Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Brief review of Holmes: The Age of Justinian & Theodora (1905)

Having never discovered this particular history before in my research, I was looking forward to reading it after discovering it in the library. Now I know why hardly anyone cites it. The author, William Gordon Holmes, does not uphold even the pretense of scholarly objectivity. Never before have I run across an historian who displays such open contempt for his subject matter. The Byzantines were a deeply religious Christian people and Holmes openly and continuously decries the religious beliefs of late Roman Christians in language that is little short of vitriolic. And beyond this, he carries the attacks to modern Christians as well, claiming in one footnote that Christian beliefs spring either from ignorance or insanity.

In one particular 60-page tangent, Holmes offers his own version of the history of Christianity. Having little to do with his original subject, Holmes uses this digression to pontificate upon the "death" of Christianity in his time. In a footnote, he celebrates the lack of religious vocations and says that, "those who are engaged in impressing a belief in obsolete mythologies on the community should realize that they are doing an evil service to their generation." Ominously, Holmes predicts that the "Romish and Orthodox churches" will retain their power over the ignorant masses for a while longer "until at last they have to face suppression by force."

Perhaps worse, Holmes is a social Darwinist of the kind that flourished pre-WWII but is hardly to be found today (at least openly). In one place, he calls the modern Spanish people "unintelligent." He insinuates that Hawaiians are a lower race. And in another place, he envisions a future where "famous stallions should stand to cover brood mares in the human as well as the equine world."

Sadly, there is a good bit of useful data here in between Holmes's pompous paeans to atheism and eugenics. He gives a very useful, if occasionally inaccurate, tour of Justinianic Constantinople and his footnoting is generally very helpful when dealing with matters outside of religion. But unfortunately, this book is so completely saturated with the author's bloviating bigotry to make it a supremely obnoxious read for anyone but a hard-core anti-Christian atheist.

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