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 III: The Deconstruction of the Serapeum

Continued from Part II: When Hypatia Was a Little Girl

Theophilus at the Serapeum
AD 381.  AN ECUMENICAL COUNCIL in Constantinople decides "that the bishop of Constantinople should have the next prerogative of honor after the bishop of Rome, because that city was New Rome." Alexandria is not pleased to get bumped, but what can ya do?

AD 385.  When Hypatia is about thirty years old, Theophilus is elected Pope of Alexandria and begins agitating against the Novatians.  Sure, we know; but it all seemed terribly important at the time.

AD 391 After more than a decade of toleration, the Emperor issues an edict against cult practices, as a result of which many urban temples are abandoned.  Theophilus says, “Kool!”
"Not content with razing the idols' temples to the ground, Theophilus exposed the tricks of the priests to the victims of their wiles. For they had constructed statues of bronze and wood hollow within, and fastened the backs of them to the temple walls, leaving in these walls certain invisible openings. Then coming up from their secret chambers they got inside the statues, and through them gave any order they liked; and the hearers, tricked and cheated, obeyed.  These tricks the wise Theophilus exposed to the people." 
-- Theodoret, Ecclesiastical History Book V, ch. 22
A point to remember: in the pagan Empire, there was no separation of Temple and State. The temples were State property, and the priests were state employees. The Emperor has a sacerdotal role as the bridge-builder among the various cults. As the Emperors became more than nominally Christian, they saw this as a personal affront, and they were entirely within their rights to close temples and stop the salaries of priests, especially in cases of egregious fraud, such as the talking statues. Meanwhile, the populace, especially in the East was going Christian wholesale, and the temples were emptying of worshipers and sacrifices, so many of the temples were abandoned and derelict. One of the benefits, as Pliny wrote to Trajan a couple centuries earlier, and perhaps one of the motivators behind Trajan's persecution was to encourage people to return to the Old Time Religion:
I interrogated these as to whether they were Christians; those who confessed I interrogated a second and a third time, threatening them with punishment; those who persisted I ordered executed. ...

[T]he contagion of this superstition has spread not only to the cities but also to the villages and farms. But it seems possible to check and cure it. It is certainly quite clear that the temples, which had been almost deserted, have begun to be frequented, that the established religious rites, long neglected, are being resumed, and that from everywhere sacrificial animals are coming, for which until now very few purchasers could be found. Hence it is easy to imagine what a multitude of people can be reformed if an opportunity for repentance is afforded.
-- Pliny, Letters 10.96-97

Hypatia's School

ca. AD 391.  Synesius (21) is in Alexandria studying with Hypatia (36).  He becomes lifelong friends with his fellow students, especially with Herculian, Olympius, and “the deacon,” with whom he forms a “foursome elected by fortune.”
  • Synesius will later become a bishop
  • Olympius is a wealthy landowner in Syria and pious Christian.
  • Herculianus is friends with the military governor of Egypt.
  • The “deacon” is supposed by some to be Isidore of Pelusium, the future Church Father and spiritual mentor to Theophilus’ nephew, Cyril.  (Isidore was in studies in Alexandria at this time, and pretty much anyone who was anyone at least audited Hypatia’s public seminars.)  Isidore addressed some letters to a certain Synesiōi, so it is likely that they knew each other; but there is no direct evidence that Isidore was “the deacon.”
Other students include:
  • Euoptius, Synesius’ kid brother, also a future bishop;
  • Ammonius, who will be on the Alexandrian town council;
  • Heysichius, who will become duke of Libya and also a future bishop
  • Cyrus (Fl. Taurus Seleucus Cyrus of Panopolis) probably Herculianus’ older brother and future high official at the imperial court;
  • Theotecnus, the “worthy and holy father.” Historians have supposed him called "father" because he was older than the other students; but there is another, simpler reason for calling him "father."
  • Athanasius, the sophist
  • Theodosius,the grammarian
  • Gaius, Simplicius, Ision, and others known to us only by name.
When we read of Hypatia's "school" we should think of this group. It was a school in the sense of a school of fish, rather than as an institution like Harvard or PS29 in which Hypatia was employed as a lecturer. Some writers have referred to "the Alexandrian Academy" as if it were just such a thing; but that ain't how they rolled back then.

Like Hypatia herself, the students are all upper-class.  They are “connected.”  After all, the mysteries of Plotinus are not for the vulgar.

Most of Hypatia’s known students are Christians (including three future bishops!)  This may sound odd to believers in more modern myths, but the Schools of Old Alexandria were not segregated by “tribe.”  (cf. Dzielska) Despite the occasional riots by the lower classes, the pagans of the Upper City could and did attend the lectures of Christian philosophers, and vice versa.  Pagans may even have attended the famed Catechetical School.  They might not believe in the crucified god, but the great sermonizers of Alexandria were heirs to the long tradition of Greek rhetoric.  The emperor Julian would hardly have found it necessary to forbid Christians from teaching and interpreting Greek literature if they were not in fact doing so.
This group of initiates became an intensely loyal family around Hypatia. They called each other "brother," maintained their contacts over a lifetime, and would only hint to the outside world at what secrets they had heard in Hypatia's house.  But this was not a crypto-pagan cult, not simply another band of disinherited priests reminiscing over the good old days like the embittered Palladas.  Nor were they the augurs and fortune-tellers that Theon counted among his friends.  They instead represented both the old and the new in the empire and the city -- and as such represented perhaps a chance for Alexandria to reinvent itself, and so save itself, one last time.  (Justin Pollard and Howard Reid, The Rise and Fall of Alexandria: Birthplace of the Modern World)
Synesius will write many letters, some of which survive and give us a sketch of life among the upper classes at the end of an age.  (They are numbered by their order in the surviving manuscript, but scholars have reconstructed a chronological sequence from internal references.)  When Herculian and Synesius parted company, probably in AD 395, Synesius wrote a farewell letter to him in which he said:
If Homer had told us that it was an advantage to Odysseus in his wanderings that he saw the towns and became acquainted with the mind of many nations, and although the people whom he visited were not cultured, but merely Laestrygonians and Cyclopses, how wondrously then would poetry have sung of our voyage, a voyage in which it was granted to you and me to experience marvelous things, the bare recital of which had seem to us incredible!  We have seen with our eye, we have heard with our ears the lady who legitimately presides over the mysteries of philosophy.  (Synesius, Letter 137)
“The lady” of course was Hypatia.

Hypatia seems to have gotten along with Theophilus.  Synesius, in his letters, appeals to both to help out some friends of his in a legal problem.  Nor is there any surviving record of a conflict.  Theophilus remains on good terms with Synesius while the latter is a student of Hypatia.  He later presides at Synesius’ wedding, anoints Synesius bishop, and so forth.  He would hardly have done so if he was hostile to Hypatia.

The Serapeum Affair

AD 392.  When Hypatia, at 37, is already a well-known philosopher, and Synesius has just begun his studies in Alexandria, the temple of Serapis is destroyed.  It begins thusly, according to Rufinus of Aquileia, a probable eye-witness to the riot,
“There was a certain basilica belonging to the public domain, very old and quite neglected.  The Emperor Constantius, it was said, had given it to the bishops who were publicly espousing his perverted [Arian] faith.¹  Because of the lack of maintenance over a long time, only the walls of the basilica were sound.  [Theophilus] asked the Emperor for this basilica in order that since the numbers of the faithful were growing, so should the number of prayer-halls.  When the bishop had received the basilica and wished to begin renovation, caverns were found hidden in this place, dug out of the ground.  The caverns were more suited for robbers and crime than for ceremonies.  Accordingly, the Gentiles, who saw that their hidden retreats of crime and caverns of shame were being uncovered, finding it intolerable that evils concealed for so many centuries and covered by darkness should be exposed, as though they had drunk a chalice of serpents, they all began to go mad and to rage openly.  No longer with shouting and sedition, as was their wont, they strove to fight it out with force and with the sword.  Both communities were staging frequent skirmishes in the broad public streets, and they met one another in open war. 
Now our side [Christians], though superior by far in numbers, was less fierce because of the self-restraint of our religion.  So, when large numbers of our people were wounded and some even killed outright, the Gentiles would flee to the temple [of Serapis] as to a citadel, taking with them a number of Christian captives.  These, they forced to sacrifice at the burning altars and tortured and killed any who refused.  Some they fixed to forked-shaped yokes, they broke the shins of others, and they cast them into caves which a long past age had built carefully to be receptacles for the blood of sacrifices and other impurities of the altar.²  They did these things by day, at first from fear, then in confidence and desperation, and being shut up within their temple they lived by rapine and plunder.”  
-- Rufinus of Aquileia, Ecclesiastical History, Book X
1. old and neglected basilica. This sounds like the church that George the Arian had started to remodel. Notice that since all temples were owned by the State, Theophilus had to ask the Emperor to deed over the abandoned building.
2. tortured killed fixed to forked-shaped yokes, broke the shins cast them into caves...
See "psychopaths," previously
A second account with some first-hand mojo is from Socrates Scholasticus, who combines the emptying of the Mithreum and the destruction of the Serapeum:
At the solicitation of Theophilus bishop of Alexandria, the emperor issued an order at this time for the demolition of the heathen temples in that city; commanding also that it should be put in execution under the direction of Theophilus. Seizing this opportunity, Theophilus exerted himself to the utmost to expose the pagan mysteries to contempt. And to begin with, he caused the Mithreum to be cleaned out, and exhibited to public view the tokens of its bloody mysteries. Then he destroyed the Serapeum, and the bloody rights of the Mithreum he publicly caricatured; the Serapeum also he showed full of extravagant superstitions, and he had the phalli of Priapus carried through the midst of the forum
--Socrates Scholasticus, Ecclesiatical History, Book V, Ch. 16

A giant phallus?  Geez Louise, you can’t be serious!  Ho ho!.  Perhaps the women laugh loudest.  So that’s what the boys worship?  It figures. LOL!
The pagans of Alexandria, and especially the professors of philosophy, were unable to repress their rage at this exposure, and exceeded in revengeful ferocity their outrages on a former occasion¹: for with one accord, at a preconcerted signal, they rushed impetuously upon the Christians, and murdered every one they could lay hands on.² The Christians also made an attempt to resist the assailants, and so the mischief was the more augmented. This desperate affray was prolonged until satiety of bloodshed put an end to it. Then it was discovered that very few of the heathens had been killed, but a great number of Christians; while the number of wounded on each side was almost innumerable. Fear then possessed the pagans on account of what was done, as they considered the emperor's displeasure. For having done what seemed good in their own eyes, and by their bloodshed having quenched their courage, some fled in one direction, some in another, and many quitting Alexandria, dispersed themselves in various cities. Among these were the two grammarians Helladius and Ammonius, whose pupil I was in my youth at Constantinople.³ Helladius was said to be the priest of Jupiter, and Ammonius of Simius.
--Socrates Scholasticus, Ecclesiatical History, Book V, Ch. 16
1. on a former occasion. That would be the riot when George the Arian started to build a church at the old Mithreum site.
murdered every one they could lay hands on. Everyone was a psychopath back then.
3. whose pupil I was. Socrates in first person asserts that he got this straight from the mouths of his teachers, who had been in the thick of it. In modern secular society, they would have still been wanted for murder and riot. Go figure.
Some modern writers have shortened this account to “the pagans tired of the Christians ridiculing their ancient rites,” without specifying what those ancient rites had been.  Something about finding the skulls of babies did not sit right with the namby-pamby Christians.

The pagans who bunkered up in the Serapeum are led by Olympius the Neoplatonist, the grammarians Ammonius and Helladius, and the poet Palladius.  Conspicuous by her absence is the famed philosopher Hypatia. But there is actually little hard evidence that she was a pagan, at least not the child-sacrificing, meat-on-the-altar, slice-a-bull’s-throat kind of pagan.  A Coptic manuscript written two centuries later calls her a pagan and magician, but that’s it.  Hypatia might know the Chaldean Books, and the Hermetic Books, and be able to cast horoscopes, but there is no evidence in Synesius or the contemporary sources that she practiced theurgy like her father had.  That was Lower City blue collar stuff.  She was more an uptown girl, and liked to schmooze with the rich and powerful.  Besides, she was on good terms with Theophilus, and most of her students were Christian.

When word of the riot reaches the Emperor, Theodosius issues an executive order that promises amnesty to the pagans holed up in the Serapeum.  Ostensibly, this is because legal retribution would tarnish the merits of the martyrs they had murdered.  But the Serapeum really is a citadel and this is not the first time rioters and insurrectionists have holed up there.  The difficulty of assaulting it with the troops available may have weighed on the imperial mind as well.

One way to end the fighting over the temples and the cult objects found in their ruins was simply to get rid of them all.  No more giant phalli, no more fighting over giant phalli.  No more dead baby skulls; no more fighting over dead baby skulls.  No more eviscerated women; no more fighting over eviscerated women.  The Serapeum has been a fortress for rioters; so the Serapeum has to go.

The Emperor orders the destruction of the temple in the Serapeum.  When his letter is read in the plaza outside, the Christians react with cheers at the first page, and the pagans either slip away or blend in with the cheering crowd.  Olympius flees to Italy, Palladius stays in Alexandria but finds his city salary cut off.  The two grammarians go to Constantinople, where one will brag in later years that he killed nine Christians in the rioting.

Imperial troops acting under lawful government orders carry out the demolition, though no-doubt with the enthusiastic aid of the local Christians.
Serapis: Is that a flower-pot on my head
or what?
“Theophilus went up into the temple of Serapis, which has been described by some as excelling in size and beauty all the temples in the world.  There he saw a huge image of which the bulk struck beholders with terror, increased by a lying report that if any one approached it, there would be a great earthquake, and that all the people would be destroyed.  The bishop looked on all these tales as the mere driveling of tipsy old women, and in utter derision of the lifeless monster's enormous size, he told a man who had an axe to give Serapis a good blow with it.  No sooner had the man struck, than all the folk cried out, for they were afraid of the threatened catastrophe.  Serapis however, who had received the blow, felt no pain, inasmuch as he was made of wood, and uttered never a word, since he was a lifeless block.  His head was cut off, and immediately out ran multitudes of mice, for the Egyptian god was a dwelling place for mice.  Serapis was broken into small pieces of which some were committed to the flames, but his head was carried through all the town in sight of his worshipers, who mocked the weakness of him to whom they had once bowed the knee.” 
-- Theodoret, Ecclesiastical History, Book V, ch. 22
Theodoret had a sense of humor. Why did Serapis feel no pain? Duh? He was made of wood. Why did he utter no words? Duh? He was a lifeless block. Don't forget: pagans did not believe the statue represented the god. They believed it was the god. They sometimes did seem to talk, you know: the hollow spaces inside. Apparently, the mice had nested within the space.  (Which would indicate long disuse.)  Rufinus, the probable eyewitness, tells the same story:
“A belief had been spread abroad by the Gentiles themselves, that if a human hand was laid violently on this statue [of Serapis], the earth would immediately open up, dissolving into chaos, and suddenly the heavens would collapse into the abyss.  This story gave the people a senseless pause, when behold -- one of the soldiers, better protected by his faith than by his weapons, seizing a double-edged axe, stood up and with all his strength struck the jaw of the Old Man.  A shout was raised by both groups of people, but neither the sky fell nor the earth sunk.” 

--Rufinus of Aquileia, Ecclesiastical History, Book X
Afterwards, the cult objects are melted down to be cast into cooking vessels and utensils for the poor, as noted in a third account:
"Thus this disturbance having been terminated, the governor of Alexandria, and the commander-in-chief of the troops in Egypt, assisted Theophilus in demolishing the heathen temples. These were therefore razed to the ground, and the images of their gods molten into pots and other convenient utensils for the use of the Alexandrian church; for the emperor had instructed Theophilus to distribute them for the relief of the poor. All the images were accordingly broken to pieces, except one statue of the god before mentioned, which Theophilus preserved and set up in a public place; 'Lest,' said he, 'at a future time the heathens should deny that they had ever worshiped such gods.' This action gave great umbrage to Ammonius the grammarian in particular, who to my knowledge¹ was accustomed to say that 'the religion of the Gentiles was grossly abused in that that single statue was not also molten, but preserved, in order to render that religion ridiculous.' Helladius however boasted in the presence of some that he had slain in that desperate onset nine men with his own hand. Such were the doings at Alexandria at that time."
 --Socrates Scholasticus, Ecclesiatical History, Book V, Ch. 16
1. to my knowledge. Ammonius was one of Socrates' teachers. Notice that he objects to the preservation of the statue as a mere objet d'art. Our art museums with their ancient statuses would likely horrify him.
It is hard for moderns to appreciate the superstitious dread people once held of inanimate objects and natural phenomena.  Trees had dryads, lightning was thrown by Zeus.  And each and all must be placated by special rites and sacrifices.  A statue did not just represent the god, it was the god.  Sometimes the statue actually spoke!  (Woooooh…

Modern writers mourn the loss of this statue because they regard it rightly as a great work of ancient art.  This opinion would have insulted the pagans of that era, for whom the statue was Serapis Himself, and not a mere antiquity. It is precisely because the Moderns do not take such temples seriously that they can get huffed up about their destruction.  To Christian and pagan alike, their destruction was much more than an artistic loss.
The Books of the Serapeum.  The destruction of the Serapeum is one of the best-documented events in antiquity. At least two and possibly a third are first-hand accounts. There is a modern myth that when the Serapeum was sacked, a vast trove of books was destroyed by the knowledge-hating Christian knowledge haters.  Supposedly, it was the last vestige of the Great Library.  Some even seem to think these were the last books in all Alexandria, and with their loss all knowledge in the City came to a halt and the Dark Ages began.

Never mind that the Dark Ages began in another place at another time, or that Alexandrian scholarship continued unabated for a century or more afterward.  Or that there had been no present-tense reference to the Royal Library since the time of Ptolemy Physkon.¹ There is no evidence that the Serapeum held any books at all at the time it was profaned, let alone the "last remnant of the Great Library.  None of the chroniclers of the event – Rufinus of Aquileia, Socrates Scholasticus, Theodoret, nor even the devout pagan Eunapius of Sardis – mention any such thing.  Socrates was briefed by two of the pagan ringleaders holed up in the temple; and Eunapius, a book-loving scholar who hated Christians, would not have neglected to accuse them of the destruction of books. Ammianus Marcellinus, who died before the events just described, had written a description of the temple in which he describes its library in the perfect tense [fuerunt].  Gibbon actually used this tense to exculpate the Arabs of destroying the library – and seems not to have noticed that it exculpates Theophilus, too!
1. the time of Ptolemy Physkon. "He [Physkon] expelled all intellectuals: philologists, philosophers, professors of geometry, musicians, painters, schoolteachers, physicians and others, with the result that these brought 'education to Greeks and barbarians elsewhere,' as mentioned by an author who may have been one of the king's victims" -- Menecles of Barca. According to Polybius, Physkon annihilated or expelled the entire Greek population. No librarians are named after Physkon’s time on the list given in P. Oxy 1241 (Oxyrhynchus Papyri).
 The Serapeum was the most world-famous temple of its time.  It’s fall – and the lack of any cosmological consequences – sends a shockwave through pagan society.  The Nile flood comes right on schedule, too.  Images of Serapis are removed from the walls of buildings around town and replaced with crosses.  These are similar enough to the ankh that the pagan Egyptians (who had never cottoned to newfangled Greek syncretism anyway) begin to wonder if their old religion had foretold the new.  The ankh was the sign of eternal life and the cross was… well, the sign of eternal life.  A great many pagans convert to Christianity as a result of this.  Christians did not drop out of the sky.  They were themselves formerly Jewish or formerly pagan.  Paganism faded away because most of the pagans eventually got baptized.

Continued in Part IV: The Teachings of Hypatia


  1. Dzielska, Maria. Hypatia of Alexandria (Harvard University Press; 1996)
  2. Pollard, Justin and Howard Reid, The Rise and Fall of Alexandria: Birthplace of the Modern World (Penguin Books, 2007)
  3. Rufinus of Aquileia, Ecclesiastical History, Book X
  4. Socrates Scholasticus, Ecclesiatical History, Book V, Ch. 16
  5. Synesius, Letters.
  6. Theodoret, Ecclesiastical History Book V, ch. 22

1 comment:

  1. This may sound odd to believers in more modern myths, but the Schools of Old Alexandria were not segregated by “tribe.” (cf. Dzielska) Despite the occasional riots by the lower classes, the pagans of the Upper City could and did attend the lectures of Christian philosophers, and vice versa.

    A good example of this was Olympiodorus the Younger (495-570), the last major pagan philosopher teaching in Alexandria and a number of whose lectures are extant, so that we know what and how he actually taught; in his lectures on the Gorgias, for instance, he occasionally pauses to explain this or that pagan reference to his students, who would (by that time) have been almost entirely Christian.


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