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The intolerant nature of Christianity was given weight by the emperors who followed Julian. The worst excesses of a Christian state were to be realized in the late fourth and in those that followed. These excesses were not always official, that is, mandated by the imperial government but were often local and accomplished in collusion with or in defiance of local authorities. We hear quite often in the Christian martyr stories how Pagan mobs assaulted and killed Christians but we seldom hear anything about the violence directed by Christian mobs towards Pagans. But MacMullen at least has taken note of the increasingly frequent attacks by “individuals, groups and mobs” against Pagans as we proceed from the third to the sixth centuries.[1]

Perhaps the best known victim of Christian mob violence is the philosopher Hypatia (370-415).[2] Hypatia was the daughter of Theon, who was head of the Museum or Library of Alexandria during the reign of Theodosius I, possibly its last.[3] Hypatia herself was a Neoplatonist and mathematician, and more importantly, a Pagan, though Dzielska argues that her Paganism was of a philosophical or intellectual variety more in line with that of Plotinus than the popular form celebrated through sacrifices and other rites.[4] She was the author of several commentaries, including one on Diophantus, an astronomical canon and a Commentary on Apollonius’ Conics. Some of her own work may survive in this last and it was as a mathematician, more than a philosopher that she was remembered after her death.[5]

Drake discusses an aspect of fourth century life (which in Alexandria, and probably elsewhere), was to be found also in the early fifth century, and that is a sort of laissez-faire attitude existing between Christian and Pagan communities. Drake sees a “richly interwoven world” that “defies easy division into ‘Christian’ and ‘pagan’.”[6] Certainly, until Cyril put in an appearance, Hypatia seems to have existed comfortably in such a world, drawing to her not only Pagans but also Christians, including two who would later become bishops. John of Nikiu testifies to her popularity among Christians, saying that she “drew many believers to her” though it does not seem she converted or even tried to convert any of them to Paganism, even the philosophical variety.[7]

The reign of Theodosius, was of course, a particularly violent and dangerous time for Pagans and this laissez-faire attitude spoken of by Drake was fast becoming history, in Alexandria and elsewhere, as can be seen with Augustine’s rhetoric and actions in Africa. We might note here that in 391 all Pagan cults had been prohibited by Theodosius II and the great temple of Serapis, the Serapeum, destroyed the same year, while in the West the revolt of Eugenius (392-394) took on the aspect of an attempted Pagan revival (though Eugenius himself was at least nominally Christian). So tensions were running high both in the empire as a whole and in Alexandria specifically.

It was in this atmosphere of intolerance that Cyril, the new patriarch, assumed his see in 412 and at once began to enthusiastically enforce the emperor’s anti-Pagan legislation. In this, he soon found himself working against the Roman governor of the province, Orestes, who though a Christian was sympathetic, or at least not unsympathetic to Paganism and its adherents. This in itself is not altogether unusual, as there were Pagan Roman governors who were equally tolerant of Christianity and many Christians, as we have seen, were only nominally so. It is possible that Orestes was one of these, or was simply that much more enlightened than his counterpart, Cyril.

It seems that Cyril’s intention was to seize full control of the province in order that he could complete his repressive program (or pogrom, which might be a better term). Hypatia was known to be close to Orestes, and this, combined with her outspoken nature, put her at risk, especially when the Christians felt that she stood in the way of the governor and patriarch reaching an accord. This is not impossible. As Maria Dzielska notes, “Moving in high government circles, surrounded by imperial and town dignitaries and by wealthy, well-born, and influential students, Hypatia must have had some voice in town affairs and have influenced political and social life in Alexandria.”[8]

Still, Hypatia, as Dzielska tells us, was not a Pagan activist. “She was not seen at any sites of the battles between pagans and Christians” and her own circle included Christians as well as Pagans. This broad appeal of hers was made possible by her devotion to a philosophical form of Paganism as opposed to the popular. If she did not participate in cult practices, her Christian students and admirers could have found little to criticize in her, even Patriarch Theophilus, whose conduct enraged the city’s Pagans, at least until zealots like the emperor Theodosius II and his dog, Cyril, stepped onto the stage to stoke the fires of intolerance.

Cyril was seen by his contemporaries as embodying many unsavory characteristics, including impetuousness and, it would seem, borderline megalomania. J.M. Risk describes him as a “violent and hot-headed man.”[9] Installed as bishop on October 17, 412, Cyril moved at once against freedom of religion by expelling the Novatians from the city, “closing their churches, confiscating their liturgical objects, and depriving their bishop of all rights.” Next Cyril went after the Jews, whom Orestes, to his credit, supported against the bishop, and Alexandria erupted with riots, fire and death.[10] MacMullen calls Hypatia’s fate “illuminating”[11] and it is certainly that, for though she was a Pagan, she was not killed for that reason, or at least not for that reason alone. The Roman world was in the throes of religious upheaval and the factions weres still sorting themselves out. Sometimes, as in Alexandria, when they were not themselves the target, Pagans found themselves uncomfortably in the middle.

Faced with opposition and seeing that he could not obtain what he wanted by sheer force of personality or position, Cyril called upon reinforcements from the Nitrian wilderness. Cyril already possessed a fighting force, called the parabalanai or parabolans (“church workers with muscle” as MacMullen calls them), a group some 500-800 strong. Though their original purpose had been to collect the needy and conduct them to hospitals or almshouses, they had become the personal bodyguard of the patriarch. Apparently, Cyril no longer thought they were sufficiently intimidating, though they were destined to play a role in unfolding affairs, as we shall see. The monks, like Hitler’s brownshirts, were old hands at streetfighting and probably as zealous; veterans of Theophilus’ own conflicts, including those against Pagans. Certainly there is little to choose between them in terms of thuggery.

Their first act seems to have been to go after Orestes himself and accuse the poor man of being a Hellene (Pagan), whereupon the stone-throwing began, despite his protestations of innocence (he had been baptized in Constantinople). The prefect was hit in the head and began bleeding, and his (apparently useless) guard detail panicked and scattered; he was only rescued by a group of concerned Alexandrian Christians. That they had the courage to stand up to Cyril’s stormtroopers speaks volumes for the courage of their convictions, and also, possibly, of their own experience in street fighting. Alexandria, after all, was always a rowdy, tempestuous city.

Orestes, once he was secure, then had the monk who had thrown the stone, one Ammonius, arrested and tortured. Ammonius died as a result and both men appealed to the capital, but moderate Christians apparently sided with the prefect against the bishop. Ammonius was, of course, hailed as a martyr by the off-put Cyril.[12] The ruling class (including the archontes, or city officials) also seems to have rallied around their embattled prefect, including his old friend, Hypatia, an event recorded by Socrates. Dzielska believes there is basis for the rumor that she stood “like a lion” between prefect and bishop; that she “shared with Orestes the conviction that the authority of the bishops should not extend to areas meant for the imperial and municipal administration.

Against Orestes and his supporters were pitted Cyril’s ecclesiastical party, including his stormtroopers, the Nitrian monks, and the clergy, as well as, Dzielska thinks, some of the city’s intellectual elite and possibly the city council. What is important to note is that both parties were essentially Christian in character and makeup.[13] What is also important to note in response to the Christian claim that their religion did nothing to weaken the Roman Empire or to hasten its demise, is that this sort of nonsense would not have occurred in the Pagan empire.

Hypatia was influential, not only within Alexandria, but without, reaching, so Dzielska notes, “as far as Constantinople, Syria, and Cyrene.” Because of this, “Her friendships and influence among imperial functionaries and hieratics of the church would surely have generated anxiety among Cyril’s followers.” But Cyril had a solution to this problem. He attacked her as a witch and accused her of black magic, which had been illegal in Pagan Rome as well. She had, Cyril said, “beguiled many people through [her] satanic wiles,” including the governor. Nor, of course, did her support for the Jews stand her in good stead with Christian zealots. She was, they said, responsible for the Jewish attacks on innocent Christians in the earlier conflict, as well as for the prefect’s support of the Jews.

John of Nikiu as well as Socrates Scholasticus in his Ecclesiastical History, leave accounts of Hypatia’s murder and there are both similarities and differences between them. The Christian ringleader, acting under Cyril’s direction, was apparently a lector named Peter. Hypatia was riding through the city in her chariot, on her way home, when the Christian mob, led by the parabalanai, turned their frenzy upon her.[14] There is no reason to dispute MacMullen’s summary of the events of that day, or of its significance:
It may be recalled that, snatched from the street by a mob of zealots in Alexandria, she was hacked to death in the gloom of the so-called Caesar-church and her body burned. She was a non-Christian and a prominent voice for her views; she had become the focus of the patriarch Cyril’s resentment; the lector had caught his master’s wishes and led the crowd that killed her. All this seems certain. In the background, explaining Cyril’s heat, were the indirectly connected Greek-Jewish tensions in the city and the patriarch’s and the provincial governor’s conflict over their respective followings and strength. In the contest between these two, the patriarch called on his parabalani, church workers with some muscle, as well as hundreds of monks from the Nitrian wilds with still more muscle. The monks shouted against the governor and stoned him, though he escaped alive. They constituted, with the civil and episcopal authorities and nameless zealots, the available agents of that reforming urgency which governed religious change in the centuries post-400, all conveniently seen in action in the drama that ends with the death of Hypatia.[15]

The church into which poor Hypatia was dragged was the old center of the imperial cult in Alexandria, a building called the Caesareum. It still retained this name, though it had been converted (as had so many temples) into a church and rededicated to Saint Michael. What is important to take note of is that the Caesareum was the see of Patriarch Cyril himself – yes, his Church – his headquarters, if you will.[16] Thus Cyril achieved his despicable aims through equally despicable tactics. Orestes was recalled, or requested his recall and disappears from the pages of history. The city councilors apparently tried to intervene against the bishop on behalf of the city but with Hypatia gone, Cyril’s friends at court found no obstacle to the emperor’s ear and Damascius says the affair was hushed up.[17]

After the fact, Cyril justified the deed by proclaiming it part of the unrelenting war on Paganism. The path was now clear to turn on both Jews and Pagans and make Alexandria a Christian city. We see in this affair something of what was taking place all through the empire: bloodshed and violence, not only against Jews and Pagans (as most of Orestes’ supporters were Christians) but also against other Christians, heretics or just supporters of other potential bishops. Conversion, as we saw in an earlier chapter, was achieved through blood, and Drake’s period of laissez-faire was not destined to last. As Dzielska says,
[T]he murder of Hypatia, a sixty-year-old woman, widely esteemed for her wisdom and ethical virtue, was not only an act of hatred but also a criminal offense warranting a swift and severe response from those charged with upholding the law. As Damascius asserts, that response never came; those who committed the crime were unpunished and brought notable disgrace upon their city.[18]

J.M. Rist blames the rabble, claiming Cyril had no part to play in their conclusions about Hypatia’s influence over Orestes, and excuses Cyril of all charges save one, that of covering up the crime.[19] But Dzielska holds Cyril responsible, even if he did not commit the murder himself (and she does not think he planned it either), though he created the atmosphere that led to her death as “the chief instigator of the campaign of defamation against Hypatia.”[20] After all, it was his city, and his watch, and the parabalanai were under his direct command, as was Peter the Lector. Pierre Chuvin’s verdict is harsher. He makes clear that “His hands cannot have been entirely clean, since the murder was committed in his own patriarchal church.”[21]

If Hypatia, so well known and well respected, with so many connections at the imperial court, could be murdered in cold blood and in public, who was safe? As it turned out, nobody. The Theodosian Code had been only a logical extension of Constantine’s own legal enactments against traditional cults. Henceforth, even these enactments would pale beside the acts of Church authorities, acting under imperial auspices, as well as the imperial government itself, not to mention Christian mobs with and without the feared black-robed monks. Brutal suppression of Paganism would follow, from the top down, from purges at the ministerial level all the way down to the humble peasant, who as Harl notes “were frequently compelled to submit to conversion by violence.”[22] The fifth century was destined to be a century of brutal repression to rival that of the already blood-bathed fourth.


[1] Ramsay MacMullen. Christianity & Paganism in the Fourth to Eighth Centuries (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997), 33.

[2] 370 is the commonly accepted date for her birth but Maria Dzielska, Hypatia of Alexandria (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995), 67-68, argues for an earlier date, c. 355.

[3] Michael A.B. Deakin, “Hypatia and Her Mathematics,” The American Mathematical Monthly 101 (1994), 234.

[4] Dzielska, 83.

[5] Deakin, 239, following P. Tannery, Diophanti Alexandrini opera omnia (Leipzig: Teubner, 1893-1895). For Hypatia’s accomplishments and contributions to the field of mathematics see Maria Dzielska, Hypatia of Alexandria (Harvard, 1995); Michael A B Deakin, “Hypatia of Alexandria,” Mathematics Education 8 (1992), 187-191; I Mueller, “Hypatia (370?-415),” in L S Grinstein and P J Campbell (eds.), Women of Mathematics (Westport, Conn., 1987), 74-79. Dzielska praises and Rist downplays her philosophical achievements. Rist ventures that “her dreadful end secured her a posthumous glory which her philosophical achievements would never have warranted.” See idem, “Hypatia,” 224.

[6] H. A. Drake “What Eusebius Knew: The Genesis of the ‘Vita Constantini’” Classical Philology 83 (1988), 27. See also idem, “Lambs into Lions: Explaining Early Christian Intolerance,” Past and Present 153 (1996).

[7] Dzielska (1995), 44. John of Nikiu, Chron. 84.88.

[8] Dzielska (1995), 41. Socrates notes in his Ecclesiastical History that the chief people of the city “esteemed her highly” for her sophrosyne, a Greek word meaning, roughly, self control and moderation. Damascius, who wrote a biography of her which survives only in fragments, notes as well as her sophrosyne another virtue held in high esteem by the Greeks, dikaiosyne, or justice (Dam. frag. 102). In Nicomachean Ethics (1103a6-7) Aristotle connects the virtue of sophrosyne with active, political life, which would argue in favor of an active participation on her part in the political life of the city.

[9] J.M. Rist, “Hypatia,” Phoenix 19 (1965), 222.

[10] Dzielska (1995), 83-85. The Novatians were similar to the Donatists in North Africa and felt that the Catholic Church had become both corrupt and lax. Their name for themselves really says it all: “The Pure”.

[11] MacMullen (1997), 15.

[12] Noted in MacMullen (1997), 132. Socrates, Ecclesiastical History, 7.14. The body was buried in a church and the dead terrorist renamed Saint Wonderful (Thaumasius).

[13] Socrates, Ecclesiastical History, 7.15. Dzielska notes that Orestes had been able, in the years 414-415 to forge a political party owing to Hypatia’s support, and that it included not only leaders of the Jewish community, which Orestes had shown support for, but also Christian moderates (Dzielska, 88).

[14] Dzielska (1995), 89-92. John of Nikiu called Peter “a perfect believer in all respects in Jesus Christ” while Hypatia is “the pagan woman”.

[15] MacMullen (1997), 15. Her murder was particularly brutal, even for that age. The weapons used in the act were “broken bits of pottery” (ostrakois aneilon), though sometimes said to be “oyster shells”.Chuvin (88-89) accepts the use of both. The place at which she was burned as outside the city, a place called Kinaron, and her pyre was a pile of sticks. See also Dzielska, 93.

[16] Pierre Chuvin, A Chronicle of the Last Pagans, trans. B.A. Archer (Cambridge, Mass, 1990), 88.

[17] Damascius, frag. 102. There was a reaction from the imperial government, which apparently realized the dangers of a Church out of control. In 416 the new praetorian prefect stripped Cyril of his authority over the parabalanai, reduced their number to 500 and “prohibited them from appearing in public places or entering the preises of the city council or its tribunals.” But just two years later Cyril regained control of his thugs and increased their number to 600. “Only the restrictions on their movements about the city remained in force” (Dzielska, 95-96). See in this regard C. Th. 16.2.42 and 43.

[18] Dzielska, 99. Damascius, frag. 102.

[19] J.M. Risk, “Hypatia,” 223-224.

[20] Dzielska, 97, who makes no mention of the fact that the Caesareum was Cyril’s see and so fails to draw the proper conclusions from this fact. It hardly seems likely that the crime would have been committed in the patriarch’s own church without his knowledge and therefore, complicity.

[21] Chuvin (1990), 89.

[22] K.W. Harl, “Sacrifice and Pagan Belief in Fifth- and Sixth-Century Byzantium” Past and Present 128 (1990), 19.

Sidebar Notes

Hypatia was a Pagan scholar, philosopher and mathematician

Hypatia was murdered by the storm trooper monks of Patriarch of Alexandria, "Saint" Cyril.