Book reviews / History

Book review: The Darkening Age

This felt very much like the companion to Battling the Gods, but rather than talking about non-religious beliefs it is about the crushing wave of Christian thought drowning out pagan beliefs (using pagan, even though as the author says, it’s a derogatory term invented by Christians). I found myself really sad at the end of this book, as it does such a good job of demonstrating the thoroughness of the destruction of the classical world, by the hands of zealots. It’s hard not to see the parallels between the 4th-6th century Christians and the likes of the Taliban and Islamic state today (they even both hacked apart the same statue of Athena). I’m sure that’s what the author wanted to invoke, and it was pretty effective.

I really enjoyed the book but felt somewhat despairing in the latter half of the book. That’s what the philosophers and those with ‘pagan’ beliefs felt as well, or what can be interpreted from what remaining texts there are left. It’s hard to believe that many currently venerated saints were essentially thieves, vandals and murderers. Their hagiographies even talk about how they broke statues and knocked over temples. Which with the distance of time feels more like a story, but in this book it felt viscerally real. I think the combination of the reactions of the destruction from non-christian observors with the absolute glee and gloating of the Christian Bishops was a powerful way of showing the struggle.

I hadn’t know about the Cicumcellions before reading this book, who sound pretty terrifying. I knew about people being obsessed with martydom from early modern history (especially those during the first waves of colonial conquest wanting to be martyred by natives), but these zealots sounded fearsome. The author also suggests they were involved in the murder of Hypatia. I can’t image what it must be like to be a non-Christian and see this group of dishevelled hoodlums with clubs coming near your town or place of worship.

What was also very effective was using the words of the early Christian Bishops and thinkers to highlight their totalitarian ways of thinking. And just how weird and intolerant the asceticism sounds, like wanting to get rid of music and theatres, referring to nice things as “the tyranny of joy.” I’m so used to thinking of the Reformation and Renaissance when it comes to Christian artistic expression, that this period just seems so entirely alien. There was also the juxtaposition between the relative liberty around sexuality (relative, as there were still slaves and classes with differing levels of freedom) with the Romans and the distaste toward women and the ultimate outlawing of homosexuality by the Christians.

The other thing that was satisfying was how she points out the historiography has glossed over the very real struggle of those who were still not Christian. Subsequent histories would say that everyone just wanted to become Christian or that the old religions were already dying. It was very much the victor’s point of view. It’s a bit tragic that there’s so little evidence of the struggle left, as Christians were fairly thorough in temple smashing and book burning. Hopefully as new things are discovered there will be a bit more restored and brought to light.

Anyway, a really fantastic read. It really made me ache with sorrow at how much has been lost, both to active destruction and passive neglect.

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