When Emperor Constantine died in AD 337, he left behind a realm whose center of gravity had been shifted in more ways than one. Not only was Christianity now the empire’s encouraged if not mandated form of religion, but a grand new city of the East had replaced the decrepit cities of the West as the empire’s seat of power.
That city was Constantinople, the very last of the important metropolises of antiquity. In AD 324, in a decision that inevitably reminds one of Alexander the Great’s creation of Alexandria, Constantine elected to build his own namesake city on the site of a Greek settlement known at the time as Byzantium, situated at an auspicious location: on either side of the Strait of Bosporus, straddling Europe and Asia. Four years later, he declared it to be the capital of the Roman Empire. He took this radical step not least in an effort to escape the shadow of his empire’s pagan past. The new capital could be a Christian city from the outset, free of the baggage of all that history. It represented a chance for the empire to wash away its sins and be reborn in a way not dissimilar to the chance Jesus Christ had given all of humanity to do the same.
If the citizens back in Rome and Mediolanum were less than thrilled with their abrupt diminishment, those of Alexandria were doubtless almost equally displeased. Alexandria’s status as the second city of the empire, in intellectual and cultural cachet if no longer in population, was instantly erased by this young upstart whose founding story bore such echoes of its own. After six centuries as the premier city of the classical world east of Rome, Alexandria was finally eclipsed.
Although the switch of capitals brought a measure of renewal in the east, the western reaches of the Roman Empire continued to struggle with constant disorder and sporadic full-fledged warfare in its provinces and along its borders. Indeed, from well before the time of Constantine, those living in the empire had had an increasing sense that theirs was a time of inexorable sclerotic abatement, when even nature’s allegedly eternal bounty wasn’t what it once had been. The Christian writer Cyprian described a world that “has grown old, and does not remain in its former vigor. It bears witness to its own decline. The rainfall and the sun’s warmth are both diminishing; the metals are nearly exhausted; the husbandman is failing in the fields.”
Historians have been debating ever since whether and to what extent Christianity itself contributed to this slow decline. “The two greatest problems in history,” wrote the twentieth-century scholar J.S. Reid, are “how to account for the rise of Rome, and how to account for her fall.” Does the fact that Christianity’s rise can be plotted on a graph as a virtual direct inverse of Rome’s decline represent indubitable evidence of causation, or is it a mere historical coincidence?
Edward Gibbon, for his part, was happy to lay a big part of the blame at the feet of Jesus Christ. The new religion, he claimed, distracted the best and the brightest from the serious problems of this world just when they could least afford it.
As the happiness of a future life is the great object of religion, we may hear without surprise or scandal that the introduction, or at least the abuse of Christianity, had some influence on the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. The clergy successfully preached the doctrines of patience and pusillanimity; the active virtues of society were discouraged; and the last remains of military spirit were buried in the cloister: a large portion of public and private wealth was consecrated to the specious demands of charity and devotion; and the soldiers’ pay was lavished on the useless multitudes of both sexes who could only plead the merits of abstinence and chastity. Faith, zeal, curiosity, and more earthly passions of malice and ambition, kindled the flame of theological discord; the church, and even the state, were distracted by religious factions, whose conflicts were sometimes bloody and always implacable.
But Will Durant pushed back against Gibbon’s conclusion, even as he acknowledged an “enfeebled” and “enervated” quality to the empire’s final pair of centuries.
It was because Rome was already dying that Christianity grew so rapidly. Men lost faith in the state not because Christianity held them aloof, but because the state defended wealth against poverty, fought to capture slaves, taxed toil to support luxury, and failed to protect its people from famine, pestilence, invasion, and destitution; forgivably they turned from Caesar preaching war to Christ preaching peace, from incredible brutality to unprecedented charity, from a life without hope or dignity to a faith that consoled their poverty and honored their humanity. Rome was not destroyed by Christianity, any more than by barbarian invasion; it was an empty shell when Christianity rose to influence and invasion came.
Whatever one’s verdict on these questions, the story of the Roman Empire after Constantine’s conversion to Christianity is that of a series of desperate attempts to reverse the apparently irreversible. Through it all, the locus of power vacillated between Rome and Constantinople, between the old ways and the new. By far the most famous emperor of the century after Constantine is Julian, who took the throne in AD 361, whereupon he renounced Christianity and attempted to return the empire permanently to the old pagan ways. But he was killed during an ill-advised military adventure in AD 363, thus becoming an almost unbearably romantic tragic hero for those who feel that Christianity has done more harm than good in the long arc of human history. His successor Jovian rescinded his edicts and re-embraced Christianity. Never again would a Roman emperor flirt with any other form of faith. Instead they would cling to Christianity only that much more fervently in the face of any and all types of adversity. The question of whether and how the course of history might have been different if the young, vigorous, intellectually astute Julian had managed to survive twenty, thirty, or forty years on the throne instead of less than two is as fascinating as it is impossible to answer. As it was, the overall trend continued relentlessly in one direction only.
Emperor Theodosius I, who ruled from AD 379 to 395, inherited a realm which was likely already between one-third and one-half Christian. With this wind at his back, he decided the time was right to complete the work Constantine had begun: near the end of his reign, he made Christianity the one religion that was permitted in the Roman Empire, carving out an exception only for Jews. “No person shall pollute himself with sacrificial animals, ” said his edict of AD 391. “No person shall approach the [pagan] shrines, shall wander through the temples, or revere the images formed by mortal labor, lest he become guilty by divine and human laws.” He also issued a decree outlawing Arianism once and for all. Christianity now had clearly delineated boundaries between correct belief and heresy — boundaries that were enforced with all the power of the imperial government.
Just 78 years earlier, Emperor Diocletian had attempted to tear out Christianity by the roots. Now, the shoe was on the other foot. Far from being chastened by their own persecuted past, Christians rushed to tear down pagan temples, melt down pagan idols, and burn pagan religious texts along with any others that didn’t jibe with official dogma. The doctrinaire, intolerant form of institutional Christianity that would come to dominate so much of subsequent Western history began in earnest here. Lactantius, a Christian advisor to Constantine, had once written that religion “is a matter that must be managed by words rather than by blows,” that “truth cannot be joined with force nor justice with cruelty.” Alas that more Christians of subsequent eras weren’t prepared to heed his words.
Not coincidentally, it was only at this point in history that Hell, the realm of eternal torment that would serve as the stick to accompany the carrot of an afterlife of eternal bliss, came into its own in Christian theology, the end point of a gradual but hugely important shift in some of the religion’s most basic beliefs. The lesson that good people who accept Jesus Christ in their hearts go to Heaven immediately after their death, while bad people and those who reject him go to Hell, was not taught by the historical Jesus. He rather preached that the saved would enjoy a paradise on earth when the earthly apocalypse which he claimed to be imminent took place. The unworthy souls of the rest of humanity would simply be annihilated when that happened.
Christian dogma in this area began to change as the decades went by and the promised apocalypse stubbornly failed to materialize. The first signs of that shift can already be seen before 120 AD, in the Gospels of Luke and John, the last two of the four New Testament gospels to be written: “Today [emphasis mine] shalt thou be with me in paradise,” says Jesus in the Gospel of Luke to the recently converted man nailed to the cross next to his. Yet the standard view took many more years to arrive in its entirety, complete with Hell. The early-third-century Alexandrian theologian Origen, for example, had an idiosyncratic view of salvation to go along with his idiosyncratic Christology: he wrote that all souls would eventually be saved from their fallen states and join Jesus Christ in paradise. This optimistic, humane interpretation of the faith would earn him a posthumous condemnation as a propagator of heresy two centuries later. It’s hard to avoid the impression that the Christian establishment leaned into Hell so enthusiastically after becoming the law of the empire because it was such a useful method of asserting control over its flock.
This replacement of earnest spiritual inquiry with rigid dogma, of persuasion with coercion, had far-reaching consequences for the intellectual life of Alexandria. Prior to the mid-fourth century AD, the scholars of Alexandria’s museum maintained relatively cordial relations with those of the Catechetical School. This applied not only to the Neoplatonists, with their intensely metaphysical take on existence that resembled Christianity in so many ways, but even to those scholars who defied the intellectual fashions of their age by pursuing more empirical forms of truth. For example, an Alexandrian mathematician named Diophantus laid claim to being the “father of algebra” during the third century AD by writing a multi-volume text called Arithmetica, in which he invented the practice, familiar to every modern schoolchild, of representing unknown or variable values in equations as letters, and also invented our current fractional notation. In a sign that Diophantus may himself have been a Christian, or was at the least not at all hostile to the religion, he dedicated his masterwork to Dionysius, the pope of Alexandria at the time, in the hope that “it will be easy to grasp, with your enthusiasm and my teaching.”
Even during the first half of the fourth century AD, one Pappus could become the most important Alexandrian geometer since Euclid, whilst again living in equanimity with his more spiritually oriented colleagues in the museum and the Catechetical School. His Synagoge (“Collection”), from around AD 340, was perhaps the most ambitious Greek or Latin work of pure geometry since Euclid’s Elements. “Obviously written with the object of reviving the classical Greek geometry, it covers practically the whole field,” notes the historian of mathematics Thomas Heath.
In their own history of Alexandria, Justin Pollard and Howard Reid paint a vivid picture of the city Pappus must have known, a place that was still vibrant enough on a good day to make one forget the creeping malaise of the empire to which it belonged.
The Ptolemaic temple of Serapis still functioned, and pagan philosophers still bowed to the great cult statue there. Nearby the Jewish synagogues familiar to Philo and perhaps even the writers of the Septuagint still flourished, and in between them Christian churches had now sprung up. In the streets the pagan fortune-tellers still offered glimpses of the future to those with a few coins in their pockets, while the populist Neoplatonist and evangelical monks vied for the ears and hearts of passersby.
But this vision of Alexandria wasn’t long for this world.
The first hammer blow fell on July 21, AD 365. On that day an earthquake, estimated by modern seismologists to have had a strength of 8.5 on the Richter scale, struck the seafloor near Crete, sending a towering wall of water hurtling toward Alexandria. When it arrived, it picked up ships anchored in what was ordinarily one of the safest harbors in the Mediterranean and dropped them bodily upon the city’s rooftops. It carried away everything and everyone in its path, submerging the island of Pharos entirely for a time and ripping through the city’s walls like paper. In a testimony to the skill of its original builders, the aging lighthouse remained standing under the onslaught, but it too was badly battered. At least 5000 people were killed in a matter of minutes, the city inside the shattered walls all but razed to the ground.
It appears that Alexandria’s more genteel eastern side — home to the museum and the main branch of the library, to the Jewish quarter and Alexander the Great’s tomb and the old Ptolemy palace complex (now the seat of the Roman provincial government in Egypt) — were particularly hard hit. The Christian theologian Epiphanius, writing a few decades later, said that this part of the city was still “lying waste” even then. Thus this natural disaster, rather than the soldiers of Julius Caesar or the benighted Christian mobs of legend, may mark the real end of the museum and the main branch of the library, at least as physical structures. At a stroke, hundreds of thousands of books, collected painstakingly over the course of centuries and comprising the largest single collection of the ancient world’s learning, may have been lost forever. The wave may have carried Alexander’s hallowed corpse away with it as well, marking the unlikely end of this morbid artifact, for possession of which men had once been willing to go to war; his tomb too disappears without a trace from the historical record after this point. Without its museum and its library, without Alexander the Great, what was Alexandria? Just another provincial commercial center, another pale shadow of Rome and Constantinople. It all could have been rebuilt of course, but it seems there was no longer enough will to do so. Whatever glory was left to the eastern Roman Empire now resided in Constantinople.
The city was still reeling from this disaster in AD 391, when word of Theodosius’s edict against paganism reached it. The pope of Alexandria at the time was a man named Theophilus, who rather suspected that the destruction which had recently been visited upon his city was God’s comeuppance for Christian tolerance of these heretics in their midst. Positively crowing over the imperial edict which finally made proper pagan persecution a possibility, he ordered a set of sacred pagan objects to be paraded through the streets in mockery. The city’s despairing pagan population attacked the paraders, and Alexandria became a battleground. The pagans made their main stronghold the Serapeum, the city’s largest temple of all, dedicated to its traditional patron deity Serapis. (Thanks to its position on high ground, it had survived the tsunami virtually unscathed.) Facing an existential threat to their way of life, the pagans committed atrocity after atrocity in an orgy of rage and fear. They abducted Christians on the street and dragged them back to the Serapeum, where they ordered them to make sacrifices to the pagan deities before the central altar. Those who refused — and very probably even many of those who did not — were crucified for all to see on the temple’s roof.
The authorities finally succeeded in driving the pagans out of their redoubt, executing on the spot all that they managed to capture. The Christians then dragged all of the pagan statues they could find into the city center for mutilation and desecration. They burned the branch of the library located on the grounds of the Serapeum along with all of the precious texts inside, thus quite possibly completing the work of the tsunami in this respect. And then Theophilus ordered the Serapeum to be gutted and rededicated as a Christian cathedral. The Caesareum, Alexandria’s second biggest pagan monument, met the same fate soon after.
One is tempted to say that the Alexandria of old — the multicultural Alexandria, open-minded city of learning — died with these events. Still, a single human death is sometimes oddly more poignant than a random natural catastrophe or even premeditated massacres like the ones I’ve just described. Such is perhaps the case with the story of Hypatia.
Hypatia is a truly singular figure in the history of ancient Alexandria: a brilliant, highly respected scholar who also happened to be a woman. She was probably born at some point between AD 350 and 360, the daughter of another important thinker, a mathematician named Theon who edited and wrote commentaries on such earlier luminaries as Euclid and Claudius Ptolemy. These accomplishments were perchance themselves a sign of decline: Alexandria’s dwindling population of scholars in these latter years was spending more and more time reliving old glories. Then again, after the devastation wrought by the tsunami, all attempts to preserve the city’s legacy of learning may have taken on an understandably acute sense of importance.
The young Hypatia served as her father’s assistant; she was undoubtedly selected for this role in lieu of the son he had failed to sire. But by several ancient accounts, her brilliance soon outshone that of her father. She was a more wide-ranging thinker, who burrowed deep into Neoplatonist philosophy as well as mathematics. She was “by nature more refined and talented than her father,” wrote a fellow philosopher named Damascius.
She was also “exceedingly beautiful and fair of form.” She had no shortage of suitors, but she rejected all of them. As a staunch Neoplatonist, she held all physical pleasures to be distractions from her contemplation of higher spiritual truths; she remained determinedly celibate. We are told that, when one passionate fellow refused to take no for an answer, she threw a cloth covered with the blood of her last menstruation at his feet. “You love this, young man,” she said, “and there is nothing beautiful about it.” That was presumably enough to make him turn his lovelorn gaze elsewhere.
Hypatia has sometimes been labeled “the last librarian of Alexandria.” Although not correct in any strictly factual sense, such a title is perhaps defensible in a more symbolic one. The reality is that Hypatia today is known more for what she represents than for what she actually thought or wrote: she really was the last of her kind, the last link in a chain of Alexandrian tradition stretching back at least to Euclid. With the exception of a few scattered fragments of dubious authenticity, all of her writings have been lost to us. Her modern reputation may ironically benefit from this loss. The esoteric metaphysics of Neoplatonism that she championed in her philosophical writings are a long, long way from any of our currently fashionable ways of orienting ourselves to the universe, being an ideal breeding ground for astrology and other pseudo-scientific beliefs. Likewise, even her generally admiring modern biographer Michael Deakin admits that she probably would not be considered “one of the world’s great mathematicians” had her work survived. “However,” he adds, “if one considers that the times were not at all conducive to mathematical research, that the institutions that had supported such work were gone, and that mathematicians themselves were under great suspicion, then this should not really surprise us.” Hypatia, in other words, is remarkable mostly for having found a way to do any philosophy and mathematics at all.
By the time she was an adult, the Museum and Library of Alexandria were gone, swept away by the tsunami and by Theophilus’s mobs. So, she embarked on an audacious project: to build a new institution of pure learning, partially in the image of what had existed before in Alexandria but even more so in that of Aristotle’s legendary Lyceum. Like the classical Greek philosophers of Athens, she spent much of her time in the city center, engaged in dialog with the ordinary people there. Some of the more adept among them became her students in time. Those whom she gathered into her fold were required to take vows of celibacy and asceticism, and to call one another “brother” and “sister.” A good many of them may very well have been Christians; as we’ve seen, Neoplatonism was by no means incompatible with Christian beliefs in the broad strokes. The fame of “the lady who presides over the mysteries of philosophy” spread far beyond Alexandria. Doubtless responding to her beauty as well as her message, men wrote of “the fortunate chorus of delights in her divinely sweet voice” and called her “divine spirit” and “blessed lady.”
For decades, Pope Theophilus allowed her and her followers to pursue their philosophical truths unmolested. If she wasn’t a Christian herself, she certainly displayed no overt hostility toward the religion, and she showed no interest in the pagan gods whose worship was outlawed after AD 391. But the tolerance she was granted wouldn’t last forever, for the Christians of the Roman Empire were growing ever more determined not just to stamp out competing religions but to make sure that everyone was actively worshiping their own God in accordance with their own meticulously prescribed code.
In AD 412, Pope Theophilus died. Prior to this point, the election of a new Alexandrian pope had been a collegial, almost democratic affair in which all of the city’s priests had a voice. This time, however, a bishop named Cyril, a militant crusader for a still more doctrinaire Christian orthodoxy than that advocated by Theophilus, used a private army of fanatical followers to bully his way into the papacy. He believed that the Christian religion should be imposed upon those who refused to accept it, and that no means of doing so ought to be off the table. The ongoing existence of Alexandria’s Jewish community, that last remaining non-Christian religious sect in the city, incensed him. As pope, he used his storm troopers to goad the Jews into acts of violence, then flipped the script to accuse them of murdering Christians in the name of their faith. Matters escalated quickly, and the streets of Alexandria threatened to once again become the battlefields of a war between religions.
The provincial governor of Alexandria at the time was a man named Orestes, who was neither deceived nor intimidated by the new pope’s thuggery. Although he was a Christian himself — all men in positions like his were required to be by now — Orestes saw a clear divide between worldly and religious authority in the city, and believed the former to belong firmly to himself. He was an enlightened man by the standards of his time, who counted none other than Hypatia among his circle of advisors. He certainly had no quarrel with Jews. On the contrary, he worked with them happily and productively every day, for they still dominated the ranks of the city’s civil service, as they had almost since its beginning. He now marshaled his own troops in the Jews’ defense, stopping Cyril’s mob in its tracks.
So, Cyril looked for another way to assert his will. Damascius provides the fullest account of what happened next, although the complete truth will never be known with absolute certainty. He claims that Cyril was deeply jealous of Hypatia; a clumsy, rather turgid orator himself, he resented her ability to communicate with the people, as she still did every day on Alexandria’s streets. He condemned her from his pulpit, saying that she was practicing outlawed pagan rituals in secret, that she was a witch who used black magic and the corrupting power of her sex to bamboozle her followers. She controlled Orestes too, he said, and was using him to destroy Alexandrian Christianity on behalf of her dark masters. It was a line of argument whose salient points would be heard over and over in the centuries to come, from Rome to Madrid, London to Salem. Much of Alexandria’s Christian clergy was appalled, but Cyril’s most dedicated followers — who were drawn from the city’s poorest, least educated ranks rather than the likes of the Catechetical School — bayed for Hypatia’s blood.
Late one afternoon in March of AD 415, Hypatia rode home from the city center on a rough-hewn chariot, as she did almost every day. On this occasion, though, a crowd of several dozen men burst into the street and surrounded her conveyance just as it was passing the building that had once been the Caesareum and was now one of Alexandria’s two biggest Christian churches. They dragged her down and ripped off her clothes, then lifted her naked form above their heads for all to see, mocking the chastity she had always so zealously protected. Carrying her into the church itself, they beat her to death with roofing tiles they found lying around the place. In their animal fury, they then ripped her body limb from limb and burned the individual pieces on a great bonfire, the better to ensure that the evil she represented in their eyes was well and truly destroyed forever. Again, the similarities with other, later Christian witch hunts are chilling.
It would be nice to write that the instigator of this savagery paid some price for it, but such wasn’t the case. Instead it would appear that Hypatia’s murder actually strengthened Cyril’s hand enormously, by stirring the bloodlust of Alexandria’s Christian mob to a fever pitch, such that even Orestes’s soldiers could no longer stem the tide. Orestes himself disappears from the historical record shortly after this point, ceding the stage entirely to his rival; he may have been recalled by the imperial government or forced to flee Alexandria by the mob, or he may even have personally fallen victim to it just like his advisor Hypatia. Whatever his fate, he was soon replaced by a more pliant governor. It was all too clear who really wielded power now in Alexandria. Cyril instituted a series of brutal pogroms against the Jews, stripping them of their jobs in government and driving them out of the very city where they had compiled the first and biggest part of the holy book which he still professed to abide by. There was space in his Alexandria for only one People of the Book.
Under Cyril, the venerable Catechetical School was transformed into a tool of rote religious indoctrination. Any texts in Alexandria that had survived the tragedies of AD 365 and 391 were now in danger of a more methodical form of destruction, as Cyril began rounding up and burning books of any number of proscribed types: those that celebrated pagan beliefs; those that explicitly or implicitly contradicted Christian cosmology; those that hewed to any Christology other than his; anything else that made him uncomfortable. We cannot calculate the loss to posterity because we don’t know how many such books had even survived to this point. Nevertheless, we can guess that we would be heartbroken all over again if we could know. Among the texts that were burned were the works of Hypatia herself, as Cyril, not content with snuffing out her life, scoured her intellectual legacy from history as well.
Many have wondered at the contradictions inherent in the transformation of Christianity from an intermittently oppressed religion to a much more concerted oppressor of free thought in all its forms. How could a religion rooted in love and tolerance — one that cast its savior as a sacrificial lamb rather than the more typical conquering lion of a divinity — have been used to justify deeds like those of Cyril?
One answer is that the Bible is a book that contains multitudes, a book whose reader tends to get out of it whatever she brings to it. While a full measure of love and tolerance is indeed present, it sits cheek by jowl with much that’s of a different character — yes, even in the New Testament, that supposed reflection of God’s mercy rather than his wrath. The same volume which tells us to turn the other cheek and love our neighbors as we love ourselves contains the Book of Revelation, whose author is driven to what seems almost sexual heights of ecstasy over the gruesome fates awaiting the nonbelievers when the apocalypse arrives. Likewise, the apostle Paul — the very man responsible for making Christianity a welcoming religion that was open to everyone, regardless of ethnicity or caste — could write of Jesus Christ “in flaming fire taking vengeance on those that know not God.” One might say that the violently coercive incarnation of Christianity was there from the beginning, just waiting to be unleashed.
The historian H.A. Drake has argued persuasively that the turning point for early Christianity, the moment when an ethic of persuasion began to be replaced by one of coercion, was the reign of Emperor Julian and his attempt to turn the Roman Empire back to pagan ways. Drake describes the year and a half which Julian spent on the throne as a time of existential crisis for Christians, one that would leave a deep imprint on the religion afterward, as illustrated by the epithet they soon gave to the brief-lived emperor: “Julian the Apostate” — just one step down from “Julian the Antichrist,” a sobriquet he might well have earned if he had only managed to survive for a few more years. During Julian’s reign, Christians who had been sanguine in the inevitability of their religion’s rise ever since Constantine’s conversion suddenly faced the prospect of losing everything they had gained. “The effect was to mobilize Christian extremists and [to] generate, perhaps only unconsciously, a desire to consolidate power in a way that would prevent such a threat from arising again,” Drake writes. “When security becomes the primary issue, the Hypatias of this world fall all too readily victim.” The supreme irony to Drake’s line of argument is that Julian’s own actions may very well have proved the catalyst of everything he most feared.
But whether we wish to chalk it up to such temporal, political concerns, to the more unpleasant details of holy scripture, or simply to the timeless corrupting allure of power, the new era’s effect on Alexandria is clear. There was no longer any room for debate or accommodation with this form of Christianity. Anyone of a scholarly bent faced a stark choice: become a Christian scholar of the ultra-orthodox stripe mandated by Cyril, or suffer the same fate as Hypatia. The metaphorical Lighthouse of Alexandria if not yet the physical one had been extinguished: there was no longer anything to draw the world’s best and brightest to Alexandria. It was now just a city like any other, adrift in a darkening age of history.
(A full listing of print and online sources used will follow the final article in this series.)