‘It is worth remembering, however, the original Roman meaning of the word ‘triumph’. A true Roman triumph wasn’t merely about the victory of the winner. It was about the total and utter subjugation of the loser. […] A triumph was not merely a ‘victory’. It was an annihilation.’
This is a book which is both fascinating and horrifying in equal measure. Nixey, her parents a former monk and nun, explains in her introduction that she does not intend to attack those who do good things because of their religion, but ‘it is undeniable that there have been – that there still are – those who use monotheism and its weapons to terrible ends.’ The Darkening Age explores this idea in relation to the so-called ‘triumph’ of Christianity, spanning many years and nations to encompass the effect this new religion had on the ancient world in terms of customs, architecture, knowledge, and even how to dress. It is fascinating for the wealth of knowledge I have gained from it, as Nixey not only quotes many primary sources but other historians of the period to make her points, but it is horrifying because that knowledge is, by the nature of this book, dark. The thuggish early Christians destroyed antique temples and statues, burned and erased texts they deemed harmful, and brutally executed many of the ‘pagans’ who refused to convert. As Nixey states ‘The brief and sporadic Roman persecutions of Christians would pale in comparison to what the Christians inflicted on others – not to mention on their own heretics.’ I was not unaware of these actions taken by early Christians, but the stories Nixey tells led for some shocking revelations.
Nixey’s writing style is very vivid and engaging so that the book reads more like a piece of journalism than a dry historical tome. This meant it was easy to read in terms of its style, but there were often times I had to put the book down and do something else, as I felt hammered over the head (not unlike a sacrificial bull) with just how brutal these early Christians were, to the ‘pagans’ and to each other. As well as this, the way in which Nixey chose to explore her subject, by themes rather than by countries in a sort of ‘travelogue’ as was her original intention, meant that the chapters would often feel somewhat erratic and cluttered. They moved from place to place to illustrate as many examples as possible, which meant that the chronology was a little confusing – although the main body of the work was bookended by the philosopher Damascius’ flight from Athens, which helped to tie everything together. There were also a number of occasions where the chapters felt repetitive, sometimes even when it came to the titles – ‘Wisdom is Foolishness’, ‘These Deranged Men’, ‘The Reckless Ones’, and so on.
‘We request peace for the gods of our forefathers […] Whatever each person worships, it is reasonable to think of them as one. We see the same stars, the sky is shared by all, the same world surrounds us. What does it matter what wisdom a person uses to seek for the truth?’Symmachus
The Darkening Age certainly achieved its aim of turning traditional views on their head, with one Roman judge pleading with a Christian to think of his family, his children, and himself, as he did not want to have to execute him. This man and others were called ‘minister[s] of Satan’, while St Augustine stated that ‘Where there is terror there is salvation […] Oh merciful savagery!’, and the monk Shenoute purported that ‘There is no crime […] for those who have Christ.’ I cannot say that I enjoyed this book, that would be the wrong word to use, but I would certainly recommend it, especially to those who want a better understanding of the ancient world. It was not simply Christians good, Romans bad – although at times Nixey seems to be just saying the opposite.