The Darkening Age: A Book by Catherine Nixey – 2

The Darkening Age: A Book by Catherine Nixey – 2

In the first part, we saw how the conversion of Constantine became a key event in the conversion of the Greco-Roman world. After the initial difficulties and persecutions, highly exaggerated by later writers, Christianity violently converted people by force or fear. During this destruction of the pagan world, many works of art and literature came crumbling down. There was erasure of many of the important philosophical works to make way for Biblical texts. In the second part, we shall see haw this destruction continued to bring down two of the greatest cities of the ancient world: Alexandria and Athens. We shall also see that Christian doctrines did not go unquestioned by various ancient scholars. And sadly, how the subtle violence is continuing in the name of evangelism.  

Hypatia, Parabalani, Persecution of Jews and the fall of Alexandria

Parabalani was a word coined for the ‘reckless ones.’ Initially as a compliment, because they did the dirtiest of jobs dealing with the dead and the dying in especially during times of mass deaths of epidemics. They had faith and muscle. By the beginning of the fifth century, there were 800 of them in Alexandria alone. They were in the service of god and more precisely in the service of the bishops. They did charitable deeds, at least initially, but later sowed fear.

The story of Hypatia is the saddest in this gore of destruction. She was one of the greatest intellectuals of the era; an accomplished mathematician, astronomer, teacher, philosopher, and advisor on statecraft. She was accused of ‘pagan esoteric practices’ and was brutally murdered in AD 415 by the feared ‘parabalani’. The bishop Cyril hated her and, on his orders, the parabalani one sad day, attacked her. His uncle Theophilus, the previous bishop, was more tolerant of Hypatia, though opposed to Neoplatonism. The group dragged her through the streets to a Church. After removing her clothes, her skin came off from her flesh by broken pieces of pottery. After a painful death, her body was torn into pieces and burnt.

Cyril, the new bishop, was more brutal than his uncle scaring even the right-thinking bishops. The Jews were the first to suffer in his hands. They were not a people of ancient wisdom to learn from, but were instead like the pagans, the hated enemies of the Church. Preacher John Chrysostom (AD 349-AD 407) famously said, ‘the synagogue is not only a brothel….it is also a den of robbers and a lodging of wild beasts…. a dwelling of the demons…… a place of idolatry.’ His writings came as reprints with enthusiasm in Nazi Germany. The smouldering Christian dislike of Jews burst into outright violence. The synagogues and the places of worship came down and the Jews forcibly converted. Even the governor Orestes was helpless, though he complained to the Emperor. And he too became a target of the bishop.

The Library of Alexandria was the greatest in the world holding 500,000 scrolls on the widest variety of topics built painstakingly over many centuries by the kings. Some of the greatest intellectuals and philosophers lived in the academic air of Alexandria as its Universities and library attracted the best in the world. Archimedes, Euclid, Hipparchus, Galen, Hypatia…the catalogue of Alexandria’s intellectuals is remarkable. And all of that vanished in a matter of two centuries.

The role of Church and the Priests

Bishops badgered their rulers for new laws and then used their congregations as de facto troops to carry out demolitions. Christian hagiographies spoke in glowing immortalizing terms of the vandalism. But silence buried far more violence. In 391, Theodosius passed a law: ‘Nor could anyone with secret wickedness venerate his household gods, or burn lights to them, or put up wreaths to them, or burn incense to them.’ In AD 401, Augustine told Christians in Carthage to smash pagan objects because that is what God commanded. Sixty died in the following riots. ‘The devil’s worship consists of prayers in the temples of idols, honours paid to lifeless idols, the lighting of the lamps or burning of incense’, fulminated one Christian.

The attacks became hagiographies and stories of saints. Some of the most famous saints in Western Christianity started their careers and reputations by destructions. Benedict of Nursia smashed the ancient statue of Apollo just outside Rome. St Theophilus, St Benedict, St Martin, St Hohm Chrysostom, the men leading the campaigns of violence were not embarrassing eccentrics but men at the very heart of the Church.

Like martyrdom, this holy and important work required no special knowledge or skills. It took some zeal and patience to destroy works requiring years of effort, training, and accumulated knowledge. 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, according to academic John Pollini, the author says.

Questioning of Christianity by the Early Scholars

It is rarely known that many early philosophers and scholars criticised the doctrines of Christianity forcefully. Celsus, Galen and Greek philosophy stated faith to be the lowest form of cognition and this attitude of the Christians was indeed perplexing to them.

Galen (129 AD – 210 AD) was a Greek physician, surgeon, and philosopher in the Roman Empire who showed the teachings of Moses and Jesus Christ as without any empiricism. To show something as truth without demonstration was the method of a Christian, he thought.

In AD 170, a Greek intellectual named Celsus launched a vitriolic attack against the religion after studying the scriptures carefully. The Virgin Birth, the Creation, the Resurrection came into severe questioning. And he was worried that this religion might spread further causing great damage to Rome. All his works vanished in an amazing act of censorship. How do we know about him? A Christian apologist named Origen mounted a fierce counter-attack on him and quoted Celsus extensively. Celsus questions every story and myth of the Bible including the holy birth of Jesus Christ.  Celsus for example could not understand the great gap between the creation of humankind and the sending of Jesus at a much later time to save them. Did He not care about them-the people who were born before Christ came? Why is there a contradiction between Moses and Christ? Who is wrong between them as both cannot be true? Celsus attacked the miracles too. The tendency for the fewest to witness some of the most miraculous moments, like when Christ rose again, but punishments seen by all was surprising to him. The hammering on each of the central tenets was astonishing and his erasure is no wonder.

The Greek philosophers and the atomists neatly did away with the need for Creation, Resurrection, the Last Judgement, Hell, Heaven, and the Creator God himself. Augustine disliked this atomism for precisely the same reasons the atomists liked it: it weakened mankind’s terror of divine punishment and Hell. Texts of philosophical schools championing the atomic theory suffered. The demise of Democritus’s works on atomic theory was the greatest intellectual tragedy to ensue from the collapse of the old classical civilization. However, it did come down by a slender thread of a single volume of Lucretius’s poem held in one German library and found by an avid book hunter. This saved the work from extinction. Democritus became a propelling influence in returning atomism to European thought and an explosion of interest in pagan antiquity. Newton, Galileo, and Einstein were the descendants of this atomism.

Lucian (125 AD – 180 AD) was a Syrian satirist and rhetorician who frequently ridiculed superstition, religious practices, and belief in the paranormal. The Death of Peregrinus is a satire by him in which the lead character, the Cynic philosopher Peregrinus Proteus, lives a charlatan life before burning himself at the Olympic Games of 165 AD. The text is historically significant because it contains one of the earliest evaluations of early Christianity by a non-Christian author. This went to the list of banned books by the Inquisition in the sixteenth century. Greek literature of the Middle Ages (5th to 15th century AD) informed its readers that Lucian died because of dog bites as a punishment for his rabid attacks against Christ and Christianity in his Life of Peregrinus!

Porphyry (Philosophy from Oracles and Against the Christians) wrote 15 volumes targeting Christianity which scared Constantine, who in turn ordered to burn his books. A century later, Christian Emperors Theodosius and Valentinian, burned the remaining of Porphyry’s books. 1500 years later, English historian Gibbon partly laid the blame of the fall of the Roman Empire at Christianity. He claimed that it was partly because the Christians were indifferent to earthly needs in the quest for heavenly riches. They shirked military service, and vast amounts of money went on monks and nuns with a criminal disregard of public welfare. The Church banned his book too.

Polytheism in Greek and Roman World

The popular perception goes that Romans were all atheists needing solace from an organized religion. It is simply not the truth. The Romans believed in all kinds of gods. They may not be overtly religious, but they were not dogmatic and unbending. The Roman pantheon of Gods could happily expand. It could admit foreign gods albeit after some bureaucratic clearances.

Celsus knew about the different god worshipped in Egypt and the Arab world; and he was quite tolerant about accepting a multiplicity of gods depending on the local needs and conditions. Each man would choose his own laws and religion as the best because of geographical affiliations, said Celsus echoing Herodotus. To Christian observers the tolerance of their non-Christian neighbours was an anathema. Augustine later marvelled at the fact that the pagans were able to worship many different gods without discord while the Christians, who worshipped just the one, splintered into countless, warring fashions. For Christianity, pluralism was the way of the Satan.

Moral Policing, Censoring and the Damnation

Many Romans and Greeks had shown a distaste for an involved deity taking care of and watching every move of the human beings. Pliny said a god has better things to do. No, said the Christian clerics. His attention was a sign of great love of man and so was his punishment. A perpetual anxiety bred in the minds of the Christians who believed that a god saw their every thought, word, and action.

Bawdy ways of poetry made way for the sermon and the homily-stern, judgemental and aggressive. Literature took a more moralizing tone and Christianity may have been a symptom rather than a cause, says the author. But Christianity embraced, amplified, and promulgated this hectoring to a far greater extent than ever before. Christian preachers spoke of death and judgement; and the moral policing went to extreme levels, including avoiding of going to a dinner to a neighbour’s house which might lead to envy and discontentment. It is better to go to a funeral where there is weeping, lamenting, and anguish.

Trying to look attractive was condemnable for both men and women unlike the olden times of Ovid. Eating, drinking, and making love were, the clerics warned, the last things one must do. Merrymaking in this life would not win eternal bliss in the future. Greed and envy became the guilt whipping tools increasingly in the sermons and the writings.

The flames of damnation began to lick at the Roman daily life, says the author. The Apocalypse of Peter pointed out the graphic visions of hell and retributions for various misdeeds. Blasphemers will hang by their testicles, it said. Babies ‘born before time’ would have torture for eternity.  The censoring went beyond personal appearance. Theatre, sexual innuendo, actors, acrobats, music, public shows, bathhouses, racing, homosexuality became demonical and terrible. Preachers denounced the sins in strong language, but how much people desisted from indulging is not clear. But the moral policing and the control of individual private life as a series of dos and don’ts became extremely vigorous in the newly turned Christendom. Husband and wife could have sex, but not for enjoyment!

Sexually joyful poetry died because of this new policing. The art of pantomime dance withered and died. The destruction of statues concentrated specifically on the disagreeable exposed parts as many smashed statues show. However, it is unlikely that people changed radically their life-styles. The old sins continued but firmly now in the knowledge they were sinners and a life in Hell awaited them in full glory!

Religiosity and theocratic oppression

As the fifth century opened, man, law, and bureaucracy gave way to God or to his Church. One of those who policed the law of God most fiercely of all was the infamous Egyptian monk-now saint- Shenoute. He was a strict man running his monastery with alarming discipline, relying on violent punishments. The monks led by Shenoute committed many atrocities and destructions to the houses of non-believers.

The laws of the monastery always needed obeying. The same was not true for the laws of the land. There were rules on monks’ attire, food, drink, prayer, sleeping, washing, or even defaecating. The monk’s life was no longer his own once he or she joined the monastery.  One had to either obey or face the consequences. Shenoute terrorized the monks and even the bureaucrats. When Shenoute came under fire for entering another man’s house and destroy all signs of devil worship or paganism like incenses and statues of gods, he was unyielding. He declared, ‘There is no crime for those who have Christ. ‘

There were people in the classical world who had religious fervour, but these were private passions. But as Christianity gained control, religiosity started to become a public duty wrapped in self-righteous pride, overstepping the boundaries of the law. Some of the most important thinkers of the era like Augustine supported such behaviour where the punishments against erring Christians became extreme. Augustine wrote, ‘It is better with severity to love, than gentleness to deceive. The Church persecutes with the spirit of love.’ This was holy violence in the name of love and saving. Another writer wrote, ‘Murder committed for the sake of God was not a crime, but actually a prayer.’

Emperors had spies. Willing or unwilling bishops became spies for reporting on contrary behaviour. Justinian was determined ‘to close all the roads leading to error’ by inflicting terrible punishments. This included having molten lead poured down the throat if a nurse abetts an affair of a young woman under her care. Some of the holy violence alarmed even the Church.

At the highest level, the Church was starting to challenge the power of the State. Defiance to the law, courts, and the legal machinery by the men of the Church became more open as Christianity gained in power. Christian preachers said they were answerable to a higher power than the mere law of the land. Augustine famously said, ‘Where there is terror, there is salvation…. Oh, merciful savagery.’ The intellectual foundations for a thousand years of theocratic oppression thus came, says the author emphatically.

Final Assaults

In Alexandria, Christian torture, murder, and destruction, including that of Hypatia had the effect of declining of the philosophers and writers. Many like Damascius left for Athens which was still a little open to pagan philosophers though not to outright dissent against Christianity. Athens too became silent of all dissent and philosophical argumentation in an increasingly tense, strained world; a ‘time of tyranny and crisis.’ Pagan festivals stopped and the skylines altered by the destruction of great statues and figures.

Eventually law reinforced clerical disapproval. There was banning of pagan festivals. If anyone declared themselves an official in charge of a pagan festival’ then the law said to execute them. John Chrysostom triumphantly declared, ‘The tradition of the ancestors has been destroyed, the deep-rooted custom has been torn out, the tyranny of joy and the accursed festivals have been obliterated just like smoke.’ The sinners needed removal. The good Christians should seek out the fallen, preachers advised. It was not to harm them, but to save them.

Theology and philosophy rolled into a single whole as the classical philosophers ran out of the place. Damascius had left a crumbling Alexandria to revive Athens. In AD 532, he left Athens too in the increasingly hostile atmosphere for Persia to seek the patronage of King Khosrow with whom he was unfortunately disappointed. Persia was no haven as he had imagined; and the cultural and social life of Persia shocked him. The king himself was also a let-down as he was no great intellectual. They decided to return even at the risk of losing their lives. But fortunately, Emperor Justinian had signed a peace pact with King Khosrow who ensured a safety for his philosopher friends. The peace treaty demanded that ‘the philosophers should be allowed to return to their homes and to live out their lives in peace without being compelled to alter their traditional religious beliefs or to accept any view which did not coincide with them.’ This clause was the only declaration of ideological toleration that Justinian would ever sign.

The Obliterations of the Memory Too

The philosophers and their works slowly died out; and the monasteries erased the works of Aristotle, Cicero, Seneca, and Archimedes, and Pliny. There is overwriting on the works of Archimedes, Cicero, and Seneca. Every single work of Democritus and the heretical ‘atomism’ vanished. Ninety per cent of all classical literature was permanently gone.

One final loss occurred. And the most important, yet least remembered, the author rues. The very memory of an opposition to Christianity completely faded. The idea that philosophers fought the doctrines of Christianity completely faded. The memory of the alarm of the spread of this violently intolerant religion disappeared from the view. The saga of Book burning, temple destruction, persecution and torture of the philosophers or the non-believers completely vanished from memory. Christianity told the next generations that that everyone celebrated their victory over the old world. The future generations believed it. The goddesses of wisdom of the classical pagan world, the so-called primitive world, lay under the feet of the new masters. The triumph of Christianity was complete. It started with Constantine and finished with Justinian.

History Writers and their Cover-Ups

Historians and writers tell the story of Christianity conquering Rome in reassuringly secular terms, says the author. One historian claimed that Christianity came as a solace to a tired and anxious populace troubled by weakened emperors, invading barbarian armies, punitive taxation, and gruesome plagues. It is a soothing story, but it is wrong, says the author.

Modern historians glibly refer to Constantine’s conversion as the ‘End of Persecution’ and the ‘Triumph of Christianity’ with positive overtones. This is again untrue, argues the author. Millions following a religion for over a millennium do not convert in a matter of few centuries without disturbance. At the time of Constantine, 7-10 % of the Empire’s population of sixty million were Christians. In the next couple of centuries, 90% became Christians. History writers have shown magnificent indifference to the reactions of the fifty million as their temples fell. They could not surely have been happy. For centuries, Christian writers and historians have routinely belittled, trivialized or completely ignored the practices and the suffering of these pagans. The story of early Christian history is totally based on Christian sources, and hence the biases can be unfortunately skewed.

The story of early Christianity is neither triumphant or joyful. It is a story of forced conversion and government persecution. It is a story of destruction of great works of art, defacement of buildings, and removal of liberties. The brief and sporadic Roman persecutions of Christians would pale in comparison to what the Christians inflicted on others and their own heretics and disbelievers, the author says. By the time of finishing of Christian persecution, an entire religious system had been all but wiped out from the face of the Earth.

Paganism vanished but no one mourns. Historians later declared that the end of paganism was not suppression, but liberation. The advent of Christianity was in fact a welcome relief from the foolish polytheism. In the 20th century too, writers declared that pagans and heathens had already given up on their own religious systems before Christianity even appeared on the scene! The winners write history; and the Christian victory was absolute. Until 1871, the University of Oxford needed all students to be members of The Church of England to get a fellowship.

Concluding Thoughts

The major religion of the west is Christianity and the widely held belief, at least in India, is that science and liberalism are because of that. There is a wrong superimposition of the secular, liberal nature of the western world on Christianity. This has been, of course, augmented by sweet Christmas movies and literature aimed at children. The huge fact is that science and materialism progressed because it forcefully kept religion outside its boundaries; and this became ‘secularism’. It is mainstream thought now that secularism became a necessary component of western material progress. Secularism as opposed to Theocracy. However, in recent times, the West is increasingly questioning Christianity.

Though the author does not say it, the book distinctly strengthens the claim that Greeks and Romans had a deep interaction with Indian thought, if not outright influenced by it. The latter claim has also its strong proponents. Our all-inclusive nature did not require to ‘other’ any religion or sect to define itself. The polytheism is remarkably like the polytheism of the Greeks and Romans; the more the merrier. But behind the multiplicity is a Unity. The west today claims the intellectual legacy of the Greeks and Romans, but they rarely enquire about the latter’s inspirations. It points towards India as people like Socrates and Plato could not have suddenly started without any pre-existing influences.

Religions fortunately could not convert India en masse like what happened for other pagan cultures. Islam could not take the entire population in its fold and Christianity was a blunted force when the English ruled. The missionaries, though powerful, did not get open encouragement by the English rulers who were more interested in the economic plundering. The East India Company initially had a clear policy of not mixing religion with commerce.

Radical Christianity does not exist now except as a rarity and as a fringe movement; and the Church has significantly moved with the times. Unfortunately, the high-pitched and aggressive evangelism is extremely uncomfortable for both Christians and non-Christians alike. In the religious congregations and churches, the violence of speech and thought, if not of action, goes unabated as documented by authors like Arun Shourie (Harvesting Our Souls), and Rajiv Malhotra-Aravindan Neelakandan (Breaking India). The strong abuse of gods and the curses on the rituals is the continuing trend of a few fanatical preachers, which sticks as a sore point in the otherwise admirable relationship between Christians and Hindus. When my tourist driver in coastal AP, a recent convert, refused to light incense in the smelly vehicle, or enter a temple to have a free ‘prasadam’ lunch, I realized where this was all coming from.

One wonders at the hundreds of churches of all denominations dotting the roads in coastal Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh. The recent converts are sometimes more hateful of the parent religion than the regular Christians. I encountered another driver in Tamil Nadu who had converted with his entire family due to the persistent efforts of the local pastor. A family member was suffering from convulsions and the priest ‘cured’ her of the condition by prayer. It was shocking, to say the least, that this was previously a family of priests managing a local Hindu temple. He was polite, but I could not digest his ill-understood statements against Hinduism, an obvious influence of his Church.

The book is going to hurt Christians; it hurts me too. I have had a personally most satisfying education at arguably the best convent school of my city. The teachers were great. Some of the fantastic ‘Fathers’ and ‘Brothers’ hugely influenced my life and values. They were liberal, friendly, and inspiring. I specifically remember a great one who would make us draft essays and conduct debates on ‘Science versus Religion’ and such similar themes. Many times, he would be offering helpful hints against religion! They taught us history, biology, genetics, physics, languages, art, and craft in a most secular fashion. At no point did we feel threatened as non-Christians. My best friends are Christians and many a step of my professional and personal life has been on their shoulders.

There is no denying the wonderful work done by them in the fields of education and health, bereft of any ulterior motives.  Ramana Maharishi, my spiritual beacon, showed an extreme respect to Jesus Christ. I cannot remember any of the older gurus like Ramakrishna Paramhansa, Swami Vivekananda, or Swami Chinmayananda speaking anything against Jesus Christ. They showed a respect which continues to the present-day gurus like Sri Ravi Shankar too. I accept Christ as a spiritually enlightened guru, like a Buddha, a Ramana or a Ramakrishna Paramhansa- showing a way to the Truth. But organised religion and a desire to convert the ‘other’ can be something else, as this book clearly shows.

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Dr Pingali Gopal

Dr Pingali Gopal is a Paediatric and Neonatal Surgeon practising in Warangal, Telangana. He has a keen interest in Indian culture and does his little bit to correct the many wrong narratives which hurt India at many levels. Opening his eyes rather late to the wonder called India, it is now a continuous journey for him to sip bits from the oceanic nectar of Indic Knowledge Systems.