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 V: The Great Oresto-Cyrillic Flame War

Continued from Part IV: The Teachings of Hypatia
Arcadius Augustus
Arcadius: would you trust your
Empire to this man?

After Graduation

 AD 395.  AUGUSTUS THEODOSIUS DIES.  He has already appointed his two sons as Augusti to succeed him: Honorius in the West; Arcadius (left) in the East.  No one realizes it yet; but the Empire will never again be united
AD 395/6.  Synesius returns home from Alexandria.  The next year, he is part of the Pentapolitan embassy to Constantinople.  While in the capital, he is baptized.  (This does not mean conversion.  Late baptism was common in those days.)  But in AD 400 an earthquake strikes the capital and the embassy leaves.  Synesius will later write of this:
“…if you remember the circumstances which I left the town.  God shook the earth repeatedly during the day, and most men were on their faces in prayer: for the ground was shaking.  As I thought at the time that the open sea would be safer than the land, I rushed straight to the harbor without speaking to anyone except Photius of blessed memory, but I was content simply to shout to him from afar, and to make signs with my hand that I was going away.”  (Letter 61)
The Visigoths under Alaric go on a rampage through Greece.  Perhaps half of all ancient Greek art is lost.  R.A. Lafferty says, It must have been the worst half.  They were art critics of exquisite taste. (The Fall of Rome)

AD 401. SYNESIUS STOPS IN ALEXANDRIADespite Hypatia’s scorn of sex, Synesius (now 31) is married before Patriarch Theophilus in Alexandria.  Later, in AD 409, when he is up for bishop, he will refuse to separate from his wife, writing to his brother:
God himself, the law of the land, and the blessed hand of Theophilus himself have given me a wife.  I, therefore, proclaim to all and call them to witness once for all that I will not be separated from her, nor shall I associate with her surreptitiously like an adulterer; for of these two acts, the one is impious, and the other is unlawful.  I shall desire and pray to have many virtuous children.  This is what I must inform the man upon whom depends my consecration. (Letter 105)
AD 402  SYNESIUS WRITES TO HYPATIA (Letter 15), “I am in such evil fortune that I need a hydroscope. See that one is cast in brass for me and put together.”  This hydroscope is not for scientific research.  It is used for water divination (hydromancy), as described by Hephaestion of Thebes.  That should be clear from his stated reason for needing it: not to study buoyancy, but because he is "in evil fortune."  It is not clear what the ‘evil fortune’ is.  Perhaps illness.  We know that his wife and all three sons will die soon.  Synesius is not going to Hypatia as a technical expert in building instruments – he has to tell her how to build it – he just needs her oomph to get the job done. Possibly Cyrene was lacking in the skilled technicians required.
Stilicho the Vandal, Master of Soldiers, a German more Roman than the Romans, beats off Alaric’s invasion of Italy.  A few years later (405) he defeats a more formidable invasion by Ostrogoths and others …
...but he needs the Army of Gaul to do it. 
AD 403.  Olympius leaves Alexandria for his estates in Syria.  Meanwhile, Theophilus, summoned to Constantinople by the Patriarch John Chrysostom, takes all his bishops with him and convenes the bogus Synod of the Oak and by which he attempts to depose John instead.  (John is an Antiochene, and the Alexandrians do not want him running Constantinople.)  This time, Theophilus has to flee the Constantinopolitan mob, but he eventually succeeds in deposing John.  Note that both Theophilus and John are considered saints by the Orthodox and Roman churches.  Saints were not always nice guys. 
AD 404.  Synesius visits Alexandria again (and presumably Hypatia).  On returning home, he writes “Dion and sends it to Hypatia for comments.  The next year he writes On dreams and their interpretation and sends this, too, to Hypatia for her comments. (Letter 154)  It is thanks to these books that we have any inkling of Hypatia's teachings.
AD 406.  The Beginning of the End in the West.  To defend Italy against Alaric’s Visigoths (402) and against the Ostrogoth/Quadi/Asding Vandal coalition (405), Stilicho has stripped the Rhine frontier of troops.  This was one juggler’s ball too many.  A coalition of Suevi, Asding and Siling Vandals, plus a clan of Alans from the Caucasus, move toward the now-undefended province of Gaul.  On the last day of 406 they cross the frozen Rhine at Mainz.
AD 407. Cyrene comes under nomad attack by desert nomads; Synesius organizes a successful defense. (Letter 133; Letter 108; Letter 122) It is possible that these simultaneous movements of Huns from the east, Germans from the north, bedouins from the desert are orchestrated by Global Cooling. Shortened growing seasons are driving people off marginal land. This will not turn around until the next bout of Global Warming in the Middle Ages.
AD 410.  Synesius visits Alexandria again.  His friend Heysichius is consecrated bishop.  The people of Ptolemais want to make Synesius a bishop, too.  He writes to his friend, the devout Olympius in Syria, and confides his doubts. (Letter 96)  He also writes to his brother in what he evidently intends as an open letter. (Letter 105)
Alaric throws a party to celebrate his hostile takeover
Alaric sacks Rome
, sending a shockwave throughout the Empire.  The Eternal City has fallen. Life goes on.
AD 411.  Synesius is consecrated bishop of Ptolemais.  He begins correspondence with Alexandrian Pope Theophilus.  Two of his three sons will die within the next year. 
AD 411-415.  The disintegration of the West continues.  The Visigoths pretty much occupy what is now France. 

A New Prefect; a New Patriarch 

Cyril: Vote for me or get your
head broken by my supporters
AD 412  A Fateful Year.  ORESTES BECOMES THE NEW PREFECT OF EGYPT. He meets Hypatia (now aged 57) and they become friends.  Perhaps, like other important officials, he attends some of her public seminars.  In any case, he consults with her (as with other important citizens) on public questions. 

Later that same year (15 October) Theophilus dies.  He had opposed the Novatians and pagans; tangled with John Chrysostom; but apparently got along with Hypatia.  Street fighting rages for three days over his successor.  In Alexandria, nothing, not even the election of a patriarch is done half-heartedly.  One party (including Abundatius, military comes of Egypt) backs deacon Timothy.  The “other party” supports Theophilus’ nephew Cyril (left, who is backed by the rowdy Nitrian monks and probably the proletarians of the Lower City). 
17 October: Cyril wins and is installed as 25th Pope of Alexandria, successor of St. Mark.  He is very orthodox, but also very ambitious and wants to expand the scope of the patriarchate.  He and Orestes begin to butt heads over each other’s sphere of authority.  (Augustine, who solved the problem of the "two cities," is a Western bishop writing in Latin, and might as well be on the Moon as far as the sophisticated Greeks are concerned.) 
Synesius writes to congratulate Cyril, but with an admonishment to learn more restraint.  (Letter 12)  Cyril eventually does, sort of, but not until it is too late. 
AD 413.  A YEAR OF MELANCHOLY.  Synesius’ wife and children have all died sometime before now.  He never recovers from their loss.  He has also gotten into a row with Andronicus, the governor of Cyrene, whom he has excommunicated.  In consequence, he has lost many friends and much influence.  He writes to Hypatia:
But [Fortune] can never take away from me the choice of the best, and the power to come to the help of the oppressed, for never may she prevail to change my heart!  I abhor iniquity: for one may, and I would fain prevent it, but this also is one of those things which were taken from me; this went even before my children.
You yourself called me the providence of others. All respect which was accorded to me by the mighty of this earth, I employed solely to help others. The great were merely my instruments. But now, alas, I am deserted and abandoned by all, unless you have some power to help. (Letter 81)
Synesius himself falls ill.  He writes to Hypatia again, complaining that she is not writing back.Apparently, his worshipful attitude toward the Philosopher is not reciprocated. She may have called her student "the providence of others," but she seems uninterested in being the providence of him.
But now your silence has been added to the sum of my sorrows.  I have lost my children, my friends, and the goodwill of everyone. The greatest loss of all, however, is the absence of your divine spirit. I had hoped that this would always remain to me, to conquer both the caprices of fortune and the evil turns of fate.  (Letter 10)
Shortly thereafter, Synesius dictates his last letter. It is to Hypatia:
I am dictating this letter to you from my bed, but may you receive it in good health, mother, sister, teacher, and withal benefactress, and whatsoever is honored in name and deed.
For me bodily weakness has followed in the wake of mental sufferings.  The remembrance of my departed children is consuming my forces, little by little. Only so long should Synesius have lived as he was still without experience of the evils of life.  It is as if a torrent long pent up had burst upon me in full volume, and as if the sweetness of life had vanished.  May I either cease to live, or cease to think of the tomb of my sons!
But may you preserve your health and give my salutations to your happy comrades in turn, beginning with father Theotecnus and brother Athanasius, and so to all!  And if anyone has been added to these, so long as he is dear to you, I must owe him gratitude because he is dear to you, and to that man give my greetings as to my own dearest friend.  If any of my affairs interests you, you do well, and if any of them does not so interest you, neither does it me.  (Letter 16)
After which, Synesius dies, aged about 43. 
An important question: why did Hypatia stop writing to Synesius?  Perhaps the love was one-way; but other events in Alexandria that same year may shed some light.  She may have had other things to worry her. 
AD 413/414.  The Saint Alexander Massacre
Socrates Scholasticus writes (Ecclesiastical History, Book VII. ch 13.) 
“It happened that a disturbance arose among the populace, not from a cause of any serious importance, but out of the dancing exhibitions that had become popular in almost all cities.”  Instead of listening to the Law, the Jews spend the Sabbath in the theaters.  The dancers usually collect great crowds on the Sabbath, and disorder almost invariably results.  The governor of Alexandria has managed to control this to some degree, but the Jews continue opposing his measures; and although they were always hostile toward the Christians these dancing exhibitions rouse them to still greater opposition.   
So Orestes the prefect publishes an edict in the theater for regulating the shows.  Some of bishop Cyril's Party attend to learn what the orders will be.  One of them is Hierax, a teacher of basic literature, who makes himself conspicuous by his enthusiastic applause for the edict.  Orestes cannot make out what he is saying, but the Jews cry that he has come to excite sedition.
Orestes has long regarded with jealousy the growing power of the bishops, because they encroach on the jurisdiction of the imperial authorities.  Cyril, in particular, wants to set spies over Orestes proceedings.  So Orestes orders Hierax seized, and tortures him publicly right there in the theater.  [Even though he had actually been cheering in favor of Orestes’ edict!] 
Informed of this, Cyril sends for the principal Jews and threatens them severely if they do not stop molesting the Christians.  The Jewish populace becomes furious, and instead of suppressing their violence, conspires for the destruction of the Christians. 
They first agree, for the sake of mutual recognition, to wear a palm-bark ring on the finger.   Then one night they send persons into the streets and raise a cry that the church of St. Alexander is on fire.  Hearing this, many Christians run out into the streets in great anxiety to save their church. The Jews fall upon and slay them; readily distinguishing one another by their rings.
At daybreak the authors of this atrocity cannot be concealed: and Cyril, accompanied by an immense crowd of people, goes to their synagogues, takes them over, and drives the Jews out of the city, permitting the multitude to plunder their goods.  “Thus the Jews who had inhabited the city from the time of Alexander the Macedonian were expelled from it, stripped of all they possessed, and dispersed some in one direction and some in another.”  One of them, a physician named Adamantius, flees to Atticus bishop of Constantinople, and professing Christianity, some time afterwards will return to Alexandria and fix his residence there.¹ 
Orestes the prefect of Alexandria is really pissed off that the city had lost so large a chunk of its population, not to mention the tax revenue.  It is not the bishop’s job to punish and exile.  It is the prefect’s job!  He writes at once to the emperor.  So does Cyril, who also describes the outrageous conduct of the Jews the night before.² ³  But at the urging of the other Christians, Cyril also sends people to Orestes to mediate a reconciliation.
Orestes says Up your nose with a rubber hose.  Cyril extends toward him the book of gospels, believing that respect for religion will induce Orestes to lay aside his resentment.  However, even this does not pacify the prefect, who persists in implacable hostility against the bishop.
1. Adamantius.  Naming an otherwise minor player was the ancient convention of citing a source.
2. wrote the emperor. What the emperor did as a result, TOF has been unable to determine.
3. Modern accounts often omit the context of the massacre and mention the driving out of the Jews as if it were totally unmotivated by anything other than anti-Semitism. It is almost impossible for Late Moderns to view these events without the Nazi Holocaust getting between them and the ancient events.
The Assault on Orestes. 
Five hundred Nitrian monks come to town to support Cyril.  This is never a good thing.  These “monks” were little more than brigands and had years before seized and plundered the rural pagan temples – without imperial permission.  When Orestes carriage is caught in traffic, the monks surround his entourage and begin insulting him.  They call him a pagan.  Orestes reminds them that he had been baptized by Patriarch Atticus himself in Constantinople. 
A monk named Ammonius throws a rock and hits Orestes in the head, drawing blood.  Orestes’ bodyguards light a shuck and bug out, so the Alexandrians themselves form up a vigilante posse and fight the monks off.  They capture Ammonius.  [Remember, there is a pro-Cyril and an anti-Cyril party among the Christians.]  Orestes then has Ammonius tortured so badly that he dies. 
Cyril, always ready to jump to a conclusion, announces that Ammonius is a martyr -- say, does this sound familiar to present-day observers of the Near East? -- and prepares to make an issue of it; but the other Christians tell him, dude, he was tortured to death because he threw a rock and hit the imperial prefect.  Duh?  You just don’t do that in the Empire.  Ammonius died for his assault and battery, not for his faith.  So Cyril says “Never mind,” and withdraws the claim of martyrdom.  Depending on how you feel about Cyril, either his cynical plans to exploit Ammonius’ judicial murder were thwarted by rest of the Church; or else he had genuinely believed Ammonius a martyr – confusing his feud with Orestes for religious orthodoxy – and backed off when he learned the facts. 
AD 414  Meanwhile, Duke Heysichius appoints Euoptius bishop of Ptolemais to succeed his brother Synesius, keeping things in the family, not to mention within the Hypatian Circle.  Both Heysishius and Euoptis are former students of Hypatia.  Euoptis will later attend the Ecumenical Council of Ephesus along with Cyril and will anathematize Nestorius (another danged Antiochene!) who is by then bishop of Constantinople. 
Continued in Part VI: Murder Most Foul


  1. Are you quite sure Theophilus is a saint in the Roman Church? I can't seem to find any real confirmation of that. The Catholic Encyclopedia's article doesn't give him that title, for example.

  2. I think even not, feast days are only Coptic and Melkite. Perhaps he is locally celebrated by Uniate Copts and Uniate Melkites.

    "Feast day :

    18 Paopi (Coptic Calendar)
    15 October (Julian Calendar)
    Currently 28 October (Gregorian Calendar) until 2099"

    In other words, he has no FIXED date on Gregorian calendar, his Gregorian date is valid only until 2099 and is 13 days after the Julian Calendar date.

    I e non-Uniate Melkites celebrate according to Palaeohimerite calendar preference (Julian not for Easter only, but also for all date fixed feasts, Christmas and Sanctoral too).

  3. Also, the Roman Martyrology for 15th October does not mention any Theophilus, as far as I can see.

  4. " Naming an otherwise minor player was the ancient convention of citing a source."

    Is this why some think that the boy who ran off naked during Christ's betrayal in the Gospel of St. Mark is St. Mark himself? Was that him "citing a source," which was himself?

    Christi pax,



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