The Mean Streets of Old Alexandria: Part VI
The Feud of Cyril and Orestes
AD 412 A Fateful Year. Orestes becomes the new prefect of Egypt. He meets Hypatia (now aged 57) and they become friends. Perhaps, like other important officials, he attends some of her public seminars. In any case, he consults with her (as with other important citizens) on public questions. Later that same year (15 October) Theophilus dies. He had opposed the Novatians and pagans; tangled with John Chrysostom; but apparently got along with Hypatia. Street fighting rages for three days over his successor. In Alexandria, nothing, not even the election of a patriarch is done half-heartedly. One party (including Abundatius, military comes of Egypt) backs deacon Timothy. The “other party” supports Theophilus’ nephew Cyril (left, who is backed by the rowdy Nitrian monks and probably the proletarians of the Lower City).
17 October: Cyril wins and is installed as 25th Pope of Alexandria, successor of St. Mark. He is very orthodox, but also very ambitious and wants to expand the scope of the patriarchate to include a civil role. He and Orestes begin to butt heads over each other’s sphere of authority. (Augustine, who solved the problem, is a Western bishop writing in Latin, and might as well be on the Moon as far as the sophisticated Greeks are concerned.)
Synesius writes to congratulate Cyril, but with an admonishment to learn more restraint. (Letter 12) Cyril eventually does, sort of, but not until it is too late.
AD 413. A Year of Melancholy. Synesius’ wife and children have all died sometime before now. He never recovers from their loss. He has also gotten into a row with Andronicus, the governor of Cyrene, whom he has excommunicated. In consequence, he has lost many friends and much influence. He writes to Hypatia:
But [Fortune] can never take away from me the choice of the best, and the power to come to the help of the oppressed, for never may she prevail to change my heart! I abhor iniquity: for one may, and I would fain prevent it, but this also is one of those things which were taken from me; this went even before my children.
You yourself called me the providence of others. All respect which was accorded to me by the mighty of this earth, I employed solely to help others. The great were merely my instruments. But now, alas, I am deserted and abandoned by all, unless you have some power to help. (Letter 81)
Synesius himself falls ill. He writes to Hypatia again, complaining that she is not writing back.
But now your silence has been added to the sum of my sorrows. I have lost my children, my friends, and the goodwill of everyone. The greatest loss of all, however, is the absence of your divine spirit. I had hoped that this would always remain to me, to conquer both the caprices of fortune and the evil turns of fate. (Letter 10)
Shortly thereafter, Synesius dictates his last letter:
I am dictating this letter to you from my bed, but may you receive it in good health, mother, sister, teacher, and withal benefactress, and whatsoever is honored in name and deed.
For me bodily weakness has followed in the wake of mental sufferings. The remembrance of my departed children is consuming my forces, little by little. Only so long should Synesius have lived as he was still without experience of the evils of life. It is as if a torrent long pent up had burst upon me in full volume, and as if the sweetness of life had vanished. May I either cease to live, or cease to think of the tomb of my sons!
But may you preserve your health and give my salutations to your happy comrades in turn, beginning with father Theotecnus and brother Athanasius, and so to all! And if anyone has been added to these, so long as he is dear to you, I must owe him gratitude because he is dear to you, and to that man give my greetings as to my own dearest friend. If any of my affairs interests you, you do well, and if any of them does not so interest you, neither does it me. (Letter 16)
After which, Synesius dies, aged about 43.
An important question: why did Hypatia stop writing to Synesius? Perhaps other events in Alexandria that same year may shed some light. She may have had other things to worry about.
AD 413/414. The Saint Alexander Massacre.
Socrates Scholasticus writes (Ecclesiastical History, Book VII. ch 13.)
“It happened that a disturbance arose among the populace, not from a cause of any serious importance, but out of the dancing exhibitions that had become popular in almost all cities.” Instead of listening to the Law, the Jews spend the Sabbath in the theaters. The dancers usually collect great crowds on the Sabbath, and disorder almost invariably results. The governor of Alexandria has managed to control this to some degree, but the Jews continue opposing his measures; and although they were always hostile toward the Christians these dancing exhibitions rouse them to still greater opposition.
So Orestes the prefect publishes an edict in the theatre for regulating the shows. Some of bishop Cyril's Party attend to learn what the orders will be. One of them is Hierax, a teacher of basic literature, who makes himself conspicuous by his enthusiastic applause for the edict. Orestes cannot make out what he is saying, but the Jews cry that he has come to excite sedition.
Orestes has long regarded with jealousy the growing power of the bishops, because they encroach on the jurisdiction of the imperial authorities. Cyril, in particular, wants to set spies over Orestes proceedings. So Orestes orders Hierax seized, and tortures him publicly right there in the theatre. [Even though he had actually been cheering in favor of Orestes’ edict!]
Informed of this, Cyril sends for the principal Jews and threatens them severely if they did not stop molesting the Christians. The Jewish populace becomes furious, and instead of suppressing their violence, conspires for the destruction of the Christians.
They first agree, for the sake of mutual recognition, to wear a palm-bark ring on the finger. Then one night they send persons into the streets and raise a cry that the church of St. Alexander is on fire. Hearing this, many Christians run out in great anxiety to save their church. The Jews immediately fall upon and slay them; readily distinguishing each other by their rings.
At daybreak the authors of this atrocity cannot be concealed: and Cyril, accompanied by an immense crowd of people, goes to their synagogues, takes them over, and drives the Jews out of the city, permitting the multitude to plunder their goods. “Thus the Jews who had inhabited the city from the time of Alexander the Macedonian were expelled from it, stripped of all they possessed, and dispersed some in one direction and some in another.” One of them, a physician named Adamantius, fled to Atticus bishop of Constantinople, and professing Christianity, some time afterwards returned to Alexandria and fixed his residence there. [This convention of naming an otherwise minor player was the ancient manner of citing a source.]
Orestes the prefect of Alexandria is really pissed off that the city had lost so large a chunk of its population. It is not the bishop’s job to punish and exile. It is the prefect’s job! He writes at once to the emperor. So does Cyril, who also describes the outrageous conduct of the Jews. But at the urging of the other Christians, Cyril also sends people to Orestes to mediate a reconciliation.
Orestes says Up your nose with a rubber hose. Cyril extends toward him the book of gospels, believing that respect for religion will induce him to lay aside his resentment. However, even this does not pacify the prefect, who persists in implacable hostility against the bishop.
The Assault on Orestes.
Five hundred Nitrian monks come to town to support Cyril. This is never a good thing. These “monks” were little more than brigands and had years before seized and plundered the rural pagan temples – without imperial permission. When Orestes is caught in traffic, the monks surround his entourage and begin insulting him. They call him a pagan. Orestes responds that he had been baptized by Patriarch Atticus himself.
A monk named Ammonius throws a rock and hits Orestes in the head, drawing blood. Orestes’ bodyguard bugs out, so the Alexandrians themselves form up a vigilante posse and fight the monks off. The capture Ammonius. [Remember, there is a pro-Cyril and an anti-Cyril party among the Christians.] Orestes has Ammonius tortured so badly that he dies.
Cyril, always ready to jump to a conclusion, announces that Ammonius is a martyr and prepares to make an issue of it; but the other Christians tell him, dude, he was tortured to death because he threw a rock and hit the imperial prefect. Duh? You just don’t do that in the Empire. Ammonius died for his assault and battery, not for his faith. So Cyril says “Never mind,” and withdraws the claim of martyrdom. [Depending on how you feel about Cyril, either his cynical plans to exploit Ammonius’ judicial murder were thwarted by rest of the church; or else he had genuinely believed Ammonius a martyr – confusing his feud with Orestes for religious orthodoxy – and backed off when he learned the facts.]
AD 414 Meanwhile, Duke Heysichius appoints Euoptius bishop of Ptolemais to succeed his brother Synesius. Both Heysishius and Euoptis are former students of Hypatia. Euoptis will later attend the Ecumenical Council of Ephesus along with Cyril and will anathematize Nestorius (another Antiochene!) who is by then bishop of Constantinople.