Book review: The Darkening Age

 Book review: The Darkening Age

It is said that “ABSOLUTE POWER CORRUPTS”. Hence the post-Roman era is typically called the Dark ages since it was the period when Christianity held absolute power, which resulted in widespread destruction and corruption of everything that it touched. However, what was it like when Christianity was struggling to acquire power? What effect did it have during that time? These are the questions that Catherine Nixey’s new book titled “The Darkening Age” attempts to answer. And it sheds light on some of the facts hitherto brushed under the carpet by the historians who have told the story of the triumph of Christianity based on Christian sources, and thus, presented the narrative of a decadent barbarian empire which was saved by Christianity. However, this was not the case.  The tale of Christianity acquiring power over Rome is one that brought a considerable amount of sorrow to the Classical world. Hence, “The Darkening Age” is an apt metaphor for those times.

Early on in the book, Nixey explores the motivation of the Christians to convert the Empire. Was it to provide a balm against the decadence, the corruption and the overindulgence present in the Roman empire with their multiple Gods, their supposedly silly myths, superstitious rituals, none of which could provide solace to the distressed population suffering from the raging plague and war? Though the later historians present the triumph of Christianity in these terms, Nixey reveals a far more basic reason – From the point of view of the early Christians, Rome had to be Christianized in order to win the war between Good and Evil, between God and Satan. Christians were the followers of God, while the Roman empire was the very house of Satan!

Nixey explores the obsession that early Christians had with demons. There were elaborate demonologies that delved deep into the classification of the demons based on their appearances, their powers and the manner in which they can be defeated. And most of these demons, wrote the Christian writers, hung around like flies around the corpse on the statues of the Roman Gods – Jupiter, Aphrodite, Bacchus, Isis. It was demons who put the delusion of other religions into the minds of the humans, these writers wrote. Augustine wrote,  ‘All Pagans were under the power of demons. Temples were built to demons, altars were set up to demons, priests ordained for the service of demons, sacrifices offered to demons, and ecstatic ravers were brought in as prophets for demons.’ In a classic demonization trope, Tertullian said that those who criticized Christianity were not speaking with a free mind, instead were attacking the Christians because they were under the control of Satan and his foot-soldiers. Demons were able to take possession of men’s souls and block up their hearts to stop them from believing in Christ. This was the justification for disrupting the Pagan modes of worships, for desecrating their temples, for defiling their altars, for these were not acts of intolerance, but were some of the most virtuous things a man might do – according to these Christians!! The Bible demanded it. Deuteronomy instructed, ” And ye shall overthrow their altars, and break their pillars, and burn their groves with fire; and ye shall hew down the graven images of their gods, and destroy the names of them out of that place”.

It wasn’t that the Christians didn’t face any ideological resistance. Though for the first century there is no mention of Christianity in any of the Roman works, perhaps because the Romans dismissed them as yet another weird cult, in 170 CE, the Philosopher Celsus wrote a scathing criticism of the Christian religion in his “On the True Doctrine”. He noticed that not only were the early Christians ignorant, but they paraded their ignorance as a badge of honor. He also said that they would seek out the foolish, dishonorable, and stupid, and only slaves, women and little children and “dripped honeyed intellectual poison into uneducated ears”. Neither were the Christians the first to make fantastic claims nor were they right in their claims, for there were numerous cults, which made such illogical claims. However, it is interesting to note that in the refutations of such supernatural claims, the case of Simon the Magus, for example, Christian writers didn’t refute the ability of opponents to perform miracles, but merely their divine right to do so. So in the case of someone like Simon the Magus,  they insisted that his powers were not from God, but, ‘by virtue of the art of the devils operating in him!’

The other trope that was used by the Christians to irritate the Romans and recruit more members into their cult was the trope of Martyrdom. There were legitimate cases where Christians suffered atrocities under the hands of Roman emperors – for example Nero in 64CE, Decian in 250 CE, Valerian in 257 CE and the great persecution in 303 CE. However, the Martyrdom stories of Christianity seem to make it as if the Christians were hounded for their belief when in most cases they were punished for disrupting law and order and their stubbornness in the court of law. Nixey quotes many historians such as Keith Hopkins, Candida Moss who have critically analyzed the myth of martyrdom. If anything, the Roman governors were very kind, who gave ample opportunities to the Christians to escape punishment. They were clueless as to why these Christians would seek martyrdom, ignoring the pleas of their families, ignoring the glorious life that was there for them. Why would anyone reject the beautiful life and beg for death, they wondered. It becomes clear that martyrdom was a sure shot way for many who were nobodies in the Roman society to be recognized, celebrated and immortalized. Martyrdom was bestowed even upon those people who were killed in minor skirmishes with the Pagans when as a part of the mob, they ventured to destroy Pagan temples! There were suicidal cults such as Circumcellions who yearned martyrdom!  While the Romans were incredibly tolerant with the stubborn Christians for centuries, when the latter usurped power, they wasted no time in passing laws to abolish the Roman practice of their religion.

The power came to the Christian hands when in 312CE Constantine converted to Christianity. Following his conversion, the church started being paid vast sums of money. Constantine was able to obtain these funds from destroying the statues of the pagans and recovering the precious metals to be found there. Constantine also carted away some of the precious sculptures to his new city Constantinople where he would display them as a mark of Christian victory over the superstitious Pagans. Encouraged by these acts of the emperor, a flourishing business for plundered arts began and Christians started taking the risk of confronting the demons to salvage good art that can be sold for a hefty sum of money. The tolerance of the Christians, or the lack thereof, can be seen from the fact that during the time of Constantine’s conversion, the total number of Christians in the empire were not more than 10% of the total population. However, within a hundred years, there weren’t more than 10% Pagans. Thus, while Roman “persecution” of the Christians left it vigorous enough that it took control of an empire and ruled for over a millennium,  by the time the Christian persecutions had finished, an entire religious system had been all but wiped from the face of the earth! Nixey’s words, “For those who wish to be intolerant, monotheism provides very powerful weapons” are quite apt here.

In the rest of the book, Nixey documents the destruction, that this cult caused to the Classical world. This includes the destruction of countless temples (eg: The temple of Serapis in Alexandria in 392CE), the murder of intellectuals (eg: Hypatia of Alexandria in 415 CE), the burning of books, vandalization of art & sculpture. Chapter 8 titled  “How to destroy a demon” provides ample evidence of iconoclasm and the methods adopted to achieve them. There were laws which, in order to snub the pagans, declared that the portions of the destroyed temples were to be used to repair roads, bridges and aqueducts. The motivation for partial dis-figuration of statues seems to come from the Jewish tract Avodah Zarah as per which in order to properly mutilate a statue (to drive the demon out of them), one should be “cutting off the tip of the ear, or nose or finger, by battering it –even though the bulk of it is not diminished — it is desecrated.” One cannot help but find similarities to the destruction of the temples in India at the hands of the Muslims, which resulted in the chipped noses and broken limbs of the statues therein. Thus, there seems to be a method in this iconoclasm madness which has been passed on as an heirloom from one Abrahamic religion to the next. 

The book also discusses how the literary style of the classical world was appropriated by the Christians such as Jerome and Augustine for the service of Christianity so that the Roman elite could be converted and, more importantly, retained within the fold of Christianity. When some lay Christians accused Jerome of indulging in secular works, he supposedly retorted saying, “Deuteronomy allowed a captive woman to be taken as a wife once her head was shaved, her eyebrows and hair cut off and nails pared. Thus, admiring the fairness of the form of the secular wisdom, I desire to make this captive my handmaid a matron of True Israel. Once I shave off all that is dead be that idolatry, pleasure, error or lust, I take her to myself clean and pure and beget by her servants for the Lord of Sabaoth”. This was the justification of what Rajiv Malhotra refers to as Digestion in his writings.

The book ends with the tale of Damascius the aging philosopher, who is forced to flee Athens, and shut down the Academy due to the laws of Justinian passed in 529 CE which forbade  “… the teaching of any doctrine by those who labor under the insanity of paganism so that they may not corrupt the souls of their disciples” thus highlighting another critical aspect of the Christian rule – the use of law to curb the Pagans’ way of life. My ancestors from Goa had experienced a taste of this during the Portuguese rule where such laws made it difficult for the Hindus to practice their religion. The only options left before them were to either flee Goa leaving behind all their property and start afresh, or to convert. And even when converted, they would be viewed with suspicion and had to live under the terror of the inquisition.

Thus, the Triumph of Christianity and the destruction of Paganism is not a happy tale nor a tale of the deliverance of the masses. On the contrary, it is a very sad one – a tale of destruction plunging the world into a dark age. The remaining works from the classical age, the literature, the defaced sculptures act as mute witnesses to this sad story.  The loss of the classical world cannot be described. This becomes evident in Chapter 11 where Nixey quotes E A Judge asking, “What difference did it make to Rome to have been converted?” and answers that though cannot know for certain, something did change.  As a post-Christian author, she focuses on the profound change in our attitudes towards food and sex due to Christianity compared to that in the Roman times where these were aspects of Kama, to be indulged in without giving in to excess. However the Christian view of both of these was evil and hence had to be shunned as much as possible.

I agree with Nixey that our attitudes towards these have drastically been impacted by Christianity. However, there are more important things that she could have spoken about in this chapter but fails to. This silence perhaps answers eloquently what difference it made to Rome to have been converted. The interactions that the Romans had with the Divine, their Mythology, their Sacred arts, the ability to sacralize life, the ability to view science, arts, rituals within the common framework of things that can produce Vidya — these things aren’t even spoken about, or even considered worthy of lament. This outlook that the Romans had is not unlike the Hindu outlook, where a learned person was equally at home performing rituals to the Devas while indulging in highly abstract mathematical/computational work and be able to describe these through ornate poetic language. There was no fake distinction between Science, Art, Rituals that we see even in the post-Christian world. Life was one unified whole where pursuit of the three Purusharthas was simultaneously sought for. While Renaissance was able to revive science & art, these were still garbed in Christian clothing. Further, Renaissance wasn’t able to revive the Pagan religion, despite the fact that it indulged in the fruits of the Pagan religion – the dream of Plethon (the very source of Renaissance) that Renaissance shall revive Paganism did not become true.

Thus, the inability to understand western culture on its own terms is the biggest difference that conversion of Rome has resulted in. And due to the predatory nature of Christianity, aided by colonization & later on globalization, this attitude has spread all over the world. The effects of this can be seen among the Modern Educated Hindus (MEH) whose worldview is shaped by the prevalent western discourse, and hence, they are unable to evaluate their own culture in a sympathetic manner.

I would highly recommend this book to every Hindu who will see a glimpse of his own civilization in the sufferings of classical Rome at the hands of Christianity. The motives, methods & madness of the followers of this cult is similar to the other cults whose acts brought much suffering to our Hindu ancestors. The use of the legal framework to subjugate the Pagans – even direct bans on various Pagan rituals (one of which was animal sacrifice), the deceptions, the subversion of their culture, art, science – these are things that a keen observer can identify happening in our country even to this date.

To understand how the madness of Religion of Love began, do read this book.

Aurva Bhargava

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