Christian Vandalism of the Classical World

This post by James McDonald originally appeared at Bad News About Christianity.

Bust of Germanicus defaced by Christians. (Credit: Alun Salt / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 2.0)

Whenever books are burned men also in the end are burned.
Heinrich Heine (1797-1856), Almansor

All religious traditions had been tolerated under the Roman Empire, although Christians suffered to some extent because of their sedition. They stated openly that they desired the destruction of the Empire, encouraged soldiers to desert, aparantly assassinated oponents, vandalised sacred monuments and statues, and tried to destroy the city of Rome by means of arson.

As soon as the Empire became Christian, this toleration ceased. The only writings to be permitted were those supported by the line currently regarded as orthodox. By 326 Constantine had authorised the confiscation and destruction of anything that challenged orthodoxy (i.e. the orthodoxy established the previous year). This included non-Christian places of worship as well as works by pagan authors and by all other Christian factions. Soon afterwards Constantine’s mother Helena and Macarius, the Bishop of Jerusalem, were supervising the destruction of a temple in Jerusalem dedicated to Aphrodite, and building a Christian basilica on the site. This basilica, now the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, was imagined to be the very burial site of Jesus and to encompass the place of crucifixion. Evidence was conveniently discovered in the form of a tomb and miracle working splinters of the True Cross. Countless thousands of architectural treasures from classical times were soon being vandalised in the same way and turned into Churches.

Christian power grew, and Christians were soon denying freedom of religion to everyone except followers of the Christian faction currently in favour. In the year that the Emperor Constantine inaugurated his new capital at Byzantium, AD 330, he prohibited the performance of rites of other faiths there. In 333, Christian censorship, pillaging, dispossession and judicial killing started in earnest. Not only were works of Arius, but also people who owned such works, to be consigned to the flames. Gold and treasure were removed from Eastern temples. Under Constantine’s Christian sons, the trend developed further. More temples were destroyed, and sacrifices were forbidden. Marriages between Christians and Jews were declared illegal, and the crime was punishable by death. Constantius II passed laws against pagans in 341, and in the following years further laws were passed to the effect that all superstition (i.e. other religions) be completely eradicated. Soon, anyone performing traditional sacrifices would be liable to the death penalty. In town and country, temples were demolished or seized and turned into churches. Bands of violent monks were deployed to ensure the domination of the orthodox line. They were sometimes commanded by bishops. As a modern, devout Christian, historian says:

The monks were often formed, or formed themselves, into black-robed squads for the execution of the Church’s business, first to smash up pagan temples, later to rampage through the streets in time of doctrinal controversy. Monasticism attracted misfits, bankrupts, criminals, homosexuals, fugitives as well as the pious; it was also a career for raw peasant youths who could be drilled into well-disciplined monkish regiments to be deployed as an unscrupulous bishop might think fit.

Other recruits included draft-dodgers, runaway slaves and lunatics. Cultured pagans were appalled by their vandalism. The pattern continued until Julian was declared emperor in 360. Julian, known as Julian the Apostate, rejected Christianity in favour of traditional religions. He reopened and repaired pagan temples and restored the tradition of universal toleration. He restored Jerusalem to the Jews, revoked anti-Semitic legislation and authorised the rebuilding of the Jewish Temple.

His toleration was not appreciated by Christians, who insulted and destroyed new temples in Syria and Asia Minor. The rebuilding of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem was set back by a mysterious fire, possibly one of the many instances of arson carried out by Christians. There is more than a suspicion that Julian’s untimely death was attributable to disloyal Christians. Certainly, many Christians did not trouble to disguise their glee at his demise, and attributed it to Christian agency.

After Julian, the Empire returned to Christian government. Christian rulers resumed the destruction of temples and cancelled the rebuilding of the Jewish Temple. By 380 Christianity was the only recognised religion in the Empire. As part of its campaign books were burned, works of art destroyed, families dispossessed, and temples desecrated. Christians delighted in their victory, and seized opportunities for destruction of everything others held holy.

The Christian Emperor Theodosius I closed pagan temples in Rome at the end of the fourth century, in line with the views of St Ambrose. Under his influence, the Emperor adopted an official policy of Christian uniformity. Christian mobs were free to attack and destroy synagogues and temples with impunity. Spies were appointed to expose those who were not sufficiently sympathetic to the Christian cause. It was Ambrose who dissuaded the Emperor from paying compensation for the destruction of a synagogue in 388.

For a while Christians stuck to their home churches, often the private basilicas (audience chambers) of rich converts. As Christianity adopted ever more pagan practices and trappings, old pagan temples were recognized as ideal locations for their meetings and ceremonies. Pagan temples were then appropriated for use as churches. This happened to countless thousands of temples throughout the Roman Empire. In Rome itself numerous pagan temples were converted into churches, as confirmed by archeological investigations. On the Roman Forum alone, the Curia Julia or Roman Senate building became the church of Sant’Adriano in Foro, the Temple of Antoninus and Faustina became the church of San Lorenzo in Miranda, and the Temple of Romulus became the church of Santi Cosma e Damiano. St. Peter’s Basilica, the church of the Vatican, was built on top of a large pagan necropolis on the Vatican Hill. Pagan gods and their temples are sometimes remembered in the names of Roman churches, for example the church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva (literally Saint Mary above Minerva). The Basilica of St. Mary of the Angels and the Martyrs (Santa Maria degli Angeli e dei Martiri) is a basilica church, built inside the frigidarium of the Baths of Diocletian in the Piazza della Repubblica in Rome.

Officially sanctioned Christian Vandalism became ever more commonplace. At Alexandria in 389, Bishop Theophilus of Alexandria personally directed the destruction of the temple to the god Serapis, reputedly the largest place of worship in the known world. The statue of the god was chopped up and burned, its head being carried through the town for public ridicule. The temple precinct, or Serapeum, also housed a scientific research institute (a “Museum” named after the nine Muses) and the famous Library of Alexandria – two of the greatest academic buildings in human history. Both buildings were loathed by Christians, who hated scientific research and secular knowledge as much as they hated other people’s places of worship. Both Museum and Library were destroyed around this time, probably in the same violent incident in which the bishop destroyed the temple. The destruction of the Serapeum by Patriarch Theophilus was a critical event in the history of persecution of ancient paganism. A later bishop of the same city, Saint Cyril was responsible for the murder of the pholosopher Hypatia.

The famous Temple of Apollo at Patara was destroyed, possibly by St Nicholas, a bishop now better known as Santa Claus. Certainly he, like many other bishops, was a keen destroyer of other people’s holy places in the area. Throughout Egypt bands of monks commissioned by bishops were given military protection so that they could despoil the shrines of other faiths in safety. Notre-Dame de la Daurade is a basilica in Toulouse, France. It was established in 410 when Emperor Honorius allowed the conversion of Pagan temples to Christianity. The original building here was a temple dedicated to Apollo.

In the fifth century, the cult of Alexander, which had survived in the desert oasis at Siwa, was suppressed. By the sixth century the Christian Emperor Justinian closed the last temples in Egypt dedicated to the cults of Isis and Ammon. Centuries later Christians were still seizing wooden icons from devotees of other religions in Egypt. They were sent to Constantinople to be burned in the hippodrome. The famous shrine of the goddess Ma in Comana in Cappadocia was converted into a church. The Parthenon in Athens was also converted, and so was the Temple of Rhea at Byzantium. The Temple of Athene at Syracuse was rebuilt as a church. Often the temples that had been dedicated to goddesses became churches dedicated to the Virgin Mary.

Even temples that Jesus himself had visited, such as the Æskelepium in Jerusalem, were replaced by Christian churches. Numerous hilltop temples dedicated to Hermes (Mercury) were replaced by churches dedicated to St Michael. A temple to Apollo at Monte Cassino was destroyed by followers of St Benedict in the sixth century, and a monastery was built in its place. Many future saints assisted in such destruction. St Martin of Tours, for example, was a keen destroyer of other people’s holy shrines — attacking them with a pickax. Saints Justa and Rufina won their martyrdom by vandalising an image of the goddess Venus in Seville.

In Western Christendom, such practices were encouraged by Pope Gregory I, who reigned between 590 and 604. In 609 Pope Boniface IV turned the Pantheon in Rome into a church. It had been dedicated to all the Olympian gods; now it was dedicated to St Mary and all the Christian martyrs. Another Roman temple, probably dedicated to Hercules, was preserved because it was converted into a Christian church. It is now known, mistakenly, as the Temple of Vesta. Another one, probably dedicated to Portunus, survived for the same reason and is known, again mistakenly, as the Temple of Fortuna Virilis.

The main targets for concerted vandalism were religious. Other buildings were vandalised by neglect. The Flavian Amphitheatre, now called the colosseum, had no particular interest for Christians, since the fictions about Christian martydoms there were not invented until a millennium latter. In contrast, there was an interest in stopping people being free to enjoy themselves, and by the late 6th century a small church had been built into the structure. Stones from the amphitheatre were pillaged for centuries during the Christian period, especially after earthquakes loosened the structure. Stones were taken for cardinals’ palaces and churches throughout the city of Rome. A Christian Order moved into the north of the colosseum in the mid-14th century (where it remained until the early 19th century). The amphitheatre’s interior was stripped of stone and its marble façade burned to make quicklime for the mortar of more church buildings. Bronze clamps holding the stonework together were hacked out of the walls. Pope Sixtus V planned to turn the building into a wool factory, with the intention of providing employment for Rome’s numerous prostitutes, his plan falling through with his death in 1590. In 1671 Cardinal Altieri authorized the amphitheatre’s use for bullfights. In 1749, Pope Benedict XIV endorsed the idea that the colosseums was a site where early Christians had been martyred. This at least stopped a thousand years of Christian vandalism, since he forbade the use of the colosseum as a quarry. (No-one prior to the 16th century had suggested the colosseum had been the site of Christian martydoms). The Catholic Encyclopedia concedes that there is no evidence, yet many Christians continue to imagine gory martydoms there. Each Good Friday the Pope leads a torch-lit “Way of the Cross” procession that starts at the colosseum.

In Gaul, Martin of Tours, a destroyer of countless temples and sacred sites, immediately built churches or monasteries on the sites of temples that he destroyed (Sulpicius Severus, Vita of Sain Martin, ch xiii). The monastery at Monte Cassino was constructed by Saint Benedict on a pagan site, in an area that was still largely pagan. A temple of Apollo crowned the hill there. Benedict’s first act was to smash the statue of Apollo and destroy the temple altar. He then appropriated the temple, dedicating it to Saint Martin, and built another chapel on the site dedicated to Saint John the Baptist. (Gregory the Great, Life of Saint Benedict of Nursia). Montmartre in Paris takes its name from Mons Martyris, “Mountain of the martyr”, but this is an adaption of the original name, for it was previously Mons Martis, the “Mount of Mars”. It is crowned by Basilica of the Sacré Cœur which replaced the temple dedicated to Mars. Nearby a church called Saint Pierre de Montmartre replaced mercurii monte, which had been a sacred place dedicated to Lugus, a Celtic deity equated with Mercury by the Romans.

The Abbey of Luxueil was built on the ruins of Luxovium, near to thermal baths in Burgundy, where pagan stone images crowded the nearby woods. The abbey church was built in triumph within the pagan site, with a grant from a Christian officer of Childebert’s court. In Carnac, beside the Gulf of Morbihan on the south coast of Brittany, a Catholic church was constructed on top of a Neolithic Tumulus in order to Christianise it. The story was much the same in what is now the South of France. A town built around a pagan temple to Minerva is still called Minerve, and the town built around a temple to Jupiter, fanum Jovis, is today called Fanjeaux.

In Britain, the Christian chronicler Geoffrey of Monmouth reported that King Lucius had converted all of the old temples to churches. The idea certainly had the backing of the Church. Instead of destroying temples, they were to be sequestered for Church use. Here is an extract from a letter written by Pope Gregory I to Mellitus, as he was about to join Augustine of Kent among the Anglo-Saxons:

So when almighty God has led you to the most reverend man our brother Bishop Augustine, tell him what I have long gone over in my mind concerning the matter of the English: that is, that the shrines of idols amongst that people should be destroyed as little as possible, but that the idols themselves that are inside them should be destroyed. Let blessed water be made and sprinkled in these shrines, let altars be constructed and relics placed there: since if the shrines are well built it is necessary that they should be converted from the worship of demons to the service of the true God, so that as long as that people do not see their very shrines being destroyed they may put out error from their hearts and in knowledge and adoration of the true God they may gather at their accustomed places more readily.

As elsewhere in the Celtic northwest of Europe, divinities associated with springs were transformed into local saints. Today hundreds of local gods, relabelled as “saints” but recognized only at the location of their own particular “holy well”.

They are often commemorated by annual well-dressing. In the Peak District, the well blessing ceremony is often the signal for the start of a week of celebrations (or ‘wakes’) between the end of May and early September, with a range of events often culminating in a carnival at the end of the week.

The ancient Romans had a practice of adopting the gods of other peoples. In a formal ceremony (exoratio) they induced their enemies” gods to change sides before a battle with promises of bigger sacrifices and better temples. As they conquered new lands and acquired new gods, they sent effigies of them back to the Temple of Capitoline Jupiter. This collection, which should have been modern Europe’s inheritance from the ancient world, disappeared in Christian times. Countless other works of art from all over the known world were also lost under Christian rule. “Lost” is the conventional euphemism to cover anything from willful negligence to deliberate seeking out and destruction. Some classical art survived in the Eastern Empire, especially in Constantinople. But when the Western Christians besieged and took the city in 1204, they immediately set about pillaging these ancient treasures, and destroying those that they could not carry away. Nicetus, a contemporary Greek writer, listed some of the treasures: statues of Juno, of Paris and Venus, of Bellerophon, of Hercules, of Helen, of the Sphinxes, and many others. Some of these statues were huge: four horses had trouble dragging away the head of the statue of Juno. The statue of Hercules (by Lysimachus) was so large that in girth, the statue’s thumbs were equal to a man’s waist. Bronze work was broken up and melted down so that it could be transported more easily; marble work was simply vandalised. Much of the loot ended up in St Mark’s Basilica in Venice, which to this day is a treasure house of Byzantine art — from the golden chalices and reredos (altar screens) to the emperors carved in porphyry and the four magnificent gilt horses.

Much of what survived the vandalism throughout Western Christendom did so either because of pagan care or Christian ignorance. The Capitoline Venus, a Roman copy of Praxiteles” Aphrodite of Cnidos, was hidden apparently to avoid its destruction by Christians. It was found, walled up, in the seventeenth century.

Another Aphrodite, dug up on the Greek island of Milos in 1820, is now celebrated as the Aphrodite of Milos, or more commonly the Venus de Milo. Even missing her arms (which were broken after the statue was found) she is one of the most famous statues in the world. She is now in the Louvre.

The arms and original plinth were lost following her discovery. The statue, in marble, was created sometime between 130 and 100 BC. From an inscription on its plinth, noted before it disappeared, she is thought to be the work of Alexandros of Antioch. According to modern experts she is not in the same class as Praxiteles” original Aphrodite, which is, of course, “lost”.

Other statues, like Laocoön and his sons, and the Apollo Belvedere, both now in the Vatican Museum, were rediscovered during the Renaissance. So was the Farnese Hercules by Glycon, rediscovered in 1540. Some statues were vandalised but not destroyed. For example a statue of Isis in Rome now leads a second life as the liberally bosomed “Madama Lucrezia”.

Not only religious statues fell victim to the Christians. Early Christians destroyed secular statues and inscriptions. The great Church historian Eusebius gloated that Caesar Maximian was “the first whose complimentary inscriptions and statues, and everything else that is customarily set up, were thrown down as being reminders of a foul monster”. Vandalised statues of him were left as objects for jests and horseplay for anyone who might want to insult and abuse them. His portraits were destroyed and so were those of his family — some were flung from a height and smashed, others had their faces blacked out and damaged beyond repair. Similar fates befell others who were not sufficiently sympathetic to the Christian cause. Unsympathetic people were executed, and all memorials to their existence destroyed.

The West’s patrimony from classical times is tiny compared to what it might have been if the early Christian authorities had allowed artistic taste to encroach on their religious prejudices. The little that remains has survived despite the efforts of the more zealous Christians. Statues were buried, or walled up, or cast into the sea to avoid the Christian picks and hammers. Had the Christians been more competent detectives, and less ignorant about the subject matter, then the whole patrimony would have been “lost”. An equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius in the Campidoglio in Rome survived because Christians mistook it for a statue of their hero Constantine.

We can often tell that Christians were responsible for vandalising statues first because they made a point of disfiguring the face (as Moslems vandals still do), and secondly because they would often carve crosses on the face, most commonly a cross in the middle of the forehead, to somehow Christianise the statue. Making crosses on foreheads is a common Christian practice. It is still done with water in the course of baptisms, with ash on Ash Wednesday, and with paint on the skulls of dead monks. It was previously done with a red hot branding iron on the foreheads of supposed heretics. Below are a few examples of statues vandalised by Christians.

Religiously inspired philistinism extended to all corners of life. Christians were responsible for putting a stop to the original Olympic Games, of which they disapproved. The famous statue of Zeus at Olympia, wrought in gold and ivory, one of the seven wonders of the world, was carted off to Constantinople where it was later destroyed. (It is thought to have looked like the image shown on the right). The workshops of Phidias, the sculptor of the statue of Zeus, were converted into a Christian church.

Other wonders of the world suffered similarly. According to Christian sources, the Temple of Diana (Artemis) near Ephesus was destroyed along with the goddess’s statue, first damaged by Saint John the Apostle, and then flattened by Saint John Chrysostom in 401, following a Christian emperor’s Edict of Thessalonica. The stones were used for a “tomb” for St John and a bath-house. A cross was raised on the spot where Diana’s statue had stood. Another wonder of the world, the Mausoleum at Helicarnassus, was cannibalised to build a crusader castle, which still stands near the harbour of modern Bodrum in Turkey.

The building of temple of Diana (or Artemis) at Effesus had been a 120-year project started by King Croesus of Lydia. It was described by Antipater of Sidon, who compiled a list of the Seven Wonders:

I have set eyes on the wall of lofty Babylon on which is a road for chariots, and the statue of Zeus by the Alpheus, and the hanging gardens, and the colossus of the Sun, and the huge labour of the high pyramids, and the vast tomb of Mausolus; but when I saw the house of Artemis that mounted to the clouds, those other marvels lost their brilliancy, and I said, “Lo, apart from Olympus, the Sun never looked on aught (anything) so grand”. (Antipater, Greek Anthology [IX.58])

It was destroyed by Christians, and is now an empty field. Some stones used to build a nearby church, other carted off to Contantinople. Some of the columns in Hagia Sophia came from the temple of Artemis, and statues and other decorative elements ended up in the Christian capital..

An inscription at Ephesus confirms the role of Christians in the vandalism, in particular a Christian called Demeas:

Destroying the delusive image of the demon Artemis, Demeas has erected this symbol of Truth, the God that drives away idols, and the Cross of priests, deathless and victorious sign of Christ.

During the reign of the Christian Emperor Theodosius I, the library at Alexandria was burned. For years bands of Christian monks had been sweeping down from their desert monasteries to destroy shrines and temples. They ransacked houses, destroying all non-Christian religious objects. In 391 when they burned down the Temple to Serapis they also managed to set fire to the nearby library — the greatest library in the Western world. Some estimates put the number of volumes destroyed at 700,000 (although enough volumes remained for later Muslims to enjoy more fires when they arrived in 642). The end of progress in ancient mathematics is conventionally dated as 415, the year Hypatia was murdered by Christians in the same city, during the reign of the next bishop. The great tradition of learning at Alexandria came to an end in 517 when its world famous School of Philosophy was closed down. Elsewhere, rival Christian schools had to be eliminated too. In 489 the Emperor Zeno had closed the schools of Edessa. The end of ancient philosophy can be equated with the closing of the Academy and other philosophical Schools in Athens by the Christian Emperor Justinian in 529. Any possibility of intellectual opposition was now eliminated.

Philosophy was considered dangerous to Christianity. Philosophers were persecuted and their books burned. Such was the persecution that men of learning were driven to destroy their own libraries rather than risk a volume being seen by a Christian informer. The few intellectual Christians that there were had to be careful of offending the sensibilities of the less intellectual majority. The philosopher Boethius for example was killed by the pious Christian Ostrogoth Theodoric in the sixth century. He is reputed to have met his end by having a bowstring tightened around his temples until his eyes protruded from his head. His death marked the end of the classical tradition of learning.

Any pagan work that referred to Jesus, and any works by Christians who could not accept the theology agreed atthe latest Church Council, were suppressed. The only acceptable literature was literature that conformed to the official Christian line of the moment. Gospels that did not fit requirements were discarded, and their existence denied. Other writings were creatively edited. Works by educated pagan authors were destroyed along with those of Christians whose views were not currently regarded as orthodox. Histories were either “lost” or doctored to make them acceptable.

Numerous works by pagan authors were known during the early centuries of the Church, and many of them were subsequently destroyed or otherwise “lost”. We know for example that several biographies of Pythagoras were written. All have been “lost”. One of the most famous Roman writers, Aulus Cornelius Celsus, wrote De Artibus — a work that is known to have covered agriculture, military theory, philosophy, law and medicine. He was a highly regarded thinker who had a poor opinion of the Christians, and unsurprisingly his work has disappeared. Parts of his medical writings were rediscovered in the Middle Ages, and from these it is possible to gauge the scale of our loss.

Often we know that works were still current in the early years of Christianity: for example St Augustine is known to have read Cicero’s Hortensius, then part of the school curriculum but since “lost”. Some pagan tracts were given Christian prefaces and conclusions, and presented as original documents. Thus the letter of Eugnostos the Blessed was converted into an account of the wisdom revealed by Jesus to the disciples after his death. Anything that could not be cannibalised in this way was discarded. Thus, no Greek secular works were preserved in the original. Secular learning and secular art, along with secular education, almost disappeared. Some works were recovered during the Renaissance. Petrarch, for example, recovered other works by Cicero. Poems by Catullus were reputedly found serving as a bung in a Mantuan wine barrel. In the nineteenth century Robert Curzon found “lost” works of Euclid and Plato serving as stoppers in olive oil jars in a Coptic Monastery (at Deir el-Suriani in the Wadi Natrum).

Parchment was expensive so Medieval Churchmen would sometimes take a used one, scrape off the existing text, and reuse it — as a so-called palimpsest. Regarding the works of pagans of the ancient world as worthless, they destroyed, or at least thought that they had destroyed, the works of the some of the greatest minds in human history, to make prayer books. Modern science has been able to recover a few important works from these Christian prayer books. For example, in 1229 AD parchment copies of seven treatises of Archimedes were erased and overwritten by prayers, then bound in a Byzantine prayerbook (a euchologion) by a priest called Johannes Myronas. Myronas understood Greek, so must have known what he was doing. Of the seven treatises by Archimedes, two are otherwise unknown (The The Method of Mechanical Theorems and the Stomachion) and one (On Floating Bodies) is unknown in the original Greek, the language in which Archimedes wrote. Working in Jerusalem, the priest had vandalised not only treatises by Archimedes to make his prayerbook, but also other works, including 10 folios of the Attic orator Hyperides dating from the fourth century BC, one of which contained an extremely important speech that has not otherwise been preserved. This copy of Archimedes Method was found in 1906. There is no way of telling how many other such palimpsests there were on which Christians did a more thorough job, and so will never be discovered.

The loss through Christian vandalism — both deliberate and casual — is incalculable, but the scale of it can be estimated from the shreds that survive. Tacitus’s surviving Histories and Annals are both incomplete. One manuscript of Lucretius’s De Rerum Natura, “On the Nature of the Universe”, survived the Dark Ages. Livy’s lost works include his 142 volume History of Rome of which only a small part has survived. Pliny the Elder wrote numerous works of which only his Historia Naturalis survives. There is of course no way of knowing how many hundreds or thousands of important works have vanished completely — without even a passing reference in any surviving work. It was not only classical works that were destroyed. When they had the opportunity to do so Christians burned Jewish and Muslim books as well. After the Muslim city of Tripoli surrendered to the crusaders in 1109, the great library of Banu Ammar, the finest in the Muslim world, was burnt to the ground with all of its contents.

Some works were preserved because they were taken out of the reach of orthodoxy. When persecuted Nestorians fled eastward, they took ancient works with them. They enjoyed much greater freedom under Zoroastrian and Muslim rulers, and established prominent communities in what are now Iraq and Iran. Along with other refugees they translated the writings of Greek philosophers. For 1,000 years these writings were lost to the West. When they were eventually retranslated from Arabic into Latin they fired the revival of learning that we know as the Renaissance. It was through this route that the works of Aristotle were preserved. Other works survived in other ways. In 1895 the ancient rubbish dumps of Oxyrhynchus in Egypt yielded, amongst other things, a forgotten song by Sappho and fragments of “lost” plays by Aeschylus and Sophocles.

A common claim made by Christians is that Christianity single-handedly kept alight the guttering flame of learning during the Dark Ages, in the face of marauding wild barbarians. The truth is almost the exact opposite. The Church was largely responsible for plunging western Europe into ignorance and darkness. Towards the end of the fourth century for example Goths destroyed much of the Western Empire, including great cities like Delphi and Athens. But these Goths were not the pagan barbarians of traditional history books, they were Christians. These barbarians marched with bibles at the head of their armies. When they besieged Rome it was not, as is often supposed, pagans besieging civilised Christians but for the most part Christians besieging civilised pagans. To be sure there were some Christians in the city, but there is no reason to suppose that their faith was stronger than that of their bishop. Their bishop (now regarded as a Pope) consented to pagan sacrifices on the altar of St Peter’s in order to save the city from the Christian hordes at its gates.

The Visigoths in Spain and southern Gaul, and the Ostrogoths in Italy were also Arian Christians. So too, the Vandals who plundered Gaul, Spain and North Africa were bible-toting Christian believers. Popular stories about pagan barbarians sacking Rome are pure fantasy. Rome was still in good shape until the middle of the sixth century when the Christian Emperor Justinian tried to reconnect Italy to the Empire. The city was repeatedly besieged and plundered by Christian forces. The Christian Emperor Constans II completed the destruction in 664 when he removed the last items of value, including any metal he could lay hands on, not only statues but also bronze fittings and lead roofs — even metal clamps and ties that kept the stone walls together. Rain and weather did further damage, but there was still enough left for later Christians to exceed the efforts of all their predecessors.

Reprinted with permission from the author.

James McDonald is Fellow of the Royal Geographic Society in Britain, and holds a number of professional qualifications. He also holds an MA in mathematics from Oxford University, and an MSc in Operational Research from Sussex University. He lives in the South of France. His newest book is Beyond Belief: Two Thousand Years of Bad Faith in the Christian Church (Garnet Publishing, 2009). His website is

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