Bits of Gibbon (Vol. 1 Chap. 8)

This bit just seemed worth noting for when he covers Christianity on detail later.

But there are some remarkable instances, in which Zoroaster lays aside the prophet, assumes the legislator, and discovers a liberal concern for private and public happiness, seldom to be found among the grovelling or visionary schemes of superstition. Fasting and celibacy, the common means of purchasing the Divine favour, he condemns with abhorrence as a criminal rejection of the best gifts of Providence.


Byzantium by Stephen Lawhead

9780006482512-uk-300Usually a science fiction and fantasy author, Lawhead goes with a bit of straight historical fiction here.  The fantasy style still fits as we get an action adventure romp around the ninth century with a good dose of mystical Irish Christianity.  The plot is fairly ordinary for this sort of this: inexperienced monk travels, captured by and joins Vikings, then various bits of scheming in the east.  The settings are good though, although the action does tend to skip large distances, we get a reassuringly detailed description of life in an Irish monastery, life on a small Scandinavia homestead, visiting Byzantium, and so on.

The characters and dialogue too are above par for this sort of thing.  Or the main character anyway – there’s a side line throughout of the staunchly Christian hero Aidan struggling with his faith.  This may not be to everyone’s taste, but it does add another (moral) dimension to the book above and beyond what other historical fiction authors like Bernard Cornwell or Tim Severin have done with similar stories.  It kind of cool to have a hero who does actually change in outlook gradually throughout the book.

The ending was a little unsatisfying.  Aidan fighting with his sense of Christianity in the face of suffering and corruption.  It all gets tied up in the last few pages and the epilogue, but we don’t really get to see the new found contentment – it is rather briskly narrated to us.  It’s a shame after all that (slightly depressing) self-reflection to basically just tag on a happy ending in a page of epilogue.  Again the religious element may not be to everyone’s taste (or so it appears on Goodreads), but it does add some extra depth to the character that the book would be a bit flat without.

Dream of Enlightenment by Anthony Gottlieb

coverUnlike his 2000 volume, Dream of Reason, I don’t have an easy reference for this book.  Peter Adamson‘s Without Any Gaps podcast hasn’t got this far yet.  AC Grayling’s Age of Genius was structured and focused differently.  That’s not to say I’m completely unfamiliar or it’s a completely novel arrangement; but other reviews suggest that this is part of an ongoing debate – defending the value and relevance of older philosophers.  Along with this he goes about some mythbusting – showing the commonality between different camps of the enlightenment (although many would disagree, both now and then).

As with his first volume, Gottlieb sees most of these thinkers as rational (at least in part); but he is at his best with the down to earth, practical reasoning of John Locke and Thomas Hobbes.  In comparison, the rather more abstract parts of Leibniz or Spinoza feel … well, a bit abstract.  Gottlieb seems more comfortable putting them in their social and political situations than he does on their actual writing.  Talking of social and political situations – the chapter of Voltaire and Rousseau feels like nothing but that – but Gottlieb seems happy to present them as bickering socialites in the wake of greater thinkers.

Gottlieb presents, chapter by chapter, biographies of a number of the major figures of the enlightenment from Descartes to Hume.  The writing is accessible and well judged with a mix of biography, philosophy and occasional dry wit.  The topics that run through the enlightenment run through the book: reason, geometry and of course religion.  Gottlieb feels more generous than Grayling on the final regard (not too hard).  In fact, he seems to have genuine affection for each of these philosophers throughout the book.  It’s a solid and well balanced introduction to the context around enlightenment and some of the better known thinkers.

Blood and Faith by Matthew Carr

610iwml7ual-_sx323_bo1204203200_Subtitled The Purging of Muslim Spain, journalist Matthew Carr tackles a grim subject with sympathy and subtlety.  Spain under Muslim rule is legendary for its toleration of Jews and Christians – La Convivencia.  Toleration may not be the whole story (particularly in later centuries under the Almohads and Almoravids), but after the fall of Granada in 1492 things would get a whole lot worse.  While after previous reconquests an uneasy continuation had occurred, this time the Most Catholic monarchs of Spain had something to prove.  How could Spain be a leading Christian country if so much of its population wasn’t?

First the Jews were expelled or converted, then province by province it was the turn of the moors.  Over a few decades, first Granada, then Castile, Navarre, and finally Aragon ordered the forced conversion of the population.  What then?  Can you trust a forced conversion?  The Spanish aristocracy did not, and the Moriscos (as they were known) were constantly under suspicion of being fake Christians.  Some argued for education, for integration (and Carr describes successful cases), and patience; some even argued for allowing religion tolerance; but ultimately the hard line approach won out, fuelled by revolt and a fear of collusion with Barbary pirates.

In the early 17th century the moriscos, rich or poor, fake or real Christian, were ordered out of the country.  Three hundred thousand of them, 4% of the Spanish population, were expelled.  Some found their way back eventually (having no real connection to Islamic North Africa).  Others did settle in Africa, but it was not an easy journey – with food and money quickly running out and bandits waiting at both ends to take what they could get.  The book is often quite dry, I find Spanish history to sometimes be written in a very top heavy way – with only great aristocrats, generals and priests making it – but the descriptions of Morisco life are vibrant enough to make the reaction against it seem as extreme as it was.

As Carr tells it, at one extreme it brings to mind more recent atrocities – the treatment of the Jews in the 30’s, the Armenians.  But in some ways it’s hard to see how our treatment of so called “stateless” people improved over the coming centuries.  In a chapter called “A Warning From History” Carr ends by describing how many people (even in the mainstream – Melanie Philips is picked up on) argue that Muslims cannot integrate into western society, will never belong to the countries they live in, and even describe such an “agreeable” deportation.  The book is from 2010, but it’s difficult to see how it has become less relevant in that time.

The Darkening Age by Catherine Nixey

I’m not usually up to date on my literary pursuits, but this one feels almost contemporary.  In September last year The Darkening Age came out to some discussion and argument.  Nixey, brought up as a strict Catholic, sees herself as balancing a wrong – that the image of early Christianity is all love, hope and charity; where the reality could be violent, perverse and oppressive.  To this end, the book obviously opens with the destruction by Christians of a pagan temple in Palmyra – playing it off against more recent religious extremists.  It’s not subtle, nor is it meant to be, but at times it comes across as rather slippery – it sometimes feels like a long succession of straw men, cherry picking and incomplete information.

35450727At it’s best, Nixey gives likely semi-fictionalized descriptions of Christian atrocities and madness, and these do cover interesting snippets of history.  The graphic descriptions of the destruction of the beautiful temple of Serapis (and its library), and the mob killing of the philosopher Hypatia are gruesome and vibrant.  The abbot Shenoute’s housebreaking is shocking.  And the story of St Anthony and his demons is just weird.  Unfortunately, when Nixey tries to generalize the book feels shallow.  Her chapter on the exaggeration of Christian martyrdom adds little beyond what Gibbon suggested in the 18th century.

The book also feels rather shallow when it comes to the Pagans that Nixey would defend.  Having recently read Tim Whitmarsh’s Battling The Gods, the classical world seems very one dimensional religiously and intellectually in The Darkening Age.  We switch between the first, third and sixth centuries at the drop of a hat; between Gaul, Egypt and Constantinople; between Stoics, Epicureans and Neo-Platonists.  The old fashioned moralist end of Rome is ignored in favour of the Libertine end (Catullus’ sex life rather than Juvenal’s homophobic rants).  Their rejection of some foreign cults (Manichees or the Druids) brushed aside for their incorporation of others (Isis or Mithras).  There is little on why Pagan polytheism really differed in behaviour from monotheistic Christianity (something that was a particular stand out in Whitmarsh’s book).

I understand it’s a different sort of book – but frankly, I’m not sure that it is that novel to suggest that early Christianity could be strict and fanatical.  That image is so ingrained within fiction (for example, Terry Pratchett’s Small Gods or many Bernard Cornwell books) and other history books that I don’t really need a lopsided polemic to open my mind to it.  In this polemic parts of the book start to feel a bit tone deaf – a step back to the “Dark Ages” that so many late antique scholars and early medievalists have worked to enlighten; a focus on the lurid literary sources of religious propaganda, with very little input from archaeology beyond a few shocking examples of statue defacement.

Despite many caveats (“Not all Christians …”) and some exciting story telling, it either doesn’t convince or feels trivial.  The main problem is not so much that she mis-represents Christianity, but that in doing so her version of Paganism feels so passive and one dimensional.  Robin Lane Fox’s book Pagans and Christians is getting on a bit now; but I found such a vibrant portrait of late paganism in that, and such a balanced view of the different relations between the religions, that I can only recommend wading through that instead!

Battling The Gods by Tim Whitmarsh

4fec67c0-c5cf-4e87-838c-7c330bae3192img400The main difficulty that Tim Whitmarsh has to deal with in his history of ancient atheism is that their gods are not the same as our Gods.  As he repeatedly stresses “Greek religious culture had no sacred text, no orthodoxy, no clear sense if what was ruled in and out of the sacred sphere, and as a result it was not blasphemous to subject the nature if the gods to radical questioning.“.  Throughout the many angles and sources that Whitmarsh explores it is difficult to pin point on what level they believe or disbelieve.

In many cases he looks at theomachia, tales of people battling the gods, often in fiction.  For instance Pentheus in Euripides’ The Bacchae, or parts of Homer.  Inevitably the gods win.  It’s hard to find material written by or in favour of those who spoke or acted against the gods, but we can see indirectly through character archetypes or specific criticisms that there must have been skepticism and disbelief present in the ancient world.

Philosophy is particularly interesting; the pre-Socratic attempts to explain the world by physical theories; the Epicureans who sidelined the gods; and the Skeptics who expressed criticisms of both belief and disbelief.  In general all three of these took the form of “an argument not for the non-existence of the gods but more narrowly for their limited explanatory role“, but things only get more complex as politics jumps into the issue: first with the god kings of the Hellenistic era and then with the divinely ordained expansion of the Roman empire.

Finally things get completely muddled as Christianity emerges and writers start to use atheist as a synonym for heretic (ie. those atheistic polytheists!).  Still, the same names come up again and again: Euhemerus, Diagoras of Melos and various Skeptics or Epicurians.  The religious tolerance that (mostly) allowed them to exist, disapproved of but free, would now disappear as politics was inextricably linked to religion; a monotheistic religion with rules and ideas set down in text too – that gave little room to manoeuvre.

This is not a straight forward book, the line between theism, atheism and agnosticism is constantly blurred; but that diversity of opinion and thought is interesting in itself.  Whitmarsh shows that the scientific world of the Enlightenment was not the first time skepticism raised its head; as indeed those 18th century thinkers with their familiarity of classics would have realized.  It is to the reader to make of this what he or she will, but Whitmarsh hopes it will show up modern skepticism as neither a fad nor an innovation, rather an idea with a history at least as old as the Abrahamic religions.

The death of Maximinus Daia

I’m not usually one for gruesome stories and gore, but when reading about Constantine, this stood out.  The pagan emperor Maximinus Daia persecuted Christians before being defeated by the more tolerant emperor Licinius (who was in turn defeated by Constantine).  After his defeat but before his death he did issue an edict of Edict of Toleration, granting Christians rights.  It didn’t do much to restore his reputation amongst them, and some gleefully recorded his slow, painful death.

From the Christian author Lactantius:

When he saw that he was trapped, Maximinus took his own life with poison. Before this, he had filled himself with food and wine, as those who think they are doing it for the last time usually do, and then he took the poison.  Because of the effect of the food and drink, this did not cause the rapid death he had expected but a malign weakness similar to the plague, and his life was prolonged for a time amidst great pain.  His intestines started to burn with unbearable pain, which drove him mad. For four days, he picked up dry earth with his hands and devoured it like a starving man, he beat his head against the walls and his eyes leapt from their sockets.  Finally, he lost his sight and had a vision in which God judged him surrounded by servants dressed in white.  He shouted like someone being tortured and claimed that he had not done it, but others.  Finally, as if giving way to the pain, he began to confess to God, pleading and imploring Him to take pity on him.  In this way, moaning in pain, as if he were on fire, he delivered up his pernicious spirit amidst a kind of detestable death.

I did find the article Portrait of a Persecutor by Mar Marcos an interesting defence of sorts of an unimpressive emperor.  Without doubt Maximinus was below par, but we only really have some very lopsided sources to go on for quite how nasty he was.  Some of the details, particularly the death are standard cliches – the similarly gruesome descriptions of Galerius’ death are similar to the death of Antiochus IV as recorded in Maccabees.  Unfortunately we have to work with the sources we have, but it does make for some good reading.

As another stranger aside, it seems that some people have interpreted these descriptions to show that Maximinus had Graves’ Disease or Thyrotoxicosis.  I’ll leave that one as medical diagnosis is not my strong point, even when it isn’t at a range of 1700 years.


Constantine The Emperor by David Potter

519wcldixtl-_sx327_bo1204203200_Constantine must be among the best known Roman emperors, but it sometimes seems like there are less popular history books and historical fiction on him than I might expect.  I guess that makes sense in a way, what exciting narrative scenes exist are too wrapped up in his conversion to Christianity – not exactly a fashionable topic.  It seems hard to find writing about Constantine that isn’t really part of the larger story of the rise of Christianity or the decline of the Empire.  His great predecessor Diocletian feels even more obscure.  Maybe the story is too political, not enough scandal and sex appeal?

This book by David Potter bills itself as a biography of Constantine, but it’s more limited than that: the majority of the book sets up the role of the Emperor and his administration before and after the reforms of Diocletian.  Constantine only really comes into play after the first third, and only really gains power in the final third.  Potter looks at how Constantine conformed to and retreated from those conventions as Emperor.  The focus is there rather than his Christianity or his military exploits – though clearly both are covered as part of a general picture.  It’s an interesting take, and it does help to put his career and decisions in proper context.

David Potter paints a complex picture of Constantine.  A man whose religion and image would be carefully adjusted over time.  He is astute enough to dismiss some of the mythical stories – the failed assassination attempt by Maximian, for example – and set out our ignorance on others – the circumstances of the death of his son and exile of his wife Fausta,  As a character Constantine comes across as power hungry and ruthless, but also cautious and tolerant.  It’s a detailed and authoritative portrayal, but unfortunately one that can come across as a little dry and perhaps a little lop sided in places.


War On Heresy by R.I Moore

Catharism is probably the best known Medieval heresy.  It has popped up in Dan Brown and Bernard Cornwell books, and in Iron Maiden songs.  People may be familiar with the crusades against it, famous quotes like “Kill them alllet God sort them out”, and even with the general idea of dualism with a split between good and evil, spiritual and physical.  In another sense it isn’t well known at all, much of what we know comes from anti-Cathar propaganda or rebuttals.

In this book Moore looks again at the response to heresy in the medieval church and particularly the Cathars.  He finds little to hold on to where they are concerned; it seems that the idea of the heretics being an organised group with a church structure and doctrine was a construction of writers within the catholic church.  The local heretics may have had reformist motives, complaints against clerical corruption, a desire to follow the bible more literally, or a desire for greater local independence – but aspects of their behaviour was taken and fit into a stock idea of a dualist heretic but churchmen who had been reading a bit too much classical literature!

In the earlier part of the book, Moore seems very comfortable with the sources, and convincing that there was no true heretical organization.  We see reformers of various types, some integrated within the church, some not.  Later on, as the book hits the 13th century, there seems to be a bit of extrapolation, that we should continue to interpret these later events in a similar manner to the former.  This may be reasonable – it is a very subtle book, possibly too subtle for me and I will have to leave judgement to those with a greater familiarity with the era.

Aimed at a general audience, but with some scholarship behind it, this is an interesting if difficult read and probably not one for beginners.  The conclusion of the book leaves the traditional narrative disrupted and muddied, but that’s the way history often is.  It’s worth reading for those familiar with the topic, but look elsewhere for an introduction (The Perfect Heresy by Stephen O’Shea perhaps?).

Holy Bones, Holy Dust by Charles Freeman

A history of Christian relics seems like a niche thing, and in truth it probably is, but if there is ever to be an accessible introduction for a popular audience it is this book by Charles Freeman.  Working chronologically from early Christians in the Roman empire to the resurgence in the counter reformation, Freeman places relics at the centre of medieval life – motivating travel, boosting economic development and influencing the design of art and architecture.

There are tonnes of anecdotes crammed into the 270 pages.  Some of these are on the light end of things – like Saint Hugh of Lincoln, a popular English bishop who (to French outrage) attempted to steal part of the “arm of Mary Magdalene” at the Abbey of Fecamp.  He eventually managing to chew off a finger to take home to Lincoln, where he was much praised for his initiative.  Other stories are darker – the veneration of Little Saint Hugh of Lincoln (no relation) or William or Norwich, a boys allegedly murdered by the Jewish community and used as an excuse for persecution.

Attention is given to how relics played into wider themes including the rise of anti-semitism, popular religion versus that of the central church organization, the sack of Constantinople in the Fourth Crusade, and finally the rise of the reformation and scepticism.

Freeman keeps away from giving too much modern judgement on these relics and miracles, instead describing the processes and changes in medieval thinking over time.  I liked that, it would be too easy to become heavy handed or condescending when presented with some of these far fetched icons; by avoiding that trap the book has a light, neutral tone that allows the material to speak for itself.