"The monks, who rushed with tumultuous
fury from the desert, distinguished themselves by their
zeal and diligence ...
In almost every province of the Roman world,
an army of fanatics, without authority and without discipline,
invaded the peaceful inhabitants;
and the ruin of the fairest
structures of antiquity still displays the ravages of those
alone had time and inclination to execute such laborious
– Gibbon (Decline & Fall
of the Roman Empire, chapter 28)
Roman Egypt: Jewel in the Crown
conquest of Egypt in 30 BC rewarded the caesars with a lavish
prize – yet also considerable danger. Egypt
was a source of immense accumulated wealth and exotic wonder but
the relative ease with which this ancient land could be defended – and its strategic control of much of Rome's grain supply – made
an ideal base from which
to mount a bid for the throne. Vespasian in the troubled
year of 68 had camped in Egypt, awaiting news from Rome. When Valerian was
captured on the Persian front in 260 first the 'Macriani' usurpers
and then Mussius Aemilianus had been hailed in Egypt.
After the defection of the Kingdom of Palmyra in 273,
Aurelian had faced a revolt in Alexandria. In 281, Julius
a commander in Syria, was another who had been encouraged by
the Alexandrians to seize power
in the east (though soon after his bid he was assassinated).
A serious rebellion led by Domitus Domitianus and Aurelius
Achilleus in 296/298
had required Diocletian's personal
In anticipation of such dangers, Augustus had placed Egypt directly under his personal authority and no senator
even step foot in the province
without his express approval. The treasury
of the Ptolemies became
the basis of Augustus's personal fortune.
The Conflicts of Alexandria
the forested lands of Gaul and Germany, in Egypt were cities
that pre-dated the foundation of Rome by
millennia. Demographically the
province was divided between a sophisticated
and urban 'foreign' element – mainly Greek
and Jew – and the stubborn and superstitious native Egyptians.
Within the many cities – and especially within Alexandria
– cultural and commercial rivalry often brought the Greeks
and Jews into
Feuds, riots, and massacres
were not infrequent.
The Romans were a pious people but in
Egypt they faced religion on an epic scale. A rich and
powerful caste of priests, unlike anything known in Rome,
historically been close to imperial power and still wove a
spell from a vast
Priestcraft, and the whole paraphernalia of temple commerce,
thrived, even though, with the passing of the last of Ptolemies,
they had lost their god-king.
the main, the Egyptians were an under-class of rural labourers,
alienated from the 'foreign
landlords', occupying the cities. As a food source,
the soil of the Nile Valley and the Faiyum oasis were amazingly
fertile – a ten per cent grain levy was sufficient to feed Rome
for four months of the year – but the producers saw little
the transfer of power from Greeks to Romans the cycle of life
appeared unchanging – but
beneath the surface boiled a complex brew.
Oxyrhynchus, named for the 'sharp-nosed
fish' (the sturgeon) which the city held sacred. According
to legend, this fish ate the phallus of Osiris when the
god’s body was cut into pieces by his brother Seth.
Isis, as 'Abtu, Great Fish of the Abyss,' was identified
with the penis-swallower. The fish cult spread to many
parts of Egypt.
During Roman times, Oxyrhynchus became a large
and sophisticated town (the third city of Egypt), controlling
access to the western oases.
city had about twenty pagan temples but by the 4th
century Oxyrhynchus had become a hotbed of Christianity. Rufinus reported
12 churches as of the early 5th century (and added
that the local bishop told him
of 'the presence
of 10,000 monks and 20,000 nuns'!) A papyrus dated to
535 gives a figure of some 40 churches for the city.
revolt in Oxyrhynchus against the Arabs in 645/6, which
also effected Alexandria, was ruthlessly suppressed.
The site of Oxyrhynchus appears to have remained desolate
until resettled (under the name 'Bahnasa') by Arabs
in the 9th
early medieval Arabic epic 'Kitab
Futuh al-Bahnasa al Gharra' (‘The Conquest of Bahnasa,
The Blessed’) by Muhammad ibn Muhammad al-Mu’izz,
recounts the notion from Matthew’s Gospel that
the holy family had 'fled to Egypt', saying that
they stayed at Oxyrhynchus.
papyri dating from 3rd - 8th centuries were discovered
in the town’s rubbish mounds between
1896 and 1906.
with classics from Greek literature were fragments
of Christian texts, included a collection
of 'Logia' – sayings of Christ – which do
not appear in the gospels.
Wealth & Discord
city of the Roman world, built on a spit of land unaffected
by Nile floods between
Lake Mareotis (Mariout) and the Mediterranean.
its Greek kings, the Ptolemies, Alexandria accumulated
wealth and culture in equal
measure. Serving as Europe's port for trade with India,
Arabia and Africa, and itself a manufacturing centre for
papyrus, glass and linen, the city became the richest,
most powerful metropolis of the Orient.
brought leisure, and leisure, in turn, the arts. Schools
of philosophy and science and diverse cults
The city was home to not one but at least three
grain levy on Egypt passed through the port to feed first
Rome and then Constantinople. From the 4th century onwards
the rise of Constantinople
challenged (and eventually supplanted) Alexandria's preeminence.
The commercial rivalry was reflected in ferocious 'theological'
the triumph of Christian fanaticism early in the 5th century
the city went into terminal decline.
ancient capital of Egypt, founded around 3,100 BC, at a site
where it could control the land and water routes between
Upper Egypt and the Delta.
the Greeks arrived and moved the capital to Alexandria, Memphis
suffered. The city remained important in Roman times but
with the event of Christianity the association of Memphis
with traditional Egyptian religion meant further decline.
The city became a shadow of its former greatness.
final demise of Memphis probably occurred with the invasion
of Muslim conquerors in 641 when they established a new capital
a short distance north of the city at Fustat (Cairo).
only Roman 'new town' in Egypt. A city founded
cult of Antinous, by the 3rd century the city actually
had two rival Christian bishops! To give Antinoopolis a
viable economy Hadrian linked the town with the Red Sea
routes. Greek settlers here were allowed to marry Egyptian
natives – an unprecedented innovation.
only Greek 'new town' of the interior. Founded by Ptolemy
supplanted Thebes as the capital of Thebais and became as important
an important lading-place for the corn-produce of Middle
Egypt. A cult in the city honoured the Ptolemys.
of the Oxyrhynchus fish
cult (complete with the horns
of Hathor and sun disc of Ra).
it possibly have any connection with this ...
of the Fish?!
(St Domitilla, early 4th century)
Power versus Church Power
Augustus and his successors placed Alexandria under the rule
of a Roman Prefect, or Governor, drawn from the equestrian rather
than the senatorial class, an official who administered the province
through mainly Greek civil servants. This had worked well but with
inauguration of a "Christian
Monarchy" a second hierarchy of officials appeared, in conflict
with the first.
Before the "Constantinian
Revolution" it had
been the policy of Rome to
matters, indeed to have little regard for popular superstitions.
But from the 4th century onward, unorthodox thought became a crime
and a burgeoning Church hierarchy, headed by a bishop, policed
The duopoly meant that neither the Bishop nor
the Prefect could unseat each other - both derived their power
from the Emperor.
into conflict. In the early years of the 5th century these personalities
were an urbane and educated pagan prefect called Orestes and
an ambitious and fanatical bishop
called Cyril. It was a clash between the classic
liberality of antiquity and the vulgar intolerance of the New
World Order of
Enter Cyril, "the
That lion of lynch mob justice, Bishop Theophilus ("a
bold, bad man, whose hands were alternatively polluted with
gold and with blood" – Gibbon, chapter 28), who had led
the rampage against the Alexandrian Temple of Serapis in
371, died in 412.
In typical Christian fashion a violent 'crisis
of succession' followed
his death. One contender
was the Archdeacon Timotheus who rather usefully had the
support of Abundantius the military commander. But he
had not reckoned with the determination of Theophilus's nephew Cyril,
a fanatic recalled from the desert.
been indoctrinated from boyhood in the monastery of Saint Macari,
where his head had been filled with the fierce intolerance
of the 'Desert Fathers.' After three days of wrangling
and intimidation, Cyril grabbed the Archiepiscopal Chair, and
24th Pope of the See of Saint Mark". Among
his various descriptive titles was 'Pillar of the Faith.''
He was 36 years old. For the next 31 years he would be boss of
began his reign the way he meant to go on – by
persecuting his opponents.
Cyril eyed enviously the wealth of the Novatians, an
established Christian sect in the city. The
Novatians were early-day 'puritans',
opposed to the loose ways of the orthodox hierarchy and so named for a 3rd
century 'anti-pope' who had himself lost out in a power struggle
in Rome. Gibbon describes them as 'the most innocent and
harmless of sectaries.'
Their doctrine was too 'intellectual' to gain Cyril's
support, and among the primate's first acts was the closure of Novatian
churches and the seizure of their sacred vessels and ornaments.
Having purged the official Church of Alexandria of its dissenting
minority, Cyril next targeted the Jews. This numerous
community, he decided, should be expelled from the city and
the privileges which they
had enjoyed for seven hundred years, since the time of Alexander
the Great, rescinded.
any legal sentence, without any royal mandate, the patriarch,
at the dawn of day, led a seditious multitude to the attack of
the synagogues. Unarmed and unprepared, the Jews were incapable
of resistance; their houses of prayer were levelled with the
ground, and the episcopal warrior, after rewarding his troops
plunder of their goods, expelled from the city the remnant of
the unbelieving nation."
– Gibbon (Decline & Fall, chapter 47)
Thus did Alexandria lose a wealthy and industrious colony.
Orestes Outflanked by the Ambitious
Inevitably, the militant bishop clashed with the secular
authorities and, in particular, with Orestes the Prefect.
Orestes saw no sense in the attack upon the Jews and the consequential
civil commotion. Unable to over-rule the bishop, the governor complained
to the child emperor Theodosius
II (408 - 450). The
Bishop, he pleaded, was usurping the functions of his administration,
even of the police. His appeal was in vain. The
teenage Theodosius was completely under the
dominating influence of his sanctimonious sister the Regent Empress
Pulcheria. Pulcheria was a pious 'Christian virgin' of
twenty two who was busily waging her own campaign for Christ by
the imperial palace into a virtual
from censoring Cyril, the Bishop was invested by the
Empress with coercive power, effectively fusing Church
State in the province of Egypt. In gratitude
likened the silly girl to the Blessed Virgin herself ("De
fide ad Pulcheriam").
on to the attack. The anti-intellectual prelate demonized traditional
Alexandrian learning and science as perfidious paganism.
The hated Orestes
himself was accused of being under the spell of sorcery and the
'Republic of Plato'. Orestes publicly demonstrated his 'treason'
by attending lectures at the Neoplatonist School of Philosophy.
governor's defence was an appeal to the traditional policy of the
caesars, which had
always been one of great leniency
of philosophy. But he spoke for a dying freedom. Several hundred
of Cyril's fanatics, half-starved monks from the monasteries of
Nitria, assaulted the Prefect in his chariot, leaving him bloodied
and angry. A monk – Ammonius – was executed for the
attack but the bishop immediately hailed the assailant as a martyr.
sacrifice was now required to appease the henchman of Christ.
should be taught as fables, myths as myths, and miracles
as poetic fancies. To teach superstitions
as truths is a most terrible
thing. The child-mind accepts and believes them, and only through
great pain and perhaps tragedy can he be in after-years relieved
of them. In fact, men will fight for a superstition
quite as quickly as for a living truth - often more so,
since a superstition
so intangible you can not get at it to refute it, but
truth is a point of view, and so is changeable."
– Words attributed to Hypatia, though not, alas, authentic!
According to the Suda lexicon,
Hypatia wrote commentaries on the Arithmetica of
Diophantus of Alexandria, on the Conics of Apollonius
of Perga, and on the astronomical canon of Ptolemy.
These works are 'lost', but their titles, combined with
the letters of Synesius of Cyrene (afterward Bishop of
Ptolemais) who consulted her about the construction of
an astrolabe and a hydroscope, indicate that she devoted
herself particularly to astronomy and mathematics.
Of course, she may not have been a virgin and therefore
unlike Empress Pulcheria, was not made a saint.
A rather different woman to the Empress Pulcheria
lived and died in Alexandria. Hypatia was the
daughter of Theon, the astronomer, and she inherited her father's
Rising to become head of the Neoplatonist
School of Philosophy her fame attracted students (including Christian theologians!)
from across the Mediterranean – "as many saw her as one of the masters in communication"
Hypatia was much respected by the governor Orestes, who it seems
consulted her even
administration – "deeming her one of the masters in public administration."
Cyril was incensed
that Hypatia's reputation and talents were giving the cause of
paganism a dangerous
prestige, and thereby preventing the 'progress of the Faith'.
It rankled deeply that she enjoyed a close friendship with the prefect, and the
scurrilous bishop likened the relationship of Hypatia and Orestes
that of Cleopatra
and Mark Antony. 'If she could,' he
ventured, 'she would set up an Egyptian Empire!' From
his pulpit Cyril inveighed against the harlot and, in response
call, more fanatics swarmed in from the desert.
set upon by the mobsters as she was going in her carriage from
her lecture-hall to her home. She was dragged to
a nearby church where mob-rule took control. Stripped, beaten and
hacked to pieces her dismembered body was burned to
hide all traces of the crime.
The year was
415. A distressed Orestes, officially still in charge of the
province, ordered the execution of Hierax,
a Christian monk, for complicity in the murder but within days
Orestes himself was murdered. The triumphant Bishop Cyril let it
be known that "Hypatia had gone to Athens",
that there had been no mob, no tragedy and that the prefect had
resigned and fled. The expulsion of the Jews continued and
the Bishop himself nominated a successor to Orestes. From Pulcheria
Cyril elicited a new decree, which raised the number of his personal parabalani mobsters
tyranny had enthroned itself in the erstwhile world-capital
Decline of Alexandria
murder of Hypatia, scholars began to leave the city. Her death
marked the beginning of the decline of Alexandria as
a major centre of
learning, indeed as a city of any consequence at all. The new archbishop
purged his realm of the scholars, poets, and philosophers
who had built the metropolis and who still cherished a passionate
regard for the culture and civilization of the pagan world.
the Middle Ages, 'Alexandria' would occupy little more than
the spar of land leading
from the city proper to the famous lighthouse.
to Cyril, dogmatism as a police system reigned supreme. For more
than a decade Cyril built up his power base within
Alexandria and the lands of Upper Egypt and then he cast his ambitious
eyes further a field. His next 'intellectual' challenge came
from the second city of the east – Antioch.
with Nestorius: Imperial Politics further elaborates "Christian
In the year 428, to the consternation of Cyril, Nestorius, a priest-monk
of Antioch, became archbishop of Constantinople. Another fanatic, Nestorius
Caesar! Give me the earth purged of heretics, and I will
give you the kingdom of heaven. Exterminate with me the heretics,
and I will with you exterminate the Persians."
Best remembered for his 'Christology' rather than the murder of
Arians and 'Quartodecimans' (they made the mistake of using a 'Jewish'
calendar for Easter), Nestorius identified no fewer than
twenty three heretical factions which required corrective punishment.
Yet by the reckoning of his opponents, Nestorius and the clergy
of his 'Syrian school' were themselves abominable heretics, for
they taught that Christ was not one but two
According to Nestorius, Christ was two
one divine and therefore beyond human frailty, and the other human
and thus susceptible to all the fragility of the flesh. The divine Christ
suffer or die, and therefore, on the cross it was the human Christ
who had suffered and died. Nestorius spoke out against calling the Blessed
Mary the 'Theotokos' or 'Mother of God',
a term that had been in use for some time but was plainly pagan in origin.
From Alexandria, Cyril, resentful of any interference from the
'Byzantine' court, strongly contested these views. He expounded
the 'Egyptian' doctrine of the
human natures, losing the troubling subtleties of Nestorius in
'divine mystery.' Cyril's own simple 'logic' was that if Jesus
Christ was God, it followed that his mother was the 'Mother
He penned a creed on the 'Incarnation
of the Logos' which in time would become Orthodox Doctrine.
A violent conflict developed similar to that which
had engulfed Athanasius and Arius a century earlier, and
every bit as acrimonious. A deadly '12 anathemas' passed
between the protagonists! Cyril appealed for support to the patriarchs
Pulcheria. He also solicited the backing of the bishop of Rome,
Celestine, a fellow persecutor of dissenters (Novationists, Pelagians).
Celestine had no understanding of Greek or theological subtleties
but at that
time was locked in a power struggle with the North African Church.
He jumped at the opportunity to make a 'ruling' effecting the eastern
Nestorius gained the support of Theodosius himself, who had taken
to calling Cyril 'the
proud pharaoh'. The Emperor summoned
a general council to meet in Ephesus in June 431 to settle the
Effete Emperor Knuckles Under
The third general Council
was attended by 200 bishops. Cyril presided,
attended by fifty Egyptian bishops. He lost no time, convening
the council before the Nestorians had
arrived and getting Nestorius and the
'Antiochans' condemned and excommunicated.
When John of Antioch and several of the 'Nestorian'
bishops finally reached Ephesus they assembled separately, 'deposed'
Cyril for heresy and labelled him a 'monster, born and educated
for the destruction
of the church.' In the stalemate, both sides appealed to
the Emperor. Cyril and Nestorius were
both arrested and kept in confinement
and the verdict of the Council
annulled. But then three papal legates
arrived from Rome, condemned
Nestorius, approved Cyril's conduct,
the sentence pronounced against him void.
months the mild and perplexed Theodosius held his ground but
in Ephesus Cyril's supporters once again loosed their
army of fanatics.
of peasants, the slaves of the church, was poured into
the city to support with blows and clamours a metaphysical
argument... Cyril disembarked a numerous body of mariners,
slaves, and fanatics, enlisted with blind obedience under
the banner of St. Mark and the mother of God."
– Gibbon (Decline & Fall,
Cyril escaped back to Egypt but continued to pressurise the
emperor with prodigious bribes to his courtiers and a clarion
call to the monks of the capital. At their head
went a venerable crazy,
a hermit named Dalmatius who
had not been out of his
cell for 48 years. The
mob besieged Theodosius's
and abuse. The Emperor
caved in, vindicated
and ordered an unrepentant
Nestorius into exile – in Upper Egypt.
Some years later, encouraged
by his exiled wife
Eudoxia, the worm turned: Theodosius embraced the cause
of 'monophysitism' and declared Christ 'had only one nature
and it was divine.'
Library of Alexandria
There were many great collections of books in the ancient
world. Most were open to any scholar from anywhere in
the world. None of them survived the Christian Dark Age.
The most famous, of course, was the Library at Alexandria.
In fact, there were at least three different libraries
coexisting in the city.
The main or 'Royal Library' was in
the Brucchium (northeast sector of the city),
close to the palace grounds and forming part of the Museum,
a 'temple' dedicated to the nine Muses (in the style
of Plato's Academy, Aristotle's Lyceum,
Zeno's Stoa and the school of Epicurus). The
library was surrounded by courtyards, gardens, and a
zoo. The gathering of books and scrolls had begun with
Ptolemy I Soter (304 - 284 BC) using the Greek scholar/politico
Demetrius as his agent. Works were translated into Greek,
most famously the Septuagint – Jewish
scripture – supposedly the labour 72 rabbis. (Letter
of Aristeas, 9 -10 (180 -145 BC) Ptolemy's ambition
had been to possess all known world literature.
Scholars – perhaps as many as a 100 – were
invited to residency at the Museum and to analyse critically
observations and deductions made in mathematics, medicine,
astronomy, and geometry. They were fed and funded initially
by the royal family, and later, during the Roman period,
by public money. Most of the western world's discoveries
were recorded and debated there for the next 500 years.
The evidence of Plutarch, Gellius and Seneca strongly
indicates the Royal Library had suffered considerable
fire damage at the time of Julius Caesar's expedition
when Caesar torched the fleet of Cleopatra's brother
and the fire spread to the harbour area.
Plutarch informs us that Mark Anthony, making good
the loss, gave Cleopatra the entire contents - some 200,000
rolls - of the rival Pergamon library as a gift.
A 'daughter Library' was located in the nearby
temple of Serapis in the south-western quarter (Epiphanius
of Cyprus (c. 402 AD) Weights and Measures). The Serapeum – in
honour of the new god – had begun with Ptolemy
II Philadelphus and was completed by his son.
The Emperor Claudius, in the mid-1st century,
set up the Claudian Library to be a
centre for the study of history. Hadrian, following
a visit to Alexandria in 130, restored the city and founded
a new library in the Caesareum. Sophists,
such as Dionysius of Miletus and Polemon
of Laodikeia, where attracted to the city in what
was a second century revival of Alexandrian scholarship.
This brief flowering ended with the "rapine
and cruelty" which Caracalla visited upon the
eastern provinces early in the third century.
We may never know precisely the fate of reputedly 400
- 700,000 priceless scrolls. The civil commotions of
the 260s and 270s, when much of the city was damaged,
would not have been happy days for the libraries.The
cutting off of imperial revenue by 4th century Christian
Emperors sent the Museum into terminal decline. Writing
early in the 5th century, Orosius, Christian author of History
against the Pagans, admitted fellow Christians had
plundered temples and emptied book chests. Gibbon was
in no doubt:
valuable library of Alexandria was pillaged or
destroyed; and near twenty years afterwards, the
the empty shelves excited the regret and indignation
of every spectator whose mind was not totally darkened
by religious prejudice." (Chapter 28).
placed the blame squarely at the door of Theophilus.
Theophilus had led the destruction of pagan
temples, most famously the Serapeum, is certain. Socrates
Scholasticus reports the following:
"Demolition of the Idolatrous Temples at Alexandria,
and the Consequent Conflict between the Pagans and
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
this opportunity, Theophilus exerted himself to
the utmost ... he caused the Mithreum to be cleaned
out... Then he destroyed the Serapeum... and he
had the phalli of Priapus carried through the midst
of the forum. ... the heathen temples... 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 ... "
It may well
be that that the noble Hypatia was the 'last member
of the Library of Alexandria.'
William Dalrymple, From the Holy Mountain (Flamingo. 1998)
Michael Walsh, A Dictionary of Devotions (Burns & Oates,
Dom Robert Le Gall, Symbols of Catholicism (Editions Assouline, 1997)
Leslie Houlden (Ed.), Judaism & Christianity (Routledge, 1988)
Norman Cantor, The Sacred Chain - A History of the Jews (Harper Collins,
R. E. Witt, Isis in the Ancient World (John Hopkins UP, 1971)
Alison Roberts, Hathor Rising-The Serpent Power of Ancient Egypt (Northgate,
Timothy Ware, The Orthodox Church (Penguin, 1993)
Luciano Canfora, The Vanished Library (Hutchinson Radius, 1987)
Edward Gibbon, Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
J. B. Bury, History of the Later Roman Empire (Macmillan,
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by Kenneth Humphreys.
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