The Darkening Age: The Christian Destruction of the Classical World. Catherine Nixey.
London: PanMacmillan, 2017. 305 pages.
H. Carr opens his What is History? by claiming, “When we attempt to answer the question, What is history?, our answer, consciously or unconsciously, reflects our own position in time, and forms part of our answer to the broader question, what view we take of the society in which we live.” Reading a work of history, then, tells the reader just as much about how the historian views his own society as it does about the historical subject under consideration. Catherine Nixey’s The Darkening Age: The Christian Destruction of the Classical World fits Carr’s paradigm. Nixey frames her work as popular revisionist history: “The history and the sufferings of those whom Christianity defeated have not been [told]. This book focuses on them.” The story of monasteries saving Western civilization has been told again and again; Nixey seeks to demonstrate that “before it preserved, the Church destroyed. In a spasm of destruction never seen before - and one that appalled many non-Christians watching - during the fourth and fifth centuries, the Christian Church demolished, vandalized, and melted down a staggering quantity of art.” Nixey does not despise Christianity, but she argues that the traditional narrative portrays Christianity (specifically, Western monasticism) as preserving classical civilization; this narrative is false, she contends, because the Church first destroyed approximately “90 percent” of ancient literature. Nixey makes a significant claim, but fails to write a good history.
The Darkening Age describes the Late Antique Roman world between two arbitrarily chosen events: the destruction of the temple of Al-Lat in Palmyra in the 380s by Eastern (possibly Nestorian) Christians, and the departure of Damascius from Athens in 529. Between these two events, Nixey conducts a topical survey considering religious changes in the Roman world. She considers martyrdom, belief in demons, the pervasiveness of pagan temples and their replacement by Christian churches, the legal processes privileging Christianity, monastic rituals, and the changing sexual ethos moving from the erotic frescoes of Pompeii to the moralistic sermons of Chrysostom. In her introduction, Nixey rejects a strictly chronological approach, preferring to demonstrate the complexity of the periods through topical analysis. Each chapter begins with an historical narrative told in a journalistic, emotional, sensuous style; Nixey seeks to pull the reader into the sights, sounds, and salacious details of a thriving pagan world. This section then leads into her exposition and analysis contrasting pagans with Christians on a specific topic. By the conclusion of her narrative, Nixey claims that a portion of Justinian’s Code banning all pagans from teaching initiated the Dark Ages. (See p. 237.)
If correct, Nixey’s arguments merit a reevaluation of the relationship between Christianity and Western civilization. Her arguments, however, are not sound. She bases her conclusions on faulty premises which illustrate a lack of awareness in three areas: Christianity, history, and logic.
For a book claiming to offer a new interpretation of the formative years of Christianity’s interactions with Roman civilization, Nixey displays a surprising lack of awareness of the complexity of Christianity’s development. She persistently speaks of “the Church” being the agent behind efforts to censor literature and destroy monuments, and then cites specific bishops (Augustine and Chrysostom for censorship, Shenoute for destruction) who lead people to commit these acts. She speaks of Christianity as if it were a homogeneous organization guided by single-minded leadership. In contrast to this view, her own evidence illustrates instead the role bishops play in faith communities. As the early church developed, the bishop in Late Antiquity gained significant levels of authority, and functioned as the educated, sophisticated representative of his church community to the wider civil and ecclesial world. (For a more detailed account, see K. S. Latourette, A History of Christianity, Vol. 1. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1975, 116-118; and The Church from Age to Age: A History. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2011, 30.) Each bishop governed the churches in his region or city; there was no uniformity in the fourth and fifth centuries. Something like the institutional uniformity Nixey implies developed in medieval Roman Catholicism, but was not part of the Eastern Church on which her narrative focuses. Nixey presents a simplified Christianity which ignores complicating details. She ignores the ecumenical councils. She makes no distinction between orthodox, heterodox, or heretical branches of Christianity, presenting Christians as uniformly and intentionally seeking to erase classical paganism.