The Darkening Age: The Christian Destruction of the Classical World

by Catherine Nixey

Paperback, 2018



Call number



Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (2018)


Offers a history of the rise of Christianity in the classical world that focuses on its terrible cost, in terms of violence and dogmatic intolerance, that helped bring upon the dark ages. "A bold new history of the rise of Christianity, showing how its radical followers ravaged vast swathes of classical culture, plunging the world into an era of intellectual darkness. In Harran, the locals refused to convert. They were dismembered, their limbs hung along the town's main street. In Alexandria, zealots pulled the elderly philosopher-mathematician Hypatia from her chariot and flayed her to death with shards of broken pottery. Not long before, their fellow Christians had invaded the city's greatest temple and razed it--smashing its world-famous statues and destroying all that was left of Alexandria's Great Library. Today, we refer to Christianity's conquest of the West as a triumph. But this victory entailed an orgy of destruction in which Jesus's followers attacked and suppressed classical culture, helping to pitch Western civilization into a thousand-year-long decline. Just one percent of Latin literature would survive the purge; countless antiquities, artworks, and ancient traditions were lost forever. As Catherine Nixey reveals, evidence of early Christians' campaigns of terror has been hiding in plain sight: in the palimpsests and shattered statues proudly displayed in churches and museums the world over. In The Darkening Age, Nixey resurrects this lost history, offering a wrenching account of the rise of Christianity and its terrible cost."--Jacket.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member Chatterbox
I've just finished reading Catherine Nixey's excellent and thought-provoking book, and given that there's pretty much an even split in the two reviews that now exist, I thought I would put my thumb on the scales...

Nixey, educated at Cambridge, studied the classics and went on to teach the subject
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before moving sideways into journalism, which means she brings to her project a scholarly knowledge of one side of the equation: the classical world's perception of the rise to power/triumph of Christianity. Raised by a former monk and a former nun, as a Catholic, she also learned to accept as "givens" what remains the standard narrative about that subject, from the idea that Christians were relentlessly and consistently persecuted for their religion to the concept that the world somehow became a happier place starting with the conversion of Constantine.

It's important to note that Nixey's goal is NOT to provide a "balanced" narrative. She herself points out that the church and scholars drawing on centuries of history that has been unevenly preserved and then tilted in favor of the victors (any student of history knows that this happens, and it's no less the case in a religious triumph than in a political one...) means that there have been plenty of books that document the Christian view of the crucial centuries from about 200 AD, when Christians became significantly more visible, to 592 AD, when Justinian finally decreed that anyone who didn't convert to Christianity would have their goods seized, be exiled, as well as suffer vague "other" punishments. So she has started from the other perspective: what would it have been like to be among the 90% of the population of greater Europe (the Roman/Byzantine empire) that historians estimate was NOT Christian at the time of Constantine's conversion? What would their experience of the ensuing decades and centuries have been like?

Her answer? Chaos, fear and uncertainty. Once Christians decided that their faith could not (unlike all the others that existed in the world) coexist, but that it was THE path to truth and not A path to truth, and that everyone must subscribe to it, all bets were off. (And she quotes liberally from early church theologians and apologists, ranging from Augustine to Tertullian, in support of that broad position.) Monks weren't just holy men praying in the desert, but roving bands of enforcers, tearing down and mutilating statues, burning books indiscriminately (usually) and assaulting or even murdering anyone who stood in their path. Nixey recounts one magistrate who, hearing the chanting mob approaching his courtroom, simply jumped up and fled, saying "justice cannot be exercised once they have appeared." And while of course Nixey chronicles the murder of Hypatia in Alexandria (as one of the best known thinkers in centuries...), she notes Hypatia wasn't alone. Mobs in North Africa (Carthage) beat those who weren't sufficiently devout (including Christians...) to death with clubs, since Matthew 26:22 told them to keep their swords sheathed. (So somehow, clubbing to death became acceptable...)

Individual incidents from this book may be familiar to readers of history, from Hypatia's death to the final collapse of the Library of Alexandria, and Gibbon's analysis of the role of Christianity in his 18th century "Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire". Indeed, if you've read that, this would be an excellent book to follow up with, as, like Gibbon, Nixey relies heavily on primary sources, and analyzes and discusses the motivations of each of those sources. Was the person whose perspective she is citing likely to have been threatened by what was happening, or was he speaking from the perspective of the winning camp and yet being presented in ostensibly objective prose even centuries later as a benign individual? (A case in point is France's St. Martin, who was was famed throughout what would become France for the violence with which he approached destroying art, buildings and his hostility to individuals of other faiths -- a Penguin book of the Lives of the Saints refers to him blandly as sometimes "over-zealous."

To me, this is a book about how to approach history as much as it is history itself. In any tug-of-war, there are always two sides to a story. One has been the dominant narrative; the other has been lost. (Nixey quotes -- accurately -- the estimate that today we possess perhaps 1% of all the Latin literature ever written, and that most contemporary critics of Christianity had their words banned outright, with anyone possessing copies being automatically condemned to death. So we possess only glimpses here and there into this tale. Still, Nixey has crafted a narrative that suggests what it might have been like to be part of a majority in a large empire -- a polytheistic, multilingual, multicultural, chaotic kind of universe, in which Christians made up only 10% -- and then one day to wake up and find that that 10% now ran the world and set the rules, and that in contrast to the olden days, when merely pretending to sacrifice (she debunks some of the Christian martyr stories, too) by touching incense once every decade, would have gotten you off the hook, the new regime wants to own your soul because it is the truth. WHAT a shock to the system. Nixey's challenge to the reader is to ask us to imagine that kind of transition, and what being compelled to believe in someone else's religion, or else, might have been like. She does compare the nature of the persecutions of Christians (and anyone else who didn't want to submit to the authority of a divine emperor at periodic intervals) in three distinct periods, with the nature of the persecution of non-Christians under the rule of bishops who gave their followers carte blanche to walk into neighbors' houses whenever they wanted to look for books or statues.

This made me think of what's happening in Europe today, and specifically the fear of a "takeover" by Muslims who will impose sharia law on all Europeans. The percentage of Muslims, in Western Europe, is roughly analogous to Christians at the time of Constantine's conversion... No, Nixey doesn't go there, but that's what I mean about this being thought provoking.

So much of what was written by those who weren't church leaders, like Augustine, simply wasn't preserved (or was destroyed) that we may never have a full or complete picture of the people who weren't part of the group we today see as the mainstream -- the ultimate victors. And time has eroded the memory of their extreme and intolerant views, characteristic of many religions seeking to establish themselves or that feel under threat. In other cases, Nixey's description of early monastic practices can be linked to current monastic practices, like the denial of personal property (and the concept of bringing a "dowry" to the church, in the case of nuns), or the extremes of self-abnegation and self-punishment, such as hair shirts and "the discipline".

This is no more a balanced view than Thomas Cahill's book about how the Irish saved civilization by saving books, or many others I could mention, that take a perspective and support it with research. That said, it DOES provide a solid, well-researched and analytical historical look at a turning point from the 4th to the 6th centuries. It's not written by a religious believer like Karen Armstrong, which is fine -- precisely because it's not a work of theology, but about the impact that those theologians had on the people they viewed as existing in "insane error". It's not polemical. It says nothing about today's Catholic church, or Christianity today; it says nothing about the merits or lack thereof of the religion. It only addresses how those who were NOT Christian and did NOT convert or feel moved to embrace that faith, experienced their encounters with Christianity as the religion became the power in their world, from THEIR point of view and not those of the victors. For those who are religious, try not to read too much into this. Nixey is chronicling history, not mocking. She is recounting what people at that time, 1,700 years ago, might have experienced or did experience, based on the record that has come down to us. No more, no less. And the fact that it might come as a shock to some is, itself, testimony that this kind of book -- written not by someone with a religious axe to grind but by someone with an academic background even if she isn't an academic today -- has a role. Read it and think about what messages it sends about the nature of belief, about tolerance, about how we arrive at faith and how we treat others if they don't share our view of THE only faith. Nixey does mention how one of the early targets of the iconoclasts, or image breakers, were the classical temples in Palmyra in Syria (which I was lucky enough to visit before the war erupted there...) And of course, precisely the same statues, since carefully restored, have since been destroyed and defaced by ISIS. Intolerance and a demand that everyone think alike is not the preserve of any single religion, but of zealots of all faiths. But in a world where parchment and papyrus and fragile sculptures were all that preserved an entire classical civilization, we may never know the price of this particular kind of zealotry that Nixey describes.
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LibraryThing member DavidWineberg
"With our faith, we desire no further belief"

Before Christianity, no one identified by their religion, says Catherine Nixey. It was not their defining characteristic. Christians imposed their beliefs on everyone else, and required everyone to identify as Christian. That is the essence of The
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Darkening Age. It shows how the free-for-all that was life in the Roman Empire became the dour, sullen austerity of Christendom.

The Roman Empire was about living life to the fullest. Sex was celebrated (March 17 was a national festival celebrating young men’s first ejaculations), the bathhouses were for both sexes, sex acts provided artwork on walls, floors and objects in homes. Shame was not in the culture. Fine food and wine were exalted. Every religion from the vast expanse of the Empire was tolerated. The attitude was: Believe what you will, I’m having a drink. It was actually very Christian of them.

Nixey’s argument is that right from the beginning, Christianity favored martyrs over do-gooders to promote itself. Stories became epics, the ordinary became tragic and blood became holy, as Christianity’s fame and (forced) attraction spread. Christians were all about suicide and martyrdom, because eternal life after death was the promise and the goal. Christianity’s intolerance also began early on, denigrating any other form of worship, and once in power, punishing it by death to adherents. Homosexuality and lesbianism were banned, slavery was upheld, and death sentences became routine.

It all began with Constantine’s conversion in 312. He exempted the church from taxes, paid bishops five times the rate for professors, and set about converting his entire Roman Empire. To do this, he literally demonized all other religions, claiming all of them were really demons among the good people of the empire. By 386 it was a capital crime to even criticize Christianity. Up to that point, Christianity had been considered an eastern cult with absurd myths at its center.

The Darkening Age follows the collapse of civilization (the Roman Empire) from the time of Jesus to about 500 AD. In that time, the Romans went from tolerating Christians and their fierce sect (Pliny called it a “degenerate sort of cult”), to being taken over by it. The empire went from multi-faith to one single faith, as Christians, far from loving their neighbors, destroyed all vestiges of previous civilization, including the largest repository of knowledge and history – the library at Alexandria – and forced their religion on one and all, or face execution. They implemented spying by neighbors, required bishops to monitor each other for their faith, and instituted gruesome torture and murder for anyone suspected of lack of enthusiasm for Christianity.

Throughout the book there is a heartbreaking refugee, a philosopher named Damascius. He fled Alexandria because philosophy was destroyed by Christianity. He made it to Athens, where he resurrected the Academy of ancient Greece, and it thrived once again -until the Christians took over. He fled again, this time to Persia, which was so vulgar and ignorant, he and his last seven philosophers fled back to the Roman Empire, where they faded from history.

Christians were proud of their ignorance and despised learning. They dragged the most honored mathematician in the world to a temple, stripped her and flayed her skin off with pottery shards. They managed to burn books to the point where entire centuries show no evidence of non-religious writing at all. Monks scraped parchments clean and made copies of the bible on them instead. Statues were defaced, temples destroyed and the stones used to make churches. Nixey’s research says 90% of ancient Greek and Roman artifacts were mutilated or destroyed by Christians. They hammered nipples, carved crosses in foreheads, and smashed limbs. Essentially, any and every evidence of past learning or religion was removed from the Roman Empire as 60 million were cowed into allowing it to go on.

Reading The Darkening Age is very familiar. It is exactly what Islam is going through today. Killing apostates, blowing up statuary, destroying museums, demonizing sex and regulating every movement of every resident. The fierceness and intolerance of the Islamic fundamentalists has all been seen before. Only the numbers are different, as 21st century man counts in the billions, and the entire world is Islam’s target. There are many lessons in The Darkening Age, but mostly it is a fiendishly uncomfortable and gripping read.

David Wineberg
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LibraryThing member vguy
Thin gruel. Thesis is that Christianity messed up a lot of good things from the classical world, a point of view I tend to agree with. She suggest that this is a new idea, but it goes back at least as far as Gibbon, whom she does at least acknowledge. Effect is seriously spoiled by a rather
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childish sarcastic tone (example quoted below), and some confusion as to whether converting to Christianity was a step down socially or a step up. Narrative structure seems pretty random ; in her intro she suggests the book will be like a travelogue, but the journey is blurred. Nonetheless, interesting points are scattered through the text: Galen was some kind of superstar; the number of martyrs has been severely ramped up by Christian historians. I abandoned it. The Closing of the Western Mind: The Rise of Faith and the Fall of Reason by Charles Freeman covers similar ground but in a more subsantial way (I noticed she does not cite it).

"While the omniscient God had no trouble seeing not only into men's hearts but into their homes, Christian priests had a little more difficulty doing the same"
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LibraryThing member Darcia
History is written by the victors. It stands to reason, then, that the history of Christianity's rise in power is also written and handed down to us by its victors. Historians, particularly in ancient times, wanted to, or perhaps were required to, put a positive spin on events. And so the history
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we're taught, whether in school or in church, is typically edited and shown in a pretty light. With this book, we take off those rose-colored glasses and examine the whole truth surrounding Christianity's rise.

Catherine Nixey's writing style is more narrative nonfiction than textbook or scholarly work. The writing is reader-friendly, taking us back through a broad time period and allowing us to experience a bit of it for ourselves.

The layout is not linear. We don't start out at one year and work our way forward through all the minutiae. Nixey takes a more topical approach here. We look at philosophers and Christian martyr's and political leaders, following them along and seeing how and why they made certain choices. We look at the overall culture, as well as the negative effects and fallout of Christianity's rise.

This is not at all a Christian-bashing book. It's not written solely for atheists, any more than a book on the Civil War is written solely for northerners. Nixey does not attack belief in God or any other Christian beliefs. With this book, Nixey seeks only to provide an honest and complete picture of the tumultuous world of early Christianity.

*The publisher provided me with a review copy, via Amazon Vine, in exchange for my honest review.*
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LibraryThing member JHemlock
So much hate from other readers. A good healthy educated opinion is a must with a book like this. Well written material regardless if you agree with her or not. She catches lots of flack from some readers. she wrong?
LibraryThing member nmele
There's a real need for a popular book that discusses the destruction done to classical Greek and Roman art and literature by overzealous Christians. Unfortunately, Nixey's book is more of a diatribe than a discussion. A number of the incidents of destruction she relates are based on hagiographic
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writing, yet her sole acknowledgment that hagiography is not history is a single sentence almost halfway through her book. She neglects to mention relevant facts, for example that the circumcellions whose outrages she lists were condemned as heretics by the Church of their time and were a regional, not an empire-wide, problem; or that Shenoute, the abbot whom she pillories for his fanaticism and cruelty, was a reformer who insisted all his monks and nuns become literate and who was hailed for assisting poor peasants to remain independent. Also missing is a clear indication of the time line for many incidents and any acknowledgment of other pressures on both the Empire and the Church, like ongoing influxes of "barbarians" during the era she explores. Yes, there were many outrages, but many were condemned by church officials and some at least were due to other actors.
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LibraryThing member Shimmin
A fascinating, compelling book. It depicts the events of unfamiliar periods vividly and with accessible, scholarly but heartfelt language. Reading this filled me with displeasure at how little of this history I'd encountered before, and regularly with anger at the cultural annihilation repeatedly
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enacted on humanity over the millennia at the hands of zealots of all stripes. It seems odd to call it "enjoyable" but it was a very worthwhile read and I plan to seek out more of hers immediately.
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LibraryThing member CarltonC
An interesting but frustrating story about the end of the pre-christian Roman intellectual world, about 100AD to 500AD, as what was at that time an authoritarian monotheistic religion enforced its beliefs. Described by Peter Frankopan on the cover of my edition as “provocative and troubling”, I
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am unsure if he is commenting upon the subject matter or the presentation of this book.
I suppose that I am disappointed that a book that is potentially so interesting is written so stridently, in such an unbalanced way. It feels as if the author is protesting too much, whereas a more considered survey and comparison of the christian and non-christian sources regarding early martyrs for example, would be much more persuasive. The doubts don’t arise over the arguments she makes so much as the way in which she makes her arguments.
The book has a scholarly apparatus in having fifty pages of bibliography and notes to the text, but polemical in its delivery.
The arguments made would also benefit from an analysis of why non-christians in generality had to accept the destruction of their temples, although the author notes occasional violence of non-christians upon christians after Constantine made christianity the official Roman religion. It would also be interesting to learn why, although a few subsequent Roman emperors were non-christian, most were christian and enacted legislation to persecute non-christians.
As Nixey puts it at the end of chapter fifteen, “The intellectual foundations for a thousand years of theocratic oppression were being laid”. But the author does not explain why society accepted this change, just that in particular cases, violent christians threatened civil authorities, claiming that religious authority was superior. I understand coercion on an individual basis, but not what weakened Roman civil authorities so that they could not take action against the christian bishops and monks when they broke civil laws.
Of course that changes once the Roman emperors become christians and introduce successively more authoritarian laws, but there is little or no discussion of how and why this happened.
Although very readable, Nixey is not a professional historian, and she advises that this book was originally envisaged as partly a travel book. I will have to find a book that provides a better analysis, because it is an interesting subject.
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LibraryThing member write-review
Intolerance of Certitude

Catherine Nixey has written a useful cautionary on what happens when a group certain, unreasoning, and unmovable in its faith gains power. While the idea that dominance can lead to intolerance isn’t new, and that Christians aren’t the first to wield dominance and power
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indiscriminately and often brutally, it is rare that a group will hold sway as long as Christianity has managed. As Nixey illustrates, such divine certitude when commingled with temporal authority can be costly in intangibles, such as stifling diverse intellectual life, and tangibles, including not only art but in the ability to lead a satisfying life that might diverge from the (restrictive) norm. While some reviewers more steeped in ancient history point to Nixey’s selective assembly of facts that portray early Christians as an intolerant and philistine bunch and polytheists as at least inclusive, her larger point of the destructive power and cost of willful ignorance is well taken, especially in the shadow of today’s eruptions of lunacy. And, it doesn’t hurt that her writing moves things at an electric pace. If a volume about religion and antiquities can ever be called a page turner, this is it.

When a belief system, pretty much anything based wholly on faith, gets stripped of it theological razzle-dazzle and then lampooned with wit, it can certainly appear foolish. And it’s here that some may object to Nixey’s style, for she does have lots of wit about her, and she knows how to rally the wit of the ancients to her cause. Where she does this most entertainingly is Chapter Three, “Wisdom is Foolishness.” If you ever thought the ancients a dry, dusty lot, you’ll not want to pass up this chapter, which you could probably take in leaning against the shelf in your local bookstore or library. Nixey discusses the influential physician and philosopher Galen (a goodly portion of his vast writings managed to survive and influence the West via the Arab world, another story) in the context of empirical knowledge versus Christian blind faith. But the chapter really entertains when she offers up Greek philosopher Celsus’ argument against Christianity. Theodosius II and Valentinian III (400s) banned Celsus’s The True Word (178), so no complete copy survives outside of what Origen of Alexandria quotes in Contra Celsum (248), his multivolume refutation of Celsus. A sample will give a measure on both Nixey and Celsus:

“The Creation story itself takes a particular bashing. Celsus disdains the idea of an omnipotent being needing to piece out his work like a builder, to make so much on one day, so much more on a second, third, fourth and so on—and particularly the idea that, after all this work, ‘God, exactly like a bad workman, was worn out and needed a holiday to have a rest.’”

How different would our world be today had Christians exercised a modicum of tolerance in their ascent to dominance? Well, that’s a question best answered by speculative fiction. Reality is that we live in a world missing a sizable portion of our past thanks to blind faith.
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LibraryThing member Henry.Pole-Carew
Nixey is a journalist and not an historian and this polemic confirms that she has very little understanding of the period or the subject matter.
She has started with her conclusion and worked backwards cherry-picking sources and omitting anything that would contradict her thesis.

The idea that the
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early Christian Church systematically destroyed ancient knowledge is simply a myth. Christian texts considered heretical could be condemned to the flames but not works of ancient philosophy and literature. The infamous library of Alexandria was destroyed by the Roman invasion at the time of Cleopatra; what existed thereafter was not considered particularly important by the ancients themselves.

All the ancients texts we have (without exception) are the result of copying by monks and churchmen until the advent of the printing press. Outside the deserts a papyrus scroll will barely last a generation without careful preservation. There isn't a single major settlement of the ancient world which hasn't been sacked (often multiple times) over the centuries and papyrus is very flammable. Quite frankly it's astounding that so much has survived at all and for that we have the Church to thank.

Archaeology confirms that the vast majority of pagan temples were simply abandoned when the substantial funds needed for their maintenance dried up after wealthy benefactors adopted Christianity. They were then used as quarries for building material and nature took its course.
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LibraryThing member RickGeissal
Terrific lode of information that was all new to me, written very well and in readable form. I was shaken by this book, and am grateful to the author.


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