Why do little girls adore martyrs so much? Perhaps it’s preparation for marriage. In my elementary school, the book on Jeanne d’Arc was one of the most heavily worn and pawed over volumes in our small library, and my fingerprints are over every page, if the tattered book still exists at all. The imprisoned and beheaded Lady Jane Gray tended to be more popular than the triumphant Queen Elizabeth I. So did Mary Queen of Scots.
If girls persist beyond the stake and the axe, they eventually learn about … Hypatia of Alexandria, as I did.
Nowadays it doesn’t take much precocity to learn the story. Rachel Weisz tells it all to us in Alejandro Amenábar’s 2009 film Agora. The Neoplatonic scholar was the most learned woman in the ancient world since Diotima, chatty girlfriend of Socrates. The mathematician, astronomer, philosopher, and presumed habituée of the Library of Alexandria, was lynched by an angry early Christian mob on March 8, 415 A.D. It was all her book larnin’ that did her in. The Library of Alexandria was destroyed by arson at about the same time.
But did it really happen that way? Many have taken on the story since the movie came out, but perhaps none better than blogger Tim O’Neill over at the blog Armarium Magnus. I write this post as a public service, to squish like a bug another myth about the big struggle between faith and science. (“I believe in philosophy,” intones Rachel Weisz-cum-Hypatia. But is philosophy a a faith to be believed, or a set of propositions to be tested in one’s life?)
Writes O’Neill: “As an atheist, I’m clearly no fan of fundamentalism – even the 1500 year old variety (though modern manifestations tend to be the ones to watch out for). And as an amateur historian of science I’m more than happy with the idea of a film that gets across the idea that, yes, there was a tradition of scientific thinking before Newton and Galileo. But Amenabar has taken the (actually, fascinating) story of what was going on in Alexandria in Hypatia’s time and turned it into a cartoon, distorting history in the process. …
“Not that there is anything very new or original about this – Hypatia has long been pressed into service as a martyr for science by those with agendas that have nothing to do with the accurate presentation of history. As Maria Dzielska has detailed in her study of Hypatia in history and myth, Hypatia of Alexandria, virtually every age since her death that has heard her story has appropriated it and forced it to serve some polemical purpose.”
But … but … but… what of the Library of Alexandria? My own guess is that it probably wasn’t a patch on Google, and nobody gets all misty-eyed about that. Nevertheless…
“To begin with, the Great Library of Alexandria no longer existed in Hypatia’s time. Precisely when and how it had been destroyed is unclear, though a fire in Alexandria caused by Julius Caesar’s troops in 48 BC is the most likely main culprit. More likely this and/or other fires were part of a long process of decline and degradation of the collection. Strangely, given that we know so little about it, the Great Library has long been a focus of some highly imaginative fantasies. The idea that it contained 500,000 or even 700,000 books is often repeated uncritically by many modern writers, even though comparison with the size other ancient libraries and estimates of the size of the building needed to house such a collection makes this highly unlikely. It is rather more probable that it was around less than a tenth of these numbers, though that would still make it the largest library in the ancient world by a wide margin.
“The idea that the Great Library was still in existence in Hypatia’s time and that it was, like her, destroyed by a Christian mob has been popularised by Gibbon, who never let history get in the way of a good swipe at Christianity. But what Gibbon was talking about was the temple known as the Serapeum, which was not the Great Library at all. It seems the Serapeum had contained a library at some point and this was a ‘daughter library’ of the former Great Library. But the problem with Gibbon’s version is that no account of the destruction of the Serapeum by the Bishop Theophilus in AD 391 makes any mention of a library or any books, only the destruction of pagan idols and cult objects…”
“Even hostile, anti-Christian accounts of this event, like that of Eunapius of Sardis (who witnessed the demolition), do not mention any library or books being destroyed. And Ammianus Marcellinus, who seems to have visited Alexandria before 391, describes the Serapeum and mentions that it had once housed a library, indicating that by the time of its destruction it no longer did so. The fact is that, with no less than five independent accounts detailing this event, the destruction of the Serapeum is one of the best attested events in the whole of ancient history. Yet nothing in the evidence indicates the destruction of any library along with the temple complex.
“Still, the myth of a Christian mob destroying the ‘Great Library of Alexandria’ is too juicy for some to resist, so this myth remains a mainstay for arguments that ‘Christianity caused the Dark Ages’ despite the fact it is completely without foundation. And it seems Amenabar couldn’t resist it either – thus a scene early in the movie features an anxious Hypatia scrambling to rescue precious scrolls before a screaming mob bearing crosses bursts through a barred door to destroy what he’s dubbed ‘the second library of Alexandria’ (presumably he means the Serapeum). This seems to be at the beginning of the movie, apparently setting the stage for the conflicts between science and religion that will end in Hypatia’s murder. [Carl] Sagan, on the other hand, put the destruction of the Library after her murder. In fact, it seems no such destruction happened either in her lifetime or after it and the idea it did is simply part of the mythic parable.”
You can read all about it here. And what of Hypatia? Yes, she was gruesomely murdered by a mob. But the reasons were political, not philosophical or religious. And oh, by the way, she was probably about 65 years old. Sorry Rachel.
The weak of heart (or mind) can stick with the movie version: