In his biography of Augustine of Hippo, Peter Brown, the man who is largely responsible for the term “late antiquity” in its current usage, describes the climate of religious violence in North Africa during the first decade of the fifth century AD like this:
For over a decade, the Bishops in Africa had provoked the destruction of the old ways. Public Paganism had been suppressed: the great temples were closed; the statues broken up, often by Christian mobs; the proud inscriptions … used to pave public highways.
Classicist Michael Gaddis describes the following incident during this same period:
In the early fifth century, the Egyptian monk Shenoute issued an open letter containing a thundering denunciation of a local pagan magnate. Shenoute and his followers had taken the law into their own hands, ransacked the pagan’s house, and smashed his idols. In response to the magnate’s accusation of lesteria–banditry, crime, illegal violence–against him, Shenoute proclaimed that “there is no crime for those who have Christ.”
Gaddis uses this catchy phrase of Shenoute’s for the title of his 2005 study of religious violence in the Christian Roman Empire: There is no crime for those who have Christ. Appropriately, the story of Shenoute appears on page one of that book.
The religious violence that Gaddis and Brown describe, however, did not suddenly appear out of nowhere in the year 400 AD. Although it is a bit of an oversimplification, the year 381 provides a non-arbitrary starting point for this reign of religious violence. It was in that year that the Emperor Theodosius finally made an open declaration of an ideologically monolithic one-religion state, in which only Nicene Christianity would be allowed in the Roman Empire. In fact, however, legal proscriptions against Paganism go all the way back to 312, when Constantine first decided to favor the new religion of Christianity and discourage the ancient Pagan traditions. But somewhere along the line between 312 and 381 the Roman state went from discouraging Paganism to punishing it with prison, torture and execution.
The situation of Paganism during the 380’s is indicated in Libanius’ oration For the Temples, in which we learn that after the death of the last Pagan Emperor, Julian, in 362, sacrifices at Pagan temples were, in theory, still allowed “for some time”, but then were mostly prohibited, with only the offering of incense being permitted. But the real problem, according to Libanius were mobs of “black garbed people” who “run to the temples, bringing with them wood, and stones, and iron ….” According to Libanius those who commit these acts of violence against Pagan sacred sites gather afterward “and they require of each other an account of what they have done; and he is ashamed who cannot tell of some great injury which he has been guilty of.”
They, therefore, spread themselves over the country like torrents, wasting the countries together with the temples: for wherever they demolish the temple of a country, at the same time the country itself is blinded, declines, and dies…. Nor are they satisfied with this, for they also seize the lands of some, saying it is sacred: and many are deprived of their paternal inheritance upon a false pretence. Thus these men riot upon other people’s misfortunes, who say they worship God with fasting. And if they who are abused come to the pastor in the city, (for so they call a man who is not one of the meekest,) complaining of the injustice that has been done them, this pastor commends these, but rejects the others, as if they ought to think themselves happy that they have suffered no more.
Libanius wrote this in 386, and while it was an appeal for all of the remaining Pagan sacred sites in the Empire that had not already been destroyed by Christian mobs, it was in particular a plea for the Serapaeum in Alexandria. Five years later, in 391, Christian mobs attacked the ancient temple of Serapis, although first they had to fight their way through Pagans who had gathered to defend their old Gods. In the end the Pagans were no match for the crowd of “monks” and lay Christians and the 600+ year old temple was demolished and a “church” built on on the site, and the other remaining Pagan temples in Alexandria were also destroyed. Unfortunately there is very little comfort in that profound insight of J. William Fulbright, reflecting on the debacle of Vietnam, that while “power tends to confuse itself with virtue”, they often have very little in common.
So the year 415 was preceded by decade after decade of religious violence, setting the stage for the infamous, gruesome murder of the Pagan philosopher Hypatia in Alexandria. In his A Chronicle of the Last Pagans historian Pierre Chuvin makes a point of saying that Hypatia “was not killed for reason of militant Paganism” [p. 90]. But what Chuvin overlooks is that by 415 any Paganism was seen as “militant” Paganism: the mere existence of a Pagan was all the provocation Christians needed. So it wasn’t Hypatia’s “militancy” that got her killed – it was the militancy of those who killed her.
Here is how Chuvin describes the death of Paganism’s most famous martyr:
Hypatia was returning from a trip when fanatics dragged her from her carriage into one of the town’s main churches, which was the see of the patriarch. This church, though it had been dedicated to Saint Michael, was still known by the name of pagan sanctuary whose walls it reused: the Caesareum (center of the former imperial cult in Alexandria). There Hypatia was stripped, stabbed with shards of pots and crocks, then hacked to pieces. The remains of her body were paraded around the streets of the town and finally burned.
Even though Chuvin insists that Hypatia’s Paganism was not “militant”, still there is no doubt that she was a Pagan. In fact, while it is certainly a nontrivial undertaking to determine precisely what the religious beliefs were of a person who died 16 centuries ago, there is really no question that Hypatia was, indeed, a Pagan. So I was a little surprised to read the following synopsis (here at the imdb site) of the forthcoming film Agora (in which Hypatia is played by Rachel Weisz):
A historical drama set in Roman Egypt, concerning a slave who turns to the rising tide of Christianity in the hopes of pursuing freedom while also falling in love with his master, the famous female philosophy professor and atheist Hypatia of Alexandria.
It’s a little thing – a boneheaded screw up in a one sentence summary of some film in Spanish that most people will never see. But it shows the pervasive influence of the spiritual two-party system, which reduces all matters of religion to monotheism versus atheism.
Fortunately it looks like the movie might actually be something that both Pagans and classical history buffs will be able to enjoy. At least that is the optimistic impression given by this post over at The Wild Hunt blog on the subject of Post-Cannes Reaction to Agora.