|Detail from Triumph of Faith by Eugene Thirion.|
As usual, the truth is considerably more complicated than the modern myth-builders would allow you believe. Cherry-picking stories like the murder of Hypatia without acknowledging the historical context only succeeds in setting up a false narrative that is both historically shallow and overtly disingenuous.
Let's start off in Alexandria. According to the historical accounts, Hypatia was killed in AD 415. But what was life like in that city during her days and the those immediately preceding them? Was it Christianity that drove the Alexandrians so wild with bloodlust that they would commit such an atrocity? Writing in the mid-5th century, the ecclesiastical historian Socrates Scholasticus says: "The Alexandrian public is more delighted with tumult than any other people: and if at any time it should find a pretext, breaks forth into the most intolerable excesses; for it never ceases from its turbulence without bloodshed."
But don't just take his word for it. The pagan historian Ammianus Marcellinus, writing about 50 years earlier, describes the great metropolis of Roman Egypt, Alexandria, as "a city which from its own impulses, and without any special cause, is continually agitated by seditious tumults." This is Ammianus's prelude to an act every bit as violent and gruesome as the death of Hypatia, but without the modern cult of admirers, myth-builders and movie-makers.
Following is Ammianus's account of the murder of of George, the Arian Archbishop of Alexandria in AD 361. George was a figure unloved by both pagans and orthodox Christians. He was also a functionary of the Arian emperor Constantius II to whom he owed his office. Apparently, when George suggested that a specific pagan temple be torn down (perhaps the tomb of Alexander the Great himself), the pagans had had enough:
On hearing this, many were struck as if by a thunderbolt, and fearing that he might try to overthrow even that building, they devised secret plots to destroy him in whatever way they could. And lo! on the sudden arrival of the glad news that told of the death of Artemius [the Roman dux of Egypt], all the populace, transported by this unlooked-for joy, grinding their teeth and uttering fearful outcries, made for Georgius and seized him, maltreating him in divers ways and trampling upon him; then they dragged him about spread-eagle fashion, and killed him. And with him Dracontius, superintendent of the mint, and one Diodorus, who had the honorary rank of count, were dragged about with ropes fastened to their legs and both killed....Not content with this, the inhuman mob loaded the mutilated bodies of the slain men upon camels and carried them to the shore; there they burned them on a fire and threw the ashes into the sea, fearing (as they shouted) that their relics might be collected and a church built for them, as for others who, when urged to abandon their religion, endured terrible tortures, even going so far as to meet a glorious death with unsullied faith; whence they are now called martyrs." [Taken from Roman Antiquities by Ammianus Marcellinus, Book XXII, Chapter XI.]Unlike the murder of Hypatia, however, the killing of George, Dracontius and Diodorus was not a singular event. With the death of Constantius II and the advent of Julian the Apostate, the pagan population in numerous cities assumed that a return to the gory glory days of persecuting the Christians was at hand. Though Julian had strategically taken a less overtly hostile position regarding Christianity, some of the more militant pagans decided to take the Apis bull by the horns.
Here are two accounts from the Ecclesiastical History of Sozomen, an orthodox Christian historian of the mid-5th century, detailing the brutal killings of several Christians by pagans in the early days of the reign of Julian:
I deem it right to relate some particulars concerning the death of the three brethren, Eusebius, Nestabus, and Zeno. The inhabitants of Gaza, being inflamed with rage against them, dragged them from their house, in which they had concealed themselves and cast them into prison, and beat them. They then assembled in the theater, and cried out loudly against them, declaring that they had committed sacrilege in their temple, and had used the past opportunity for the injury and insult of paganism. By these shouts and by instigating one another to the murder of the brethren, they were filled with fury; and when they had been mutually incited, as a crowd in revolt is wont to do, they rushed to the prison. They handled the men very cruelly; sometimes with the face and sometimes with the back upon the ground, the victims were dragged along, and were dashed to pieces by the pavement. I have been told that even women quitted their distaffs and pierced them with the weaving-spindles, and that the cooks in the markets snatched from their stands the boiling pots foaming with hot water and poured it over the victims, or perforated them with spits. When they had torn the flesh from them and crushed in their skulls, so that the brain ran out on the ground, their bodies were dragged out of the city and flung on the spot generally used as a receptacle for the carcasses of beasts; then a large fire was lighted, and they burned the bodies; the remnant of the bones not consumed by the fire was mixed with those of camels and asses, that they might not be found easily. [Taken from the Ecclesiastical History of Sozomen, Book V, Chapter IX]Next, we move onto Heliopolis in Lebanon where an act of unbelievable barbarity is recorded:
The inhabitants of Gaza and of Alexandria were not the only citizens who exercised such atrocities against the Christians as those I have described. The inhabitants of Heliopolis, near Mount Libanus, and of Arethusa in Syria, seem to have surpassed them in excess of cruelty. The former were guilty of an act of barbarity which could scarcely be credited, had it not been corroborated by the testimony of those who witnessed it. They stripped the holy virgins, who had never been looked upon by the multitude, of their garments, and exposed them in a state of nudity as a public spectacle and objects of insult. After numerous other inflictions they at last shaved them, ripped them open, and concealed in their viscera the food usually given to pigs; and since the swine could not distinguish, but were impelled by the need of their customary food, they also tore in pieces the human flesh. I am convinced that the citizens of Heliopolis perpetrated this barbarity against the holy virgins on account of the prohibition of the ancient custom of yielding up virgins to prostitution with any chance comer before being united in marriage to their betrothed. This custom was prohibited by a law enacted by Constantine, after he had destroyed the temple of Venus at Heliopolis, and erected a church upon its ruins. [Taken from the Ecclesiastical History of Sozomen, Book V, Chapter X]
|Detail from the Brescia casket, late 4th century AD.|
The entire people, instead of admiring him the more as having manifested a deed befitting a philosopher, conceived that he was actuated by contempt towards them, and rushed upon him, dragged him through the streets, pressing and plucking and beating whatever member each one happened upon. People of each sex and of all ages joined with alacrity and fury in this atrocious proceeding. His ears were severed by fine ropes; the boys who frequented the schools made game of him by tossing him aloft and rolling him over and over, sending him forward, catching him up, and unsparingly piercing him with their styles.
When his whole body was covered with wounds, and he nevertheless was still breathing, they anointed him with honey and a certain mixture, and placing him in a fish-basket made of woven rushes, raised him up on an eminence. It is said that while he was in this position, and the wasps and bees lit upon him and consumed his flesh, he told the inhabitants of Arethusa that he was raised up above them, and could look down upon them below him, and that this reminded him of the difference that would exist between them in the life to come. [Taken from the Ecclesiastical History of Sozomen, Book V, Chapter X]According to a parallel account in the history of Theodoret, the pagans of Arethusa were so impressed with Mark's constancy and fortitude that they eventually released him and absolved him of the demand to rebuild the temple.
Though obviously sympathetic toward Christianity, Sozomen is an even-handed source who didn't flinch from criticizing his coreligionists when they deserved it. After describing several additional examples of brutal mob-martyrdom of Christians by pagans, Sozomen is quick to point out that Julian did not order these killings, even if he was subsequently lax in punishing the perpetrators. He wraps up this section saying:
"Even if these cruelties were perpetrated contrary to the will of the emperor, yet they serve to prove that his reign was signalized by martyrs neither ignoble nor few." [Taken from the Ecclesiastical History of Sozomen, Book V, Chapter XI]When put into this context, the dreadful murder of Hypatia does not seem at all out of keeping with the brutal mob vengeance that was meted out in a typical Roman city, particularly in the east. What makes it shocking nonetheless is that the murder was perpetrated by those who professed to be Christians and it is likely that the event was recorded by Christian historians for precisely this reason. Furthermore, this crime was roundly condemned by other Christians, including the Church historian, Socrates Scholasticus, who writing some 20 years after the event, said:
"This affair brought opprobrium, not only upon Cyril, but also upon the whole Alexandrian church. And surely nothing can be farther from the spirit of Christianity than the allowance of massacres, fights, and transactions of that sort." [Taken from the Ecclesiastical History of Socrates Scholasticus Book VII, Chapter XV]Thus, the murder of Hypatia seems to be less the rule than the exception for the Christian population—a case where the Alexandrian church cast off its Christian garments and reverted to their pagan lust for mob justice.