Historians tells us that the Dark Ages came in 529 A.D. when Justinian closed the Neoplatonic Schools in Athens. Thus, the Church conquered the Pagans and under the Church’s leadership Europe failed to produce the level of Science and Philosophy as was accomplished under the Pagan School. What these men fail to realize is that the issue isn’t the Church vs the Pagans. The true dialectic that brought the Middle Age Europe under a Dark Age was Monastic/Ascetic Paganism(viz. Christianity) conquered Polytheistic Paganism.
Emperor Justinian’s Closure of the School of Athens
From Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy to Anthony Gottlieb’s The Dream of Reason; and from Gibbon’s Decline and Fall via Andrew Dickson White’sConflict between Science and Theology through to Charles Freeman’s Closing of the Western Mind, all histories of intellectual thought mention with varying degrees of outrage that Emperor Justinian closed down the Athenian Academy in 529AD. This, we are told, was the official end of pagan philosophy and the last light to be put out in Europe as the Dark Ages closed in. The professors who had taught at the Academy left the Byzantine Empire for Persia where they were welcomed by the Shah. Thus, the enlightenment of the east contrasted with the shadows that Christianity had thrown in the west.
The Neo-Platonic Academy of Athens
Justinian was by no means the first man to close down the schools of his political or religious opponents. The Pharaoh Ptolemy VII Psychon had expelled all the scholars from Alexandria in 170BC prompting many to travel to Greece in search of a living. Around 363AD, the pagan Roman Emperor Julian the Apostate forbade Christians to teach publicly anywhere in the Empire but the edict was repealed after his short reign ended. The Athenian Academy, originally founded by Plato in the early fourth century BC had not enjoyed uninterrupted existence either. The Romans had closed the schools in Athens before, back when they had first invaded the city in the second century BC. By the sixth century AD, the re-founded Academy was a neo-Platonic foundation espousing the mystical doctrines of Plotinus and Proclus (411 – 485). It was also quite anti-Christian, counting the philosopher Porphyry (233 – 309) among its alumnae. He had written a lengthy anti-Christian diatribe which was condemned and now survives only in fragments. On the other hand, Porphyry’s commentary on Aristotle’s logic was a key part of the course in Christian schools throughout the Middle Ages and featured on the syllabus at the University of Paris. The contrasting fate of Porphyry’s works shows that it was possible and permissible for Christians to separate the wheat of useful writing from the chaff of polemic.
For such a famous decree, Justinian’s edict that closed the schools in 529AD is surprisingly hard to get hold of. It is in the rarely published Codex of his laws. Eventually, I tracked it down to the British Library and also found a translation from the original Greek into Latin. Here’s my own rendering into English: