Christians and the Classics: War against Reason

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Christians and the Classics: War against Reason
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  Christians and the Classics: War against Reason Evaggelos . Vallianatos The Athens Olympics in August 2004 were as much a reminder of whatChristianity did to the Hellenes in the past two millennia as it was a celebra-tion of the coming home of this great ancient Hellenic tradition. It was theChristian emperor Theodosius who abolished the Olympics in the late fourthcentury after its life of some 1,169 years. The Hellenes started the Olympicsto honor Zeus, father of both gods and people, and to remind themselves of their common culture. It was an athletic event and a Panhellenic religiousand political celebration of athletic excellence that marked the unity of theGreek world.Now the Olympics, which were brought back to life in 1896, have becomethe greatest show on earth, having nearly nothing to do with their Hellenicsrcins. The reason is that they are now tied to a dierent civilization whosedefining characteristics are Christian monotheism and money. The ancientGreeks used money, too, and they gave plenty of money to those athleteswho won immortality in the Olympics, but their polytheistic religion coloredeverything they did, including their organization of the Olympics, which wasrimarily a means of paying their respect to Zeus. Yet the people of theest, who now own the Olympics, have the illusion they are following in theath of the Greeks. They are not. On the contrary, Christianity and material-ism have been an insurmountable obstacle in the vague Hellenic dream of the western people, including modern Greeks living in Greece and stagingthe non-Hellenic Olympics in Athens in 2004.Western people credit the Greeks for their civilization. Yet, despite theRenaissance, which formally integrated Greek thought into Western culture,Christianity, an ancient enemy of Greek thought, remains as the core foun- Evaggelos G. Vallianatos is visiting professor of agrarian policy and the global environment at the Department of Natural Resource Sciences, University of Maryland.  76Mediterranean Quarterly: Summer 2004 dation of the Western world. In the best of circumstances, this makes Greek thought an ambivalent value in the Western tradition. In fact, during the late twentieth century, an industry of anti-Greek academics became more vociferous than ever before. So much so that a couple of American classi-cists, Victor Davis Hanson and John Heath, were compelled to write a book lamenting the “murder of Homer” at the hands of elite philologists and theo-rists who prefer “therapeutics, moral relativism, blind allegiance to progress, and the glorification of material culture” to Greek ideas and values. This may be true, but Christianity, more than anything else, made these philolo-gists myopic in denouncing Homer and the Greeks. In fact, Christianity, not trivial philological pursuits, has been the first anti-Greek impulse in the West. This is particularly significant now that Christianity is ready to fight a war against Islam. Christianity, particularly in the United States, which is behaving and acting like the Roman Empire o the ourth century, is revert-ing to its crusading fervor, preparing the ground for another wave of global conversion and conquest. hat Christianity did to the Hellenes and their culture remains, by and large, a secret in Western historiography. Nevertheless, it is instructive as an explanatory model of the srcins, nature, political, and global purposes of that religion. This “secret” Greek history also explains why modern Greece is facing an identity crisis of major dimensions. Christianity made Greece a palimpsest, that is, something antithetical to its very being. It forced Greece to become a country where Christians supplanted Homer and Hellenic cul-ture and on top of them wrote Christian stories. he Nature of Christianity: War against the Classics The war of Christianity against Homer, the genius of Greek civilization, started in the fourth century when the Roman Emperor Constantine I (306–37) raised Christianity from a persecuted sect to official religion of the Roman Empire. Some sixteen hundred years later, Christianity is still fight-ing its war against Hellenism in Greece, the warfare being now conducted at a low level, almost invisible, but nonetheless effective in its ceaseless denun-ciation of Hellenic culture. 1. Victor Davis Hanson and John Heath, Who Killed Homer? (New York: Free Press, 1998), 158–9.  Vallianatos: Christians and the Classics: War against Reason77 Experts on late antiquity hint that the ancient Greeks were in trouble at the hands of the Christians. These scholars, overwhelmingly Christian, treat the Greeks in a perfunctory manner, lacing their narrative and analysis with some of the bias of early Christians who used all possible forms of warfare and hatred against the Greeks, including calling them mad, pagan, and other dehumanizing names.The war of early Christianity against the Greeks was a perpetual cam-paign of intimidation, punishment, and terror. It meant prohibitions against the worship of the Greek gods—the mere visit to the temple to pray and offer any kind of sacrifice to one’s favorite divinity might result in fines, torture, and death. It meant mandatory baptism at a Christian church, and the failure to do so resulting in exile or death. It meant the Greeks could not pass their property to their children. It also meant seeing black-robed monks smashing temples and all that the Greeks considered sacred without being able to do anything to prevent such desecrations and atrocities.But even before Christianity became the official religion, its leaders knew what they would do to their Greek enemies once in power. One Christian apologist, Tertullian (circa 160–240), thought that the more Christians the Roman Empire mowed down, the more they grew. He was also certain the Christians alone were without crime since God himself taught them all about goodness.Such hubris did not endear the Christians to the Romans and Greeks. Yet Christians marched to their proselytizing mission with the same habit as that which led them to death in defense of their doctrines. For exam-ple, Clement of Alexandria, an Athenian born in the mid–second century, converted to Christianity as a young man. His new religion gave him the insolence and stupidity of a barbarian, so he had no trouble insulting Homer himself, saying, in a sense, “Cease your song, Homer. It’s not beautiful any-more. It teaches adultery. We refuse to even listen to fornication.”Clement mirrors postclassical Greece, where everything was beginning to fall apart. Since 146 , Greece was captive to Rome, which was also on the road to ruin. Clement abandoned his ancestral gods, the gods of his father, denouncing his own ancestors, and traded Hellenic culture for Christianity. . Tertullian,  Apology  50.12–13, trans. T. R. Glover, Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1958), 227.. Clement of Alexandria,  Exhortation to the Hellenes 4.52, trans. G. W. Butterworth, Loeb Classi-cal Library (1999), 136.  78Mediterranean Quarterly: Summer 2004 More than any other catastrophe in all of Greek history, Christianity doomed the millennial evolution and development of the Greek people and their civi-lization. The Struggle between Christianity and Hellenism We know practically nothing about the struggle between Hellenism and Christianity. The Christian victors took care to destroy most of the incrimi-nating evidence, particularly the books of their Greek enemies, which they threw to the flames. What survives barely hints of Greek resistance to Chris-tianity.This partly explains why my elementary and high school teachers in Greece and my college professors in America never even hinted there was a problem in the “transition” from Hellenism to Christianity in Greece and the Roman Empire. This deception was at the heart o my history graduate stud-ies in the United States, where I earned a master’s degree in Eastern Roman or Byzantine civilization from the University of Illinois and a doctorate in Greek history from the University of Wisconsin. Yet the Hellenes resisted fiercely the Christian onslaught for about eight hundred years. Southern Pelo-ponnesos remained a missionary country as late as the tenth century. And nomonasteries were built in mainland Greece before the ninth century. 5 Next to Constantine, Emperor Theodosius I (347–95) made a big differ-ence in the legitimization of the anti-Greek policies of Christianity, forbid-ding sacrifices to the gods. Ancient religious traditions were neglected in the early 390s much more so than in the early 320s, when Constantine sided with Christianity. That is why Zosimos, the Greek historian who wrote during the late fifth or early sixth centuries, says that the Roman Empire declined and fell, becoming home to barbarians. 6 That fatal transformation had started in the third century. Miroslav I. Rostovtzeff, the great twentieth-century historian of Rome, says the “social 4. Richard Fletcher, The Barbarian Conversion: From Paganism to Christianity (New York: Henry Holt, 1998), 285.5. Frank Trombley, “Paganism in the Greek World at the End of Antiquity: The Case of Rural Ana-tolia and Greece,”  Harvard Theological Review  78, nos. 3–4 (1985): 345–9.6. Zosimos,  New History 4.59.1–3, ed. Ludovicus Mendelssohn (Hildesheim: Georg Olms, 1963), 215–6.  Vallianatos: Christians and the Classics: War against Reason7 and political catastrophe of the third century” smashed people’s hopes for a better life so thoroughly that, in a sense, it prepared the ground for Chris-tianity’s triumph and Rome’s decline and fall. The two fed on each other and became inseparable. Rostovtzeff sees the “horrors” of the third century finding an outlet or refuge not in politics but in religion. The Romans began to think that if they had any hope of happiness, it would be “happiness in a future life,”which, for Christians, was “life after death.” Reason was dead for the Christians. And Christianity was waiting patiently to harvest the fruits of barbarism, fear, and superstition, promising bliss in the aftermath.In 394 Theodosius ormalized the division o the empire between his two teenage sons, Arcadius (383–408) and Honorius (393–423). Arca-dius was handed the east, with Rufinus as his supervisor. Honorius (age eleven) became the emperor of the west, with Stilicho the actual ruler. Once behind the throne, the barbarian managers of the young emperors conspired to kill each other. In order to get both east and west, Rufinus would wreck Greece. He appointed his own men, both Christian Greeks, to prominent positions: Antiochos, proconsul of Greece, and Gerontios, commander of the garrisons of the country’s two strategic defense bases, Thermopylae and the Isthmus of Corinth. Rufinus then urged the Visigothic barbarian war-lord, Alaric, to invade Greece. Alaric was working for the Roman Empire for some time. He was angry, however, because the emperor did not give hima higher office. So his plans and those of Rufinus, if not identical, were complementary. Both wanted to teach the Romans they could no longer play around with them: they would wreck the Roman Empire and cared less that Greece would be the target of their premeditated murder. he Universal aptivity of Greece In 396 Alaric led his barbarian Goths from Thrace in northern Greece to central and southern Greece, Boiotia, and Peloponnesos, where he left ruins and a huge, destructive, bloody footprint. Everywhere he marched, he demol-ished the temples and everything else of value. Zosimos painted a vivid pic-ure of what Alaric did in Greece: While the Roman commanders of Greece 7. Miroslav I. Rostovtzeff,  Rome , trans. J. D. Duff (New York: Oxford University Press, 1960), 324.
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