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The Darkening Age by Catherine Nixey

The Darkening Age by Catherine Nixey
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Here is a book that will “gladden” Richard Dawkins, said Peter Thonemann in The Sunday Times. It is the story of how, between the fourth and sixth centuries, a “fundamentally liberal”, classical civilisation was “gleefully eradicated” by a group of closed-minded religious zealots. According to Catherine Nixey, the “triumph” of Christianity over paganism was an “unmitigated cultural catastrophe”. Unlike the “enlightened” scholars of the Roman Empire, the Christians revelled in their own ignorance, embarking on a course of “mindless” cultural vandalism that included smashing sculptures, burning books and even banning jokes and theatre. The Darkening Age is witty and passionate and, like all good polemics, “quite properly lacking in sympathy for its hapless target”. That said, a few of Nixey’s arguments do require “nifty footwork”: “inconveniently” for her, there is no evidence, for example, of a single poem by Ovid or Catullus ever being “put to the flames”.

Historians have given the early Christians an “easy ride”, characterising the defeat of paganism as “progress”, said Gerard DeGroot in The Times. Yet as Nixey shows, it was the opposite: the Christians oversaw “the largest destruction of art that human history has ever seen”. Among the many wonders they destroyed was the world’s “most magnificent” building, the Temple of Serapis in Alexandria, home to the “world’s first public library, with perhaps 700,000 books”. In contrast to the fun-loving pagans, the Christians made a cult out of asceticism, mortifying the flesh and retreating to caves to ponder the after-life. Although this is a book about “destruction and despair”, it is nonetheless a “delightful” read: Nixey writes with the “authority of a serious academic”, and is unafraid to “throw in the odd joke amid sombre tales of desecration”.