June 4, 2010

The Perniciously Persistent Myths of Hypatia and the Great Library

Jun 4, 2010
David B. Hart
First Things

As I write this, the first two of what I expect will be three theatrically morose sighs have just issued from my lips; they’re all quite inaudible to you, I know, but they would wrack your heart with pity if you could hear them.

The occasion of my misery is the release of Alejandro Amenábar’s film Agora, which purports to be a historical account of the murder of the female philosopher Hypatia by a Christian mob in the early fifth century, of the destruction of the Great Library of Alexandria, and (more generally) of an alleged conflict that raged in the ancient world between Greek science and Christian faith. I have not actually seen the movie, and have no intention of doing so (I would say you couldn’t pay me to watch it, but that’s not, strictly speaking, true). All I know about it is what I have read in an article by Larry Rohter in the New York Times. But that is enough to put my teeth on edge.

Not that I entirely blame Mr. Amenábar. The story he repeats is one that has been bruited about for a few centuries now, often by seemingly respectable historians. Its premise is that the Christians of late antiquity were a brutish horde of superstitious louts, who despised science and philosophy, and frequently acted to suppress both, and who also had a particularly low opinion of women.

Thus, supposedly, one tragic day in a.d. 391, the Christians of Alexandria destroyed the city’s Great Library, burning its scrolls, annihilating the accumulated learning of centuries, and effectively inaugurating the “Dark Ages.” Thus also, in a.d. 415, a group of Christians murdered Hypatia (young and beautiful, of course, as well as brilliant), not only because of her wicked dedication to profane intellectual culture, but also because of the frowardness with which she had forgotten her proper place as a woman.

This is almost all utter nonsense, but I have to suppose that Amenábar believes it to be true.

This does not, of course, exculpate him of his own silly contributions to the story. Apparently, there is a scene in the film in which Hypatia is forced to wear a veil, of a sort vaguely reminiscent of a burqa, which makes about as much sense in a film about late antique Alexandria as a scene set in a singles bar specializing in Hawaiian drinks.

And then, it seems, there is a scene in which Hypatia ventures the heliocentric hypothesis, which—to anyone familiar with the neoplatonism to which she was devoted or the Aristotelian-Ptolemeian cosmological system in which she was trained—is worse than ludicrous. But, again, these little “artistic” touches are only minor additions to a picture that is already so grotesquely distorted that they hardly matter.

The tale of a Christian destruction of the Great Library—so often told, so perniciously persistent—is a tale about something that never happened. By this, I do not mean that there is some divergence of learned opinion on the issue, or that the original sources leave us in some doubt as to the nature of the event. I mean that nothing of the sort ever occurred.

Rohter almost gets the matter right when he remarks that “Roman-era chronicles, as well as later works, suggest that at least part of the library was destroyed when Julius Caesar invaded Egypt in 48 b.c., and that Christians were responsible only for the damage done in Hypatia’s time to a secondary ‘daughter library,’ which may also have been attacked by Muslim conquerors in the seventh century a.d.” But, in fact, there is not a single shred of evidence—ancient, medieval, or modern—that Christians were responsible for either collection’s destruction, and no one before the late eighteenth century ever suggested they were.

The Great Library of Alexandria is one of the more fascinating mysteries of late antique civilization. It enters history already as something largely legendary. Even Strabo, who died around a.d. 23, knew of it only as a tale from the past. We know that it had been built as an adjunct to the Great Museum in the Brucheium (the royal quarter of Alexandria) in the first half of the third century b.c. Its size, however, is impossible to establish.

The estimate in ancient texts varies wildly, between 40,000 scrolls—for the ancient world, an astounding but still plausible number—and 700,000—which is almost certainly impossibly high. And, as of yet, archaeologists have failed to find the remains of any building sufficiently large to have sheltered a collection on either scale.

Whatever the case, as Rohter says, various ancient sources report that the library was destroyed, either in whole or in part, during Julius Caesar’s Alexandrian campaign against Pompey in 48 or 47 b.c. If any part of it remained in the Brucheium, it would probably have perished when the museum was destroyed in a.d. 272, during Aurelian’s wars of imperial reunification. It was certainly no longer in existence in 391.

Rohter is right that there was perhaps a “daughter” library, which may have been located in the grounds of the Serapeum—the large temple of the Ptolemies’ hybrid Greco-Egyptian god, Serapis—placed there either in the late third century b.c., or in the late second century a.d., when the Serapeum was restored and expanded. At least, there is good evidence that scrolls were at certain points kept among the temple complex’s colonnades.

And, in fact, the Serapeum was destroyed in 391. After a series of riots between the pagan and Christian communities of Alexandria—Alexandria was the most extravagantly violent city of the antique world, and riots were something of a revered civic tradition—a number of Christian hostages had been murdered inside the Serapeum, which led the Emperor Theodosius to order the complex demolished (though he excused the murderers, inasmuch as the Christians they had killed were now considered martyrs, and any act of vengeance would have detracted from their witness). And so a detachment of Roman soldiers, with the assistance of an eager crowd of Christians, dismantled the complex—or, at any rate, the temple within it.

As it happens, we have fairly good accounts of that day, Christian and pagan, and absolutely none of them so much as hints at the destruction of any large collection of books. Not even Eunapius of Sardis—a pagan scholar who despised Christians and who would have wept over the loss of precious texts—suggests such a thing. This is not surprising, since there were probably no books there to be destroyed.

The pagan historian Ammianus Marcellinus, describing the Serapeum not long before its demolition, had clearly spoken of its libraries as something no longer in existence. The truth of the matter is that the entire legend was the product of the imagination of Edward Gibbon, who bizarrely misread a single sentence from the Christian historian Orosius, and from it spun out a story that appears nowhere in the entire corpus of ancient historical sources.

Which brings me to Hypatia. I do sometimes wish the poor woman’s memory could be left in peace. She’s been the victim of such sordidly sentimental nonsense over the past few centuries that it’s almost impossible to appreciate her for what she was, or to disentangle the tragedy of her death from the ideological rants that typically surround its telling.

She was, all the evidence suggests, a brilliant lecturer in Platonic thought, a trained scientist, and the author of a few mathematical commentaries. Despite the extravagant claims often made on her behalf, however, there is no reason to believe she made any particularly significant contributions to any of her fields of expertise.

She was not, for instance—as she has often been said to have been—the inventor of either the astrolabe or the hydrometer. It is true that the first extant mention of a hydrometer appears in a letter written to Hypatia by her devoted friend, Synesius of Cyrene, the Christian Platonist and bishop of Ptolemais; but that is because Synesius, in that letter, is explaining to her how the device is made, so that she can arrange to have one assembled for him

At the time of her death, she was probably not even the beautiful young woman of lore; she was in all likelihood over sixty.

She was, however, brutally murdered—and then dismembered—by a gang of Christian parabalani (a fraternity originally founded to care for the city’s poor); that much is true. This was not, however, because she was a woman (female intellectuals were not at all uncommon in the Eastern Empire, among either pagans or Christians), or because she was a scientist and philosopher (the scientific and philosophical class of Alexandria comprised pagans, Jews, and Christians, and there was no popular Christian prejudice against science or philosophy).

And it was certainly not because she was perceived as an enemy of the Christian faith; she got on quite well with the educated Christians of Alexandria, numbered many among her friends and students, and was intellectually far closer to them than to the temple cultists of the lower city; and the frankest account of her murder was written by the Christian historian Socrates, who obviously admired her immensely. It seems likely that she died simply because she became inadvertently involved in a vicious political squabble between the city’s imperial prefect and the city’s patriarch, and some of the savages of the lower city decided to take matters into their own hands.

In the end, the true story of Hypatia—which no one will ever make into a film—tells us very little about ancient religion, or about the relation between ancient Christianity and the sciences, and absolutely nothing about some alleged perennial conflict between Christianity and science; but it does tell us a great deal about social class in the late Hellenistic world.

Think of it as an ideal Marxist allegory. It may seem unimaginable to us now that Christians from the lower classes in late antique Alexandria could have conspired in the horrific assassination of an unarmed woman and a respected scholar, but, as it happens, that was how Alexandria was often governed at street level, by every sect and persuasion.

In the royal quarter, pagans, Christians, and Jews generally studied together, shared a common intellectual culture, collaborated in scientific endeavor, and attended one another’s lectures. In the lower city, however, religious allegiance was often no more than a matter of tribal identity, and the various tribes often slaughtered one another with gay abandon.

The chasm between the two worlds could scarcely have been vaster. Hypatia was a victim of what might fashionably be called a social contradiction—one that none of the science, philosophy, or religion of the time had ever done anything to resolve.

David B. Hart is a contributing writer of First Things. His most recent book is "Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies".