Still, contrary to Nixey, there was not utter but rather partial destruction of the classical world. The vigorous debates in Byzantine cultures about whether, for example, magical texts were demonic suggest that these works continued to have influence in Christian Europe. The material culture of the time also lends nuance to Nixey’s story: Silverware and dining services in Byzantium were proudly decorated with images of the “Iliad” and “Odyssey.” And while 90 percent of all ancient literature has been lost, paganism still had a foothold on the streets.
In Constantinople, the spiritual headquarters of Eastern Christendom, the seventh-century church was still frantically trying to ban the Bacchanalian festivities that legitimized cross-dressing, mask-wearing and Bacchic adulation. I read this book while tracing the historical footprint of the Bacchic cult. On the tiny Greek island of Skyros, men and children, even today, dress as half human, half animal; they wear goat masks, and dance and drink on Bacchus’ festival days in honor of the spirit of the god. It seems that off the page there was a little more continuity than Christian authorities would like to admit.
But the spittle-flecked diatribes and enraging accounts of gruesome martyrdoms and persecution by pagans were what the church chose to preserve and promote. Christian dominance of academic institutions and archives until the late 19th century ensured a messianic slant for Western education (despite the fact that many pagan intellectuals were disparaging about the boorish, ungrammatical nature of early Christian works like the Gospels). As Nixey puts it, the triumph of Christianity heralded the subjugation of the other.
And so she opens her book with a potent description of black-robed zealots from 16 centuries ago taking iron bars to the beautiful statue of Athena in the sanctuary of Palmyra, located in modern-day Syria. Intellectuals in Antioch (again in Syria) were tortured and beheaded, as were the statues around them. The contemporary parallels glare. The early medieval author known as Pseudo-Jerome wrote of Christian extremists: “Because they love the name martyr and because they desire human praise more than divine charity, they kill themselves.” He would have found shocking familiarity in the news of the 21st century.
Nixey closes her book with the description of another Athena, in the city of her name, being decapitated around A.D. 529, her defiled body used as a steppingstone into what was once a world-renowned school of philosophy. Athena was the deity of wisdom. The words “wisdom” and “historian” have a common ancestor, a proto-Indo-European word meaning to see things clearly. Nixey delivers this ballista-bolt of a book with her eyes wide open and in an attempt to bring light as well as heat to the sad story of intellectual monoculture and religious intolerance. Her sympathy, corruscatingly, compellingly, is with the Roman orator Symmachus: “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?”
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