The Mean Streets of Old Alexandria: Part III
The Deconstruction of the Serapeum
AD 392. When Hypatia, at 37, is already a well-known philosopher, and Synesius has just begun his studies in Alexandria, the temple of Serapis was destroyed. It begins thusly, according to Rufinus of Aquileia, a probable eye-witness to the riot,
“There was a certain basilica belonging to the public domain, very old and quite neglected. The Emperor Constantius, it was said, had given it to the bishops who were publicly espousing his perverted [Arian] faith. Because of the lack of maintenance over a long time, only the walls of the basilica were sound. [Theophilus] asked the Emperor for this basilica in order that since the numbers of the faithful were growing, so should the number of prayer-halls. When the bishop had received the basilica and wished to begin renovation, caverns were found hidden in this place, dug out of the ground. The caverns were more suited for robbers and crime than for ceremonies. Accordingly, the Gentiles, who saw that their hidden retreats of crime and caverns of shame were being uncovered, finding it intolerable that evils concealed for so many centuries and covered by darkness should be exposed, as though they had drunk a chalice of serpents, they all began to go mad and to rage openly. No longer with shouting and sedition, as was their wont, they strove to fight it out with force and with the sword. Both communities were staging frequent skirmishes in the broad public streets, and they met one another in open war. (Rufinus of Aquileia, Ecclesiastical History, Book X)
Perhaps this was the same church that George the Arian built. Some modern writers have shortened this account to “the pagans tired of the Christians ridiculing their ancient rites,” without specifying what those ancient rites had been. Something about finding the skulls of babies did not sit right with the namby-pamby Christians.
Now our side [Christians], though superior by far in numbers, was less fierce because of the self-restraint of our religion. So, when large numbers of our people were wounded and some even killed outright, the Gentiles would flee to the temple [of Serapis] as to a citadel, taking with them a number of Christian captives. These, they forced to sacrifice at the burning altars and tortured and killed any who refused. Some they fixed to forked-shaped yokes, they broke the shins of others, and they cast them into caves which a long past age had built carefully to be receptacles for the blood of sacrifices and other impurities of the altar. They did these things by day, at first from fear, then in confidence and desperation, and being shut up within their temple they lived by rapine and plunder.” (Rufinus of Aquileia, Ecclesiastical History, Book X)
The pagans who bunkered up in the Serapeum are led by Olympius the Neoplatonist, the grammarians Ammonius and Helladius, and the poet Palladius. Conspicuous by her absence is the famed philosopher Hypatia. But there is actually little hard evidence that she was a pagan, at least not the child-sacrificing, meat-on-the-altar, slice-a-bull’s-throat kind of pagan. A Coptic manuscript written two centuries later calls her a pagan and magician, but that’s it. Hypatia might know the Chaldean Books, and the Hermetic Books, and be able to cast horoscopes, but there is no evidence in Synesius or the contemporary sources that she practiced theurgy like her father had. That was Lower City blue collar stuff. She was more an uptown girl, and liked to schmooze with the rich and powerful. Besides, she was on good terms with Theophilus, and most of her students were Christian.
When word of the riot reaches the Emperor, Theodosius issues an executive order that promises amnesty to the pagans holed up in the Serapeum. Ostensibly, this is because legal retribution would tarnish the merits of the martyrs they had murdered. But the Serapeum really is a citadel and this is not the first time rioters and insurrectionists have holed up there. The difficulty of assaulting it with the troops available may have weighed on the imperial mind as well.
One way to end the fighting over the temples and the cult objects found in their ruins was simply to get rid of them all. No more giant phalli, no more fighting over giant phalli. No more dead baby skulls; no more fighting over dead baby skulls. No more eviscerated women; no more fighting over eviscerated women. The Serapeum has been a fortress for rioters; so the Serapeum has to go.
The Emperor orderS the destruction of the temple in the Serapeum. When his letter is read in the plaza outside, the Christians react with cheers at the first page, and the pagans either slip away or blend in with the cheering crowd. Olympius flees to Italy, Palladius stays in Alexandria, but finds his city salary cut off. The two grammarians go to Constantinople, where one will brag in later years that he killed nine Christians in the rioting – and become the teacher of Socrates Scholasticus, who will chronicle these events – and Hypatia’s murder – some twenty-five years later.
Imperial troops acting under lawful government orders carry out the demolition, though no-doubt with the enthusiastic aid of the local Christians.
“Theophilus went up into the temple of Serapis, which has been described by some as excelling in size and beauty all the temples in the world. There he saw a huge image of which the bulk struck beholders with terror, increased by a lying report that if any one approached it, there would be a great earthquake, and that all the people would be destroyed. The bishop looked on all these tales as the mere driveling of tipsy old women, and in utter derision of the lifeless monster's enormous size, he told a man who had an axe to give Serapis a good blow with it. No sooner had the man struck, than all the folk cried out, for they were afraid of the threatened catastrophe. Serapis however, who had received the blow, felt no pain, inasmuch as he was made of wood, and uttered never a word, since he was a lifeless block. His head was cut off, and immediately out ran multitudes of mice, for the Egyptian god was a dwelling place for mice. Serapis was broken into small pieces of which some were committed to the flames, but his head was carried through all the town in sight of his worshippers, who mocked the weakness of him to whom they had once bowed the knee.” (Theodoret, Ecclesiastical History, Book V, ch.22)
Apparently, the wooden statue had rotted out and mice had nested within. Or perhaps it had been hollow to begin with, so priests could crawl inside and make the statue appear to speak. (In which case, the mice indicate long disuse.) Rufinus, the probable eyewitness, tells the same story:
“A belief had been spread abroad by the Gentiles themselves, that if a human hand was laid violently on this statue [of Serapis], the earth would immediately open up, dissolving into chaos, and suddenly the heavens would collapse into the abyss. This story gave the people a senseless pause, when behold -- one of the soldiers, better protected by his faith than by his weapons, seizing a double-edged axe, stood up and with all his strength struck the jaw of the Old Man. A shout was raised by both groups of people, but neither the sky fell nor the earth sunk.”
Afterwards, the cult objects are melted down to be cast into cooking vessels and utensils for the poor.
It is hard for moderns to appreciate the superstitious dread people once held of inanimate objects and natural phenomena. Trees had dryads, lightning was thrown by Zeus. And each and all must be placated by special rites and sacrifices. A statue did not just represent the god, it was the god. Sometimes the stature actually spoke! (Woooooh…) A trick Theophilus exposed.
Modern writers mourn the loss of this statue because they regard it rightly as a great work of ancient art. This would have insulted the pagans of that era, for whom the statue was Serapis Himself, and not a mere antiquity or museum curiosity. It is precisely because the Moderns do not take such temples seriously that they can get huffed up about their destruction. To Christian and pagan alike, their destruction was much more than an archeological loss.
The Books of the Serapeum. There is a modern myth that when the Serapeum was sacked, a vast trove of books was destroyed by the knowledge-hating Christians. Supposedly, it was the last vestige of the Great Library. Some even seem to think these were the last books in all Alexandria, and with their loss all knowledge in the City came to a halt and the Dark Ages began.
Never mind that the Dark Ages began in another place at another time, or that Alexandrian scholarship continued unabated for a century or more afterward. There is no evidence that the Serapeum held any books at all at the time it was profaned. None of the chroniclers of the event – Rufinus of Aquileia, Socrates Scholasticus, Theodoret, nor even the devout pagan Eunapius of Sardis – mention any such thing. Socrates was briefed by two of the pagan ringleaders holed up in the temple; and Eunapius, a book-loving scholar who hated Christians, would not have neglected to accuse them of the destruction of books. Ammianus Marcellinus, who died before the events just described, had written a description of the temple in which he describes its library in the perfect tense [fuerunt]. Gibbons actually used this tense to exculpate the Arabs of destroying the library – and seems not to have noticed that it exculpates Theophilus, too!
The Serapeum was the most world-famous temple of its time. It’s fall – and the lack of cosmological consequences – sends a shockwave through pagan society. The Nile flood comes right on schedule, too. The images of Serapis are removed from the walls of buildings around town and replaced with crosses. These are similar enough to the ankh that the pagan Egyptians (who had never cottoned to newfangled Greek syncretism anyway) begin to wonder if their old religion had foretold the new. The ankh was the sign of eternal life and the cross was… well, the sign of eternal life. A great many pagans convert to Christianity as a result of this. (Christians did not drop out of the sky. They were themselves formerly Jewish or formerly pagan. Paganism faded away because the pagans eventually got baptized.)