In this long–read Revd. Toby Hole reviews ‘The Darkening Age’ by Catherine Nixey and ‘Dominion’ by Tom Holland. 29/10/2019
Once a year, the church of which I am the vicar is transformed as the space is given over to the local primary school for their annual art exhibition. The themes change each year – the seasons seem to be a common one, or that impossibly remote time known as the ‘80s. And then there was the year when the theme was ancient Greece. The church filled up with pictures of Greek vases, Hydras and Medusas and, stationed by each window, a child–sized model of Zeus, Poseidon, Athena and the rest of the divine band. As I celebrated Holy Communion that Sunday I idly wondered what St Paul would have made of the scene.
Such speculation is not needed when it comes to what the successors of the great apostle might have thought. The history of early Christianity appears to bear out the intolerance of the Roman church towards its classical (or pagan, if you’re being pejorative) neighbours. And this intolerance, culminating in the decree of Emperor Theodosius I making the Christian faith the only legitimate Roman religion, has often been presented as the “triumph” of Christianity.
The shadow of this “triumph” casts itself not simply over the later Roman Empire but down to our present age. As the West edges its way out of Christendom into the secular paradise that awaits us all, there is much discussion over exactly how much we owe to our Christian past, and, no less contentiously, whether what we owe comprises the good bits or the crimes. Both the (contrasting) books under review here – The Darkening Age by Catherine Nixey and Dominion by Tom Holland – preface (and in, Holland’s case, also conclude) their subject with a personal explanation of why their authors are taking their particular approach and stance. The battles of 1500 years ago are still being fought. As William Faulkner once remarked, “The past is not dead, it is not even past.”
Nixey gets her caveats in early. In her introduction she is clear that the triumphant story of the early church has been told too many times. Whilst it is true that the Christians did some good things, Nixey believes that knowledge of this has become too commonplace and there is no place for them in her story. So then, nothing about the abolition of gladiatorial blood sports, nothing about the rescuing of exposed babies and nothing about the Christian care for the plague–ridden non–Christian poor. For accounts of these actions, read elsewhere.
She also freely admits that she has had to imagine certain aspects of the story – the smell of a Roman temple, for instance – legitimate enough for the purposes of making a narrative flow, but it does put the reader on her guard that there may be a little more imaginative retelling than perhaps is common in a work of history.
Finally, Nixey tells us that her book isn’t anti–Christian. She knows that some Christians are motivated by their faith to do very, very good things, and she is the daily beneficiary of such actions. She hopes that Christians won’t see her work as an attack on them personally. As you read through the book, this sentiment begins to develop the moral force of the “some of my best friends are black/gay/Muslim” qualification. It only serves to highlight what seems to be a deep–seated dislike of the Christian faith.
All that could be by–the–by. Being sympathetic to the belief that you are writing about does not make you a better historian. Nor does it follow that a strong antipathy towards your subject prevents any attempt at objectivity. Good history should at least mask, if not completely eradicate, the prejudices of the writer. Not, it seems, here.
At the outset, it is important to acknowledge that the bare facts of Nixey’s account – the 250 years of destruction, violence and downright, heart–aching philistinism shown by the Christian church, or aspects of it – cannot easily be denied. I take issue with her assertion that these facts are barely known outside of academic circles, and as Tom Holland points out in Dominion, the evidence for widespread Christian destruction of Roman temples has been greatly overstated. But, shamefully, the worst of the events described in The Darkening Age happened. The Christian church, whose history has hardly been a cause of holy boasting, needs to know of these events and own them. The martyrs Polycarp and Irenaeus are commemorated in the church calendar; perhaps so should Hypatia, one of the brightest women of her age, who met a brutal end at the hands of an appalling mob consisting of people who called themselves Christians and stirred up by a bishop.
The issue with The Darkening Age comes when these facts, awful in themselves, are presented to the reader in a way that can only be described as deeply prejudicial to the point of mendacious.
Nixey’s criticisms, put forward in short, punchy chapters, can be summarised as thus: Christians destroyed the best of Classical architecture; they burnt and wilfully destroyed non–Christian texts; they were ignorant extremists for whom pleasure, joy and sensuality were dangerous; they saw demons in every work of art and the satanic in the highest philosophy; they tortured and murdered those who disagreed with them; and did so joyfully believing that in their savagery they were mercifully saving souls.
Again, this is not especially controversial, but the starkness of Nixey’s approach leads us steadily away from the discipline of history and into the realm of polemic. As a work of polemic The Darkening Age does its job well but of course it is presented to us as history and it is as a work of history that it must be judged.
The first thing that strikes the reader is that Nixey almost always refers to “Christians” as an undistinguishable mass. There is no room of nuance here, little suggestion of factionalism or the terrifying power of a small mob. It is Christians versus the Romans (although, of course, most of the Christians were Romans). Christians smash down temples. Christians burn philosophy. Christians torture and kill those who disagree with them. Suggestively she begins her book with the sack of Palmyra, taking us straight into the twenty–first century and another monotheistic death cult. However, most thoughtful people recognise that ISIS does not represent every Muslim in the world nor do they hold accountable every Muslim for the atrocities perpetrated by extremists in Syria.
What, then, of the sources that Nixey deploys in her arguments? She is clear in her own mind that the martyrdom stories of Christians are dubious and not to be believed (“Martyr stories cannot, of course, be taken as fact” – note the of course.) Oddly enough she makes no mention of Perpetua, the Carthaginian martyr whose first–hand account of her own imprisonment and death (the latter obviously written by someone else, but shortly afterwards) is one of the earliest writings by a woman in the ancient world. Sources that support her arguments, even ones as obscure as Pseudo–Jerome (the clue is in the word pseudo) are accepted uncritically.
Secondary sources fare little better. Nixey will regularly refer to a modern author; her bibliography reveals someone writing in the 1960s or earlier. I suppose that if you have studied the classics, any time after Gibbon feels modern. However, very few recent books make the cut. More recent studies place the number of Christian martyrs at a considerably higher level than the hundreds quoted by Nixey, as well as arguing for a greater apathy in Roman Society towards traditional religion. Christianity, after all, was by no means the only new kid on the block. The popularity of Mithraism is well known.
Again and again, we are told that Christians were ignorant and despised classical philosophy. Search up Justin Martyr in the index and you will seek in vain. This supreme example of a Christian theologian who consciously wore the philosopher’s cloak and died for his faith makes no entry. Augustine, inevitably, is portrayed as a domineering and repressed bore but you would never know from this account that he had a deep, and life–changing, love of Cicero or that he was trained to the highest standards of classical rhetoric. Instead he is dismissed as “a Christian with a classical dash.” Lots of Christian tonic with a little bit of classical gin.
Turning to the ‘Roman’ side of things, there is little in this book to suggest that Roman civilisation had a brutal side to it, although we are told that the sewers were probably not all that they were cracked up to be. The Roman love of sexual inventiveness, as displayed on the walls of Pompeii, is lauded with no mention of the sexual exploitation that dominated the lives of the poor, the young and the female. What we would now call sex trafficking was rife and apparently unremarked upon. Neither is there any sense that the Romans themselves were averse to a bit of plunder and pillage. No mention is made of the horrific siege of Jerusalem, even though the destruction of the Jewish temple matched anything that later Christians were able to achieve. Neither the Gauls nor the Carthaginians would have recognised Nixey’s description of Roman tolerance.
What of Roman science and philosophy? Galen is the forerunner of clear–headed modern scientists, despairing of the superstitious Christians and Jews. The philosopher Damascius is a “highly trained rational scientist” whereas for Christians “the very idea that mankind could explain everything for science” was folly. Somehow the New Atheists, toga–ed up, appear to have slipped in through the back door.
There is more, but the most shocking aspect of the book is undoubtedly the two chapters on Christian martyrdom. What is truly astonishing is the way that Nixey can justify the deliberate torture and killing of people because of their beliefs. She cannot understand why Christians are so obstinate in their refusal to sacrifice to Caesar. According to her argument, if the Jews were happy to sacrifice to the emperor (and, incidentally, they most certainly didn’t) then why should the Christians make such a fuss? This stubbornness of the Christians compelled the Romans, reluctantly, to kill them, leading us to this sentence:
“It is not without sympathy that one reads the prefect’s terse response [to a Christian refusing to recant]: ‘if you do not respect the imperial decrees and sacrifice to the emperor, I am going to cut your head off.’”
It is worth reading that sentence again. I cannot recall reading any work of modern history in which the author so clearly sympathises, and invites us to sympathise, with state–sanctioned murder. What kind of thought world does Nixey inhabit? Try replacing the prefect with a Bolshevik commissar and the Christian with a victim of a Stalinist purge and see how that plays out.
Finally on this matter, we come to the famous letters between the emperor Trajan and Pliny the Younger in which the puzzled Pliny is at a loss of what to do with these annoying Christians (he kills a couple of slaves for good measure). For Nixey this does not represent persecution but a bothersome situation for put–upon Pliny who has the inconvenience of bureaucracy to deal with when these Christians come to his attention. Nixey describes Trajan as “a man who is punctilious and practical” whereas Pliny is a “bookish, slightly fussy fellow”. Surely, she says, these men cannot be monsters. Sadly, as Hannah Arendt and others have pointed out, the Twentieth Century is replete with punctilious, fussy men capable of the most awful acts of genocide.
Nixey tells the reader that we need to take off distorting Christian spectacles in order to understand these texts for what they are. She is absolutely right, but does she think that by taking them off she thereby sees clearly? As she must know, all history is read through one lens or another. We cannot approach the unstable and shifting texts and artefacts of the past without viewing them through the presuppositions of the present. To think that we can risks blinding us with dogmatism and self–righteousness. It is hard to read The Darkening Age without seeing these dangers at work.
And so, for all its verve and punchiness, this book is ultimately a very depressing read. Primarily it is depressing because it tells a truly awful story of cultural violence, murder and bigotry. Any Christian reading this book should take a moment to think of the shameful history that is part of the church’s story. But it is also depressing because a narrative that could have been told effectively and accurately has been debased by cheap polemic, shoddy history and, depending on how generous you feel, a historical naivety or downright prejudice. It would be nice to say that arguments are not won this way, but the story of post–Constantinian Christianity as well as the politics of today suggests that that truth is other than this.
For Catherine Nixey, the outcome of the first five centuries of Christianity were that “the intellectual foundations for a thousand years of theocratic oppression were being laid”. Tom Holland, in his fascinating romp through Christian history, Dominion, disagrees (mostly) with her negative judgement whilst certainly affirming that a thousand years and more of Western thought and culture were forged by those first Christian centuries.
Whilst absent from The Darkening Age, Justin Martyr does appear in Dominion, in fact his statement that “whatever men have rightly said, no matter who or where, is the property of us Christians” could stand as a headnote for much of the book. Whereas Holland might not be seeking to justify the ways of God to man, his ambition falls not far short. Dominion combines an attempt at a thorough–going history of Christianity with a suggestive, though by no means conclusive, argument that Christianity really is the determining lens through which we can understand Western thought and culture.
Readers of Tom Holland will not be disappointed to learn that Dominion is as lively and well–written as his other books. His book on the rise of Islam, In the Shadow of the Sword, saw him move away from the Classical World to a broader, Grand Narrative, sweep of history. This brings with it its own challenges, not least because, when it comes to history, there is so much of it. As a point of reference, Diarmaid MacCulloch’s colossal History of Christianity is twice the length and does not bring with it the same claim to descry the origins of the Western mind. Inevitably, then, a book such as Dominion, will contain gaps. The question is whether the gaps detract from the argument.
Holland’s argument, broadly, is that it is impossible to understand the history and mindset of the West (and by West he seems to mean principally Europe with special mentions for America, South Africa and, slightly less plausibly, the Islamic world) without appreciating the foundational and continuing role of Christianity. This is not simply a nod to continuing Christian themes in art and culture or the fading twilight of Judeo–Christian morality. He is making a bolder claim that even those, like the French atheist publication Charlie Hebdo, who despise Christianity are able only to do so because they still find themselves swimming in Christian waters. Justin Martyr’s quote does not go far enough. Anything men have said is the property of Christians.
This intellectual aggrandisement will not sit well with everyone. Whilst Holland does not shy away from describing some of the atrocities of Christian history, overall the church feels as though it’s given an easy ride. Hypatia, incidentally, does not get a mention. The destruction of the temple of Sarapis dwelt on at length in The Darkening Age, in Dominion becomes an example of the more general propensity of the Alexandrian mob to enjoy a good riot.
It is one thing to trace a river back to its source. It is quite another to assume that all the water in the estuary flows from the same spring. The biggest criticism that can perhaps be levelled at Holland’s ambitious thesis is that the other tributaries have been ignored.
Tracing the river back to its source, Holland starts in the pre–Christian Persian Empire of Darius where monotheism along with its elements of dualism was forged. He then takes us through the world of ancient Greece and Rome, Paul’s missionary journeys, the spread of Christianity and through into the Middle Ages before the Reformation leads us into what may be more familiar territory. The book is divided into three parts: Antiquity, Christendom and Modernitas and each chapter begins with a place and a time, not necessarily connected with the foregoing material.
This technique of leaping from Carthage in 632 to Frisia in 754 and to Cambrai in 1076 can be disorientating although it is never dull. Done badly such a method can resemble archipelago history, island hopping without a discernible thread. However, this is where Holland’s skill as a narrator comes to the fore. His role is not that of an excitable travel guide breathlessly leading us from one sight to another. He is a story–teller with a purpose and throughout his story there are themes and threads that bind the whole together. Each chapter feels cumulative, with previous people – Boniface, Abelard, Pope Gregory VII and so on –reappearing to remind us that history rarely strikes new ground. The word reformatio is deployed regularly so that, when Martin Luther and 1517 come along, we see that the Reformation did not in fact mark a completely new start for the church, but was an intensification of already existing thought and movement.
If in all this hopping around there is one aspect of Christian thought and history that is missed, then it is the cultural dimension. Arguably one of the great contributions that Christianity has made to the modern world is in the realm of the imagination. The absence of any mention of Dante is surprising, to say the least. Milton does crop up, but exclusively in respect of his political opinions, not in his incalculable contribution to Western literature. There is a significant, and very interesting discussion of The Lord of the Rings which rather highlights the lack of other cultural landmarks. A significant thread in the story does seem to be missing here.
Most pleasingly, Holland, in the spirit of the Humanists, takes us back ad fontes, to theNew Testament and most particularly Paul’s letter to the Galatians with its radical call for freedom and equality for those who are in Christ. Christians might cavil at the idea that Paul’s rather specific and aggrieved letter to the Galatian backsliders can be used as a clarion call for the sexual freedoms of the modern age, but Holland’s point that, valid or not, it can be so used is one worth considering.
For the most part Holland’s thesis is convincing, although as he moves into modernity so it begins to stretch out of shape. To continue the river metaphor, modernity feels more like the Nile delta, not the winding river that we have journeyed on so far. It is from the Nineteenth Century onwards that more and more questions begin to be raised. Did contact with British abolitionists begin to “Protestantise” Islam, infecting the pure legal understanding of the Quran with a dangerous spiritual interpretation? Weren’t Sufis already doing this? Was Nazism a recognisably Christian eschatological understanding of history, or did it owe more to northern European and Wagnerian myths of Gotterdammerung? Do modern Woke millennials unknowingly riff upon a theme of Christian puritanism? If they do, then I would not like to be the one to tell them so.
The questions are unanswerable, of course, because we cannot re–run the whole sequence again. If we followed Catherine Nixey’s deepest wish and strangled the early Christian movement at birth would we be unrecognisably different today? Would human rights and freedoms be unheard of? Would ideas of progress and improvement be impossible? Or might it actually be the case that humans would somehow have found their way to these goods in any event? How you answer this may depend on whether you are a secularist or a theist, although as Holland points out secularism itself is a thoroughly Christian invention.
Take, for instance, that most pervasive of modern ideologies, free–market capitalism. The classic Weberian understanding is that a strong Calvinist emphasis on the responsibility of the individual led to a Protestant work ethic that allowed northern European societies to develop economically in a way different to elsewhere. That is one tributary. Others might include the geographically significant Atlantic seaboard of Great Britain and Holland, the endemic competition and warfare between small kingdoms and states, the displacement through persecution of intelligent and motivated refugees – Jews, Huguenots and Puritans – or even the cataclysmic event of the Black Death that finished off feudalism. Many tributaries, but who would be bold enough to claim to have found the source?
With my thoroughly Christian lenses on, I would love to affirm the whole of Holland’s argument. At a time when in the West Christianity can feel a jejune and enervated force it is comforting and sinew–stiffening to be reminded of the continuing intellectual heritage that the faith enjoys. But there is a danger in this as well. Justin Martyr’s bold claim that all good philosophy is Christian philosophy endangers the distinctiveness of a faith that bases itself upon the offence of the cross. Arguably, unable anymore to distinguish between Caesar and God, Western Christians have ended up sacrificing to the emperor after all.
Nixey and Holland are both in agreement that the events of the first Christian centuries, most especially Constantine’s fateful decision to embrace the faith as his own, defined the future course of European history. For Nixey this is a course of deep regret, for Holland, one of cautious rejoicing. Either way, the church continues to live with the consequences of its history as it tries to navigate the centuries still to come.
The Darkening Age: The Christian Destruction of the Classical World is published by Pan.
Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind is published by Little, Brown