Continued from Part VI
The Mean Streets of Old Alexandria: Part VII
Murder Most Foul
AD 414/416. Rumors Fly in the Naked City. Why is Orestes so obstinate? Why will he not make kissy-face with Cyril? Rumors begin to circulate that Hypatia is the obstacle. It is her counsel that keeps the prefect at odds with the patriarch, and therefore perpetuates unrest in the City.
An account written two centuries later states that she was also rumored to be a witch and magician, but neither Socrates nor Damascius say this. Now her father had practiced magic, but there is no evidence that she herself did so. OTOH, she did teach astrology and divination as means of learning God’s will. To the proletarians In the Lower City, the distinction may not have been clear.
Maria Dzielska believes Cyril fomented the rumors, but this is one of those things that depend on an assessment of Cyril’s character, not on anything in the surviving records. He was certainly ambitious and seems capable of planting rumors; but OTOH he doesn’t seem that subtle, either. Drumming up a crowd of proletarians and taking direct action seems more his style. For that matter, the rumors may have been true. She may very well have been counseling Orestes to keep Cyril at arm’s length. Damascius writes:
Thus it happened one day that Cyril, bishop of the other party, was passing by Hypatia's house, and he saw a great crowd of people and horses in front of her door. Some were arriving, some departing, and others standing around. When he asked why there was a crowd there and what all the fuss was about, he was told by her followers that it was the house of Hypatia the philosopher and she was about to greet them. When Cyril learned this he was so struck with envy that he immediately began plotting her murder and the most heinous form of murder at that. (Damascius’ Life of Isidore, as preserved in the Byzantine encyclopedia known as the Suda)
The story is slightly improbable, in that Cyril could not possibly have been unaware of who Hypatia was prior to the supposed incident. She had been important in Alexandrian life when his uncle Theophilus had still been patriarch.
Note that Damascius calls Cyril of the “other party.” One translator interpolates “[i.e., the Christians]” but this is not in the text. The two parties are the pro-Cyril party and the pro-Timothy party (which has become the pro-Orestes party). So the passage means that Hypatia was aligned with Orestes, and Cyril was the opposition. Both parties are composed primarily of Christians. Hypatia belongs to the upper-class party – call her a country-club Republican – and Cyril to the lower-class party – call him a populist Democrat. The basic wrangle is over whether the bishops of the Empire are to be subordinate to the governors or whether they have administrative powers of their own. The same hassles are underway in Antioch and the other cities. (In the West, the imperial governors are going to disappear and barbarian warlords take their place. The Pope of Rome will become by default the go-to guy for any sort of universal decision.)
Cyril’s jealousy was not pegged to her philosophical or astronomical attainments, as some claim. Damascius is writing two generations after the fact, as the last head of the Athenian Academy. The Academy was closed by the emperor; Damascius went into exile in Persia; and found it even more dreary, so he came back. He may have had a bee in his bonnet about hostility to philosophy.
It is far more likely that Cyril was frightened by the size of Hypatia’s faction.
Hypatia’s backing of Orestes bothered Cyril because Hypatia, now a matronly 60 or 61, has considerable throw weight of metal. Among her former students:
· Heraclianus's brother Cyrus is a high official in Constantinople,
· Heysichius is duke and corrector of Libya, as well as a bishop
· Euoptius is bishop of Ptolemaeus,
· Olympius is wealthy landowner in Syria and a friend of the military governor of Egypt,
· Synesius’ friend Aurelian is the new praetorian prefect of the East.
Hypatia is in tight with most of the ruling class of Alexandria. Orestes is backed by the Christian faction that had supported Timothy the deacon, the Christians who had rescued him from the Nitrian monks. Orestes is the Christian governor of a Christian state, backed by a Christian emperor.
Cyril has friends among the poor plus a few supporters in the Upper City. But these have little influence in the lifestyles of the rich and famous. In the power struggle with Orestes, Cyril sees himself losing.
416. The Murder of Hypatia. The only surviving contemporary account of the murder is by Socrates Scholasticus, the same who told us of the Deconstruction of the Serapeum, the Massacre of St. Alexander’s and the Attack on Orestes by the Nitrian monks. Scholasticus was taught by two of the pagan rhetors who had led the occupation of the Serapeum that convinced the emperor to order it demolished. Socrates was a Novatian, critical of the patriarchs of Antioch, Rome, and Alexandria for suppressing the sect. This may have colored his attitude toward Cyril, who closed the Novatian parishes in Alexandria. But his account of Hypatia is generally considered reliable. Here it is, verbatim:
There was a woman at Alexandria named Hypatia, daughter of the philosopher Theon, who made such attainments in literature and scientia, as to far surpass all the philosophers of her own time. Having succeeded to the school of Plato and Plotinus, she explained the principles of philosophy to her auditors, many of whom came from a distance to receive her instructions. On account of the self-possession and ease of manner [sophrosyne], which she had acquired in consequence of the cultivation of her mind, she not infrequently appeared in public in presence of the magistrates. Neither did she feel abashed in coming to an assembly of men. For all men on account of her extraordinary dignity and virtue admired her the more.
Yet even she fell a victim to the political jealousy which at that time prevailed. For as she had frequent interviews with Orestes, it was calumniously reported among the Christian populace, that it was she who prevented Orestes from being reconciled to the bishop. Some of them therefore, hurried away by a fierce and bigoted zeal, whose ringleader was a reader named Peter, waylaid her returning home, and dragging her from her carriage, they took her to the church called Cæsareum, where they completely stripped her, and then murdered her with tiles. After tearing her body in pieces, they took her mangled limbs to a place called Cinaron, and there burnt them. This affair brought not the least opprobrium, not only upon Cyril, but also upon the whole Alexandrian church. And surely nothing can be farther from the spirit of Christianity than the allowance of massacres, fights, and transactions of that sort. This happened in the month of March during Lent, in the fourth year of Cyril's episcopate, under the tenth consulate of Honorius, and the sixth of Theodosius.
Notes: The Cæsareum was another former pagan temple, once dedicated to the Divine Cæsar (Near the harbor: See the map of Alexandria in the Intro.) The location of Cinaron is unknown, but likely nearby. Others killed by Alexandrian mobs had their ashes scattered into the sea, so perhaps it is on the shore. In the context of the 4th century, “attainments” in philosophy and science does not mean “discovering new things,” but “achieving great renown.” Nor does “scientia” mean “science” as we conceive it today. The word for the tiles is translated by some as “oyster shells,” but this was simply a colloquialism for the curved roofing tiles. It could also be read as “broken pottery”. It is easy to make broken pottery out of roofing tiles.
The two other accounts of the murder run as follows:
For when Hypatia emerged from her house, in her accustomed manner, a throng of merciless and ferocious men who feared neither divine punishment nor human revenge attacked and cut her down, thus committing an outrageous and disgraceful deed against their fatherland. (Damascius, as preserved in the Suda)
Damascius wrote two generations later. He puts the murder right after the story of Cyril’s jealousy, implying that Cyril directly planned the murder.
And thereafter a multitude of believers in God arose under the guidance of Peter the magistrate – now this Peter was a perfect believer in all respects in Jesus Christ – and they proceeded to seek for the pagan woman who had beguiled the people of the city and the prefect through her enchantments. And when they learnt the place where she was, they proceeded to her and found her seated on a (lofty) chair; and having made her descend they dragged her along till they brought her to the great church, named Caesarion. Now this was in the days of the fast. And they tore off her clothing and dragged her [till they brought her] through the streets of the city till she died. And they carried her to a place named Cinaron, and they burned her body with fire. And all the people surrounded the patriarch Cyril and named him "the new Theophilus"; for he had destroyed the last remains of idolatry in the city. (John of Nikiu)
John of Nikiu wrote two centuries later, as if someone today were to write of a murder in 1810 – after an Arab army has taken control. He puts the murder right after the ambush at St. Alexander’s, which he calls the church of St. Athanasius. He identifies Peter as a magistrate. (Perhaps Peter was both a lector and a city councilman.) He does not mention the roofing tiles, but claims she was dragged around the city. He is the only early source that names Hypatia a pagan. He wrote in the aftermath of the muslim take-over. Perhaps like commentators on Hypatia ever since, he is addressing the concerns of his own time and place, and not those of the early 5th century. His biases are clear: he regards Cyril as a hero against
Notice that the three sources disagree about where the mob caught Hypatia:
· Socrates: …waylaid her returning home, and dragging her from her carriage…
· Damascius: …when Hypatia emerged from her house, in her accustomed manner, a throng of merciless and ferocious men … attacked and cut her down…
· John of Nikiu: they proceeded to seek for the pagan woman… And when they learnt the place where she was, they proceeded to her and found her seated on a (lofty) chair
Usually, such discrepancies in detail cast doubt on the very occurrence – at least if they are discrepancies between Matthew, Mark, and Luke – but the reason is clear. Only Socrates is actually close enough in time to have the straight skinny. Damascius wasn’t really writing about Hypatia – it was the Life of Isidore, remember – and didn’t have much of the story. He has her “cut down” in front of her house. He just wanted to bash the Christians and Cyril. John of Nikiu has a copy of Socrates, but it may be corrupted because some of it is garbled. He leaves out the attack by the monks on Orestes, saying only that Orestes once “went in danger.” John just wanted to praise the Christians and Cyril. All this despite the fact that both parties in the political dispute were Christian.