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.

Catullus’ Bedspread by Daisy Dunn

9780007554324The late Roman Republic is one of my favourite periods of history.  I love the main narrative of the story and the detail that we have about the characters involved.  Catallus was a poet, and not one who really got involved in politics – so he’s always been (at best) on the periphery of my reading.  This book puts him in the centre and gives a wonderful snapshot of life in Rome at the time.

The main story here is Catallus’ failed affair with Clodia Metelli, notorious patrician daughter of the Claudius family, sister of the populare Clodius and wife of the conservative Metellus Celer.  His poetry (written to her as Lesbea) starts out romantic (and filthy) and ends up bitter, angry (and filthy).  But Dunn shows that there is much more than just smut.  Catallus used his knowledge of greek poetry (particularly Callimachus) to write some very clever stuff, and challenged the convention of long, overblown epics with his personal and emotional style.  The title obviously alludes to the poet’s active sex live, but it too shows the hidden depth: focusing on “Poem 64” a take on the myth of Peleus and Thetis that includes an ornate bedspread, leading to a poem within a poem on Ariadne and Theseus.

As a character, I think Dunn’s is a fairly generous take on his character.  The obsessive jilted lover could be read in a much less charitable way, but Dunn does refrain from portraying Clodia as the sinister plotter of legend.  Catallus’ time in Rome starts around the time Clodius infiltrated the Bona Dea festival and ends with his premature death around the time of Crassus’ death at the battle of Carrhae – it’s a mere ten years.  It’s a strange reminder of how short life could be then and yet how fast things were changing.

I was not previously familiar with Catallus poetry (outside of a few famous bits of smut – Poem 16.  Although Dunn only really includes a full translation of 64, I’m impressed enough to read more and perhaps to look for the depth behind the dirt.  Beyond that the book would be enjoyable for anyone who read Tom Holland’s Rubicon and loved the setting – in a smaller scale, it brings to life a similarly vibrant Rome.


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.



Taken At The Flood by Robin Waterfield

21517671Way back at the start of this blog, I read and reviewed his book Dividing the Spoils.  In that he charted the growth of the successor kingdoms to the empire of Alexander the Great.  I guess this book covers the fall of one of those kingdoms, Macedonia.  More than that, it covers the end of hellenistic Greece.  Ultimately though, it’s a book about Roman imperialism.  Waterfield is open about this from the preface, he believes Rome’s conquest was deliberate, cynical and self serving: no accidental empire or well meaning peace keeping.

I believe that the Romans were more aggressive imperialists in this period than used to be commonly held before the first edition of Harris’s War and Imperialism in Republican Rome in 1979—that they did not go to war only when they were truly threatened (though they might pretend they were), nor were they dragged into entanglement with the east by accident or a series of accidents (Gruen, simplified), nor were their eastern wars purely the result of factors systemic to the Mediterranean world of the time (Eckstein, simplified).

Don’t worry – this is no polemic.  Waterfield offers a fairly balanced account of Rome’s policy in Greece from the First Illyrian war in 229BC to the Achaean War in 146BC.  In brief, we find Rome challenging the existing hegemony of the Macedonian and Seleucid kings.  The Greeks get to know the Romans, finding them greedy and brutal.  The Romans get to know the Greeks, finding them an extravagant but tempting influence.  The Roman attitude shifts from the soft approach (the greek loving Titus Quinctus Flamininus who “liberated” the cities from the Macedonians), to the hard (the looting of Lucius Aemilius Paullus).  Finally, after almost a century of dividing and conquering, the kingdom of Macedonia fell and the Romans squashed any chance of other Greek states taking its place.

The book has had its share of criticism.  Waterfield presents Rome as unusually brutal, but doesn’t really explain how their hegemony and coercion differs from the coercion of states closer to home.  When Rome goes to war it’s belligerent, when Macedonia does it’s the done thing for a Hellenistic king.  The Roman destruction of Corinth was shocking, but so was Alexander the Great’s destruction of Thebes.  On the plus side, this is a period of history that often gets missed over in favour of the second and third punic wars during the same period.  Just like Dividing The Spoils, Waterfield writes accessibly and brings to life the main characters and sources.  Correctly balanced or not, the insights into the Roman methods of “remote control” are fascinating.  The wars with Carthage are still going to be the best place to start with second century Rome, but this is well worth reading for a look beyond that.


The Fall of Rome by Peter Heather

51wyaq06g3l-_sx320_bo1204203200_This was one of the first proper history books I bought, back in 2007.  Fresh from Robert Harris‘ Cicero first novel and Tom Holland’s Rubicon, I overreached.  It’s a fascinating, interesting, well written book, but it is a lot more academic than either of those.  I enjoyed it, but being unfamiliar with the details of the debate on the end of Rome I didn’t really get the most out of Heather’s arguments.  More recently, I read his The Restoration of Rome and found it to be a much lighter book than my memories of this.  Inspired by this and my improved understanding of Rome in the intervening decade, I decided to return to The Fall of Rome.

Peter Heather has the same stylish way with words that he showed in the more recent book ( one quote that stood out: “Clovis, in particular, seems to have enjoyed the merry crack of axe on skull”) but the popular analogies don’t come quite as frequent or quite as broad.  This is a much more serious book, which tries to set out a middle ground between the ideas that Rome either fell entirely because of internal decline, or that it collapsed solely due to the external force of the invading barbarians.  As he states near the start, no one seriously takes either opinion so a middle opinion was always inevitable; but he does have some points to make about the exact role that the Huns played in the process.

In Heather’s opinion the western movement of the Huns sparked the movements of other peoples, and it was these that caused the real damage to the empire.  There had been similarly fierce nomads before – the Sarmatians in the first century BC – but this did not have the knock on effect because the Germanic tribes that bordered Rome were too small and localized to have the same impact.  In the face of Roman power large confederations of tribes formed and united into even bigger ones.  Once these were forced to move, real trouble was unleashed.

The book covers both this argument and the surrounding history with some skill.  It’s not overly populist, but Heather uses anecdote and colour where appropriate.  On the other hand, he compares the archaeological record against established ideas and offers conservative and plausible figures on numbers.  I’m glad I returned to the book, and even after my intervening decade of reading about Rome felt that I  was reading a unique and valuable account of the topic.


Pax Romana by Adrian Goldsworthy

25930989I once read the criticism of Adrian Goldsworthy that he has a tendency to just report facts and evidence without adding much in the way of interpretation or conclusion.  And that is sort of true of this book, but like Philip Parker’s The Empire Stops Here it covers such an area and such a time period that it is hard to criticise the book for lacking a grand conclusion.

The two books actually cover some similar ground but Goldsworthy records some of the attitudes and experiences of the Roman empire (both as the Republic and fully fledged empire), while Parker seemed more concerned by the physical geography of the empire.  There’s nothing hugely new, but it’s a well written summary of how the Romans operated – economically, their laws, their taxes – and how parts of the empire were integrated in so successfully.  There’s not much narrative, and some material is a little dry, but the explanations are clear and well written.  His comparison of banditry to car crashes does linger in the mind – an ever present danger, but one that would easily be risked by most people.

The author largely suspends judgement on the morality or success of the empire, but does describe the brutality of Roman repression and that a push for security (as opposed to prosperity) was the main driving factor of the empire’s operation.  It’s not exactly a damning condemnation of the empire, but neither is it much of an endorsement.  It’s not state of the art academia, but Adrian Goldsworthy has written an interesting and relatively accessible book on a wide ranging and often complex topic.


The City In Late Antiquity

I picked up this collection from my local library.  It’s a series of short essays, edited by John Rich, from archaeologists and historians on cities in late antiquity (as the name would suggest).  As one would expect, this essentially tracks changes in cities as the Roman empire declined.  This is a mixed bag of behaviours depending on region and time period – the essays are thus divided by regions.

Generalizing is difficult, but we read about the continued prosperity of cities in Africa; the decline of the Curiales (a sort of oligarchic council) than ran the settlements, replaced by the church in Gaul and the later Byzantine governors in the Danube; the discontinuity or continuity of towns in Britain*; the use of classical art styles by the Lombards in Northern Italy.

There’s a lot of detail in here, but it still feels like its only scratching the surface.  It’s not the most up to date volume (from 1992) or the most readable (more down to the number of authors across the chapters rather than a lack of quality) but it does show the variety of interesting threads that come out of this period of history.

*Something that came up in books by Francis Pryor and Neil Faulkner.



Greek and Roman Mythology on Coursera

As a spin off from my previous post, I had been doing an online learning course on Coursera, run by an Associate Professor at UPenn.  The actual tasks are fairly trivial – a series of 10 questions at the end of each section on the texts and the lectures – but the lectures were interesting and prompted me to think about of some of the classical texts I have been reading.

I’m sure none of it is new for anyone who has actually studied history, but it was nice to learn the basics about Euhemerism, functionalism, structuralism and common themes.  I would happily recommend the course to anyone else who is looking for a prompt while they read Homer, Hesiod, Virgil and others.


Roman Myths by Michael Grant

I have read a few of Michael Grant’s many books in the past.  They are generally okay, he is very readable and he clearly has a wide ranging knowledge of the classical world but they’re not always the most insightful or inspirational of books.  This book on roman myths from 1971 is probably the most engaging of his work that I have read so far.

Continue reading Roman Myths by Michael Grant