A Review of “The Darkening Age” by Catherine Nixey

When I first heard of this book, seeing others promote it on Facebook, I admit to being a bit taken aback that someone else had written a book on basically the same topic as I had earlier that same year of 2017. It’s not that I don’t want the information out there for all to read, for obviously I do or I would not have written my book “Killing Roma”. Indeed, this information very much needs to be out there for all to access. But, two books on this very subject, the subject of how early Christianity destroyed the ancient world, in less than a year for public consumption when this has literally never happened before? Something had to be afoot! After reading a lengthy, and rather strident and greatly overbearing, critical review of her book by Tim O’Neill in his on-line blog “History for Atheists” (one that contained all the hallmarks of a major attempt to destroy her credibility completely), I finally decided that I had to purchase a copy and read it myself. After all, it was the only way to be sure.
I will go ahead and state this up front. It took me a while to read it due to the challenges of life. But, now, having read it, I can confidently state that it seems obvious to me that what’s afoot is nothing less than divine intervention. I am totally satisfied that the divine is behind the fact that both she and I wrote on the same subject in exactly the same year. The ancient voices are again being heard, much to the chagrin of those who think that this history and the knowledge of it should remain buried and forgotten forever. I found her book to be a thoroughly enjoyable read even as I read it, knowing the history already, with a bit of melancholy. “The Darkening Age” is an excellent work and it should be read by everyone, as should mine along with it.
Having stated these things, in my opinion, Nixey’s book did start out in a way that gave me a bit of pause. She did, here and there throughout the book, make some statements that could be considered minor exaggerations and that I, in my years of study on this period in history, would find difficult to support. That does not mean that her statements were false, in the main. She simply seems to have engaged at times in a bit of embellishment in order to draw a good picture for the reader. And, indeed, she draws that picture for the reader with great talent. She is certainly a gifted writer and has been able to draw things out in ways that I have often found difficult to do. She has drawn the picture in a vivid manner while I have, more often than not, simply stuck to the historical evidence and simply made it clear what it says and what it means. Regardless, her book is true history, not fiction.
And, so, to the nitty-gritty of it, I will begin with one of her earliest statements. On page xxvii she states that Athens was “the city that had seen the birth of Western philosophy”. This was one of those statements that gave me pause and, initially, made me think that the book might have been written by a novice. Indeed, it is an easy mistake to make, but one that any seasoned scholar would likely avoid, for the birthplace of Western philosophy was not Athens, but was instead Miletos (Miletus) in Anatolia. Philosophy was later transplanted to Athens, where it flourished.
Later, on page xxxii when she states that ninety-nine percent of all ancient works have been lost to time, she provides no citation as to where she actually gets that figure. It may be true, one supposes, but there is nothing to back it up. For the reader’s sake here, I will state that the figure is indeed likely to be true, based upon the evidence. But such should be cited.
When she states on page xxxiv that many statues on temples survived simply because they were too high to reach because the people used primitive ladders, etc. and could not reach them, well, this is a supposition as there is no evidence, that I am aware of, to support it. It would have been better if she had drawn a bit of that picture she is so good at here and had stated that those who set about to destroy such monuments as temples were often a rabble who simply did not have the proper equipment with them to destroy all of it and, when they had got their fill of violence and destruction, they simply moved on, not bothering with things that were too high to easily reach. Mobs, after all, are rarely efficient in their efforts.
When she states on page xxxv that a linear narrative, which hers is not, would be “too dull” for the reader, I kind of laughed a bit because, frankly, that is exactly what my book “Killing Roma” is and, so far, everyone who has read it has loved it. No one has called it “dull” and, in fact, some have mentioned that I really put a lot of emotion into it, something quite difficult for me to do.
I was heartened when, on page 14, Nixey provided the entire title of Augustine’s most important work “The City of God against the Pagans”. Most sources and mentions of this work leave out “against the Pagans”. Why? Because they want to deemphasize the fact that the entire work was actually written AGAINST THE PAGANS. The powers-that-be simply do not want you to know that, so they prefer the title “The City of God” so that it seems to be a work of beauty. But, read it, and you will find that it is anything but beautiful and is actually dripping with hatred and hostility toward Pagans.
After that the book truly began to get good, if you will. I thoroughly enjoyed the entirety of chapter three in which Nixey provided details of the life and thought of Galen. Having read about him years ago, I had generally forgotten him over the years. What a delight this chapter was!
Having stated this, her explanation of the name Panthera on page 33 as being similar to the Greek term parthenos lacks anything to back it up. In my research, I have never come across this “pun”, as she put it, and I would have liked to have seen a source citation. As she continues on page 34 to state that Mary, when found pregnant, had been “convicted of adultery and ‘driven out by her husband‟” she is citing Gibbon and his wonderful work “The Decline and fall of the Roman Empire”. It could be that this information originally came from the Jewish Talmud as this is the type of thing that would have been stated in that source. But I haven’t the time to check that.
On page 35 she mentions for the first time the concept in the ancient world that the earth, and the universe, were uncreated and that it was already understood that everything was made up of atoms that could not be seen by the human eye. I was very happy with that mention, and continued mentions after that, for it is an ancient concept that is rarely cited. Still, to give the concept entirely over to the Epicureans, as she seems to do, is a bit less than correct.
And there were many more instances in which Nixey brought things out that really needed to be stated. In fact, she mentions many things that I (sometimes deliberately) left out of my book. I went through the rest of her book seeing very little that I would even remotely disagree with, even if she did take a liberty here and there.
Yet, to go a bit further on, I do have to state that she could have done better by Nero. There is a lot more to Nero than the average person is aware and I think that I have drawn the better picture of him, not in “Killing Roma”, but in my first book “Apocalypse and Armageddon”. She, on page 54, sort of accepts without criticism the salacious statement that Nero played the lyre as Rome burned and afterward, caring nothing for the people, built his great palace on the charred remains. An entirely different historical source than the one commonly cited states that Nero was not even in Rome when the fire stated, but when he was told of it, rushed back to provide whatever assistance he could and, in fact, opened up his home to those affected and even fed them. Yes, he built his Golden Palace there later, but he didn’t see this as scandalous until people complained about it later. He didn’t understand that it would put off the people he had helped earlier. So he just wasn’t that politically savvy.
Another point, when on page 65 where Nixey states that Pliny was sent to Turkey to be its governor; for me, was certainly a mistake of a novice. “Turkey” did not exist at that time and Pliny was made governor of only a small part of modern-day Turkey called Bythinia. This, frankly, is a less easily-made mistake than the mistake earlier about Athens.
Later, on page 91, when she states that “Constantine moved quickly to promote his new religion”, well, that’s debatable at least because it is likely that he was not quite a Christian as early as 312, as many scholars have pointed out. In fact, I do not believe that he was, although he might have been moving in that direction. The Edict of Milan was simply an edict of toleration. That’s all. Other rulers had done the same basic thing, but had not become Christian. Then she goes on to practically slight Zosimus who wrote that Constantine had only become Christian after he had his wife and son murdered. She states that “the dates don’t really work”. I show otherwise, as other scholars also do, so she simply has not done enough research here.
Later, on page 127, describing Hypatia, Nixey states that Hypatia “always dressed in the austere and concealing uniform of a philosopher’s cloak”. Here, again, perhaps she has not read quite enough because Hypatia is actually described as having worn something very different and would have, more often than not, looked more like depictions of the goddess Artemis in dress. And when, on page 136, she states that “some say that, while she still gasped for breath, they gouged out her eyes”, again, no citation and a clear embellishment which ought not to have been made, in my opinion. There is simply no evidence for this.
When, on page 129, Nixey states that “it took well over a millennium for any other collection to come close to what [the Great Library of] Alexandria had achieved in terms of volume . . .”; that’s a bit less than accurate. She seems to have not read about other great libraries of the ancient world, one of which, for example, was in Ephesus and another in Antioch, both of which may well have had similar collections.
Another mistake, although a common one, is found on page 148 where she states that Gnosticism was “a highly intellectual second-century [CE] movement”. As I show in great detail in “Apocalypse and Armageddon”, Gnosticism started in Egypt in about the second century BCE. So it was a good bit older than most understand.
Later, on page 158, she states that “there is little evidence that Christians intentionally destroyed entire libraries”, well, perhaps there is indeed “little evidence”, but one of the most heinous instances of library burning was done on the order of the Christian emperor Jovian as he ordered the Great Library in Antioch to be burnt. But, this is one of those things that few know about and should be informed of. True, this is often overlooked by historians, but it should not be overlooked in a book like this one.
For the rest, I absolutely loved what she wrote and how she wrote it. It cannot be overstated that this is an important work of history, not fiction, no matter how strident the voices on the other side may be.
But, back to O’Neill for a bit. He takes umbrage from the beginning with the fact that the history cited in Nixey’s book tells of the destruction of the ancient world at the hands of the Christians. He actually belittles the idea that it should be told at all. A much more even-handed review of Nixey’s book has been done by Stephen Darori in his on-line blog “Israel Book Review”, by the way. O’Neill, for his part, calls it “a book of biased polemic masquerading as historical analysis and easily the worst book I have read in years”. That should induce everyone to go out and buy it all by itself! But if one prefers to read a book that easily fits the criteria befitting such a statement as this one, then I can think of two: “Killing Jesus” by Bill O’Reilly and “Tried by Fire” by William Bennett. If biased polemic is what is desired, there is indeed plenty to read out there. Biased polemic, Nixey’s book is not. Whether O’Neill and others like it or not, THIS is a work of history, not polemic. It emphasizes the FACT that the first Christian Byzantine regimes were every bit as violent, repressive, oppressive, and detrimental to the future as the modern-day Islamic State is. We simply must not repeat this history and the only way to avoid such repetition is to know and understand this history – to acknowledge that it DID happen and it must not happen again.

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