The Assassination Of Hypatia (415)

Never, perhaps, did the wonderful genius of Alexander the Great appear to better advantage than when he selected Alexandria as a commercial centre and distributing point for the products of three continents, and as an intellectual focus from which Hellenic culture should be transmitted to those countries of Asia and Africa which his victories had opened to Greek civilization.

The rapidity with which the city—to which Alexander had given his own name—grew to the dimensions of a great capital and a world-emporium, proved the sagacity and ingenious foresight of its founder, and was unrivalled among all the cities of the ancient world. It became the greatest seaport of the world, surpassing in the grandeur and magnificence of its buildings every other city except Rome itself; and when, through the genius of the Ptolemies, the successors of Alexander as rulers of Egypt, the great library was added to its monuments and treasures of art, it became also the intellectual capital of the world, rivalling and in some respects eclipsing the city of the Cæsars. It is true, long before Alexandria had reached its greatest prosperity, the creative power of Hellenic genius in the higher spheres of poetry and philosophy had passed its zenith. In the so-called Alexandrian age of literature the most beautiful and most poetical inspirations were the idyls of Theocritus. But Alexandria was the first city in the ancient world which became the seat of a many-sided, methodical scholarship, and of systematic, zealous studies of the exact sciences,—a university in the modern sense. It also became the great library city of the world.

It is true, the great library of inestimable value collected by Ptolemy Philadelphus (who also purchased the large library of Aristoteles) had been ruthlessly destroyed in the Alexandrian war of Julius Cæsar. But Ptolemy Physcon collected a second valuable library, which was augmented by the splendid library of King Eumenes of Pergamus, and formed by far the grandest collection of books to be found in the world. Mark Antony gave this splendid library to Queen Cleopatra. It comprised the intellectual treasures of the ancient world, and was placed in a wing of the Serapeum,—in that gigantic and magnificent building which was the grandest temple of ancient Egypt and the pride of Alexandria. The great city of the Ptolemies, with a population of nearly a million souls, had also become a sort of neutral territory upon which all religions could meet on equal terms. The cosmopolitan character of this great commercial centre, in which Christians, Jews, and pagans of all countries competed for the acquisition of wealth, made it natural for all these different citizens to live in harmony and mutual toleration. The time came, however, when Christianity was proclaimed the official state religion under Theodosius the Great, upon whose instigation or order the Roman Senate (not by a unanimous, but by a simple majority vote) passed a resolution declaring that the Christian religion should be the only true religion for the Roman Empire. This official declaration became the signal for a brutal persecution of the old religion throughout the Empire, and especially in its eastern provinces. Very prominent in this work of persecution and destruction was Theophilus, Archbishop of Alexandria, who was famous far and wide as one of the great lights of the Church and as a man of exceptional piety, although many of his actions are utterly inexcusable from a moral point of view. Theophilus was in constant warfare with the pagans and Jews of Alexandria, who quite often joined hands in fighting him. But, as a rule, they were defeated by the pugnacious prelate, who, on such occasions, always found at his command a formidable army composed of the mob of the city and of the monks of the desert of Nitria, which was near the city. The main object of Theophilus’s attacks was the great Serapeum, in which immense treasures of gold, silver, and sacred vessels were stored away, and which contained also the great collection of books,—a perfect armory of pagan philosophy, religion, and poetry,—which was especially obnoxious to him. By shrewdly misrepresenting the spirit of revolt among the Jews and pagans of the city, he succeeded in getting an edict from the Emperor authorizing him to destroy this temple of ancient wisdom and culture,—and, for the second time, the magnificent library of Alexandria was partly destroyed, partly scattered to the winds.

The audacity of Theophilus had inflicted terrible defeats on the non-Christian population of Alexandria, and had utterly disheartened it. On the other hand, the Christian inhabitants showed by their increasing arrogance that they were conscious of the supremacy of their church and of the exclusive protection to which their religion entitled them. However, in spite of this cruel discrimination there still remained at Alexandria a large and intelligent element true to the old religion, or rather to the old philosophy.

Theophilus died in the year 412 A.D., and was succeeded by his nephew Kyrillos, better known as St. Cyril, who continued the vindictive policy against the Jews and pagans which his uncle had inaugurated. It was not long before Cyril had fanaticized the mob against the Jews to such an extent that the latter, driven to despair, took up arms against their aggressors, who had undertaken a regular crusade against their lives and property. Pitched battles and massacres took place in the streets of Alexandria. Hundreds of the unfortunate Jews were slain, and very likely the Jewish population would have been entirely exterminated or expelled from the city, had not Orestes, the imperial governor, interfered in their behalf, and defeated the infuriated mob and the monks of Nitria, who as usual had taken a hand in the fight. But it was a long and stubbornly contested battle. Although Cyril personally did not show himself, it was nevertheless well known that he directed the attacks against the Jews from his hiding-place. Moreover all his most intimate friends actively participated in the riot and strenuously resisted the efforts of the governor to restore peace.

One of these friends personally assaulted and seriously wounded the governor. After the revolt had been quelled, this man was put on trial and sentenced to death. In vain Cyril appealed for mercy and tried to save the life of the accused man. Orestes was implacable, and the condemned man was executed. The disdain with which he had been treated by the governor, enraged the prelate and stimulated him to revenge. A large procession of priests and citizens took the body of the criminal from the gibbet and carried it to the principal church of Alexandria, where the Archbishop read high mass and delivered a sermon full of admiration and eulogy for the victim, filling the hearts of the congregation with hatred and contempt for the authorities, and invoking the punishment of Heaven upon their heads. But even this public demonstration did not satisfy the Archbishop; and with consummate cruelty he hit upon a plan for deeply wounding the governor without attacking him personally.

At that time there lived at Alexandria a young lady of great talent and renown. Her name was Hypatia. She was the daughter of Theon, a celebrated mathematician who lived at Alexandria, and whose genius for mathematics she seemed to have inherited. She first became his pupil, but soon surpassed him in ability and reputation. She also applied herself with great zeal and rare penetration to the study of the philosophy of Plato, whom she greatly admired and much preferred to Aristotle. Since Alexandria had no professors superior to herself in attainments and learning, Hypatia went to Greece and for several years attended the lectures of the most famous professors of Athens. She then returned to Alexandria, and was immediately invited by the authorities to the chair of philosophy in the University. Hypatia accepted this honor and filled the position with brilliant success. It was not only her profound and extensive learning, embracing the entire compass of the exact sciences, but also the charm of her persuasive and mellifluous eloquence which filled her hearers with admiration.

Her reputation as a public lecturer soon equalled her renown as a mathematician and philosopher, and a number of the most distinguished men of Alexandria and other cities were among her regular disciples, listening with delight to her dissertations. One of her most enthusiastic students was Synesius, afterwards Bishop of Ptolemais, who always held her in affectionate reverence, although she had steadily refused to profess the Christian religion. Orestes, the governor, was also among the number of her admirers and was frequently seen at her lectures, which were attended by Christians as well as by pagans. To the great qualities of her mind were added rare physical beauty and a suavity of manners which won the hearts of all those who became acquainted with her. Several of Alexandria’s most prominent citizens desired to marry her, but she refused all proposals because she wanted to live only for the sciences to which she had devoted her life. In spite of her great popularity and the steadily increasing number of admirers, Hypatia’s reputation was spotless; she had many friends, but never had a lover. While this eminent woman’s celebrity as a thinker—which entirely eclipsed his own—would have been sufficient to fill the heart of Cyril with envy and jealousy, there was an additional reason for his hatred and hostility. Orestes, the governor, was a frequent visitor at her house and was known to consult her frequently on important public questions. The Archbishop, perhaps justly, attributed to Hypatia’s influence the governor’s evident leaning toward paganism and his open admiration for the philosophical doctrines of the Greek philosophers. Seeking for a victim on whom to vent his spite against Orestes, he therefore selected Hypatia as the one whose destruction would hurt him most deeply, while at the same time it would deliver himself and the church from their most dangerous opponent. It was comparatively easy for him to inflame the minds of the ignorant masses with rage against the woman who was represented to them as the implacable enemy of their religion, and whose pernicious teachings had led so many others from the path of virtue and salvation.

Everything was carefully but secretly prepared for the fatal blow, which was struck in the month of March, 415. It was a beautiful sunny day, and Hypatia got ready to proceed to the University, where she was to lecture that forenoon. A carriage was waiting for her at the door of her residence. When she entered the carriage she was surprised at the unusual number of people filling the street, and at the great number of monks passing through their ranks and apparently haranguing them. She could not account for this strange gathering, for it was not a Christian holiday, nor was any civil procession to come off that morning.

All at once she noticed that this great assemblage of people began to move in the direction of her own house. As it came nearer she heard wild exclamations and threats, without comprehending, however, that she was the object of this hostile demonstration. At the head of the procession marched Peter, the reader, one of the most fanatical of the priests of the city; he had played a very prominent part in the previous riots, and was evidently the leader in this new movement. With growing astonishment Hypatia saw them coming, but in the consciousness of her innocence she had no fear. She was soon to be cruelly disabused.

As soon as the rioters were within a few hundred feet of her residence and saw her seated in her carriage ready to start, the leaders and those in the front rank rushed toward her. Peter, the reader, was the first to reach her and to lay hands on her. As she recoiled from his touch in terror, others climbed upon the wheels of the carriage and dragged her down into the street. She resisted and called for help, but her cries died away unheard in the tumult of the roaring and jeering multitude who surrounded the carriage and with ever-increasing violence uttered threats against her.

Popular excitement is a flame which feeds itself by the electric current emanating from thousands of impassioned and excited minds. It is ready on slight provocation to burst forth in all-devouring violence. But a few minutes had passed from the moment the procession reached Hypatia’s carriage until the infuriated mob, holding the victim firmly in their grasp, had torn the garments from her body and hurried her with wild cheers and laughter to the Cæsarium, the great Christian church. Paralyzed with fear, unable to utter anything but screams and cries for help, she was dragged, in a state of perfect nudity, through the streets, and neither her helplessness nor her beauty softened the hearts of her tormentors and murderers. She was doomed to die, to be sacrificed at a Christian altar, atoning for her unbelief and her pernicious teachings with her life. One of her own friends, like herself adhering to the ancient cult and to Platonic philosophy, fitly compared Hypatia’s murder to the sacrifice of a Greek goddess by drunken and infuriated barbarians. But the crowning infamy of this assassination, as brutal as any that history has recorded, was that the victim was dragged to the church of Christ,—Christ, the incarnation of love and mercy,—and slaughtered there amidst the yells and curses of the so-called believers.

Hundreds of women had swelled the mob, and like the men they were brandishing flints, shells, and broken pottery, with which to cut and lacerate their victim that they might feast their eyes on her agony.

Charles Kingsley has given in his famous novel, “Hypatia,” a heart-rending description of the last moments of the illustrious woman-philosopher. The description may not be accurate in every little detail, but Mr. Kingsley sees the scene with the eye and with the imagination of a poet, and his description is poetically true. Our readers will thank us for quoting his words in rendering this final scene:—

“Whither were they dragging her?… On into the church itself! Into the cool dim shadow, with its fretted pillars, and lowering domes, and candles, and incense, and blazing altar, and great pictures looking from the walls athwart the gorgeous gloom; and right in front, above the altar, the colossal Christ watching unmoved from off the wall, his right hand raised to give a blessing—or a curse?

“On, up the nave, fresh shreds of her dress strewing the holy pavement—up the chancel steps themselves—right underneath the great, still Christ: and there even those hell-hounds paused…. She shook herself free from her tormentors, and springing back, rose for one moment to her full height, naked, snow-white against the dusky mass around—shame and indignation in those wide, clear eyes, but not a stain of fear. With one hand she clasped her golden locks around her; the other long white arm was stretched upward toward the great still Christ, appealing—and who dare say in vain?—from man to God. Her lips were open to speak; but the words that should have come from them reached God’s ear alone; for in an instant Peter struck her down, the dark mass closed over her again … and then wail on wail, long, wild, ear-piercing, ran along the vaulted roofs…. What in the name of the God of mercy were they doing? Tearing her piece-meal? Yes, and worse than that!… It was over. The shrieks had died away into moans, the moans to silence…. A new cry rose through the dome: ‘To the Cinaron! Burn the bones to ashes! Scatter them into the sea!’”

In the whole annals of crime not a more heart-rending and more brutal scene can be found than the murder of Hypatia. The assassination of the beautiful young Princess de Lamballe, the friend of Marie Antoinette, during the worst days of the French Revolution, bears some resemblance to it; but, after all, political fanaticism is never equal in its intensity and cruelty to religious fanaticism. Moreover, the fate of Hypatia shows that not all the martyrs were on the side of Christianity in the early ages of the Christian church. It should be stated, however, that a general cry of horror resounded through the world when the terrible news of Hypatia’s death crossed the seas and was echoed from land to land, and that the Christian Church, by its most illustrious representatives, was loud in its denunciation of the murder.

Upon the fame and name of St. Cyril the murder of Hypatia has left a lasting stain; for the plan and execution were generally attributed to him. Even Catholic Church historians, both ancient and modern, criticise him severely for his imprudent and ill-advised instigations against Hypatia and her followers, although they try to protect his memory against the reproach of having intentionally caused her death.


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