The Mean Streets of Old Alexandria: Part VIII
Scholasticus, writing in Constantinople at about the same time as the murder, tells us that Cyril and the whole Alexandrian church came under opprobrium because of this. Whose opprobrium? That of the opposing party of Orestes, for one – and that included most of the better classes in Alexandria. Outside of Alexandria, there was Antioch, always butting theological heads with Alexandria. And Constantinople, where Socrates was writing, so probably the imperial court as well. (The story probably never made it to the Latin West and the Roman Patriarch. In the aftermath of the Sack, the West had other worries than yet another Alexandrian riot.)
Opprobrium does not mean that Cyril was blamed for planning the murder; only that what Peter and his followers did disgraced the whole Alexandrian church. Hypatia was popular and important, and these proles had killed her. Well, that was life in Old Alexandria. Ask George of Cappadocia or the Christians ambushed around St. Alexander’s church. Socrates does not say that Cyril planned or even knew of the murder, although as a Novatian he had a motive to. But the buck stops here. Cyril was supposed to be in charge, and whether by word or deed, he helped create a climate in the City that turned it into a tinder box. But then so did Orestes. Not that that was hard to do on the mean streets of old Alexandria.
Damascius does blame Cyril, at least by strong implication. He tells us “The Emperor was angry, and he would have avenged her had not Aedesius been bribed. Thus the Emperor remitted the punishment onto his own head and family, for his descendant paid the price. The memory of these events is still vivid among the Alexandrians.” Damascius had been in Alexandria, studying philosophy under Ammonius about two generations after the events. Aedesius, a friend of Hypatia’s student, Synesius, may or may not have been bribed. Arcadius Augustus may have taken the formal responsibility simply to break the escalating cycle of violence. That was a common imperial practice. Theodosius had done so after the pagan riots and murders in the Serapeum affair, when he granted the killers amnesty.
John of Nikiu is not thinking “blame” but “credit.” Yet he does not say that Cyril was responsible, only that the people hailed him afterward. These were surely the people of the Lower City, not the Upper City.
It is likely that no one planned the murder. Moderns find it difficult to believe that such things can happen unless someone official plans it and gives the order. But in the tinderbox atmosphere of Old Alexandria, spontaneous combustion was all too likely.
What Happened to Everyone Afterward
Orestes. Nothing more is heard about him in the Ecclesiastical Histories, and other sources are scanty. Did he resign and leave town in fear of his life? But terms of office were usually short anyway. No one was allowed to run wealthy Egypt for very long. Orestes may have simply have served out his office and nothing else newsworthy happened in that time. One thing we do know is that the city council cut down the number of parabolani and shifted them from the patriarch’s control to the prefect’s control. These folks were originally charged with the duty to gather up the sick and homeless and bring them to the new-fangled “hospitals” that the Byzantine Christians had set up. But apparently, Cyril had begun using them as his personal Brute Squad. This shift of authority may be one indication of the opprobrium Cyril came under. After a few years, the diminished parabolani are returned to the Patriarch.
Pope Cyril appears to have learned prudence and restraint. A little. There are no more disturbances in Alexandria during his tenure. As a young hothead, Cyril had been excommunicated by the Pope of Rome for his role in deposing St. John Chrysostom from the See of Constantinople. Synesius had scolded him over his impetuosity. His spiritual mentor, Isidore, had also urged him to greater prudence. As Cyril matures in office, he becomes a skilled theologian and argues the case for orthodoxy against Nestorius. He runs the Council of Ephesus, but his intemperance leads him to convene the council before the delegates from Rome and Antioch have arrived, resulting in charges that he was railroading Nestorius. Consequently, much of the Patriarchate of Antioch and All Asia eventually goes over to Nestorianism and becomes the Assyrian Church and its various Syriac, Indian, and Armenian cousins. Had the council been better managed, who knows? The usual practice had been to find a middle course, a compromise formula suitable to both parties. Cyril’s own writings are so much opposite to the Nestorian heresy that they later form the basis of the Monophysite heresy, by which the very Patriarchate of Alexandria and All Africa became the Coptic Church, which reveres Cyril as one of its founders.
Alexandria keeps up her traditions.
AD 422. An Alexandrian mob riots and kills the prefect Callistus. Who knows why?
AD 430. Augustine of Hippo dies while the Vandals are outside the gates of Carthage. The collapse of the West is nearly final. In AD 439 the last Roman troops leave Britain.
AD 457. Alexandrian Pope Proterius is killed by Monophysites. Evagrius Scholasticus writes of this incident:
Proterius is appointed to the see of Alexandria by a general vote of the synod. On his taking possession of his see, a very great and intolerable tumult arose among the people, who were roused into a storm against conflicting opinions; for some, as is likely in such cases, desired the restoration of Dioscorus, while others resolutely upheld Proterius, so as to give rise to many irremediable mischiefs. Thus Priscus, the rhetorician, recounts, that he arrived at Alexandria from the Thebaid, and that he saw the populace advancing in a mass against the magistrates: that when the troops attempted to repress the tumult, they proceeded to assail them with stones, and put them [the troops] to flight, and on their taking refuge in the old temple of Serapis, carried the place by assault, and committed them alive to the flames: that the emperor, when informed of these events, dispatched two thousand newly levied troops, who made so favorable a passage, as to reach Alexandria on the sixth day; and that thence resulted still more alarming consequences, from the license of the soldiery towards the wives and daughters of the Alexandrians: that, subsequently, the people, being assembled in the hippodrome, entreated Floras, who was the military commandant, as well as the civil governor, with such urgency as to procure terms for themselves, in the distribution of provisions, of which he had deprived them, as well as the privileges of the baths and spectacles, and all others from which, on account of their turbulence, they had been debarred: that, at his suggestion, Floras presented himself to the people, and pledged himself to that effect, and by this means stopped the sedition for a time. (Ecclesiastical History, Book 2 ch. V)
Nice to see the old Serapeum was still around sixty-seven years after it was destroyed, and still serving its old function as refuge. The Dioscorus mentioned above is invoked in the canon of the Coptic Mass, a sign that they are in communion with neither Constantinople nor Rome. Somewhat later, we find:
while Proterius, beloved of God, was occupying, as usual, the episcopal residence, Timotheus, taking with him the two bishops who had been justly deposed, and the clergy who, as we have said, were condemned to banishment with them, as if he had received rightful ordination at the hands of the two, though not one of the orthodox bishops of the whole Egyptian diocese was present, as is customary on occasion of the ordinations of the bishop of the church of Alexandria—he possesses himself, as he presumed, of the archiepiscopal see, though manifestly guilty of an adulterous outrage on the church, as already having her rightful spouse in one who was performing the divine offices in her, and canonically occupied his proper throne." And further on: "The blessed man could do nothing else than give place to wrath, according to what is written, and take refuge in the venerable baptistery from the assault of those who were pursuing him to death, a place which especially inspires awe even into barbarians and savages, though ignorant of its dignity, and the grace which flows from it. Notwithstanding, however, those who were eager to carry into execution the design which Timotheus had from the first conceived, and who could not endure that his life should be protected by those undefiled precincts, neither reverenced the dignity of the place, nor yet the season (for it was the solemnity of the saving paschal feast), nor were awe-struck at the priestly office which mediates between God and man; but put the blameless man to death, cruelly butchering him with six others. They then drew forth his body, covered with wounds, and having dragged it in horrid procession with unfeeling mockery through almost every part of the city, ruthlessly loaded the senseless corpse with indignity, so far as to tear it limb from limb, and not even abstain from tasting, like beasts of prey, the flesh of him whom but just before they were supposed to have as a mediator between God and man. They then committed what remained of the body to the flames, and scattered the ashes to the winds, exceeding the utmost ferocity of wild beasts. Of all these transactions Timotheus was the guilty cause, and the skilful builder of the scheme of mischief. (Ecclesiastical History Book 2 ch. VIII)
We sense a common theme in the pagan murder of George the Arian bishop, the orthodox murder of Hypatia the Neoplatonist, and the monophysite murder of Proterius the Orthodox bishop.
1. Hack them limb from limb
2. Drag them through the streets
3. Burn the remains to ashes
4. Scatter the ashes
It’s like they have a procedure or something. Come to think of it, that is what is said to have happened to St. Mark himself. He was dragged to the Serapeum and killed.
BTW, the bodies were burned, as Amminianus writes, to prevent their use as relics over which to build a church. So why exactly was Hypatia burned?
The Continuity of Intellectual Life. Amateurs like Carl Sagan and others, following Gibbon, contend that events like the demolition of the Serapeum and the murder of Hypatia marked the end of intellectual life in Alexandria. It is as if they believe there was only one library and only one philosopher in the whole City. (That’s assuming contrary to the evidence that there really were books in the Serapeum at the time the cult objects were destroyed. The buildings themselves were apparently still there in AD 457.) Furthermore, the Alexandrian mob showed clear impartiality in whom it turned its sights on: we find pagans killing Christians, Jews killing Christians, Christians driving Jews out of town, Christians killing a Neoplatonist philosopher, one faction of Christians killing the bishop of another faction. In the Mean Streets of Old Alexandria, anyone could play the Game of Blood. As one author writes: “In Alexandria it was dangerous to have an opinion – any opinion.” The world had not yet been civilized even to the extent it is today. The Christians had one disadvantage that was also their advantage: their own religion told them they had done horrible things. To the pagans, killing your enemies was all in a day’s work.
Despite all this, life went on, and the truly amazing thing is that for most of the time the “tribes of Alexandria” lived side-by-side in peaceful disagreement.
Despite modern-day mythology, none of the violence had been directed against learning. For the most part, it concerned power, and to a lesser extent the fading of paganism. The schools of philosophy continued to meet, and as was the Alexandrian custom, were not segregated into Christian and pagan.
In the generation after Hypatia, the female philosopher Aedesia was prominent in Alexandria, and suffered no harm because of her sex, her philosophy, or her paganism. But then she did not get involved in Alexandrian politics, either. She took her sons to Athens to study under Proclus, but returned with them to Alexandria about AD 475 when her son Ammonius took his father’s chair. The young Damascius was a student of Ammonius and eulogized Aedesia. Another of Ammonius’ pupils was the Christian John Philoponus.
Far from ending in AD 416, Alexandrian math, philosophy, astronomy attained a zenith in the late 400s and early 500s. Hierocles, Ammonius, Damascius, Simplicius, Asclepius, Olympiodorus, Elias, and John Philoponus were all active. Ammonius kick-started the Aristotelian tradition in Alexandria [hooray], and philosophy began to move away from Platonic woo-woo towards a more sensible Aristotelian empiricism. John Philoponus, in particular, began to question Aristotle’s Physics and conducted Galileo’s experiment rolling balls down inclined planes. He also developed the theory of impetus, which John Buridan of the Sorbonne would later take to the brink of Newton’s intertial theory. Alas, Philoponus’ work fell into obscurity. Seventy years after his death, a muslim army invaded Egypt and Alexandria ceased to be a center of learning and philosophy.
The account makes clear that the issue in Hypatia’s murder was politics – not feminism, not paganism, not Hellenism, and not science or astronomy. She was killed because she chose up sides in the deadly game of Alexandrian politics and, in the particular instance, both sides were orthodox Christians. Because of this, some scholars think Hypatia herself was a Christian. No one but John of Nikiu comes out and calls her a pagan. Synesius does not. Most of her known students were Christian, she practiced the Christian virtues, she remained a holy virgin, the mob burned her body after killing her, Neoplatonism was compatible with Christianity and used by the likes of Augustine of Hippo. It even postulated a triune godhead. So…
On the other hand… If nothing in Synesius’ letters calls her a pagan, neither does he hint that she was his co-religionist. Damascius would hardly have praised a Christian martyr. The Christian virtues were known to and practiced by the Neoplatonists – and the Aristotelians. The Neoplatonists in particular despised the flesh, so perpetual virginity was likely not uncommon. And if Neoplatonism was compatible with Christianity, it was also compatible with, well, Neoplatonism. And burning the body may simply have become part of the regular procedure for Alexandrian mobs.
So the consensus remains that she was a Neoplatonic pagan.
She was not, however, an Old Time pagan, and the pagan populace did not rally to her support when she entered the crosshairs. She hadn’t helped defend the Serapeum, so they would not defend her.
See also Part IX: The Sources