The Life and Times of Hypatia of Alexandria
A movie recently released in Spain, other parts of Europe, and in art houses of the East and West Coasts deals with two signal events in the history of Alexandria: the destruction of the Serapeum and the murder of the philosopher Hypatia. Although praised by the Usual Suspects, it is clearly inspired by the tendentious account given by Carl Sagan in his series Cosmos. By this account, Hypatia, the last librarian of the great Library of Alexandria, and a fabulous mathematician, was murdered by a science-hating mob of science-hating misogynist Christian science-haters. I did not think this likely to be any more accurate than Nuclear Winter – for one thing, the ancients did not do science, as we understand it – and a commentary based on the director’s interviews before release and later on the actual movie by Tim O’Neil dissuaded me utterly from any thought of seeing the movie.
It’s not just that the movie shows 4th century Romans in 1st century costumes – would a WW2 movie feature musketeers storming Normandy with muzzle-loaders? – and not just that it portrays enough of the recorded incidents to indicate that the director actually read the sources – there are not very many. But that the parts he made up were for the most part tendentious and geared to advance a false view of history, namely Sagan’s – and Gibbon’s.
That led me to read the book Hypatia of Alexandria, by Maria Dzielska, which is the most modern and dispassionate analysis. She contends that this admittedly minor player in world history has been portrayed as a symbol of whatever was the modern concern of the authors. To Gibbon and the Age of Reason folks, she was Classical Civilization brought low by vulgar religion. To others, she symbolized Science Nipped in the Bud. To still others, she was Woman (hear her roar!) or a leading Atheist. Some have suggested that her death (and that of the Library) ushered in the Dark Ages and had she not been killed, we would be on Mars today! These suggestions are so ludicrous as to lead one to think that the self-proclaimed champions of empiricism and reason have never given any rational thought or read any of the evidence. It would seem they know nothing of the 4th century or of the actual passions that motivated its players, or of the context of urban life in Alexandria or imperial politics at the end of an age.
Two comments receive in reply by Mr. O’Neill illustrate this point:
a) The primary source, Socrates Scholasticus, is “a Christian chronologer” eager to whitewash the Patriarch Cyril.
...........But Cyril suppressed the Novatians and Socrates was at least sympathetic to the Novatians and did not regard Cyril favorably.
b) Why would the mob have killed Hypatia in such a savage manner if it were not for a special hatred of her as a woman (scientist, pagan)?
...........But why would anyone think Hypatia was the only victim of mob action in Olde Alexandria? Others were also killed – and killed with a similar savage ferocity.
The problem is that simply looking at a single event, pulled out of context, distorts the image of it. And so I was moved to prepare something of a chronology and background of things, attempting to place it in context. What follows is largely abstracted from Dzielska’s book, from translations of original sources, and from reliable histories found like nuggets of gold here and there around the Net.
The Mean Streets of Old Alexandria
If there was anything on which ancient writers agreed, it was that Alexandria was a hard town.
The Alexandrian is more delighted with tumult than any other people: and if at any time it should find a pretext, breaks forth into the most intolerable excesses; for it never ceases from its turbulence without bloodshed. (Socrates Scholasticus, Ecclesiastical History, Book VII, ch. 13)
Alexandria, a city which on its own impulse, and without ground, is frequently roused to rebellion and rioting, as the oracles themselves show. (Ammianus Marcellinus, Roman Antiquities, Book XXII ch. 11)
The populace in general are an inflammable material, and allow very trivial pretexts to foment the flame of commotion, and not in the least degree that of Alexandria, which presumes on its numbers, chiefly an obscure and promiscuous rabble, and vaunts forth its impulses with excessive audacity. Accordingly, it is said that everyone who is so disposed may, by employing any casual circumstance as a means of excitement, inspire the city with a frenzy of sedition, and hurry the populace in whatever direction and against whomsoever he chooses. (Evagrius Scholasticus, Ecclesiastical History, Book 2 ch. VIII)
Yeah, Alexandria is a fickle dame. One moment she loves you and you’re the toast of the town; the next day, you’re toast. Some howling mob tears you limb from limb, drags your body through the streets, and burns it to ashes. Just another day in Old Alexandria. St. Mark was not the first to be tied by the feet and dragged around town to his death. Nor bt a long shot was he the last. There are a million stories in the Naked City. This is one of them. My name is Friday; I’m a… Wait, no.
Part I: Background
Alexandria at the turn of the 5th Century was the go-to place for serious philosophy and astrology. Ptolemy, Euclid, Galen, Diophantus, and others had lived there. It was a happening town. The Royal Library was long gone, the last remnants destroyed most likely when Aurelian destroyed the Palace District in which the Museum had been located in his war against Zenobia. But it had never been the only library, and the scholars continued their work. The Romans rebuilt the old abandoned Serapeum and furnished it with many goods, including a library in its colonnade. We also know that bishops maintained libraries in the basilicas. Poor Athens would be described by one of Hypatia’s students as famous now only for its beekeepers.
It was also about this time that the majority of Alexandrians were becoming Christian. Most of them were Jewish Christians. (It was the opinion of St. Jerome and Eusebius that these were the Therapeutes described by Philo and were the founders of the ascetic tradition in Egypt.) There was naturally hard feeling between the two parts of the Jewish community: Christian Jews were “renegades,” Jewish Jews were “stiff-necked.” However, many Greeks and Egyptians were also converted and by the time of our story, the Christians were a mixed bag.
Most folk in the Upper City seem to have abandoned the Old Time Religion in favor of either Christianity or Neoplatonism. Some Greeks even went over to Judaism. In the Lower City, however, there were still people who worshiped penises and figures with the heads of baboons. And sometimes even the upper classes would eviscerate women or babies in order to read their entrails.
The Great Persecution. After a period of relative toleration, the Emperors Galerius and Diocletian decreed a persecution of the Christians. In the first edict, the Christians were stripped of all civil rights, barred from offices, and so on. In the second edict, everyone was commanded to worship the Dead Emperors as a sign of political loyalty. The penalty for not doing so was death. Many Christians caved in, and were called the lapsi. Others held true and became the martyrs. Curiously, the steadfastness of the martyrs led to the conversion of many pagans. What a marketing gimmick: Join our religion and die horribly!
The ten years of ferociousness had been mediated by many officials high and low who saw its injustice. In the West, Constantius I would not enforce the second edict and there was no persecution in Britain and Gaul. His son Constantine would eventually recognize Christianity as a legal religion.AD 307. St. Catherine of Alexandria was martyred. She was said to be very beautiful and also wise and learned in literature, language, and philosophy. She is accounted by the Church as the “patron saint of philosophers.” The oldest surviving version of the story is found in the 9th century Menologium Basilianum, compiled for Emperor Basil II. The report runs as follows:
“The martyr Aikaterina was the daughter of a rich and noble prince of Alexandria. She was very beautiful, and being at the same time highly talented, she devoted herself to Greek literature as well as to the study of the languages of all nations, and so she became wise and learned. And it happened that the Greeks held a festival in honor of their idols; and seeing the slaughter of animals, she was so greatly moved that she went to the King Maximinus and expostulated with him in these words: 'Why hast thou left the living God to worship lifeless idols?' But the Emperor caused her to be thrown into prison, and to be punished severely. He then ordered fifty orators to be brought, and bade them to reason with Aikaterina, and confute her, threatening to burn them all if they should fail to overpower her. The orators, however, when they saw themselves vanquished, received baptism, and were burnt forthwith, while she was beheaded.” (Menologium Basilianum)
This story was later elaborated with fanciful miracles – the breaking of the wheel – and she eventually became one of the best-loved saints of Medieval Europe. (In Eifelheim, the church in Oberhochwald is the Church of St. Catherine of Alexandria.) Thus, did the Church regard learned learned women who disputed philosophy. She made saints of them.
The Great Persecution of the Christians ended In AD 313, and the religion was officially tolerated. Disagreements then arose among the Christians over the treatment of the lapsi. The general sense of the Church was that, unless they had turned informer, they should be forgiven and readmitted after penance. But the Donatists in North Africa and the Novatians in Rome took the hard line that they should not be forgiven at all. Technically, the Novatians were not at this point heretics but schismatics. They barred the lapsi from the churches they controlled, and eventually wound up with their own network of bishops across the Empire. But as the lapsi died off, the Novatian raison d’être faded. Rather than ride into the sunset, however, they expanded their list of unforgivable sins to include all mortal sins. Now the orthodox Christians grew annoyed. What was the new religion about if it was not about forgiveness? This was crossing into outright heresy. The bishops of Rome and Alexandria began closing Novatian churches, although Constantinople continued to tolerate them. The Novatians there were said to be okay dudes, except for the puritanical streak of No Second Chances.
About the time Hypatia’s father, Theon, was born, Constantine, Emperor of the Romans, became a Christian.