Darkening Age, 21

Pieter Coecke van Aelst, Story of Saint Paul: The Burning of the
Books at Ephesus
, designed ca. 1529, woven before 1546 (medium:
wool and silk, woven under the direction of Jan van der Vyst).

 

Editor’s note. Bold-typed emphasis in the last paragraph is mine. In chapter eleven of The Darkening Age: The Christian Destruction of the Classical World, Catherine Nixey wrote:

In Egypt, a fearsome monk and saint named Shenoute entered the house of a man suspected of being a pagan and removed all his books. The Christian habit of book-burning went on to enjoy a long history. A millennium later, the Italian preacher Savonarola wanted the works of the Latin love poets Catullus, Tibullus and Ovid to be banned while another preacher said that all of these ‘shameful books’ should be let go, because if you are Christians you are obliged to burn them’…

* * *

Before there had been competing philosophical schools, all equally valid, all equally arguable. Now, for the first time, there was right—and there was wrong. Now, there was what the Bible said—and there was everything else. And from now on any belief that was ‘wrong’ could, in the right circumstances, put you in grave danger.

As Dirk Rohmann has highlighted, Augustine said that works that opposed Christian doctrine had no place in Christian society and had scant time for much of Greek philosophy. The Greeks, Augustine said dismissively, ‘have no ground for boasting of their wisdom’. The Church’s authors were greater, and more ancient. John Chrysostom went far further. He described pagan philosophy as a madness, the mother of evils and a disease.

Classical literature was filled with the incorrect and demonic and it came under repeated and vicious attack from the Church Fathers. Atheism, science and philosophy were all targeted. The very idea that mankind could explain everything through science was, as Rohmann has shown, disparaged as folly. ‘Stay clear of all pagan books!’ the Apostolic Constitutions advised Christians bluntly. ‘For what do you have to do with such foreign discourses, or laws, or false prophets, which subvert the faith of the unstable?’ If you wish to read about history, it continued, ‘you have the Books of Kings; if philosophy and poetry, you have the Prophets, the Book of Job and the Proverbs, in which you will find greater depth of sagacity than in all of the pagan poets and philosophers because this is the voice of the Lord… Do therefore always stay clear of all such strange and diabolical books!’…

An accusation of ‘magic’ was frequently the prelude to a spate of burnings. In Beirut, at the turn of the sixth century, a bishop ordered Christians, in the company of civil servants, to examine the books of those suspected of this. Searches were made, books were seized from suspects and then brought to the centre of the city and placed in a pyre. A crowd was ordered to come and watch as the Christians lit this bonfire in front of the church of the Virgin Mary. The demonic deceptions and ‘barbarous and atheistic arrogance’ of these books were condemned as ‘everybody’ watched ‘the magic books and the demonic signs burn’. As with the destruction of temples, there was no shame in this…

What did the books burned on such occasions really contain? Doubtless some did contain ‘magic’—such practices were popular prior to Christianity and certainly didn’t disappear with its arrival. But they were not all. The list given in the life of St Simeon clearly refers to the destruction of books of Epicureanism, the philosophy that advocated the theory of atomism. ‘Paganism’ appears to have been a charge in itself—and while it could mean outlawed practices it could, at a stretch, refer to almost any antique text that contained the gods. Christians were rarely good chroniclers of what they burned.

Sometimes, clues to the texts remain. In Beirut, just before the bonfire of the books, pious Christians had gone to the house of a man suspected of owning books that were ‘hateful to God’. The Christians told him that they ‘wanted the salvation and recovery of his soul’; they wanted ‘liberation’. These Christians then entered his home, inspected his books and searched each room. Nothing was found—until the man was betrayed by his slave. Forbidden books were discovered in a secret compartment in a chair. The man whose house it was—clearly well aware of what such ‘liberation’ might involve—‘fell to the ground and begged us, in tears, not to hand him over to the law’. He was spared the law but forced to burn his books. As our chronicler Zachariah records with pleasure, ‘when the fire was lit he threw the books of magic into it with his own hands, and said that he thanked God who had granted him with his visit and liberated him from the slavery and error of demons’. One of the books removed from the house in Beirut is mentioned: it is very possible it was not magic but a history by a disapproved-of Egyptian historian.

Divination and prophecy were often used as pretexts to attack a city’s elite. One of the most infamous assaults on books and thinkers took place in Antioch. Here, at the end of the fourth century, an accusation of treasonous divination led to a full-scale purge that targeted the city’s intellectuals. By sheer chance, Ammianus Marcellinus, a non-Christian and one of the finest historians of the era, happened to be in the city; a wonderful piece of luck for later historians and wretched luck for the man himself, who was horrified. As Ammianus describes it,

the racks were set up, and leaden weights, cords, and scourges put in readiness. The air was filled with the appalling yells of savage voices mixed with the clanking of chains, as the torturers in the execution of their grim task shouted: ‘Hold, bind, tighten, more yet.’

A noble of ‘remarkable literary attainments’ was one of the first to be arrested and tortured; he was followed by a clutch of philosophers who were variously tortured, burned alive and beheaded. Educated men in the city who had considered themselves fortunate now, Damocles-like, realized the fragility of their fortune. Looking up, it was as if they saw ‘swords hung over their heads suspended by horse-hairs from the ceiling’.

And, once again, there was the burning of books as bonfires of volumes were used as post-hoc justification for the slaughter. Ammianus Marcellinus writes with distaste that

innumerable books and whole heaps of documents, which had been routed out from various houses, were piled up and burnt under the eyes of the judges. They were treated as forbidden texts to allay the indignation caused by the executions, though most of them were treatises on various liberal arts and on jurisprudence.

Many intellectuals started to pre-empt the persecutors and set light to their own books. The destruction was extensive and ‘throughout the eastern provinces whole libraries were burnt by their owners for fear of a similar fate; such was the terror which seized all hearts’. Ammianus wasn’t the only intellectual to be scared in these decades. The orator Libanius burned a huge number of his own works…

* * *

The Great Library of Alexandria might have attempted to collect books on every topic, but Christianity was going to be considerably more selective…

One surviving Byzantine manuscript of Ovid has been scarred by a series of ridiculous redactions—even the word ‘girl’ seems to have been considered too racy to remain. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Jesuits were still censoring and bowdlerizing their editions of the classics. Individual abbots, far from Umberto Eco’s avenging intellectual ideal, sometimes censored their own libraries. At some point in the fifteenth century, a note was left in a mutilated manuscript in Vienna. ‘At this point in the book,’ it records, ‘there were thirteen leaves containing works by the apostate Julian; the abbot of the monastery… read them and realised that they were dangerous, so he threw them into the sea.’

Much classical literature was preserved by Christians. Far more was not. To survive, manuscripts needed to be cared for, recopied. Classical ones were not. Medieval monks, at a time when parchment was expensive and classical learning held cheap, simply took pumice stones and scrubbed the last copies of classical works from the page. Rohmann has pointed out that there is even evidence to suggest that in some cases ‘whole groups of classical works were deliberately selected to be deleted and overwritten in around AD 700, often with texts authored by [the fathers of the Church or by] legal texts that criticised or banned pagan literature’. Pliny, Plautus, Cicero, Seneca, Virgil, Ovid, Lucan, Livy and many, many more: all were scrubbed away by the hands of believers…

The texts that suffer in this period are the texts of the wicked and sinful pagans. From the entirety of the sixth century only ‘scraps’ of two manuscripts by the satirical Roman poet Juvenal survive and mere ‘remnants’ of two others, one by the Elder and one by the Younger Pliny.

From the next century there survives nothing save a single fragment of the poet Lucan.

From the start of the next century: nothing at all.

Far from mourning the loss, Christians delighted in it. As John Chrysostom crowed, the writings ‘of the Greeks have all perished and are obliterated’. He warmed to the theme in another sermon: ‘Where is Plato? Nowhere! Where Paul? In the mouths of all!’

The fifth-century writer Theodoret of Cyrrhus observed the decline of Greek literature with similar enthusiasm. ‘Those elaborately decorated fables have been utterly banned,’ he gloated. ‘Who is today’s head of the Stoic heresy? Who is safeguarding the teachings of the Peripatetics?’ No one, evidently, for Theodoret concludes this homily with the observation that ‘the whole earth under the sun has been filled with sermons’.

Augustine contentedly observed the rapid decline of the atomist philosophy in the first century of Christian rule. By his time, he recorded, Epicurean and Stoic philosophy had been ‘suppressed’—the word is his. The opinions of such philosophers ‘have been so completely eradicated and suppressed… that if any school of error now emerged against the truth, that is, against the Church of Christ, it would not dare to step forth for battle if it were not covered under the Christian name’…

Much was preserved. Much, much more was destroyed. It has been estimated that less than ten per cent of all classical literature has survived into the modern era. For Latin, the figure is even worse: it is estimated that only one hundredth of all Latin literature remains. If this was ‘preservation’—as it is often claimed to be—then it was astonishingly incompetent. If it was censorship, it was brilliantly effective. The ebullient, argumentative classical world was, quite literally, being erased.

Darkening Age, 20

In chapter 10 of The Darkening Age: The Christian Destruction of the Classical World, Catherine Nixey wrote:
 
In Alexandria, Cyril conducted house searches to hunt out works by the loather pagan emperor Julian ‘the Apostate’…

This was a new literary world and a newly serious one. ‘The extent to which this new Christian story both displaced and substituted for all others is breathtaking,’ writes the modern academic Brent D. Shaw… And in the place of humour, came fear. Christian congregations found themselves rained on by oratorical fire and brimstone. For their own good, of course. As Chrysostom observed with pleasure: ‘in our churches we hear countless discourses on eternal punishment, on rivers of fire, on the venomous worm, on bonds that cannot be burst, on exterior darkness’…

Less than a hundred years after the first Christian emperor, the intellectual landscape was changing. In the third century, there had been twenty-eight public libraries in Rome and many private ones. By the end of the fourth they were, as the historian Ammianus Marcellinus observed with sorrow, ‘like tombs, permanently shut’…

As a law of AD 388 announced: ‘There shall be no opportunity for any man to go out to the public and to argue about religion or to discuss it or to give any counsel.’ If anyone with ‘damnable audacity’ attempted to then, the law announced with a threat no less ominous for being vague, ‘he shall be restrained with a due penalty and proper punishment’…

In Athens, some decades after Hypatia’s death, a resolutely pagan philosopher found himself exiled for a year…

What was not ‘of profit ‘ could easily fade from view. The shocking death of Hypatia ought to have merited a good deal of attention in the histories of the period. Instead it is treated lightly and obliquely, if at all. In history, as in life, no one in Alexandria was punished for her murder. There was a cover-up. Some writers were highly critical—even to fervent Christian eyes this was an appalling act.

But not all: as one Christian bishop later recorded with admiration, once the satanic woman had been destroyed, then all the people surrounded Cyril in acclamation for he had ‘destroyed the last remains of idolatry in the city.’ The affected myopia of Christian historians could be magnificent: as the historian Ramsay MacMullen has put it, ‘Hostile writings and discarded views were not recopied or passed on, or they were actively suppressed.’

The Church acted as a great and, at times, fierce filter on all written material, the centuries of its control as ‘a differentially permeable membrane’ that ‘allowed the writings of Christianity to pass through but not of Christianity’s enemies.’

Darkening Age, 19

Note of the Ed.: The main weakness that the Aryan faces before the Jew is the lack of solidarity to even recognise his martyrs. Contrast this attitude with how the Jew commemorates every single historical grievance; for example, when a Greek Seleucid king tried to destroy Judaism centuries before the Common Era.

The parabalani were Christian thugs that blindly obeyed the bishop of Alexandria. Since Aryans fail to honour their martyrs (Agora is a philo-Semitic film—not a good example of honouring an Aryan martyr of Semitic thugs), it would be helpful to imagine the parabalani as the Faith Militant in the TV series Game of Thrones. But this comparison, like the Spanish movie Agora starring non-Aryan Rachel Weisz as Hypatia, is deceiving. The historical parabalani were probably Christian Semites, as suggested in Evropa Soberana’s essay on Judea vs. Rome.

In chapter nine of The Darkening Age: The Christian Destruction of the Classical World, Catherine Nixey wrote:

 

______ 卐 ______

 

Hypatia of Alexandria was born in the same city as the parabalani and yet a world away from them. While they spent their days toiling among the filthy and the dying, this aristocratic intellectual spent her days working with abstract mathematical theories and astrolabes. Hypatia was not only a philosopher; she was also a brilliant astronomer and the greatest mathematician of her generation. The Victorians, who became much taken with her, granted her other graces posthumously. One famous painting shows her draped naked against an altar, her nubile body shielded by little more than her tumbling tawny locks. A novel about her by the Reverend Charles Kingsley, author of the children’s novel The Water Babies, is rich in such breathless phrases as ‘the severest and grandest type of old Greek beauty’ and in musings on her ‘curved lips’ and the ‘glorious grace and beauty of every line’…

After razing Serapis the Christians had gone on vicious rampage through the city and its 2,500 shrines, temples and religious sites. Busts of Serapis previously stood in streets, wall niches and above doorways had been removed—’cleansed’. The Christians had ‘so cut and filed [them] away that not even a trace or mention of [Serapis] or any other demon remained anywhere. In their place everyone painted the sign of the Lord’s cross on door­ posts, entrances, walls and columns.’ Later, with bolder finality, crosses were carved in.

The city’s intellectual life had suffered. The final remnants of the Great Library had gone, vanishing along with the temple. Many of Alexandria’s intellectuals had gone too, fleeing to Rome, or elsewhere in Italy, or anywhere they could to get away from this frightening city’…

[For the Christian mind] Hypatia was not a philosopher: she was a creature of Hell. It was she who was turning the entire city against God with her trickery and her spells. She was ‘atheizing’ Alexandria. Naturally, she seemed appealing enough—but that was how the Evil One worked. Hypatia, they said, ‘had beguiled many people through satanic wiles’. Worst of all, she had even beguiled Orestes. Hadn’t he stopped going to church? It was clear: she had beguiled him through her magic’. This could not be allowed to continue.

One day in March AD 415, Hypatia set out from her home to go for her daily ride through the city. Suddenly; she found her way blocked by a ‘multitude of believers in God’. They ordered her to get down from her chariot. Knowing what had recently happened to her friend Orestes, she must have realized as she climbed down that her situation was a serious one. She cannot possibly have realized quite how serious.

As soon as she stood on the street, the parabalani, under the guidance of a Church magistrate called Peter—‘a perfect believer in all respects in Jesus Christ’—surged round and seized ‘the pagan woman’.

They then dragged Alexandria’s greatest living mathematician through the streets to a church. Once inside, they ripped the clothes from her body then, using broken pieces of pottery as blades, flayed her skin from her flesh. Some say that, while she still gasped for breath, they gouged out her eyes.

Once she was dead, they tore her body into pieces and threw what was left of the ‘luminous child of reason’ onto a pyre and burned her.

Darkening Age, 18

Editor’s Note: The recent Occidental Observer article ‘Words Like Violence: The Left’s Total War on Freedom of Speech’ which reproduces a segment of the book of Richard Houck, is good for the normie to wake up to the fact that we are living in the darkest hour of the West. In the comments section of that article, one visitor opined that what Houck wrote is Alt Lite, as the author ‘sounds like he refrains from naming the actual (((enemy)))’.

It is true that without mentioning the subversive Jew the pilgrim from Normieland to National Socialism has not stepped on the stone of Jew-wise white nationalism. But after stepping on white nationalism in his attempts to cross the psychological Rubicon, he still needs to understand why the Jews seized the Western narrative. For this we have to step on the next and last stone before reaching the other side: the Christian question. For example, the above-mentioned text of Houck contains this passage:

It’s incredibly telling that in America, you can freely criticize American foreign policy. Yet if you criticize the foreign policy of Israel, a country on the other side of the planet, groups with hundred-million-dollar budgets immediately lobby Congress to silence you. And our politicians, in an incredible show of cowardice and greed, capitulate. The US State Department even has an entire department called The Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism. Our tax dollars are going to provide programs ensuring that certain foreign peoples are not having their feelings hurt… The absurdity of the situation is incredible. Imagine if there were a massive pro-Russia lobby that made it illegal to disagree with or criticize Russian foreign policy.

So true. But that those who read The Occidental Observer are in the middle of the river is clear. In the Northern American states, the red carpet was rolled out for the Jews in line with the dominant liberal ideology. This was because the type of Christianity that conquered North America has been pathologically philo-Semitic since its beginnings.

But why were the Jews praised by George Washington, who said that the US ‘gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance’? The United States did not originate ethno-suicidal philo-Semitism in the West. Everything began a thousand seven hundred years ago with a history that has been as concealed as the holocaust perpetrated by the Allies during and after the Second World War. I have tried to recreate that time by reproducing passages from the novel by Gore Vidal, Julian, where the correspondence between Priscus and Libanius immerse the reader into the fascinating world of the 4th century of the Common Era.

Libanius, a central character in Vidal’s novel, existed in real life. On chapter 8 of The Darkening Age: The Christian Destruction of the Classical World, Catherine Nixey wrote:

 

______ 卐 ______

 

At the end of the fourth century, the orator Libanius looked out and described in despair what he observed. He and other worshippers of the old gods saw, he said, their temples ‘in ruins, their ritual banned, their altars overturned, their sacrifices suppressed, their priests sent packing and their property divided up between a crew of rascals’.

They are powerful words; and it is a powerful image. Yet in the Christian histories, men like Libanius barely exist. The voices of the worshippers of the old gods are rarely, if ever, recorded. But they were there. Some voices, such as his, have come down to us…

For a Christian, reasoning was not shrouded in ambiguity: it was explicitly laid out in the Bible. And the Bible, on this point, was clear. As those thundering words of Deuteronomy had it, toleration of other religions and their altars was not what was required. Instead, the faithful were required to raze them to the ground… To a Christian there were not different but equally valid views. There were angels and there were demons. As the academic Ramsay MacMullen has put it, ‘there could be no compromise with the Devil’. And, as Christians made clear in a thousand hectoring sermons and a hundred fierce laws, objects associated with other religions belonged to the Dark Lord.

Then, some twenty years later, in AD 408, came one of the fiercest pronouncements yet. ‘If any images stand even now in the temples and shrines,’ this new law said, ‘they shall be torn from their foundations… The buildings themselves of the temples which are situated in cities or towns or outside the towns shall be vindicated to public use. Altars shall be destroyed in all places.’

Darkening Age, 17

In chapter eight of The Darkening Age: The Christian Destruction of the Classical World, Catherine Nixey wrote:
 
While it might take months of effort, years of training and centuries of accumulated knowledge to build a Greek temple, it took little more than zeal and patience to destroy one. At the end of the fourth century, as the laws against [the Hellenes] were reaching an aggressive crescendo, the bishop Marcellus was said to have destroyed the vast and still hugely popular temple of Zeus at Apamea with prayers and the help of a man who was ‘no builder, or mason, or artificer of any kind’. Today, Marcellus is worshipped as a saint in the Orthodox Church.

Today, histories of this period, if they mention such destruction at all, hesitate to condemn it outright. The 1965 edition of The Penguin Dictionary of Saints records with little more than amused indulgence that Martin of Tours ‘was not averse to the forcible destruction of heathen shrines’.

In modern histories those carrying out and encouraging the attacks are rarely described as violent, or vicious, or thuggish: they are merely ‘zealous’, ‘pious’, ‘enthusiastic’ or, at worst, ‘over-zealous’. As the academic John Pollini puts it: ‘modern scholarship, influenced by a Judeo-Christian cultural bias’ has frequently overlooked or downplayed such attacks and even at times ‘sought to present Christian desecration in a positive light’.

The attacks themselves are diminished in importance, both implicitly by the lack of attention they are given, and at times even explicitly. We should not make too much of these events, one influential academic has argued; we should not ‘amplify them unduly’ as such desecrations ‘may have been the work of a determined few, briskly performed’.

Darkening Age, 16

In chapter eight of The Darkening Age: The Christian Destruction of the Classical World, Catherine Nixey wrote:
 
People built themselves houses from the stones of the demolished temples. Look closely at the buildings in the east of the Roman Empire and you can see the remains of the classical tradition in the new Christian architecture: a pair of cut-off legs here; the top of a handsome Grecian column there.

One law announced that the stones from demolished temples should be used to repair roads, bridges and aqueducts. In Constantinople, a former temple of Aphrodite was used to store a bureaucrat’s chariots. Christian writers revelled in such little humiliations. As one exulted, ‘your statues, your busts, the instruments of your cult have all been overturned—they lie on the ground and everyone laughs at your deceptions’.

Darkening Age, 15

In chapter eight of The Darkening Age: The Christian Destruction of the Classical World, Catherine Nixey wrote:
 
Statues, the very seat of the demons themselves, suffered some of the most vicious attacks. It was not enough merely to take a statue down; the demon within it had to be humiliated, disgraced, tortured, dismembered and thus neutralized.

A Jewish tractate known as the Avodah Zarah provided detailed instructions on how to properly mistreat a statue. One can desecrate a statue, it advised, by ‘cutting off the tip of its ear or nose or finger, by battering it—even although its bulk be not diminished—it is desecrated’. Merely taking the statue down, or spitting at it, or dragging it about, or throwing dirt upon it, was not, the treatise warned, sufficient—though the resourceful Christian might indulge in all of these as an added humiliation to the demon within.

Sometimes, as was the case with the bust of Aphrodite in Athens, the statues appear to have been ‘baptized’, with deep crosses gouged on their foreheads. If this was a ‘baptism’ then it may have helped not only to neutralize the devil within, but also to vanquish any more personal demons that could arise when looking at such beautiful naked figures. A naked statue of Aphrodite was, wrote one Christian historian in disgust, ‘more shameless than that of any prostitute standing in front of a brothel’—and, like a prostitute, Aphrodite and her plump bottom and naked breasts might incite the demon of lust in the viewer.

Far less easy to feel desire for a statue who has had a cross gouged in her head, her eyes blinded and her nose sliced from her face. Erotically appealing statues suffered more than chastely clothed ones. We can still see the consequences of this rhetoric. Today, a once-handsome Apollo missing a nose stands in this museum; a statue of Venus that stood in a bathhouse has had her nipples and mons pubis chiselled away; a statue of Dionysus has had his nose mutilated and his genitalia removed.

Darkening Age, 14

In chapter eight of The Darkening Age: The Christian Destruction of the Classical World, Catherine Nixey wrote:
 
Further south, the firebrand preacher John Chrysostom—John ‘Goldenmouth’—weighed in. This man was so charismatic that crowds of Christians would pack into Antioch’s Great Church to hear him speak, his eyes flashing, then leave as soon as he was finished, ‘as if’, he observed, with a distinct want of monkish humility, ‘I were a concert performance.’ Chrysostom was nothing if not zealous.

Hearing that Phoenicia was still ‘suffering from the madness of the demons’ rites’, he sent violent bands of monks, funded by the faithful women in his congregation, to destroy the shrines in the area. ‘Thus,’ concludes the historian Theodoret, ‘the remaining shrines of the demons were utterly destroyed.’ A papyrus fragment shows Bishop Theophilus standing triumphantly over an image of Serapis, Bible in hand, while on the right-hand side monks can be seen attacking the temple. St Benedict, St Martin, St John Chrysostom; the men leading these campaigns of violence were not embarrassing eccentrics but men at the very heart of the Church.

Augustine evidently assumed his congregants would be taking part in the violence—and implied that they were right to do so: throwing down temples, idols and groves was, he said, no less than ‘clear proof of our not honouring, but rather abhorring, these things’. Such destruction, he reminded his flock, was the express commandment of God. In AD 401, Augustine told Christians in Carthage to smash pagan objects because, he said, that was what God wanted and commanded. It has been said that sixty died in riots inflamed by this burst of oratorical fire. A little earlier a congregation of Augustine’s, eager to sack the temples of Carthage, had started reciting Psalm 83. ‘Let them be humiliated and be downcast forever,’ they chanted with grim significance. ‘Let them perish in disgrace.’

It is obvious that this violence was not only one’s Christian duty; it was also, for many; a thoroughly enjoyable way to spend an afternoon. Those carrying out the attacks sang as they smashed the ancient marble and roared with laughter as they destroyed statues. In Alexandria, ‘idolatrous’ images were taken from private houses and baths, then burned and mutilated in a jubilant public demonstration. Once the assault was complete, the Christians ‘all went off, praising God for the destruction of such error of demons and idolatry’.

Broken statues themselves were another cause for hilarity; their fragmented remains an occasion for ‘laughter and scorn’.

Darkening Age, 13

In chapter eight of The Darkening Age: The Christian Destruction of the Classical World, Catherine Nixey wrote:
 
As the laws became increasingly shrill, the extent of the destruction increased, as too did the openness with which it was done. At some point, probably just before the attack on the temple of Serapis, a bishop named Marcellus became ‘the first of the bishops to put the edict in force and destroy the shrines in the city committed to his care’. Then, in 392, Serapis fell. Almost no event, with the exception of the Sack of Rome by the Visigoths in AD 410, would resound more loudly through literature of the time. Its collapse would not be heard by later centuries: in the newly Christian world this was one tale, one of many, that would be quietly forgotten.

The attacks were hymned by hagiographies and histories. In fourth-century France, St Martin, or so the Life of Martin proudly records, ‘set fire to a most ancient and famous shrine’ before moving on to a different village and a different temple. Here, he ‘completely demolished the temple belonging to the false religion and reduced all the altars and statues to dust’. Martin was no anomaly. Flushed by his success at the temple of Serapis, Bishop Theophilus went on to demolish numerous shrines in Egypt. Hagiography records such attacks not as dismal or even embarrassing acts of vandalism but as proof of a saint’s virtue. Some of the most famous saints in Western Christianity kicked off their careers—so the stories like, to boast—demolishing shrines.

Benedict of Nursia, the revered founder of Western monasticism, was also celebrated as a destroyer of antiquities. His first act upon arriving in Monte Cassino, just outside Rome, was to smash an ancient statue of Apollo and destroy the shrine’s altar. He didn’t stop there, but toured the area ‘pulling down the idols and destroying the groves on the mountain… and gave himself no rest until he had uprooted the last remnant of heathenism in those parts’. Of course hagiography is not history and one must read such accounts with, at best, caution. But even if they do not tell the whole truth, they certainly reveal a truth—namely that many Christians felt proud, even jubilant, about such destruction.

Darkening Age, 12

In chapter eight of The Darkening Age: The Christian Destruction of the Classical World, Catherine Nixey wrote:
 
In Palmyra, what remains of the statue of Athena shows that one single, furious sword-blow had been enough to decapitate her. Though often one blow was not felt to be sufficient. In Germany, a statue of the goddess Minerva was smashed into six pieces. Her head has never been found. In France, a relief of Mithras was smashed into more than three hundred pieces.

Christian writers applauded such destruction—and egged their rulers on to greater acts of violence. One gleefully observed that the Christian emperors now ‘spit in the faces of dead idols, trample on the lawless rites of demons, and laugh at the old lies’. An infamous early text instructed emperors to wash away this ‘filth’ and ‘take away, yes, calmly take away… the adornments of the temples. Let the fire of the mint or the blaze of the smelters melt them down.’

This was nothing to be ashamed of. The first Commandment could not have been clearer. ‘Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image,’ it said. ‘Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them,’ it continued, ‘nor serve them: for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me.’ The Greek and Roman temples, no matter how ancient or beautiful, were the homes of false gods and they had to be destroyed. This was not vandalism: it was God’s will. The good Christian had a duty to do nothing less.

The speed with which toleration slipped into intolerance and then downright suppression shocked non-Christian observer. The emperor Julian later acerbically observed that, while Constantine robbed the temples his sons overthrew them. In AD 356, it became illegal—on pain of death—to worship images. The law adopted a tone of hitherto unseen aggression. ‘Pagans’ began to be described as ‘madmen’ whose beliefs must be ‘completely eradicated’…

But Julian’s reign was brief and, just half a century after Constantine, it was already too late to reverse the attrition that had begun. Julian, one Christian would tell his flock, was ‘but a cloud which will speedily be dispersed’. He was right.

By the time Theophilus attacked Serapis the laws were on his side. But many other Christians were so keen to attack the demonic temples that they didn’t wait for legal approval. Decades before the laws of the land permitted them to, zealous Christians began to indulge in acts of violent vandalism against their ‘pagan’ neighbours…

Libanius, the Greek orator from Antioch, was revolted by the destruction that he witnessed. ‘These people,’ he wrote, ‘hasten to attack the temples with sticks and stones and bars of iron, and in some cases, disdaining these, with hands and feet. Then utter desolation follows, with the stripping of roofs, demolition of walls, the tearing down of statues, and the overthrow of altars, and the priests must either keep quiet or die… So they sweep across the countryside like rivers in spate.’

Libanius spoke elegiacally of a huge temple on the frontier with Persia, a magnificent building with a beautiful ceiling, in whose cool shadows had stood numerous statues. Now, he said, ‘it is vanished and gone, to the grief of those who had seen it’—and the grief of those who now never would. This temple had been so striking, he said, that there were even those who argued that it was as great as the temple of Serapis—which, he added with an irony not lost on later historians, ‘I pray may never suffer the same fate.’

Not only were the monks vulgar, stinking, ill-educated and violent they were also, said their critics, phoneys. They pretended to adopt lives of austere self-denial but actually they were no better than drunken thugs, a black-robed tribe ‘who eat more than elephants and, by the quantities of drink they consume, weary those that accompany their drinking with the singing of hymns’…

Then, in 399, a new and more terrible law came. It was announced that ‘if there should be any temples in the country districts, they shall be torn down without disturbance or tumult. For when they are torn down and removed, the material basis for all superstition will be destroyed.’