The Darkening Age; The Christian Destruction of the Classical World by Catherine Nixey. Macmillan, 2018.

Those defaced Greek statues and their Roman copies that you view in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and elsewhere?  Wear and Tear? Not really; many of them were literally “defaced” by Christian fanatics in Alexandria, Rome, Athens, and other cities of the Roman Empire. Once the Roman emperors, beginning with Constantine the 1st withdrew their protection from the classical world’s physical and literary heritage, damage occurred often beyond what twentieth-century restoration can achieve.

Not only was the artistic production of the Classical world damaged, so also were its texts. The most notorious was the destruction of the famous library in Alexandria, but libraries all over the Roman world were destroyed as well. Christian zealots even invaded private homes and destroyed their owners’ libraries. “Wisdom is foolishness” is the way that the Christian world dismissed the Classical. Greek philosophers were forbidden to carry on the long oral tradition of tutoring the next generation. Catherine Nixey sums it up: Athens was silenced.

Paper had not yet come along, so ancient manuscripts were copied onto parchment, i.e. prepared animal skins. The ink used, though remarkably well preserved, could be removed and the parchment covered with a new text. This removal and reuse was symbolic of the Christian text replacing the Latin, thus retaining a Classical foundation for the Christian literary tradition.

The Alexandrian library had also been a center for the translation into Greek of Jewish and Christian texts, most notably the Septuagint or, as we call it the Old Testament. Several centuries later, the Christian community in Alexandria took an anti-Jewish turn. Christians went around destroying the city’s many synagogues, and their libraries.

But Christianity borrowed heavily from the philosophers and historians of the city’s Classical and Jewish literary world as well. That was particularly true after the grant of religious toleration during the reign of Constantine in AD 312 and the Edict of Milan in the following year. The enlightenment of the Christian world was the work of monks, bishops, and parabalani. The latter were a brotherhood that initially performed the work of removing the dead but took on the additional roll of “cleansing” the public space of “remnants” of the classical world and its classical scholars. Catherine Nixey calls the parabalani “thugs.”

Most of the art from the Classical Age now resides in European and American museums. But the beautiful mosaics and frescos survived in the ruins of the baths and other communal structures.

Christians did not agree to the beauty of the naked body, the penis, nipples, etc. And they looked upon the baths as the workshops of the devil. They put the fig leaf to good use on statuesque males when that statuary began their lives in European and American museums.

What might explain those remarkable paintings of Christians being driven into an arena with hungry lions? Nixey suggests the importance of self-destruction by a public death might explain this imagery.

The flames of damnation were licking at Roman daily life. Greek theater survived but was subject to Christian disapproval. Festivals no longer were enjoyed for their merriment. Bathhouses were deplored as sinks of immorality. Blasphemers were strung up by their tongues, adulterers by their testicles.  And this new world was shaped by the censorious gaze of God’s Christian enforcers, the new priestly class. Violence against a sinner was an act of kindness; flogging him was to help him.

In a final paragraph of The Darkening Age we learn that the statue of Athena, goddess of wisdom, had been decapitated in the early Christian era. Her torso ended up face down in a corner of her Parthenon, now a step for the many tourists who visit her famous former home.

Christianity had participated in the destruction of the classical world. It had also become an heir to the classical tradition. Perhaps most importantly it began to preserve Latin and Greek literature, absorbing the wisdom of classical learning. And understood better its axiom, “Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow you’ll be dead for eternity.”

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