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

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Friday, February 13, 2015

Hypatia Part II: When Hypatia Was a Little Girl

Continued from Part I: The Mean Streets of Old Alexandria

When Hypatia Was a Little Girl

SOMETIME AROUND AD 355, a year after Augustine of Hippo was born, the well-known mathematician and astrologer, Theon of Alexandria, begat a daughter whom he named Hypatia.  She was to mature into a mathematician and astrologer in her own right, but also into a Neoplatonist philosopher of no small repute, one of a small group of female philosophers that graced that period of history in Alexandria. 

This was the milieu in which she came of age.
At this point even the youngest Christians persecuted by Diocletian would would have been in their fifties.  But their children, now grown to adulthood, might still harbor fear of their pagan neighbors based on the tales their parents had told them.  After all, Diocletian’s persecution had come out of the blue following a period of relative toleration.  
A USEFUL REMINDER: Pretty much everyone in the ancient world was a murderous psychopath, compassion not being a notable virtue. Accounts of executions, riots, and the like describe actions that would make Faithful Reader's head explode faster than the hairs on it would curl. And as fast as one group could be domesticated by those preaching love and compassion, fresh waves of psychopaths would come riding in from the deserts or the steppes, or sailing in from the Northlands.
ALEXANDRIA IS AN IMPORTANT SEAT OF THE CHRISTIANS. Its bishop, the Successor of St. Mark, has traditionally ranked Number Two behind the Pope of Rome. In fact, he too styles himself a "pope." Alexandria butts heads constantly with Number Three, Antioch, over theological matters: Antioch emphasizes the divinity of Christ, Alexandria his humanity.  (Eventually, an ecumenical council will rule: OK, dudes, he was both.  Now stop the bickering.)

Byzantium has been renamed Constantinople for twenty-five years, and her bishop being ipso facto the bishop of the Emperor of the East, has become a dude of considerable mojo.  But Alexandria opposes the elevation of Constantinople to a Patriarchate.  And whenever an Antiochene is appointed to the See of St. Andrew, the See of St. Mark becomes a mite peckish.  None of this bothers the See of St. Peter, out in the Wild West.  The problems there are of a more quotidian nature: few cities and far flung.  The heresies there are fewer and generally different from those that pester the East. And there are an awful lot of barbarians piling up against the Rhine and Danube frontiers.  Something about Huns out on the steppes...  

 AD 356.  The Mithreum.  
Constantius II, looking
for cousins to slay.
Constantine may have tolerated Christianity and even accepted baptism on his deathbed, but most of his family became determined Arians.  Thus, when Constantius II becomes sole emperor and slaughters most of his cousins¹, he immediately expels the orthodox bishops, including Pope Athanasius of Alexandria,²  and installs an Arian named George of Cappadocia in his place.  George sets about making himself obnoxious, a task for which he has a prodigious talent, for he manages to alienate not only the orthodox and the pagans, but even many of his fellow Arians. 

The Emperor gives George a parcel of desert on which to build a church. 
"In the process of clearing it, an adytum of vast depth was discovered which unveiled the nature of their heathenish rites: for there were found there the skulls of many persons of all ages, who were said to have been immolated for the purpose of divination by the inspection of entrails... The Christians on discovering these abominations in the adytum of the Mithreum, went forth eagerly to expose them to the view and execration of all; and therefore carried the skulls throughout the city, in a kind of triumphal procession, for the inspection of the people."
This seriously frosts the pagans, who do not like the skulls being paraded like that. A mob quickly forms and they grab whatever weapons they can lay their hands on and attack the Christians.³
"[S]ome they killed with the sword, others with clubs and stones; some they strangled with ropes, others they crucified, purposely inflicting this last kind of death in contempt of the cross of Christ: most of them they wounded; and as it generally happens in such a case, neither friends nor relatives were spared, but friends, brothers, parents, and children imbrued their hands in each other's blood.¹ Wherefore the Christians ceased from cleansing the Mithreum."
--Socrates Scholasticus, Ecclesiastical History, Book III. Ch. 2;
also Sozomen, Ecclesiastical History Book V, Ch.7

The Christians had not drawn cartoons of the Prophet, for the excellent reason that Mohammed was not yet born, but one can see from the reaction that the Middle East has not changed much in the intervening centuries. 
1. slaughters most of his cousins. See "psychopaths," above.
2. Pope of Alexandria. Not to be confused with Alexander Pope. The Patriarchs of Rome and Alexandria style themselves "Pope." Antioch for some reason does not. Once everyone agrees he is a really-truly Patriarch, Constantinople will call himself "The Ecumenical Patriarch" because, emperor!
Christians. Arians were heretics, but heretics are Christians, too.
friends, brothers, parents, and children. See "psychopaths," above.

AD 360.  THE SERAPEUM IS RANSACKED by Artemius, prefect of Egypt, on the orders of the Arian heretic George of Cappadocia.¹.  We are told that George “brought an army into the holy city [Alexandria] and the Prefect of Egypt [Artemius] seized the most sacred shrine of the God [the Serapeum] and stripped it of its statues and offerings and of all the ornaments.”².  

Did that include the library in the colonnade?  Perhaps.  George was a bibliophile. In AD 362, Julian will order Geroge's library confiscated and sent to the palace in Antioch, writing, "It would ... be absurd if I should suffer these [books] to be appropriated by men whose inordinate desire for wealth gold alone cannot satiate, and who unscrupulously design to steal these also."³
1. Socrates Scholasticus, Ecclesiastical History, Bk III. Ch. 3
2. Julian, Letters, 21. ‘To the Alexandrians’
3. Julian, Letters, 23. 'To Ecdicius'
Note on the Serapeum Library. It is certain that the books were no longer in the Serapeum when Ammianus Marcellinus later writes of its library in the perfect tense [fuerunt].  The temple “once had” many books.  The perfect tense in Latin denotes an action that is over and done with. 
Paul Orosius, writing some fifty years afterwards (ca.AD 417), will say that “in some of the temples there remain up to the present time book chests, which we ourselves have seen, and that, as we are told, these were emptied by our own men in our own day when these temples were plundered.”  Perhaps he is referring to George.  Notice that he does not say the books were destroyed, only that they were grabbed by looters.  It was then not uncommon even for emperors and governors to loot older institutions in order to furnish their own endowments. Marc Antony was once accused by his enemies of looting the Library of Pergamum to restock the Royal Library of Alexandria for his girl friend.
Six months later, while on his way to Persia, Julian will write to Porphyrius [probably George's secretary] that that George’s book collection was “very large and complete and contained philosophers of every school and many historians.” Also works of "the Galileans."¹ He urges Porphyrius under threat of "the severest penalty" to trace the books "by every kind of enquiry, by every kind of sworn testimony and, further, by torture of the slaves" to "compel, if you cannot persuade" in case anyone has made off with any of the books. To make sure, Julian hints to Porphyrius that he personally knows of some of the titles, so no one better try to hide any.  Alas, we don’t know whether Julian ever received the loot.  It may have reached Antioch after Julian left for Persia. Perhaps the lost books of the Serapeum were forwarded to Constantinople to be lost a millennium later in the Turkish Sack.²
1. Julian, Letters, 38. 'To Porphyrius'
2. For a more complete discussion of the Serapeum Library, see Bede's Library.

Julian the Apostate

Julian, lemme at them Persians
AD 361.  WHEN HYPATIA IS ABOUT SIX YEARS OLD, the Arian Emperor Constantius dies and his nephew Julian the Apostate takes over.  Recalling that he is himself a survivor of his uncle's massacre of the family, Julian sets out to rectify matters by executing all his uncle’s supporters, including the aforesaid Artemius, the military governor of Egypt who had ransacked the Serapeum.  Forsaking heresy, Julian goes straight for full-monty paganism. He is a romantic at heart and longs for the Good Old Days.

As soon as the Alexandrian magistrates announce that Julian is now top dog and is reinstating that Old Time Religion, the pagans, "transported by this unlooked-for joy, grinding their teeth and uttering fearful outcries," seize George, "trample him; then drag him about spread-eagle fashion, and kill him."  Two other civic officials with him suffer the same fate.  Then the "inhuman mob loads the mutilated bodies of the slain men upon camels and carries them to the shore, where they burn the bodies on a fire and throw the ashes into the sea, fearing that relics might be collected and a church built for them."¹ 

Ammianus is a pagan, a professional soldier in Julian's pay, but that doesn’t mean he likes proletarian mobs running around, and he harbors no particular weenie against Christians.  They're OK, he says. Their greatest enemies are each other. No one has a kind word for George.  The pagans hate him because he had profaned temples and mocked their rites; the Orthodox, because he had persecuted them and drove Athanasius into hiding.  Emperor Julian’s response to the lynching is to chastise the Alexandrians for taking the law into their own hands:
But, you will say, George deserved to be treated in this fashion. Granted, and I might even admit that he deserved even worse and more cruel treatment. Yes, you will say, and on your account. To this I too agree; but if you say by your hands, I no longer agree. For you have laws which ought by all means to be honored and cherished by you all, individually.²  ()
IOW, Ol’ George, he deserved everything he got, but he shoulda been lynched legal.

1. trample, drag spread-eagle fashion. See "psychopaths," above. Also see Ammianus Marcellinus, Roman Antiquities, Book XXII ch. 11
2. Julian, Letters. 21. "To the Alexandrians"
Out of the blue, after a brief period of toleration, the pagans have at the Christians again.  Julian does not order an official persecution, but he does bar Christians – Orthodox, Novatian, and Arian alike – from office, forbids them to read or teach Greek literature, purges them from the army, and even prosecutes local officials who investigate atrocities against Christians.  Some of the atrocities are, well, atrocious:
The inhabitants of Heliopolis were guilty of “an act of barbarity which could scarcely be credited, had it not been corroborated by the testimony of those who witnessed it.”  They stripped the holy virgins of their garments, and exposed them nude as a public spectacle. Then they shaved them, ripped their bellies open, and mixed pig food in their intestines.  Then they set hungry pigs upon them.  “I am convinced,” writes Sozomen, “that the citizens of Heliopolis perpetrated this barbarity on account of the prohibition of the ancient custom of yielding up virgins to any chance comer before being united in marriage. This custom was prohibited by a law enacted by Constantine after he destroyed the Heliopolitan temple of Venus and erected a church on the ruins.” ¹
Have we mentioned that they were all psychopaths back then? Get ready.

AD 363.  Before heighing off into Persia, Julian encloses himself within the Temple of the Moon at Carra, and afterward has the Temple doors sealed and a guard placed so no one can enter until his return. However, when he encounters the Persians, he rushes into the fight without pausing to put on armor and is killed in battle, thus discovering that he is not after all the reincarnation of Alexander the Great.  Ammianus Marcellinus describes the battle in first person plural, but he survives to write his Roman Antiquities.

When Julian's successor (Jovian) sends men into the Temple, they find a woman hanging by her hair with her liver torn out.  Julian had conducted the pagan rite of extispicy, or reading of entrails, to learn whether the expedition would succeed.²   
Julian was not the only emperor to conduct such rites, as ancient writers have attested.  The emperor Didius Julianis was another known to have conducted human sacrifice for divination.  Dio Cassius writes, "Julianus also killed many boys as a magic rite, believing that he could avert some future misfortunes if he learned of them beforehand."³
Apparently, the dead woman in the Temple of the Moon failed to warn Julian of his future misfortune, perhaps as her way of posthumous revenge.

Extispicy was most often done with animals -- Julian also slaughtered innumerable birds and critters -- but the use of humans was not unknown.  In Homer, Agamemnon sacrificed his own daughter before setting out for Troy; and Menelaus sacrificed two Egyptian boys to secure fair winds for his return.  The uptight Christians did not approve of eviscerating women and children.  Sometimes pregnant women were eviscerated and extispicy performed on the fetus.  Faithful Reader should not confuse modern day happy-face pretend-pagans with the true quill. They were pretty much all psychopaths in those days.
1. Sozomen, Ecclesiastical History, Book V, ch. 10
2. Theodoret, Ecclesiastical History, Book III, ch. 21
3. Dio Cassius, Epitomes LXXIII.16.5

AD 365 July 21.  WHEN HYPATIA IS TEN, an earthquake centered near Crete, estimated to have been magnitude eight, creates a tsunami that sweeps across Alexandria (and elsewhere in the Med).  The wave deposits ships up to  two miles inland, even atop buildings.  Ammianus describes how the earth shook and then the ocean receded and came back as a great wave that inundated the city, killing thousands. If anything had remained of the old Royal Library after Aurelian burned the Brucheon, it would not have survived the wave.¹  Legends that Hypatia was "the last librarian of the Great Library" are absurd. The Royal Library was gone by her day, and nowhere in any ancient source is she associated with the Library.

ca. AD 370.  WHEN HYPATIA IS SWEET SIXTEEN (or thereabouts), Synesius of Cyrene is born.  He will become a student of Hypatia and the primary source for our knowledge of her teachings.  At this time, Valentinian I is Augustus of the West; his brother Valens is Augustus of the East. Valens takes up the Arian heresy and begins persecuting the Orthodox, exiling the bishops, allowing pagan mobs to desecrate the churches, and so on. In particular, there are some pretty vile goings on in Alexandria, including the gang-rape and murder of "holy virgins" (nuns).²  Hypatia would have been a teenager at this time.
1. tsunami. Ammianus Marcellinus, Roman Antiquities, Book XXVI Ch.10:16 et seq.
2. gang rape.
See "psychos." Theodoret, Ecclesiastical History, Book IV ch. 19

The End of the Legions

AD 372. AFTER SUFFERING A CRUSHING DEFEAT at the hands of the Huns, the Goths and the Asding Vandals petition the Empire for shelter and are settled along the Danubian frontier.  But the local Roman officials treat them so overbearingly that a few years later...

Emperor Valens:
Lemme at them Goths!
AD 378 ...the Goths revolt. Hypatia is about twenty-three. When Valens departs to attack them, the monk Isaac prophesies his death and defeat. Matters befall as Isaac foretold at the Battle of Adrianople.  Valens is killed reportedly when the house he was using as a refuge is set on fire by the Goths and himself inside it. The Goths hadn't known and are reportedly miffed at missing the chance for glory in capturing him.¹ Ammianus is our main source for this battle, which he tells not from the eagle-eyed view of grand strategy, but from the perspective of the battlefield.²

Adrianople marks the end of the legions and the beginning of a mercenary army led by Romanized Germans.  Theodosius I succeeds Valens as Augustus of the East and eventually becomes the Big Enchilada.

The stage is now set for Hypatia to take up the mantle of a philosopher.  

1. Theodoret, Ecclesiastical History, Book IV ch. 31-32
2. Ammianus Marcellinus, Roman Antiquities, Book XXXI, Ch. 12-13

Continued in Part III: The Deconstruction of the Serapeum  


In addition to the usual background materials in Wikipedia linked in the text, the major sources for these years are:
  1. Ammianus Marcellinus, Roman Antiquities, Book XXII, Ch. 11 (Death of George)
  2. Ammianus Marcellinus, Roman Antiquities, Book XXVI Ch.10:16 et seq. (tsunami)
  3. Ammianus Marcellinus, Roman Antiquities, Book XXXI, Ch. 12-13 (Battle of Adrianople)
  4. Dio Cassius, Epitomes LXXIII.16.5
  5. Julian, Letters: 21. ‘To the Alexandrians’
  6. Julian, Letters: 23. 'To Ecdicius'
  7. Julian, Letters: 38. 'To Porphyrius'
  8. Socrates Scholasticus, Ecclesiastical History, Book III. Ch. 2 "Of the Sedition excited at Alexandria, and how George was slain"
  9. Socrates Scholasticus, Ecclesiastical History, Book III. Ch. 3 "The Emperor Indignant at the Murder of George"
  10. Sozomen, Ecclesiastical History Book V, Ch.7 "Violent Death and Triumph of George, Bishop of Alexandria. The Result of Certain Occurrences in the Temple of Mithra. Letter of Julian on this Aggravated Circumstance."
  11. Sozomen, Ecclesiastical History Book V, Ch.10 "Concerning... the Virgins in Heliopolis who were destroyed by Swine"
  12. Theodoret, Ecclesiastical History, Book III, Ch. 21 "Of the sorcery at Carræ"
  13. Theodoret, Ecclesiastical History, Book IV, Ch. 19 "Events at Alexandria in the time of Lucius"
  14. Theodoret, Ecclesiastical History, Book IV, Ch. 32 "Of the expedition of Valens against the Goths"


  1. Hello, TOF

    Excellent series. I would like to point out one small error - that Alexandria was the one which emphasized Christ's divinity and would eventually harbor Monophysitism (based on Cyril and the basis of the Oriental Orthodox), also favoring a much more allegorical reading of Scripture, Antioch which emphasized Christ's humanity and harboring Nestorian tendencies, the home territory of the Assyrian Church of the East.

    Thanks. Again, great series, and I've just finished your wonderful Spiral Arms quartet.

  2. Pretty much everyone in the ancient world was a murderous psychopath, compassion not being a notable virtue. Accounts of executions, riots, and the like describe actions that would make Faithful Reader's head explode faster than the hairs on it would curl. And as fast as one group could be domesticated by those preaching love and compassion, fresh waves of psychopaths would come riding in from the deserts or the steppes, or sailing in from the Northlands.

    A bit exaggerated.

    Being ready to fight equally with others fighting is not being "a murderous psychopath" - and if the diagnosis can be used that way, I doubt it has any meaning. At least medically. When half the class will have Asperger and half the class ADHD, what is the meaning of those? Even now, when each is one in fifty or so, it's probably a sham diagnosis.

    Chesterton spoke of the Church taming Pagan ruffians too - but he was singling out the ruffians, e g slave hunters (Vikings not being all Nordic population of the time, but a subset of aristocracy, and Roman slave owners being more often buyers on slave markets than hunting themselves) or warlords bent on personal aggrandisement through conquest.

    You are speaking as if a whole population of Heathens were all wild animals - apart from Alexandria or even there that is not very likely. As to Alexandria, I suppose it is like Marseille today. Most are decent, but the one's who aren't hit the news with mafia feuds involving shootings at a bar. Every five years or even more frequently.

  3. and installs an Arian named George of Cappadocia in his place. George sets about making himself obnoxious, a task for which he has a prodigious talent, for he manages to alienate not only the orthodox and the pagans, but even many of his fellow Arians.

    Jorge is not a very excellent name for a bishop, is it?

  4. "ancient custom of yielding up virgins to any chance comer before being united in marriage"

    So the ancients thought that letting random men rape little girls before they were married was an "enlightened" thing to do? Is the traditional emphasis on a girl's virginity before marriage (and the emphasis on rape being a bad thing) really only a Judo-Christian thing? Or is this an example of Christians bashing pagans for their "stupid" customs? Or is this just the erotic end of paganism that Chesterton wrote about in "The Everlasting Man?"

    Christi pax,


  5. Actually, the famous Temple of Aphrodite in Heliopolis was in Egyptian Heliopolis' colony, also called Heliopolis, in Greek and Roman Syria, today known as Baalbek, Lebanon.

    So yeah, pretty standard worship of Syrian Aphrodite, drawing from the Babylonian custom that Herodotus talks about -- that every woman had to go do her temple prostitute stint at least once in her life, and couldn't refuse the first man who brought the ritual money.

    1. Yeah, being an ancient pagan woman was so nurturing and liberating! Gosh, I don't know why Christianity was so popular with us ladies!


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