Where did all the Philosophers go?

20 September 2017

In 532 AD the final members of one of Greece’s most famous school of Philosophy - the Academy - left Athens for good. After 900 years, the Academy had been closed down. Historian, journalist and author of The Darkening Age Catherine Nixey explains the circumstances that led to their departure. 


It is hard to imagine what they must have felt.

In AD 532, a band of seven men set out from Athens. They were some of the greatest thinkers of their day; the “flower of the philosophers of our age” as one historian put it. Yet they were no longer welcome in Athens. Or indeed in Europe. All were members of the Academy, the name of the philosophical school founded by Plato almost 900 years before. The philosophers were proud of their heritage, tracing their history in a “golden chain” back to Plato himself. Now that chain was about to be broken.

A new power had taken control of the empire and this new power had little time for these philosophers - or indeed for anyone who dissented from its viewpoint. This power was Christianity.

Constantine, the first Christian emperor, had come to power in 312 AD after seeing a flaming cross in the sky before a battle. He won the battle and thereafter become a warrior of Christ. Constantine’s reign, wrote the Christian historian Eusebius, was a wonderful time. The dark days of Roman rule were over and everywhere men ‘greeted each other with smiling faces and shining eyes’.

Christians may have done. Not everyone did.  Almost as soon as Constantine took power, hints of the terrible persecution that would follow started appearing.

From the 330s onwards, the ancient Roman temples started to be attacked. The attacks were smaller, at first, but as the century wore on they grew in number and violence. By the 380s AD, tribes of ‘black-robed men’ roamed the east of the empire, smashing the faces, arms, genitals and hands off the ancient statues of the gods.

As one eyewitness put it, these thugs attacked temples with ‘sticks and stones and bars of iron, and in some cases, disdaining these, with hands and feet. Then utter desolation follows... and the priests must either keep quiet or die.’

In around AD 385 a beautiful statue was smashed in Palmyra. In AD 392 the most beautiful temple in the world was razed to the ground. Over a century later, the Parthenon itself was attacked. The famous - but battered - Parthenon marbles still bear the scars of Christianity’s fervour.

Fierce new laws were bellowed out in town squares. In AD 356, it became illegal – on pain of death – to worship images. The sermons of a new generation of hardline Christian clerics rounded with a similar ferocity on non-Christian writings. ‘Stay clear of all pagan books!’ advised one set of Church guidelines.
Books by Christian critics were sought out, and destroyed. In times of political crisis, philosophers and intellectuals made easy targets.

Those seven philosophers in Athens knew well just how easy. One spring day in 415 AD their predecessor, the brilliant mathematician and philosopher Hypatia, had been flayed alive by Christians. They thought that she was from Satan because she used mathematical symbols and astrolabes.

Some of those seven philosophers had experienced torture themselves. The brother of one had been strung up by his wrists and beaten with rods by Christians. A colleague had been flogged till the blood ran down his back.

Odium was poured on philosophical works that contradicted Christianity - and those works suffered accordingly. As Augustine gloated, the opinions of such philosophers have been ‘completely eradicated and suppressed’. Another Christian saint rejoiced that the writings ‘of the Greeks have all perished and are obliterated’. The copying of classical texts plummeted. Ninety per cent of all classical literature was lost in the centuries following Christianisation. Ninety-nine per cent of all Latin literature. It wasn't purely the fault of Christianity - time and the bookworm played their part. But Christianity played its part. With vigour.

Then, in AD 529, the end came. The ‘impious and wicked pagans’ were to be allowed to continue in their ‘insane error’ no longer. A series of legal hammer blows fell: anyone who offered sacrifice would be executed. Anyone who worshipped statues would be executed. Anyone who was baptized – but who then continued to sacrifice – they, too, would be executed.

Then came ‘Law 1.11.10.2’. In comparison to some of the others, it sounds almost underwhelming. ‘Moreover,’ it reads, ‘we forbid the teaching of any doctrine by those who labour under the insanity of paganism’. It might sound underwhelming. It was not. After attempting to resist for a while, the philosophers were forced to concede defeat. They shut up their school, left their jobs, their home and walked away. Out of Athens. Out of Europe. And - given how few remember them today - out of history.

It was this law that led the English scholar Edward Gibbon to declare that the entirety of the barbarian invasions had been less damaging to Athenian philosophy than Christianity was. This law’s consequences were described more simply by later historians. It was from this moment, they said, that a Dark Age began to descend upon Europe.

The Darkening Age

The Darkening Age

In The Darkening Age Catherine Nixey tells the largely unknown story of how the rise of Christianity attacked and suppressed vast swathes of classical literature, ushering in centuries of unquestioning adherence to 'one true faith'. Despite the long-held notion that the early Christians were meek and mild, going to their martyr's deaths singing hymns of love and praise, the truth, as Catherine Nixey reveals, is very different.

The Darkening Age is available to buy in hardback and e-book now. 

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