250)? In cases where you mention such a book as “lost”, how much of it is still extant today, unrelated to Photius, and how is that different from what Photius does (or does not) claim to have in hand?


    1. Good questions. Taking them in order:

      “How does, then, any of these authors support your statement that they “saw all knowledge coming ultimately from God”, when in reality only the bible knowledge came from God”

      Their argument was that, as Clement says, the Greeks had been given a special gift for philosophy and that these gifts should be used, not wholly rejected. Of course they also thought divine revelation was supreme – that’s why philosophy came to be seen as “the handmaiden to theology”. But the point is that they did not reject philosophy wholesale, as Nixey claims. As it turned out, this attitude meant that philosophy came to be preserved and continued to be studied by Christians, even if they didn’t always agree with everything in it. And in the long run it emerged that there was not really too much in it that directly contradicted Christian doctrine anyway, especially once paganism declined and it was no longer closely associated with a rival religious tradition.

      “Which source does Gibbon mention in this context? Has he imagined that source or does it exist?”

      He doesn’t, because no such source exists. That’s the point. He’s imagined that there was any library in the Serapeum and so imagined both the empty shelves and the indignant spectators. Gibbon did a lot of that kind of thing, which is why most modern writers don’t take his florid eighteenth century rhetoric seriously. The fact that Nixey refers to him so regularly should ring alarm bells for anyone with a grasp of this subject.

      “Where on p. 65ff. does 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.)?”

      He does so beginning on page 65 and then continues on the following pages. That’s what “p. 65 ff” means.

      “Do you have evidence for your assertion that Aristotele’s view that the world was eternal “was taught widely in the Greek speaking Christian East”? Any evidence that Plato’s idea of transmigration of souls was “studied widely by Christian scholars”?”

      What I actually said was that both Aristotle’s works and those of Plato were taught widely. And that this was despite the fact that Aristotle’s works repeatedly talk about the eternity of the cosmos and Plato’s regularly refer to the transmigration of souls. So Nixey’s claim that only works which didn’t directly contradict Christian doctrine were preserved and studied is dead wrong.

      “Do you have evidence for your assertion that “a long line of Christian scribes … found it [Lucretius] interesting”? Or indeed evidence for any medieval reader other than the original scribe?”

      There is plenty of such evidence. Nixey seems to have relied on the popular work The Swerve by Renaissance literature professor Stephen Greenblatt – a book that has been panned by historians. As a result, she seems to think that Lucretius’ work only survived in one manuscript. She’s wrong. There was the (now lost) manuscript found by Poggio Bracciolini. But we also have two other medieval manuscripts of the work – Voss. Lat. F. 30 and Voss. Lat. Q. 94 – as well as two further fragments of other copies. And stemmatic analysis of these four manuscripts shows that they in turn are derived from at least three earlier copies that have not survived. And there were other copies as well. From references to and quotes from the poem we know that there were also copies at the monastery of Reichenau, the library at St. Gall and Rabnanus Maurus also quoted Lucretius from his archbishopric at Mainz. Medieval library catalogues also mention copies at Bobbio in the Ninth Century, Lobbes and Corbie in the Twelfth Century and Sigebert of Gembloux mentions it in a gloss in the Eleventh.

      Given the patchy nature of our evidence for any medieval book, we know these references, fragments and handful of copies represent the tip of a largely vanished iceberg – if we have evidence of these copies, there were many other copies that have vanished without trace. What this evidence shows is that Lucretius’ work was not “suppressed” and was definitely not actively “destroyed” by the medieval Church. These references and fragments are about typical of the evidence for many ancient Greek and Roman works. This was not a work that greatly interested medieval scholars, but it interested them enough to preserve it about as much as they preserved many such (to them) second tier works. The fact that Nixey doesn’t know any of this (or doesn’t care) is more evidence that she presents a distorted picture.

      “How many of the titles mentioned in Photius’ bibliotheke (from the period of Byzantine humanism, after the loss of books in antiquity had occurred) are classical/pagan (up to c. 250)?”

      The great majority of the 109 pagan or Jewish works he lists date to before 250 AD.

      “In cases where you mention such a book as “lost”, how much of it is still extant today, unrelated to Photius, and how is that different from what Photius does (or does not) claim to have in hand?”

      Almost all of the books that I list as “lost” are not extant in any way today. In only about three or four cases did I list a book as “lost” where we have a few fragmentary paragraphs. In most cases they are not extant at all.


        1. Our “curious reader” turned out to be a troll from a blog notorious for boosting crackpot ideas and fringe theories. I answered his first questions in good faith, but it soon became clear he was not here for a sensible discussion. He came back for a third try with increasingly ridiculous counter arguments, but when I got to the part where he seriously claimed the medieval monks who copied Lucretius’ work were actually illiterate and were simply copying it letter by letter without understanding the text, I realised continuing an exchange with this idiot was pointless. Some “rationalists” are as crazy as any fundamentalist.

          So I suspect that downvote was from him now that he’s been consigned to the spam folder. Life is too short to indulge contrarian morons.


  22. Also, how can you reconcile your assertion that “temple destruction was generally rare” with Bryan Ward-Perkins, “The End of the Temples: An Archaeological Problem”, in: J. Hahn (ed.), Spätantiker Staat und religiöser Konflikt: Imperiale und lokale Verwaltung und die Gewalt gegen Heiligtümer, Berlin: De Gruyter 2011, p. 191

    “All too often, even when perfectly excavated, the remains of a temple are not sufficiently well preserved to give us reliable evidence of its abandonment history. In the case of cities that survived into the sixth and seventh centuries, as most Roman cities did, the abandoned temples became a major source of cheap stone, and were, over time, systematically taken apart, down to the level of their foundations, or even below them. In the process, any trace of their immediate post-abandonment history will have been destroyed, and, with it, any accurate indication of when and how they were abandoned.”

    How can we know if temples were destroyed or just abandoned, when not even the fundaments of these temples are extant today? If, as Ward-Perkins goes on to say, it is very difficult to come to firm conclusions, unless the temple was burned down (rather than dismantled) and only if there are still remants of the temple extant today? Even if a temple is sufficiently preserved, but does not show eminent signs of wilful destruction, what can we say about cult statues and other objects stored in that temple while still in use?


    1. I suggest you address that question to Luke Lavan and the archaeologists he, Michael Mulryan and the other contributors to their extensive meta-analysis draw on. If you read the chapters in their book you will see that, actually, it is possible to establish when these temples ceased to function and when the later quarrying of them began in a great many cases.


      1. The concept of “philosophia ancilla theologiae” (“handmaiden”) was mainly used by Thomas Aquinas at a time when the medieval west was again exposed to original writings by Plato and Aristotle (13th century). This is quite a long shot from the period of classical philosophy (c. 1000 years). Earlier knowledge of these authors came mostly from Augustine (Plato) and Boethius (Aristotle). Even though the church fathers endorsed much of what Plato said (because it was so very close to what the bible says that they alleged he got his knowledge from Moses) and, to a lesser extent, Aristotle, the Aristotelian idea that the world might not have a beginning in time came back via Islamic transmission. The church immediately condemned such views as heretical
        Even Thomas Aquinas’ De aeternitate mundi still holds the view that the right catholic position is that the world has a beginning in time (when it was created).

        When Christian authors of an earlier period spoke of “philosophy” they of course meant the “true philosophy”, i.e. Christian theology. All church fathers (no exception) condemned “external philosophy” as potentially leading to heresy in as much as its views disagreed with the bible. Yes, Augustine (and several others) endorsed much of what Plato wrote (one God, the world is created), but also condemned other aspects, such as transmigration of souls. It is, therefore, not true that transmigration of souls or eternity of the universe “were widely studied”. You have not provided a single piece of evidence for this. It is not enough to say that there are texts extant today which agree with most of what the bible says, but might deviate in one or two sections. Is there any evidence transmigration of souls or eternity of the world was taught in public?

        But Plato was not the mainstream philosophy of classical antiquity (up to c. 250), that was Stoicism and Epicureism. So, when the works of Plato finally got back to the medieval west, indeed people did not feel this was much different from Augustine (who heavily built on Plato). The other texts were lost anyway.

        Gibbon gives Orosius 6.15 in his footnote (nr 46)
        Does this source exist or not?

        I can’t see in Rohmann, p. 65ff any indication that “the discovery of works on divination and magic were merely “a pretext” for the suppression of philosophers”. Perhaps you can point me to the exact passage? The whole section is about the magic trials reported by Ammianus (who says “innumerable books and many heaps of scrolls were piled up and burnt under the eyes of the judges, having been ferreted out of various houses as illegal books in order to alleviate the animosity arising from the executions. However, most of them were titles on various liberal arts and on law.” and “The consequence was that throughout the eastern provinces whole libraries were burnt by their owners for fear of a similar outcome; so great was the terror which affected everyone.”)
        So, Ammianus writes the detection and subsequent destruction of the books was a pretext for justifying the executions, but not that the books in question were books on magic or divination. On the contrary, he says it was books on liberal arts.

        As to Lucretius, you naively assume that the monastic scribes in charge of copying the text were able to read, or even to understand the text. David Butterfield, The Early Textual History of Lucretius’ De rerum natura, CUP: 2013, has correctly noted that only the corrector of ms O (most likely Dungal who recovered the text from the British Isles on order of Charlemagne to explain a recent solar eclipse that left people feeling intimidated about Charlemagne’s early reign) shows understanding of the contents of the pertinent passages on the solar eclipse. Of course, there were earlier copies of Lucretius circulating, but none in monastic or ecclesiatical settings. The later transmission of this text is dependent on a single manuscript. While this is true for nearly all of surviving Latin literature, it does not mean that the church was particularly keen on preserving these kinds of texts. Sorabij (and Butterfield, too) explain the lack of destruction from the fact that not only there was no-one who could understand the text, but also that the title was deleted from the manuscript and there was no catalogue record (when medieval authors mention Lucretius, this does not mean they had knowledge of the text before Poggio found it, as Lucretius is mentioned several times by Augustine).

        I can’t see very many texts that Photius claimed to have in his possession that are from the classical period. Many of the texts you list as “pagan” are in reality Byzantine lexicons or medical compilations. From the remainder, most texts still survive. As to the ones you claim to be lost, I have posted some reservations here and elsewhere (nearly all are accessible today in editions, unrelated to Photius, so I don’t think you are right to say that these “are not extant in any way today”)
        I haven’t checked the Christian authors, although the council acts are surely extant.
        Since there is no other evidence that any of the classical titles now lost were extant in the period of Byzantine humanism, on the contrary Suidas relies on earlier lexicons (from the age of Justinian), it can not be ascertained that Photius has actually seen any of those texts rather than read about it in the lexicons he still had in posession.

        I agree that “it is possible to establish when these temples ceased to function”. However, my point was that there is nearly no basis to come to any meaningful “immediate post-abandonment history”, i.e. scale of destruction, if any), let alone a viable statistic on this, when not even the fundaments of most temples are extant any longer. I’m not saying you quote Lavan et al. incorrectly, only that nothing meaningful can be deduced from this.

        You will probably reply that I’m wrong on every count, but a few snippets mainly from non-specialist authors, taken out of context, will hardly be convincing enough.


        1. “The concept of “philosophia ancilla theologiae” (“handmaiden”) was mainly used by Thomas Aquinas at a time when the medieval west was again exposed to original writings by Plato and Aristotle (13th century).”

          It predated Aquinas by many centuries. It even pre-dates Christianity, having been already established by Philo. Basil of Caesarea established it firmly in the Christian tradition and it became standard in the west with Augustine. See David Lindberg, “The Medieval Church Encounters the Classical Tradition: Saint Augustine, Roger Bacon and the Handmaiden Metaphor,” in When Science and Christianity Meet, ed. David Lindberg and Ronald Numbers (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003), 15-19.

          “… the Aristotelian idea that the world might not have a beginning in time came back via Islamic transmission.”

          And where do you think those Islamic scholars got their copies of Aristotle from? Did they fall from the sky? You don’t seem to be thinking this stuff through.

          “The church immediately condemned such views as heretical”

          Yet the remarkable thing about the attempted Paris Condemnnations are (i) that so few ideas in Aristotle were condemned, (ii) that the condemnations were limited largely to Paris, with other universities openly advertising that anyone could read anything they liked at their institutions and (iii) they ultimately had little effect, even after three attempts.

          “Even Thomas Aquinas’ De aeternitate mundi still holds the view that the right catholic position is that the world has a beginning in time (when it was created).”

          Yes, that was the doctrine and always had been. Yet, despite this, contra Nixey, Aristotle was still copied by Christian scholars, studied by them and passed by them to the Islamic world.

          “It is, therefore, not true that transmigration of souls or eternity of the universe “were widely studied”.”

          Luckily for me, I never claimed that the transmigration of souls or eternity of the universe were widely studied. You need to read more carefully. I said, as I’ve clarified for you once already, that despite containing these ideas, the works of Plato and Aristotle were preserved and widely studied. Nixey claimed that any works that contained such ideas were not preserved at all. She is dead wrong.

          “Gibbon gives Orosius 6.15 in his footnote (nr 46) Does this source exist or not?”

          It does. It’s just that it he isn’t talking about the Serpeum. Did you bother to actually check the context of what Orosius is talking about?

          “I can’t see in Rohmann, p. 65ff any indication that “the discovery of works on divination and magic were merely “a pretext” for the suppression of philosophers”. “

          From p. 65: “These magic trials, held in Antioch in the early 370s, have been interpreted as a specific reaction to a conspiracy, but also as a decisive blow against ancient philosophy. Some emperors of the first century also reacted harshly to perceived conspiracies. The incident has been perceived as a blow against philosophy because Ammianus reports that forbidden books were sought out and burnt,including books on the liberal arts and on law.”

          Seems pretty clear to me.

          “As to Lucretius, you naively assume that the monastic scribes in charge of copying the text were able to read, or even to understand the text. “

          The idea that none of the manuscripts indicated in the evidence I summarised for you were copied by scribes who could read the text is probably the stupidest thing I’ve read so far this week. You seem to be desperate to find ways to ignore relevant evidence.

          “Of course, there were earlier copies of Lucretius circulating, but none in monastic or ecclesiatical settings.”

          I’m afraid that monastery of Reichenau, the one at St Gall and the school of the archbishop of Mainz are all monastic and ecclesiastical settings.

          “Sorabij (and Butterfield, too) explain the lack of destruction from the fact that …”

          Given all the other manuscripts we know of and can surmise, you’re still stuck with multiple medieval copies of this supposedly suppressed book. Your desperate Googling won’t make that evidence go away.

          “Many of the texts you list as “pagan” are in reality Byzantine lexicons or medical compilations.”

          “Many”? That’s nonsense. No more than 11 of the 109 non-Christian works are lexicons and just 4 are medical works. Are you in such a weird contrarian frenzy that you can’t count properly, as well as being unable to read carefully?

          “However, my point was that there is nearly no basis to come to any meaningful “immediate post-abandonment history”, i.e. scale of destruction, if any), let alone a viable statistic on this, when not even the fundaments of most temples are extant any longer. “

          Then please explain this to Lavan, Mulryan, Goodman, Bayliss etc. along with full details of your archaeological qualifications and extensive fieldwork. I’m sure they’ll be deeply impressed.

          “You will probably reply that I’m wrong on every count, …”

          Ummm yes. Because you are.

          “but a few snippets mainly from non-specialist authors, taken out of context, will hardly be convincing enough.”

          Snippets of what? And what “non-specialist authors”? You’re now making no sense at all. I think my patience with you is beginning to wear out.


  23. I’m so glad to get to read your writing again. As an orthodox Catholic in the Benedict XVI strand, it’s an absolute joy to meet someone who, starting with very different principles, shows that reasonable people can come to much the same conclusions on so many topics that, in the long run, really matter.
    Keep up your great work!


  24. An amazing book, highly readable, well-researched, and an absolute must for anyone interested in the emergence of Christianity. I have no axe to grind, but the vast amount of hostile criticism above, much of it irrelevant, is totally unwarranted, and as a biblical scholar for well over half a century I have no hesitation in recommending this work without reservation. As a first book it is immensely captivating, erudite and absorbing. Buy it!


      1. Nope! Certainly not! It is an opinion to which I am entitled, and to which I stand by. Equally, you are certainly entitled to regard it as a joke. I have no problem with that. Happy New Year!


        1. ‘A biblical scholar for over half a century.’

          With regard to that statement, I’m intrigued. Could I ask where you taught (or teach) and what you have published?

          The reason I ask is because the only Eugene Kaufmann I can find in this field has been dead for three years.


        2. No-one said you aren’t entitled to your “opinion”, but when you respond to a 12,000 word detailed critique with some highly vague hand waving (“the vast amount of hostile criticism above, much of it irrelevant, is totally unwarranted”) backed up with absolutely no substantive justification, it’s rather hard to take your “opinion” very seriously.


  25. A couple weeks back I read a glowing review of Nixey’s book on a really good site 3quarksdaily which has been a go-to aggregating filter of mine for years along with producing strong content of its own. I have found the discussions in the comments to be generally rich so I posted a link to this review and suggested that people who were interested in a better informed perspective would do well to read it.

    I was sternly informed that you, Tim are an “obsessive crypto-catholic apologist” and I am a “sock puppet.” I responded by pointing out that name calling is not an argument but rather the admission that one hasn’t got an argument. I made a couple points about real historians preferring primary sources over secondary sources written fourteen hundred and more years after the events and chose the alleged burning of the library at Serapeum to do a brief recap of the problems with Nixey’s account. I posted an awaited a response.

    Other comments were posted and when I went back to read those, mine was gone. I assumed it was a glitch and posted again. This time it was flagged for moderator approval and disappeared. When it still hadn’t posted a couple days later I assumed a mistake had been made and posted it again. Again it was flagged for moderation and again disappeared into the mists.

    These science people are really obsessed with holding the fort against the historical facts in ways I couldn’t have imagined. I responded to baseless ‘ad hominem’ attacks with facts marshaled into a reasoned argument and was blocked for my efforts–by a prominent science site!

    I have long admired your patience in responding to these people, Tim, but now that I see the enormity of the monster you do regular battle with I am doubly impressed.


    1. I just checked the 3quarks review and it seems at least some of your comments there are now showing up. I’ve added a few of my own. Interestingly, my stats page shows me that absolutely no-one has clicked through to my review from that site, so the people dismissing me and my critique have not even bothered to read it. Very rational. Anyway, I’ve challenged the person who claimed I’m a “crypto-Catholic apologist” to back that assertion up with evidence, so it will be amusing to see what she comes back with. I’ve also asked the guy who says “historians of the period” have criticised James Hannam’s God’s Philosophers to provide some citations from any professional historian, as I suspect he is referring to the flawed review in The Humanist by the amateur historian and retired high school teacher Charles Freeman.

      But yes, that review and those comments show exactly how impervious to history many of these people are and how susceptible they are to anything that strokes their prejudices. Prof. James McGrath recently highlighted an insightful comment made on his Facebook page: “In my experience, when it comes to biblical studies, ‘skeptic’ is frequently code for ‘credulous towards heterodox claims.'” I think we see something similar when it comes to Gibbonian pseudo history.


      1. Perhaps the moderators are offended by paragraphing. This is what I wrote that was flagged for moderation and removed–

        I hasten to note that you haven’t presented a fact or an argument, Lianne. Name-calling, going ‘ad hominem’ as they say, isn’t an argument, rather an admission that one hasn’t a logical or factual leg to stand on—which you don’t. It’s what sophists do in Plato’s dialogues when Socrates has trapped them in self-contradiction. If you had any facts in your corner or could point to any flaws in any of O’Neill’s arguments you would have made your case—but you didn’t because you can’t. Tim O’Neill has done his homework, Lianne. You have not.

        Historians work from sources. Axe-grinders like Nixey pick, choose, and fabricate whatever “facts” suit their ‘a priori’ agenda. Devotees of the long discredited and quaintly 19th century ‘conflict thesis’ between religion and science desperately need mobs of Christians burning books of Pagan wisdom—never mind that we have no sources for that book burning; never mind that the only reason we have any of these works at all is because Christians and Muslims preserved, copied, translated, and commented on them. (I’m aware that we do have sources about Christians burning the books of heretical Christian sects. They did burn books, but not the books of Pagan science, math, and philosophy which the axe-grinders so desperately need them to have burned.)

        Since the Enlightenment—falsely so-called–the axe-grinders would routinely claim that Christians burned the Library of Alexandria, insisting that historians who maintained otherwise were covering up Christian crimes against knowledge—we’d have colonized Mars centuries ago if those pesky Christians hadn’t burned all the science and math books, fer cryin’ out loud–until even they had to finally concede that all available evidence argues that the great library’s collection burned when Caesar was laying siege to Alexandria, decades before Christ was born.

        “But Christians must have burned books of Pagan wisdom!” the poor dears cried out in anguish. So vested were they in this myth of book burning that they went looking for other libraries in Alexandria the loss of which they could blame on Christian mobs and latched onto the Serapeum. “See!” they shout triumphantly. “Christians DID burn the Library of Alexandria, just not THAT Library of Alexandria! Huzzah! Excelsior!”

        The big problem with this narrative is that it isn’t supported by the historical record. We have multiple primary sources about the events in question, none of which contain an account of any such book burning. Furthermore, we do have a primary source written a few decades before the Serapeum was razed which indicates that the books were already gone. And we also have primary sources which claim that it was soldiers that actually destroyed the Serapeum. And so on. (For a more detailed accounting of extant relevant sources, see Tim O’Neill’s review of this book which I posted a link to at the top.)

        So if all of our primary sources suggest otherwise, where is Nixey getting her information about Christian mobs burning the books of Pagan wisdom preserved in the Serapeum? Why from other Enlightenment-besotted axe-grinders, of course! Real historians prefer primary sources over secondary sources written fourteen hundred years and more after the events but “The Darkening Age” is not history; it’s bad journalism serving a fact-free agenda and referencing a centuries old disinformation campaign for legitimacy. Repeat a lie for long enough and there will be credulous saps who believe it.

        That intelligent people still cling to this long discredited silliness when access to good information is so readily available—I even linked it for their convenience–does underline in red just how wrong Aristotle got humanity. We are not rational animals, rather rationalizing—we start with what we want to be the case and work backwards until satisfied that we were right all along. Hard to take such fact-averse myth-clinging seriously.

        That this refusal to face even basic historical facts typically hides behind the aegis of science would be hilarious if it weren’t so sad. “Because Science!” is not an argument, rather an article of faith from a most peculiar religion indeed.


    1. Whitmarsh is an actual historian, though (again) one who tends to specialise in earlier periods. He’s also written a book on atheism in the ancient world, which seems to be why he was asked to review Nixey’s book. He has been confronted by my critique on Twitter and asked to respond to the fact that Nixey deliberately distorts things. On Jan 3 he responded

      “the book is a polemic: it is certainly one-sided and relies in places (like much narrative history) on the imagination. It’s not academic, and has some mistakes, but ‘lying’ would be most unfair”

      Of course, nowhere did I or anyone else actually say Nixey “lies”, though the extent of her elision of evidence that doesn’t fit her agenda and avoidance of counter arguments borders close to it and is definitely deceptive. So I responded to that effect, using the example of her distorted account of the destruction of the Serapeum and its complete avoidance of the relevant context, the pagan gang using it as a base for anti-Christian terrorism, the military siege of the temple etc. Whitmarsh responded:

      “I’ve just turned up at a conference and have no copy of Nixey or other books to hand… I’ll check what she says when I’m back (ten days’ time – sorry) & write then.”

      I replied that no checking of the sources was needed, given that the problem was that Nixey left most of the relevant sources out completely and this was what Whitmarsh had to account for. He replied that he still wanted to “go back to the sources” and, weirdly, scolded me for the way I (accurately) described the pagan gang, saying “Not sure ‘pagan terrorist gang’ helps BTW”. So apparently one-sided polemic is okay, but correctly referring to a gang who engaged in religious terror as pagan terrorists is not. Or something.

      Anyway, that was ten days ago, but there is not yet any sign of a response from Whitmarsh. I may give him another day or two and then ask again. Given that, unlike Nixey, Tim Whitmarsh is an actual academic with a genuine scholarly reputation to think about, I hope he manages an honest re-assessment.


      1. Thanks for that, I wasnt sure if you had read his review of her book. Interesting to see if he ever responds but you can be pretty sure he wont back-track on his review, as that would mean he wasnt suitably knowledgeable of the specific subject to give an objective opinion. And academics dont like being told they are wrong!

        PS when Ive left comments and ticked the relevant boxes re receiving notification of responses, it never seems to work! Is it me or this site?


  26. It’s a great critique of an awful book.
    One thing I want to ask about from the above review:

    “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.”

    Sorry, but I can’t understand what it means. Could someone explain a little, please.


    1. Current thinking is that the old idea that Roman Mithraism was an actual Persian cult adopted in the eastern part of the Empire and which spread west, much like Christianity, is wrong. The evidence indicates the opposite – that it was a new sect invented in Rome and which spread from there. Exactly what sparked this new religion is not clear, though David Ulansey makes a strong case that it was a reaction to the astronomical discovery of the progression of the equinoxes and the need to attribute this phenomenon astrologically to a new god – see The Origins of the Mithraic Mysteries: Cosmology and Salvation in the Ancient World (Oxford, 1989).

      Whatever the inspiration for the invention of this new faith, the fact that the Romans were dubious about novel “superstitions” meant that its originators had to adopt an older god or at least the trappings of one to make their new religion seem to have suitable antiquity. So they seem to have chosen the exotic Persian god Mithra as the divine force at the centre of their astrological mysteries. This is why, contrary to older scholarship and most modern popular claims, the Roman god Mithras and his Persian equivalent Mithra seem to have very little in common apart from their names, their hat and their Persian-style trousers.


  27. Whoah – what a personal attack! Interested that you left out praise from academics like Professor Edith Hall, and wondered why? Also, according to newspaper website, Nixey isn’t an art critic but an arts’ editor at The Times newspaper. (PS Maybe put piece through spellcheck?)


    1. Whoah – what a personal attack!

      Pardon? How can a detailed 12,654 word critique with specific reference to relevant sources and careful analysis of all key arguments can be straw-manned as a mere “personal attack”? Please explain.

      Interested that you left out praise from academics like Professor Edith Hall, and wondered why?

      As I note in my critique, none of the reviewers who praise Nixey have any kind of specialisation in Late Antiquity. Hall is another example of laudatory reviewers who have no detailed grasp of the relevant period. She is an expert in the Greek literature of the fifth to third centuries BC and its social and historical context. That’s like asking an expert in Shakespeare’s life and literature to comment on the Second World War. Judging from her discussion with Nixey on the book, she is completely incapable of assessing a period which she quite obviously has not studied in any depth. She simply does not have a grasp of the relevant source material or its context. Her opinion is totally worthless as a result.

      Also, according to newspaper website, Nixey isn’t an art critic but an arts’ editor at The Times newspaper.

      They are the same thing. You now seem to be reduced to the kind of petty snivelling that indicates failure.

      PS Maybe put piece through spellcheck?

      As does that. There are no spelling errors that I can see, unless you use the semi-illiterate American spellings that the rest of the English-speaking world finds laughable. So, do you have anything of actual substance to say or is your failure here totally complete?



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