Christianity’s Criminal History, 104


 Editors’ note: To contextualise these translations of Karlheinz Deschner’s encyclopaedic history of the Church in 10-volumes, Kriminalgeschichte des Christentums, read the abridged translation of Volume I.
 

The great Christian ideal:
The inversion of Greco-Roman values

Already at the end of the 4th century and only in the desert regions of Egypt, there were apparently 24,000 ascetics. They were buried in subterranean places, ‘like the dead in their graves’, they dwelt in huts of branches, in hollows with no other opening than a hole to creep up to them. They squatted like troglodytes on large rocks, on steep slopes, in grottos, in tiny cells, in cages, in dens of beasts and in trunks of dry trees, or else they were placed on columns.

In a word, they lived like wild animals because Saint Anthony, the first Christian monk known to history, had ordered ‘to lead an animal life’: a mandate that also the so often praised Benedict of Nursia adopted in his rule. And according to the currency of the ancient ascetics, ‘the true fast consists of permanent hunger’ and ‘the more opulent the body, the more minute the soul; and vice versa’. They limited themselves to picking out a grain of barley from the camel dung with their fingers, remaining, for the rest days or even whole weeks, in total abstinence.

Surely we should not always give credence to what the Christian chroniclers wrote. Some of these saints did not even exist. Some of these stories are of analogous nature of the ‘ancient Egyptian novels adapted to new ideas’ (Amélineau). Other stories, despite their propensity for hyperbole, are touching. Macarius of Alexandria, for example, kills a horsefly on a certain day and punishes himself. For six months he lies on the ground from which he would not move, in a wasteland ‘in which there are big gadflies like wasps, with stingers that pierce the skin of boars. His body is in such a state that when he returns to his cell they all take him for a leper and only recognise the saint by his voice’.

Whatever the degree of veracity of these stories, from them it clearly transcends everything that influenced, mislead and annoyed the Christians of that time and those of subsequent centuries: the sublime ‘ideal’ by which they had to abide. Those lunatics were idolised, celebrated, consulted and they and their peers passed for saints.

The Temptation of St. Anthony
by Matthias Grünewald.

Anthony wandered from one hiding place to another along the Libyan desert, attracting other anchorites, attracting demons and angels, having full visions of lascivious women, earning more and more the fame of sanctity, of the ideal (Christian) hero. Towards the end of his long life his stature literally grows, with so many miracles and visions, to enter heaven.

In relation to all this, the Vita Antonii (Life of Anthony) of that old forger that was Athanasius, exerted a most than nefarious influence. Written in Greek towards 360 and promptly translated into Latin, it became a popular success; even more, a paradigm of Greek and Latin hagiography.

And it is quite possible that, as Hertling praises, this fable of Anthony has been ‘one of those books that decide the fate of humanity’, since, according to Hartnack, ‘no other written work has had a more stunning effect on Egypt, Western Asia and Europe ‘that that despicable product which emerged from the pen of St. Athanasius the Great’, ‘perhaps the most fateful book of all that have ever been written’. That work is ‘the ultimate piece responsible for which demons, miracle stories and all kinds of goblins found their accommodation in the Church’ (Lexicon of Concepts for Antiquity and Christianity).

Throughout those centuries, most authors of primitive Christianity resolutely reject Greco-Roman culture, philosophy, poetry and art. In the face of all this, they maintained an attitude of profound distrust, of declared hostility: an attitude determined both by the resentment and the anti-Hellenic hatred of the more or less cultured Christians.

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, 2


 
INTRODUCTION

Athens, AD 532

‘That all superstition of pagans and heathens should be annihilated is what God wants, God commands, God proclaims.’

— St Augustine

This was no time for a philosopher to be philosophical. ‘The tyrant’, as the philosophers put it, was in charge and had many alarming habits. In Damascius’s own time, houses were entered and searched for books and objects deemed unacceptable. If any were found they would be removed and burned in triumphant bonfires in town squares. Discussion of religious matters in public had been branded a ‘damnable audacity’ and forbidden by law. Anyone who made sacrifices to the old gods could, the law said, be executed. Across the empire, ancient and beautiful temples had been attacked, their roofs stripped, their treasures melted down, their statues smashed. To ensure that their rules were kept, the government started to employ spies, officials and informers to report back on what went on in the streets and marketplaces of cities and behind closed doors in private homes. As one influential Christian speaker put it, his congregation should hunt down sinners and drive them into the way of salvation as relentlessly as a hunter pursues his prey into nets.

The consequences of deviation from the rules could be severe and philosophy had become a dangerous pursuit. Damascius’s own brother had been arrested and tortured to make him reveal the names of other philosophers, but had, as Damascius recorded with pride, ‘received in silence and with fortitude the many blows of the rod that landed on his back’. Others in Damascius’ s circle of philosophers had been tortured; hung up by the wrists until they gave away the names of their fellow scholars. A fellow philosopher had, some years before, been flayed alive. Another had been beaten before a judge until the blood flowed down his back.

The savage ‘tyrant’ was Christianity. From almost the very first years that a Christian emperor had ruled in Rome in AD 312, liberties had begun to be eroded. And then, in AD 529, a final blow had fallen. It was decreed that all those who laboured ‘under the insanity of paganism’—in other words Damascius and his fellow philosophers—would be no longer allowed to teach. There was worse. It was also announced that anyone who had not yet been baptized was to come forward and make themselves known at the ‘holy churches’ immediately, or face exile. And if anyone allowed themselves to be baptized, then slipped back into their old pagan ways, they would be executed.

For Damascius and his fellow philosophers, this was the end. They could not worship their old gods. They could not earn any money. Above all, they could not now teach philosophy. The Academy, the greatest and most famous school in the ancient world—perhaps ever—a school that could trace its history back almost a millennium, closed.

It is impossible to imagine how painful the journey through Athens would have been. As they went, they would have walked through the same streets and squares where their heroes—Socrates, Plato, Aristotle—had once walked and worked and argued. They would have seen in them a thousand reminders that those celebrated times were gone. The temples of Athens were closed and crumbling and many of the brilliant statues that had once stood in them had been defaced or removed. Even the Acropolis had not escaped: its great statue of Athena had been torn down.

Little of what is covered by this book is well-known outside academic circles. Certainly it was not well-known by me when I grew up in Wales, the daughter of a former nun and a former monk. My childhood was, as you might expect, a fairly religious one. We went to church every Sunday; said grace before meals, and I said my prayers (or at any rate the list of requests which I considered to be the same thing) every night. When Catholic relatives arrived we play-acted not films but First Holy Communion and, at times, even actual communion…

As children, both had been taught by monks and nuns; and as a monk and a nun they had both taught. They believed as an article of faith that the Church that had enlightened their minds was what had enlightened, in distant history, the whole of Europe. It was the Church, they told me, that had kept alive the Latin and Greek of the classical world in the benighted Middle Ages, until it could be picked up again by the wider world in the Renaissance. And, in a way, my parents were right to believe this, for it is true. Monasteries did preserve a lot of classical knowledge.

But it is far from the whole truth. In fact, this appealing narrative has almost entirely obscured an earlier, less glorious story. For before it preserved, the Church destroyed.

In a spasm of destruction never seen before—and one that appalled many non-Christians watching it—during the fourth and fifth centuries, the Christian Church demolished, vandalized and melted down a simply staggering quantity of art. Classical statues were knocked from their plinths, defaced, defiled and torn limb from limb. Temples were razed to their foundations and burned to the ground. A temple widely considered to be the most magnificent in the entire empire was levelled.

Many of the Parthenon sculptures were attacked, faces were mutilated, hands and limbs were hacked off and gods were decapitated. Some of the finest statues on the whole building were almost certainly smashed off then ground into rubble that was then used to build churches.

Books—which were often stored in temples—suffered terribly. The remains of the greatest library in the ancient world, a library that had once held perhaps 700,000 volumes, were destroyed in this way by Christians. It was over a millennium before any other library would even come close to its holdings. Works by censured philosophers were forbidden and bonfires blazed across the empire as outlawed books went up in flames.

Fragment of a 5th-century scroll
showing the destruction of the Serapeum
by Pope Theophilus of Alexandria

The work of Democritus, one of the greatest Greek philosophers and the father of atomic theory, was entirely lost. Only one per cent of Latin literature survived the centuries. Ninety-nine per cent was lost.

The violent assaults of this period were not the preserve of cranks and eccentrics. Attacks against the monuments of the ‘mad’, ‘damnable’ and ‘insane’ pagans were encouraged and led by men at the very heart of the Catholic Church. The great St Augustine himself declared to a congregation in Carthage that ‘that all superstition of pagans and heathens should be annihilated is what God wants, God commands, God proclaims!’ St Martin, still one of the most popular French saints, rampaged across the Gaulish countryside levelling temples and dismaying locals as he went. In Egypt, St Theophilus razed one of the most beautiful buildings in the ancient world. In Italy, St Benedict overturned a shrine to Apollo. In Syria, ruthless bands of monks terrorized the countryside, smashing down statues and tearing the roofs from temples.

St John Chrysostom encouraged his congregations to spy on each other. Fervent Christians went into people’s houses and searched for books, statues and paintings that were considered demonic. This kind of obsessive attention was not cruelty. On the contrary: to restrain, to attack, to compel, even to beat a sinner was— if you turned them back to the path of righteousness—to save them. As Augustine, the master of the pious paradox put it: ‘Oh, merciful savagery.’

The results of all of this were shocking and, to non-Christians, terrifying. Townspeople rushed to watch as internationally famous temples were destroyed. Intellectuals looked on in despair as volumes of supposedly unchristian books—often in reality texts on the liberal arts—went up in flames. Art lovers watched in horror as some of the greatest sculptures in the ancient world were smashed by people too stupid to appreciate them—and certainly too stupid to recreate them.

Since then, and as I write, the Syrian civil war has left parts of Syria under the control of a new Islamic caliphate. In 2014, within certain areas of Syria, music was banned and books were burned. The British Foreign Office advised against all travel to the north of the Sinai Peninsula. In 2015, Islamic State militants started bulldozing the ancient Assyrian city of Nimrud, just south of Mosul in Iraq because it was ‘idolatrous’. Images went around the world showing Islamic militants toppling statues around three millennia old from their plinths, then taking hammers to them. ‘False idols’ must be destroyed. In Palmyra, the remnants of the great statue of Athena that had been carefully repaired by archaeologists, was attacked yet again. Once again, Athena was beheaded; once again, her arm was sheared off.

I have chosen Palmyra as a beginning, as it was in the east of the empire, in the mid-380s, that sporadic violence against the old gods and their temples escalated into something far more serious. But equally I could have chosen an attack on an earlier temple, or a later one. That is why it is a beginning, not the beginning. I have chosen Athens in the years around AD 529 as an ending—but again, I could equally have chosen a city further east whose inhabitants, when they failed to convert to Christianity, were massacred and their arms and legs cut off and strung up in the streets as a warning to others.

Benedict, Maurus, Placidius

Fra Filippo Lippi
Saint Benedict Orders Saint Maurus
to the Rescue of Saint Placidius
~ 1445-50
National Gallery of Art

Published in: on September 22, 2015 at 9:03 pm  Comments Off on Benedict, Maurus, Placidius  
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