The Darkening Age

by Catherine Nixey, Macmillan, £20

European Christians are perhaps tempted to think of the classical past as one which was gently absorbed into their own religious framework. Dante, supposedly in 1300, was guided by Virgil into the infernal realms. Renaissance poets invoked Apollo and the Muses. Titian painted Venus and Diana the Huntress. This excellent book reminds us that, in fact, we are lucky, thanks to the zeal of Christians from the 4th century onwards, to have any classical art at all.

In 392, the Bishop of Alexandria led a mob to the temple of Serapis, one of the wonders of the ancient world, and reduced it to rubble. The Parthenon in Athens was fortunate to escape quite such drastic treatment, though its statue of Athena was buried head downwards. John Chrysostom sent out bands of monks to destroy the shrines of Satan. St Benedict’s first act upon arrival at Monte Cassino was to smash a statue of Apollo.

I had always thought St Basil a friend to literature. One 20th-century editor of his essay on “The Right Use of Greek Literature” said his attitude was “that of an understanding friend, not blind to its worst qualities but by no means condemning the whole”. Not so, says Nixey: he ruthlessly censored the classical authors of which he disapproved, and said it was better to avoid pagan authors altogether than to be corrupted by them.

There will be many moments in Nixey’s story when you will come to share her wish that the persecution of the early Christians had been more effective. Then, perhaps, we should not have had menaces to the human race such as Cyril of Alexandria, “purifying” the synagogues – ie gutting them. Nor would the mob in the same city have flayed the mathematician-philosopher Hypatia in the year 415, accusing her of witchcraft.

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