Darkening Age, 13

In chapter eight of The Darkening Age: The Christian Destruction of the Classical World, Catherine Nixey wrote:
 
As the laws became increasingly shrill, the extent of the destruction increased, as too did the openness with which it was done. At some point, probably just before the attack on the temple of Serapis, a bishop named Marcellus became ‘the first of the bishops to put the edict in force and destroy the shrines in the city committed to his care’. Then, in 392, Serapis fell. Almost no event, with the exception of the Sack of Rome by the Visigoths in AD 410, would resound more loudly through literature of the time. Its collapse would not be heard by later centuries: in the newly Christian world this was one tale, one of many, that would be quietly forgotten.

The attacks were hymned by hagiographies and histories. In fourth-century France, St Martin, or so the Life of Martin proudly records, ‘set fire to a most ancient and famous shrine’ before moving on to a different village and a different temple. Here, he ‘completely demolished the temple belonging to the false religion and reduced all the altars and statues to dust’. Martin was no anomaly. Flushed by his success at the temple of Serapis, Bishop Theophilus went on to demolish numerous shrines in Egypt. Hagiography records such attacks not as dismal or even embarrassing acts of vandalism but as proof of a saint’s virtue. Some of the most famous saints in Western Christianity kicked off their careers—so the stories like, to boast—demolishing shrines.

Benedict of Nursia, the revered founder of Western monasticism, was also celebrated as a destroyer of antiquities. His first act upon arriving in Monte Cassino, just outside Rome, was to smash an ancient statue of Apollo and destroy the shrine’s altar. He didn’t stop there, but toured the area ‘pulling down the idols and destroying the groves on the mountain… and gave himself no rest until he had uprooted the last remnant of heathenism in those parts’. Of course hagiography is not history and one must read such accounts with, at best, caution. But even if they do not tell the whole truth, they certainly reveal a truth—namely that many Christians felt proud, even jubilant, about such destruction.