Posts Tagged ‘Catullus’

Catherine Nixey: The Darkening Age

June 4, 2019

91nwQ0TuJhL._AC_UL436_ Some of my readers may be aware of my interest in the early history of Christianity: my wider reading has led me to explore how what seems to have been the original message of the teacher was developed and given a different spin by Paul and others as the new religion gradually spread across the ancient world, and how it gradually moved from an allegedly persecuted creed to one which took over the Roman Empire, and became as intolerant as it accused its predecessors of being…

The Christian world gradually replaced the classical one, and Nixey charts this process in her book. I’m not sure of how academically valid it is, in the sense that she seems to rely on not very many sources very heavily to advance her case, and to follow the modern and somewhat deceptive process of providing reams of notes at the end of the text, most of which merely give the source of a detail, rather than illuminate anything further. However, the general lines of her enquiry are most interesting and I learned a good deal.

Firstly, early Christianity destroyed far more of the classical world than it preserved, and this was for me an unknown story; the deeds of religious bigots and fanatics, egged on by early ‘saints’, were on a parallel with the more recent depredations of the Taliban – destroyers of the Buddhas of Bamiyan – and ISIS, destroyers of the city of Palmyra in the Syrian desert. The entire Graeco-Roman religious system was regarded as a creation of demons and therefore to be eradicated completely. The whole picture makes Henry VIII’s cultural vandalism of Catholic England in the sixteenth century seem rather petty…

Secondly, Roman persecution of Christians was far less deliberate and official than we think we know it to have been, largely due to effective Christian propaganda. Martyrdom was attractive, particularly to fanatics (no change there, then) and according to Nixey, possibly fewer than ten tales of martyrdom from the early Church may be considered reliable. On the contrary, Roman officials apparently went to considerable lengths to avoid executing Christians. A good deal of sanitising of history took place, and the lives of many ‘saints’ of the Church were actually full of intolerance and brutality, racism and anti-semitism, rather than their being the exemplars of the holy life that many believe them to be.

Literature suffered as well as the more obvious buildings and statuary; perhaps ten per cent of classical literature has survived, and maybe only one percent of Latin literature. What survived was censored: that of writers such as Catullus endured well into the twentieth century, and I can recall the classics teacher at school jumping over passages that were not considered suitable for mere schoolboys to read… This anti-intellectualism, this cult of ignorance reminds me of what I have read of the appalling behaviour of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia in the 1970s. Back in the past, anything was deemed acceptable if it was labelled in the service of Christ; like the later Spanish Inquisition, such behaviour was above and outside the law.

I came across the names of a number of classical writers and historians of whom I had not heard – not for want of looking – in whose writing the other side of the history of those times is recorded. As I mentioned above, it may be that the writer has over-egged the pudding in her enthusiasm for telling her story, but all of this material does need to be much more widely known, researched and documented. It’s a necessary read, a profoundly depressing reflection on knowledge and ignorance, tolerance and intolerance; it shows that human beings do not seem to have grown any wiser two thousand years later, either. And lest anyone should feel that the book is an anti-Christian diatribe on her part, or this post one on mine, it is not so; it is the wilful cultivation and worship of ignorance, and the intolerance which flows from that, that is, and must always be, challenged.


De lingua latina

January 10, 2016

51NyAcHeyJL._AA160_This is a recent treat to myself, and I’ve just started reading it; it’s sent me back about fifty years, thinking about my acquaintance with the classical world…

Raised as a Catholic and trained as an altar-boy before the change to Mass in one’s own language, my acquaintance with Latin began at an early age. True, it was Church Latin, not classical Latin, but I soon met the latter at grammar school, and never looked back; once I’d cracked the grammar, there was a whole new world ahead of me. In those days you met real authors for O Level – Caesar’s Gallic War and Virgil’s Aeneid; I had that under my belt at fourteen and an A Level in Ancient History at fifteen; more authors and more Roman History followed in the sixth form. It was a curiously censored literature, with anything remotely rude excised from schoolboy texts, and no chance of getting anywhere near Catullus and other such racy authors. The history, too, was very sober and old-fashioned – battles, dates and famous men, but it didn’t take me long to realise that the Roman Empire had lasted quite a lot longer than the British or American ones…

Life is shaped by chance decisions: I rejected my original choice of History as an A Level subject in favour of English (!) and I changed my mind about going off to read Latin and French at university in favour of English Literature and French (and look where it got me…)

But I have retained my fascination with Latin and things Roman, along with a copy of Kennedy’s Latin Primer. My knowledge of the language, along with my religious upbringing, has given me very useful keys to understanding a great deal of European art, literature, history and culture, as well as an enormous amount of pleasure and enjoyment: whether one is religious or not, the fact remains that Romans and Christianity have shaped our part of the world into what it is today…

I can still manage to read Church Latin; classical Latin has faded rather, though a recent look at Caesar again (Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres…) showed me that it hadn’t vanished completely without trace. I recall my enjoyment of Horace‘s lyrics, Cicero‘s mastery of the language through oratory, and the weird syntax of Tacitus: magical stuff. And I can still remember the recipe for making bees (Virgil, Georgics IV)!

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