The Mean Streets of Old Alexandria: Part II
When Hypatia Was a Little Girl
AD 355. Sometime around AD 355, one year after Augustine of Hippo was born, the well-known mathematician and astrologer, Theon of Alexandria, begat a daughter whom he named Hypatia. She was to mature into a mathematician and astrologer in her own right, but also a Neoplatonist philosopher of no small repute, one of a small band of female philosophers that graced that period of history in Alexandria.
At this point even the youngest of the persecuted Christians would be in her fifties. But their children, now grown to adulthood, might still harbor fear of their pagan neighbors based on tales their parents had told. After all, Diocletian’s persecution had come out of the blue following a period of relative toleration.
Alexandria is one of the important seats of the Christians. Its bishop, the Successor of St. Mark, has traditionally ranked Number Two behind the Pope of Rome. Alexandria is in continual wrangles with Number Three, Antioch, over theological matters: Antioch emphasizes the divinity of Christ, Alexandria his humanity. (Eventually, an ecumenical council will rule: OK, dudes, he was both. Now shut up about it.) Byzantium has recently been renamed Constantinople (in AD 330), and its bishop being, ipso facto, the pastor of the Augustus of the East, has become a dude to be reckoned with. But Alexandria opposes the elevation of Constantinople to Patriarchy. And whenever an Antiochene is appointed to the See of St. Andrew, the See of St. Mark becomes a mite peckish. None of this bothers the See of St. Peter, out in the Wild West. The problems there are of a more practical nature: few cities and far flung. And there are an awful lot of barbarians piling up against the Rhine and Danube frontiers. Something about Huns out on the steppes.
AD 356. The Mithrium. Constantine may have tolerated Christianity and even accepted baptism on his deathbed, but most of his family were determined Arians. Thus, when Constantius II becomes sole emperor, he immediately expels the orthodox bishops, including Pope Athanasius of Alexandria. He installs an Arian named George of Cappadocia in his place. George sets about making himself obnoxious, for which he has a wonderful talent, not only obnoxious to the orthodox and the pagans, but even to his fellow Arians. Constantius gives George a parcel of desert on which to build a church. While clearing the land for the foundation, he discovers the “secret room” of an old pagan temple, the Mithrium. In the adytum they find idols and “instruments for initiation or perfection which seem ludicrous and strange to the beholders.” The Christians form a parade and carry them though the town in daylight. Hoo-aah. What seems divine and mysterious in a dim-lit adytum seems plain silly in broad daylight. A giant phallus? Geez Louise, you can’t be serious! Hahaha. Perhaps the women laugh loudest. So that’s what the boys worship? It figures. Incensed, a pagan mob arms themselves “with swords, stones, and whatever weapon came first to hand” and attack the Christians, killing many of them and crucifying others, and leaving many wounded in the streets. (Sozomen, Ecclesiastical History, Bk. V. ch. 7)
AD 360. The Serapeum is ransacked by Artemius, prefect of the City, on the orders of the Arian heretic George of Cappadocia. (Socrates Scholasticus, Ecclesiastical History, Bk III. Ch. 3). We are told that George “brought an army into the holy city [Alexandria] and the Prefect of Egypt [Artemius] seized the most sacred shrine of the God [the Serapeum] and stripped it of its statues and offerings and of all the ornaments.” (Julian, Letters, ‘To the Alexandrians’). Did that include the library in the colonnade? Perhaps. Julian will write to Ecdicius, the new Prefect of Egypt, and ask him to confiscate George’s large private library and send it to him at Constantinople (Julian, Letters, 'To Ecdicius'). Julian knows that George has a lot of books because they had known each other earlier in life. So George is a book-lover and, since he ordered the temple ransacked, he might very well have taken the books in the Serapeum for himself. It is certain that the books were no longer there when Ammianus Marcellinus, later writes of its library in the perfect tense [fuerunt]. The temple “once had” many books. The perfect tense in Latin denotes an action that is over and done with.
Paul Orosius, writing some forty years afterwards (ca.AD 417), will say that “in some of the temples there remain up to the present time book chests, which we ourselves have seen, and that, as we are told, these were emptied by our own men in our own day when these temples were plundered.” Perhaps he is referring to George and his looting of the Serapeum in AD 360. Notice that he does not say the books were destroyed, only that they were grabbed by looters. It was then not uncommon even for emperors and governors to loot older institutions in order to furnish their own endowments.
Six months later, while on his way to Persia, Julian will write to Porphyrius that that George’s book collection was “very large and complete and contained philosophers of every school and many historians.” Julian, Letters, 'To Porphyrius'). Alas, we don’t know whether Julian ever received George’s books. They may have reached the capital after Julian left for Antioch and were incorporated into the Imperial Library. (For a more complete discussion of the Serapeum Library, see Bede's Library. )
AD 361. When Hypatia is six years old, Emperor Constantius the Arian dies and his nephew Julian the Apostate takes over. He immediately executes his uncle’s supporters, including Artemius, the military governor of Egypt who had ransacked the Serapeum. As soon as the magistrates announce that Julian is top dog and is reinstating the Old Time Religion, the pagans, “transported by this unlooked-for joy, grinding their teeth and uttering fearful outcries,” seize George, “trample him; then drag him about spread-eagle fashion, and kill him.” Two civic officials with him suffer the same fate. Then the “inhuman mob loads the mutilated bodies of the slain men upon camels and carries them to the shore, where they burn the bodies on a fire and throw the ashes into the sea, fearing that relics might be collected and a church built for them.” (Ammianus Marcellinus, Roman Antiquities, Book XXII ch. 11)
Ammianus is a pagan, but that doesn’t mean he likes proletarian mobs running around. No one has a kind word for George. The pagans hate him because he had profaned temples and mocked their rites; the Orthodox, because he had persecuted them and drove Athanasius into hiding with death threats. Emperor Julian’s response to the violence was to chastise the Alexandrians for taking the law into their own hands. Ol’ George, he deserved every torture you gave him, but it should have been done legally.
out of the blue, after a brief period of toleration, the pagans have at the Christians again. Julian does not order an official persecution, but he does bar Christians – Orthodox, Novatian, and Arian alike – from office, forbids them to read or teach Greek literature, purges them from the army, and even prosecutes local officials who investigate atrocities against Christians. Some of the atrocities are, well, atrocious:
The inhabitants of Heliopolis were guilty of “an act of barbarity which could scarcely be credited, had it not been corroborated by the testimony of those who witnessed it.” They stripped the holy virgins of their garments, and exposed them nude as a public spectacle. Then they shaved them, ripped their bellies open, and mixed pig food in their intestines. Then they set hungry pigs upon them. “I am convinced,” writes Sozomen, “that the citizens of Heliopolis perpetrated this barbarity on account of the prohibition of the ancient custom of yielding up virgins to any chance comer before being united in marriage. This custom was prohibited by a law enacted by Constantine after he destroyed the Heliopolitan temple of Venus and erected a church on the ruins.” (Sozomen, Ecclesiastical History, Book V, ch. 10)
AD 363. Before setting off into Persia, Julian encloses himself within the Temple of the Moon at Carra, and afterward has the Temple doors sealed and a guard placed so no one can enter until his return. However, preferring speed to safety, he fights the ambushing Persians without pausing to put on armor and is killed in battle, thus demonstrating that he was not the reincarnation of Alexander the Great, after all. When his successor sends men into the Temple they find a woman hanging by her hair with her liver torn out. Julian had conducted the pagan rite of extispicy, or reading of entrails. [Theodoret, Ecclesiastical History, Book III, ch. 21]
Julian was not the only emperor to conduct such rites, as ancient writers have attested. The emperor Didius Julianis was another known to have done so. Dio Cassius writes in the Epitomes LXXIII.16.5: “Julianus also killed many boys as a magic rite, believing that he could avert some future misfortunes if he learned of them beforehand.”
Extispicy was most often done with animals, but the use of humans was not unknown. In Homer, Agamemnon sacrificed his own daughter before setting out; and Menelaus sacrificed two Egyptian boys to secure fair winds for his return. The uptight Christians did not approve of eviscerating women and children; still less, babies (whose remains were placed in brass jars and buried in temple.) Sometimes pregnant women were eviscerated and extispicy performed on the fetus. Do not confuse modern day pretend-pagans with the true quill.
AD 365 July 21. An earthquake, estimated to have been magnitude eight, centered near Crete, created a tsunami that swept across Alexandria. The wave deposited ships up to two miles inland. Ammianus Marcellinus described how the earth shook and then the ocean receded and came back as a great wave that inundated the city with seawater, killing thousands. I don't know if it swept through whatever remained of the library.
ca. AD 370. Synesius of Cyrene is born. He will be a student of Hypatia and the primary source for our knowledge of her teachings.
Valentinian I is Augustus of the West; his brother Valens is Augustus of the East. After a crushing defeat by the Huns in AD 372, the Goths and the Asding Vandals petition the Empire for shelter and are settled along the Danubian frontier. The Romans treat them so overbearingly that the Goths revolt in AD 378, defeat and kill Valens at the Battle of Adrianople. It is the end of the legions and the beginning of a mercenary army led by Romanized Germans.
Theodosius I (left) succeeds Valens as Augustus of the East and eventually becomes sole Augustus.
AD 385. Theophilus is elected Pope of Alexandria and begins agitating against the Novatians. Hypatia is about thirty years old at the time. In AD 39,1after more than a decade of toleration, the Emperor issues an edict against cult practices, as a result of which many urban temples are abandoned. Theophilus says, “Kool!”
“Not content with razing the idols' temples to the ground, Theophilus exposed the tricks of the priests to the victims of their wiles. For they had constructed statues of bronze and wood hollow within, and fastened the backs of them to the temple walls, leaving in these walls certain invisible openings. Then coming up from their secret chambers they got inside the statues, and through them gave any order they liked; and the hearers, tricked and cheated, obeyed. These tricks the wise Theophilus exposed to the people.” (Theodoret, Ecclesiastical History Book V, ch. 10)
ca. AD 391. Synesius (21) is in Alexandria studying with Hypatia (36). He becomes lifelong friends with his fellow students, and with Herculian, Olympius, and “the deacon,” he forms a “foursome elected by fortune.”
· Synesius will later become a bishop
· Olympius a wealthy landowner in Syria and pious Christian.
· Herculianus is friends with the military governor of Egypt.
· The “deacon” is supposed by some to be Isidore of Pelusium, the future Church Father and spiritual mentor to Theophilus’ nephew, Cyril. (Isidore was in studies in Alexandria at this time, and pretty much anyone who was anyone at least audited Hypatia’s public seminars.) Isidore addressed some letters to a certain Synesiōi, so it is likely that they knew each other; but there is no direct evidence that Isidore was “the deacon.”
Other students include:
· Euoptius, Synesius’ kid brother, also a future bishop;
· Ammonius, who will be on the Alexandrian town council;
· Heysichius, who will become duke of Libya and also a future bishop
· Cyrus (Fl. Taurus Seleucus Cyrus of Panopolis) probably Herculianus’ older brother and future high official at the imperial court;
· Theotecnus, the “worthy and holy father”
· Athanasius, the sophist
· Theodosius,the grammarian
· Gaius, Simplicius, Ision, and others known to us only by name.
Like Hypatia, the students are all high-class. They are “connected.” The mysteries of Plotinus are not for the vulgar. Also, most of Hypatia’s students are Christians (including three future bishops!) This may sound odd to those who believe more modern myths, but the Schools of Old Alexandria were not segregated by “tribe.” Despite the occasional riots by the lower classes, the pagans of the Upper City could and did attend the lectures of Christian philosophers, and vice versa. Pagans may even have attended the famed Catechetical School. They might not believe in the crucified god, but they knew scholarship – in texts, grammar, and rhetoric – when they heard it. The great sermonizers of Alexandria were heirs to the long tradition of Greek rhetoric. The emperor Julian would hardly have found it necessary to forbid Christians from teaching and interpreting Greek literature if they were not in fact doing so.
This group of initiates became an intensely loyal family around Hypatia; they called each other "brother," maintained their contacts over a lifetime, and would only hint to the outside world at what secrets they had heard in Hypatia's house. But this was not a crypto-pagan cult, not simply another band of disinherited priests reminiscing over the old days like the embittered Palladas. Nor were they the augurs and fortune-tellers that Theon counted among his friends. They instead represented both the old and the new in the empire and the city - and as such represented perhaps a chance for Alexandria to reinvent itself, and so save itself, one last time. (Justin Pollard and Howard Reid, The Rise and Fall of Alexandria: Birthplace of the Modern World)
Synesius wrote many letters, some of which survive and give us a sketch of life among the upper classes at the end of an age. (They are numbered by their order in the surviving manuscript, but scholars have reconstructed a chronological sequence from internal references.) When Herculian and Synesius parted company, probably in AD 395, Synesius wrote a farewell letter to him in which he said:
If Homer had told us that it was an advantage to Odysseus in his wanderings that he saw the towns and became acquainted with the mind of many nations, and although the people whom he visited were not cultured, but merely Laestrygonians and Cyclopses, how wondrously then would poetry have sung of our voyage, a voyage in which it was granted to you and me to experience marvelous things, the bare recital of which had seem to us incredible! We have seen with our eye, we have heard with our ears the lady who legitimately presides over the mysteries of philosophy. (Synesius, Letter 137)
“The lady” of course was Hypatia.
Hypatia seems to have gotten along with Theophilus. Synesius, in his letters, appeals to both to help out some friends of his in a legal problem. Nor is there any surviving record of a conflict. Theophilus remains on good terms with Synesius while the latter is a student of Hypatia. He later presides at Synesius’ wedding, anoints Synesius bishop, and so forth. He would hardly have done so if he was hostile to Hypatia’s teachings.