Note: This short tale of mine is quite closely based on history according to Maria Dzielska’s level-headed and rather unhagiographic Hypatia of Alexandria, published by Harvard University Press.
Hypatia of Alexandria : a memoir
Ah, Hypatia. I remember her, as well as an old man such as I can remember anything. Sit down, boy, and let me tell you. It was the city of Alexandria these things happened in — you know Alexandria, boy?
Shameful, the state of education these days. Alexandria, the greatest and rowdiest city of Egypt. The city where I lived during the last years of Hypatia’s life, some four hundred years after the death of a man on a cross.
She was the daughter of Theon, the famous mathematician-astronomer. She was a philosopher and a mathematician as well — let me see, I used to have some work of hers here — somewhere — ah, maybe I lost it. It’s so hard to remember recent things when there’s so much past to keep in mind. Anyway, her father was a pagan, as we now say — worshipper of the old Greek gods. Wrote hymns to the music of Zeus in the spheres, forgotten things like that.
Hypatia was a bit different. Those days there were many followers of that man Christ in our city — nowadays they are everywhere. Even then… I guess most of the city bowed to the cross, even then. Theophilus, who was the bishop in the old days, was a great believer. He hated the great Serapium —
Serapium? What are you, a strawhead? The great temple of the Greek gods. The statue of Serapis and gods with baboon heads and so on. There were still pagans in the city, and some shut themselves in the temple and Theophilus’s men besieged them — very tense, back then. Christ-men didn’t like the pagans, and neither was there any love in the other direction. Both sides used to kidnap, torture and kill members of the other. I remember that once we found a Christian the pagans had bound to a wooden cross and crucified.
Terrible, but terribly Alexandrian.
So… Hypatia? The fact of the matter is that some philosophers and teachers went to the Serapeum and helped the pagans. Olympius was one of them; a tall, brave man. Hypatia didn’t, because she didn’t believe in those animal-headed idols. She had many Christian followers, true, but she wasn’t a Christian. I don’t really know about her…
She had this inner circle of students that studied some Neoplatonic philosophy or other. Some ineffable silent striving to a divine vision. Not Christian, and not quite pagan. She was…
She was quite old then. Sixty years or more. Not beautiful, but forceful. I never saw anyone else with such a gift of speech and presence. Forthright and honest. Like a cliff for lesser people to clash themselves to pieces against. Never married, never even knew a man. Strange woman.
What? You keep interrupting me, you’ll never hear the end of this tale.
Ah, yes, the Serapeum. We had Christian Emperors even back then, and the Emperor ordered the pagans out, said that the killed Christians were all holy martyrs — the killed pagans had deserved their fate, of course — and commanded that the Serapeum was to become a Christian temple.
So he said and so it was done. They hoisted that cross in and carried all the images and likenesses of the gods out. There was a statue of Serapis whose beauty I cannot describe, but a Christian soldier struck it apart with an axe, struck it apart and into pieces until nothing remained. I heard, though I don’t know for sure, that Olympius — the philosopher that led the pagans in the Serapeum — was crushed under the statue of some baboon-headed god. I don’t know.
So that was in the days of the bishop Theophilus. Then he died and after some days of street-fighting — ah, that was so Alexandrian — we got ourselves a new bishop, a man named Cyril. He was a scary one. Always hungry.
You dunderhead! No, very lean and ascetic. A flesh-hater if there ever was one. I mean he wanted power, for himself and for his church. He wanted to appoint the city officials, he wanted to advise the prefect, he wanted to affirm the doctrine, he wanted the power to admit in and to cast out… that sort of a thing.
At the same time, I think, we got a new prefect as well — prefect, the Emperor’s man in the city. He was called Orestes. He was a Christian, of course, but nothing like the firebrand that Cyril was. We Alexandrians didn’t like Cyril because he wasn’t a really likable person, but we didn’t get to know Orestes either.
Well, you rarely get to know the mighty ones if you grovel in the mud yourself, right, boy?
Orestes went among the learned and powerful of the city, of course. He had known various disciples of learned Alexandrian philosophers before coming to us, and he attended the public lectures of those philosophers and teachers that remained. And of course foremost among those was Hypatia. She was old, wise and always calm. A bit scary attributes for a woman, right?
You daren’t! If you tell your mother I won’t finish the story.
Right. And now be quiet and let me continue. So we had Cyril the bishop and Orestes the prefect, a loud one and a quiet one. Cyril had always things to do — hectoring or driving out those of his own that didn’t agree, or then disposing of the Jews —
Where did you inherit that stupidity of yours? Not from me, that’s for sure.
Jews! They are a, um, an old religion. They’re mainly known as the ones that killed Christ. You’ve heard of him, right? Now, I don’t care who killed him, and it seems a bit wrong to keep killing those that weren’t even born when that man died, but… But Cyril didn’t think so, of course. There were many Jews in Alexandria, and as it was with the pagans, the Jews and the Christians hated each other. First one of them shouted at the other, then stones were thrown in return, then a kidnapping, then torture, then killing…
Sometimes it seems to me that in Alexandria we did nothing but murdered each other.
In the matter of the Jews, too, Cyril wanted to act, to free Alexandria of them, but mild Orestes, the Emperor’s man, didn’t want to give his power to that troublesome priest. He — Orestes — was riding through the city one day when he noticed one of Cyril’s men, a church-reader by the name of Peter, smearing something on the side of a Jew’s shop. Can you believe the stupid man was actually writing something there?
As if even one in a hundred of the passers-by would have been able to read it. It was “Don’t buy from the Jews” or something similar. Orestes drove him away with a few threats and swings of his sword. You can guess Cyril wasn’t happy, his man being so molested. Peter was probably acting on his own, but Cyril approved of his every deed. And, finally, Cyril’s problem of the Jews was solved.
There was one night when some Jews killed a few Christians — or so I hear. Something like that they yelled that the big church was burning, and when the Christians ran out in their nightwear they killed them. I don’t know. I was drunk and sleeping. Anyway Cyril had made the Christians sufficiently angry by this point, and so they went and burned and looted the houses of the Jews, and drove them out of the city. That was a great time for Cyril, because he could embrace those of his flock that hadn’t quite agreed with him, and find a common cause in hating the Jews. Orestes was too late and timid to oppose them, but he was angry.
So, there were Cyril and Orestes, matching their strength. Orestes had the soldiers and the Emperor’s servants. Cyril had a few hundred men that he called “helpers of the infirm” — the young, zealous muscular type you don’t want to meet when it’s dark and lonely. The common people didn’t like either one of them much, but in Alexandria the priests always had a much easier way into the commoners’ hearts than the kings.
One day a group of hoodlums attacked Orestes when he was out riding — a group dressed as monks. They accused him of being a pagan — untrue, of course — and tried to tear him down and kill him. He barely escaped because his guard was so cowed. And, much to everyone’s grief, Orestes’s men caught one of the hoodlums and killed him, so Cyril had one martyr more to his list.
Hypatia? I’m just getting to her. Hypatia, you remember, hadn’t done anything to help the defenders of the Serapium, because she cared nothing for those wooden images. Now… well, Orestes the prefect attended her lectures, and both found the other agreeable, even if alien. Hypatia at least knew enough of Cyril’s character to support Orestes instead of him.
Even your wits can foresee what Cyril said of it.
Why, this prefect! Clearly not as fierce in his faith as our bishop! And consorting with a pagan philosopher! Even worse, a female pagan philosopher! Who can tell what dark things they did in private?
Cyril could, of course.
Soon enough there were stories told everywhere of the blood-drinking, infant-eating sorceress witch queen Hypatia, the evil creature of dark magic that had bewitched the prefect, and the philosophers, and the entire city. And since Hypatia didn’t consort with the commoners, and because his teachings were much too difficult for the common people to understand — what commoner ever trisected an angle? — they easily believed her a witch.
Here that villain Peter comes back to the tale — the same Peter that was involved in harassing the Jews. One day Hypatia was returning from a lecture when she was stopped by a crowd, led by that unwashed reader Peter.
“Pagan witch!” they cried, and “Satan’s creature!” and “Evil woman!”, and so on.
And, since violence is always the easiest way, they tore her clothes away from her and kicked her down, dragged her to one of their churches, and on its cold stone floor tore her apart with shards of pottery, and once you could not tell if she had been a woman, or even a human, they kicked what remained of her to a pyre and burned it.
And so virgin Hypatia, a woman of great wisdom and infinite calm, died. And Orestes, cowed and alarmed and disgusted, arranged for himself to be recalled out of Alexandria.
No-one was ever punished for Hypatia’s killing. Why bother, when Cyril, the great leader of the city, had approved of the deed? And why, indeed, bother when it had been but a pagan and a woman to boot, and hadn’t everyone known she was a witch?
Huh? What do you mean, young Orestes, what of the happy ending? There’s no such thing. Men like Cyril sit astride the world; Hypatia and Orestes are forgotten. It’s the way of this world of Christ.
Endnote: The first mention of Peter the Reader is purely fictional. It is not absolutely ahistorical, as a church reader of the sacred texts probably was literate, and an unpleasant character might have thought it a grand sneer to those likely without the skill to notice it. The slogan is from a later and even more unpleasant time. Olympius is historical, but probably didn’t perish under a baboon head. (If this makes no sense, read the story.) Otherwise, the story tries to faithfully follow Dzielska, and can explain its inaccuracies as fudging by the ancient narrator.