‘Writing critically about Christian history is doubly difficult: not only are the ancient sources complex, scattered and disputed, but also there are legions of modern readers waiting to pounce on the tiniest perceived error, infelicity or offence.’ from Tim Whitmarsh’s review in the Guardian
I’ve recently been reading Catherine Nixey’s The Darkening Age: The Christian Destruction of the Classical World. I’ve also been monitoring its reception, mostly through seeing comments popping up on social media feeds but also in book reviews. I’ve abandoned my initial intention of writing a full book as I’m not sure I can contribute much beyond what has already been offered. That being said, I’ll briefly ramble about two concerns – firstly the book itself and secondly the issue of popular history and non-academic authors.
Nixey’s book has raised a whole array of issues. Most obviously through the author’s central argument – that the adherents of Christianity engaged in a deliberate campaign of aggression and violence against those who disagreed with them, most notably the ‘pagans’ (problematic term, I know) of the Roman empire. The argument goes that this anti-intellectual religious bigotry resulted in, as the title suggests, the darkening of the age – the suppression of classical learning, literature and culture. Temples were destroyed, statues smashed and the previous intellectualism of the Greco-Roman empire was replaced by a thuggish but pervasive Christian worldview.
It’s an old thesis – as many reviewers have noted, Edward Gibbon drew similar conclusions in the late 18th century. Gibbon’s view of Christianity in late antiquity, outlined in Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, arguably still provides the basis for current public perception of the period. When I converse with a friend or an acquaintance about the period, many of their ideas (whether they know it or not) comes straight from Gibbon. His influence on the popular understanding of the last centuries of ancient Rome remains significant.
Within academia a more nuanced approach has formed, founded on the scholarship of Peter Brown, Averil Cameron and many others. Rome didn’t simply ‘fall’. The Christians didn’t ruin everything. The empire wasn’t too decadent to survive. And the Byzantines (the poor misrepresented and misunderstood Byzantines) were not just a last vestige of a once great empire. It would be disingenuous to argue that an academic consensus has formed but there has certainly been a general shift away from Gibbon’s polemic. Nixey certainly doesn’t espouse all of his views but her reading of Christianity is clearly Gibbonian. If you’re interested, see the reviews below for more on this.
A second reflection- Nixey’s work occupies a middle-ground. This is a work of ‘popular history’. She is a journalist, not an academic. Yet her background and training is that of a classicist. She read Classsics at Oxford before working as a classics teacher for a number of years. Her work should be taken seriously. Academics are often rightly skeptical about ‘non-experts’ writing popular history but I feel that there is a space for such voices to heard. Academics and their institutions can struggle to effectively disseminate their research to wider audiences. An exemplar of how to do this well is undoubtedly Mary Beard, who has published a range of best-sellers covering a range of topics from the ancient world. Outside of academia, Tom Holland also achieved something similar through his books on Greece, Rome and the early Middle Ages. There are other effective popularisers but I’d argue there are still too few. In particular, there is clearly a need for more widely accessible publications on late antiquity – such as Nixey’s. Yet they must also be academically rigorous and their arguments justified. Any such publication will rightly face the scrutiny of experts and any flaws must be noted – a wider public understanding of late antiquity is devalued if it is not based on reliable scholarship.
Nixey could have made a valid and constructive contribution to the social and religious history of late antiquity. She’s certainly written an accessible work that will be widely read. Unfortunately it’s deeply flawed and as such deserves to be scrutinised appropriately. I started this post with a quote from Tim Whitmarsh’s review because I wanted to note the difficulty of the writing in the field. I personally think his review is generous, but it helps to ensure the conversation continues – that those within academia and outside continue to read, write and engage on these topics. I must admit a vested interest here – I am a history teacher whose formal study went only as far as an MA. I am not an academic, nor am I an expert. But I have read widely and I continue to do so. Surely I (or the many others in a similar position) could have something valid to contribute, even from outside of academia? Hopefully the critical response to this particular book will not discourage the writing of popular and accessible history but rather encourage more rigorous and valuable contributions.
As always, feel free to call me out and tell me I’m wrong in the comments :).
A few recommended reviews:
The most thorough (and most cutting) is from Tim O’Neil, atheist and blogger at History for Atheists – “this is a book of biased polemic masquerading as historical analysis and easily the worst book I have read in years.”
Dame Averil Cameron, a world leading classicist and historian, wrote a review for the Tablet entitled ‘Blame the Christians’.
Yesterday the Guardian posted a review from Tim Whitmarsh (also a classicist and expert on Greek literature and culture).
Levi Roach (a senior lecturer in medieval history) wrote his for Lit Review but also posted the review on Twitter.