Book: As Rome fell, Christians destroyed classical culture

Book: As Rome fell, Christians destroyed classical culture June 29, 2019

“We all need to keep in mind that history is always written by the winners, not the losers, and the winners in this saga were the Christians.”

christian destruction classical culture
Ruins of a classical Roman temple complex in Tunisia, North Africa. (Dennis Jarvis, Flikr, CC BY-SA 2.0)

In this passage above from his Free Inquiry review of The Darkening Age: The Christian Destruction of the Classical World by Catherine Nixey, Robert Louis Semes is explaining the reason why most people are largely unaware today of Christians’ ruthless demolition of pagan symbols after the cataclysmic fall of Rome in the 5th century AD.

This Christianity-fueled destruction, which also effectively erased most of classical literature and philosophy from common knowledge, “plunged Western Europe into an intellectual darkness that would take almost 800 years to unravel,” Semes wrote in his review.

“The rise of Christianity from the second to the sixth centuries CE [AD] not only destroyed most of the classical past,” he added, “but also threatened anyone who would not conform to its teachings and become a believer.”

In a nutshell, what happened is that when the political structures of Rome finally collapsed and all the elite administrators of that system emigrated elsewhere, few were left to run the store, so to speak, or who knew where everything was located — like priceless scrolls of Greek philosophy.

Indeed, precious few people were left in the West, except priests and monks, who were even literate.

But Nixey’s main point in her book is that, in addition to the vanishing of the elite and classical ideas, those Christians who remained after the “fall” also went to work destroying any physical artifacts of paganism that survived the governmental implosion. Like the Islamic Taliban in March 2001 who destroyed two 1,700-year-old statues of Buddha because they purportedly offended Islam, Christian zealots after Rome’s dismemberment set about demolishing temples and taking sledge hammers to priceless stone statues of pagan gods.

The irony is that, because of that rampant flurry of destruction — and its perpetuating effectiveness — today we retain a sense that Christianity prevailed in history only because its message was pure and compelling. No. It prevailed, Nixey contends, because its ecclesiastical establishment methodically whitewashed historical accounts to erase the faith’s willful crimes against humanity and human knowledge.

Because the Christian leaders enjoyed near-monolithic authority soon after Rome’s disintegration, they also had the authority to write or rewrite history as they pleased — much as they interpreted the Bible as they pleased.

“Many Christian historians, even today, have offered the polemic that the Romans had really only been ‘Christians in waiting,’ generally most willing to give up their polytheistic rituals as soon as some monotheistic religion appeared,” Semes explained.

Semes, a retired American history professor and former Episcopal priest, said this dark history of Christian destruction of classical culture, literature and art was even ignored in academic circles, including the history department he taught in.

Among the Christian atrocities in the final years of the Roman period was the brutal assassination in 415 AD of Hypathia (sometimes Hypatia), the widely respected Alexandrian philosopher and mathematician (she and her father updated Euclid’s seminal treatise on geometry). She was murdered by a mob of Christian zealots who pulled her from a carriage.

“Hypathia represented everything [Christian extremists] abhorred: philosophy, astronomy, and mathematical learning — the life of the mind,” Semes wrote. “The ‘pagan woman’ was dragged through the streets, her clothes ripped from her body, and her skin scraped by broken pieces of pottery. After her death, her body was torn to pieces, and her remains were burned.”

Good luck finding this sad, instructive tale in your children’s history books.

And that’s Nixey’s and Semes’ point: if its not written and taught, it simply doesn’t exist for most people, and the important lesson is lost.

Note that when mobs of Christian vandals destroyed the venerable pagan temple of Serapis in the 4th century, they also destroyed what remained of Alexandria’s library (located within), the finest in antiquity with more than 1,000 scrolls.

Who knows what profound, possibly earth-shaking, ideas disappeared and will never be recovered from that conflagration?

We’ve come full circle. The anti-intellectualism of the current American administration is shared in a growing number of xenophobic, right-wing, authoritarian regimes around the world. These strongmen claim climate change is a hoax, homosexuals are perverts, and superstitions are facts. It is the ethos that drove Nazi Germany, Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge, Spain’s fascist government under Franco and Mussolini’s black shirts.

Deliver us.

“Nixey has done a great service to scholarship,” Semes writes, “by exposing a period of history that that has been obscured, ignored or deliberately perverted by Christian apologist historians for centuries.”

Of note, Nixey is the daughter of a Roman Catholic monk and a nun, who later became a journalist for the Times of London. This book, her first, was awarded the Royal Society of Literature Jerwood Award.

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