A beautifully told story with colorful characters out of epic tradition, a tight and complex plot, and solid pacing. -- Booklist, starred review of On the Razor's Edge

Great writing, vivid scenarios, and thoughtful commentary ... the stories will linger after the last page is turned. -- Publisher's Weekly, on Captive Dreams

Friday, February 13, 2015

Hypatia Part I: The Mean Streets of Old Alexandria

A FEW YEARS BACK, on The Aulde Blogge, in the days before TOF was TOF, yr. obt. svt. wrote a series on Hypatia of Alexandria. He has bethought himself to reprint that series here on the TOF Spot as a Blast From the Past, for three reasons:
  • Live Journal has become seriously moribund and seldom stirs even when poked with a stick.
  • The Hypatia series would form a nice companion to the Galileo series, since both are often used as mythological stick-figures by Late Moderns.
  • TOF can put up lots of posts for very little effort, since he has bogged down on the next Psyche episode.
With some efforts to correct typos and grammatical faux pas, a few additions and amendments, the series proceeds as follows:

The Life and Times of Hypatia of Alexandria

The series was inspired by a movie released in Spain, other parts of Europe, and in art houses of the East and West Coasts. This flick dealt with two signal events in the history of Alexandria: the deconstruction of the Serapeum and the lynching of the philosopher Hypatia. Although praised by the Usual Suspects, the movie was 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 and free-thinker, was murdered by a science-hating mob of science-hating misogynist Christian science-haters. This mythos was favored because Sagan was a scientist. (In Gibbon, it was a classics-hating mob of classics-hating Christian classics haters. That mythos was was favored because Gibbon was enamored of the classics. As the poet Simon put it: "Still a man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest. La la laa, lala la la la, lala la la laa.") 
Commentaries by Tim O’Neil based on the director’s interviews before release and later on the actual movie dissuaded TOF utterly from any thought of seeing the movie.
It was not just that the movie showed 4th century Romans in 1st century costumes – would a WW2 movie feature musketeers in breastplates storming Normandy while brandishing 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 geared to advance a false view of history.
That led TOF to read the book Hypatia of Alexandria, by Maria Dzielska, which is a modern and more dispassionate analysis. Dr. Dzielska contends that this admittedly minor player in world history has been adopted as a mascot for the modern concerns 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 (by vulgar religion). To still others, she was Woman (hear her roar!) or a leading Atheist(!) brought low by... But you have already discerned the common theme. Some have suggested that her death (and that of the Library) ushered in the Dark Ages -- as if a riot in Alexandria affected the Gothic Sack of Rome -- and had she not been killed, we would be on Mars today!  
These suggestions are so ludicrous that one might suspect the self-proclaimed champions of empiricism and reason have never given any rational thought or read any of the empirical 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:
  • The primary source, Socrates Scholasticus, is “a Christian chronologer” eager to whitewash the Patriarch Cyril.  
But Cyril suppressed the Novatians; and Socrates, who was at least sympathetic to them, did not regard Cyril favorably. The account in Socrates' History is hardly a whitewash. Apparently, all the commenter knew of Socrates' account was that he was a "Christian" and therefore infected with Christian chooties.
  • 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 -- including two bishops and an imperial prefect -- and killed with a similar savage ferocity.
The problem is that looking at a single event out of context, distorts one's understanding of it. And so I was moved to prepare something of a chronology and background of things. 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 amid the dross of 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 Lighthouse
    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 [is] 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 [of Egypt] 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
  • It is the wont of the people of Egypt that like madmen and fools they are led by the most trivial matters to become highly dangerous to the commonwealth; for merely because a greeting was omitted, or a place in the baths refused, or meat and vegetables withheld, or on account of the boots of slaves or some other such things, they have broken out into riots, even to the point of becoming highly dangerous to the state, so that troops have been armed to quell them. With their wonted madness, accordingly, on a certain occasion, when the slave of the chief magistrate then governing Alexandria had been killed by a soldier for asserting that his sandals were better than the soldier's, a mob gathered together, and, coming to the house of the general Aemilianus, it assailed him with all the implements and the frenzy usual in riots; he was pelted with stones and attacked with swords, and no kind of weapon used in a riot was lacking.
    -- Historia Augusta, Lives of the Thirty Pretenders, 22
 Yeah, Alexandria is a fickle dame. One day 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 by 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.
Alexandria around the time of Hypatia. The large red rectangles are, from lower left to the harbor: the Serapeum atop a
hill, the Museum and its library, and the Caesarion, formerly a temple to the Divine Julius, now a church.


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 had razed the Palace District in which the Museum had been located. 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 their basilicas. Poor Athens would be described by one of Hypatia’s students as famous now only for its beekeepers. 
  • "Athens has no longer anything sublime except the country's famous names! Just as in the case of a victim burnt in the sacrificial fire, there remains nothing but the skin to help us to reconstruct a creature that was once alive - so ever since philosophy left these precincts, there is nothing for the tourist to admit except the Academy, the Lyceum, and -by Zeus!- the Decorated Porch which has given its name to the philosophy of Chrysippus. This is no longer Decorated, for the proconsul has taken away the panels on which Polygnotus of Thasos has displayed his skill.
    Today Egypt has received and cherishes the fruitful wisdom of Hypatia. Athens used to be the dwelling place of the wise: today the beekeepers alone bring it honor." 
    (Synesius, Letter 136)
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 viewed as “renegades” by the orthodox, and Judaic Jews were seen as “stiff-necked” by the converts. However, many Greeks and Egyptians were also converting 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, a higher paganism that recognized a single Godhead. Some Greeks, the "God-fearers," went over to Judaism. In the Lower City, however, there were still people who worshiped penises and statues 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, in AD 303, the Emperor Galerius convinced his co-emperor Diocletian to exterminate the Christians. (A few years earlier, Diocletian had ordered a similar persecution of the Manicheans.) In the first edict, the Christians were stripped of all civil rights, barred from offices, their churches and scriptures burned. Diocletian thought this would be enough, but Galerius held out for executions. In a second edict, everyone was commanded on penalty of death to worship the Dead Emperors as a sign of political loyalty. Many Christians caved in, and were called the lapsi. Keep an eye on them. 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!
These ten ferocious years were mediated by many officials high and low who saw its injustice. In the West, sub-emperor 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, etc. – and Catherine 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 women who disputed philosophy. She made saints of them.
Constantine anticipates "Big
 Eye" paintings by 600 years.
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’ĂȘtre 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 that streak of puritanism. 
About the time Hypatia’s father, Theon, was born, Constantine, Emperor of the Romans, became a Christian, and everything was rainbows and fluffy bunnies thereafter. Not.

Continued in Part II: When Hypatia Was a Little Girl


  1. "would a WW2 movie feature musketeers in breastplates storming Normandy while brandishing muzzle-loaders?"

    Forsooth, do you grok my jive, me hearties?

  2. The problem is that looking at a single event out of context, distorts one's understanding of it

    Hear, hear ... (I've had it happen to me too, about 5-II-1998, but that is another story).

  3. There is a slight error here. The Novatians, unlike the Donatists, did NOT arise in the 4th century as the result of Diocletian's persecution. They actually originated in the mid 3rd century. They were essentially the result of a rival claim to the office of Bishop of Rome by the anti-Pope Novatian, who appointed his own network of bishops throughout the Empire, and only later (after his claim had already been rejected by most of the Christian world) declared that the lapsi of the recent Decian Persecution could never be forgiven in this life. By the time of Diocletian, the Novatians had already been around for about fifty years, and were pretty well-established throughout the Roman Empire. Unlike their Catholic counterparts, however, they faced no uncertainty over what to do about members who lapsed in the Great Persecution.

  4. Your face would look better between my legs. Hey, i am looking for an online sexual partner ;) Click on my boobs if you are interested (. )( .)


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