Cosmos follow-up: Hypatia and the Library of Alexandria

Left: portrait of Hypatia. Right: illustration of the burning of the Library of Alexandria in 391.

Left: portrait of Hypatia. Right: illustration of the burning of the Library of Alexandria in 391.

The recent Cosmos series has been a tour-de-force for science education and popularization, equal to the original. However, there is one aspect of both series that I have to take issue with, and that is the holding up of the murder of the philosopher Hypatia and the burning of the Great Library at Alexandria as examples of the decline of intellectualism in the early Christian era.

Hypatia was a neo-Platonist philosopher living in Alexandria, and probably the most famous female scholar of antiquity. It is agreed by all accounts that she was murdered by a Christian mob, specifically, followers of the Bishop, Cyril of Alexandria, in the year 415, as Dr. Sagan and Dr. Tyson both say. However, the account closest to her death says that she was not murdered for being a non-Christian (indeed she was held up by some Christians as a symbol of virtue), but for being an adviser to the Christian governor, Orestes, whom Cyril opposed. (Orestes was more secular than Cyril, opposing the growth of ecclesiastical power and making overtures to Jews and Pagans in Alexandria.)

Cosmos does not make Hypatia’s death so much a religious issue as an anti-intellectual on, but the truth is that it was actually a political one. A second problem comes when Dr. Sagan links her death to the destruction of the Great Library. In fact, in the final episode of the original Cosmos, “Who Speaks for Earth”, Carl Sagan says, “The last remains of the library were destroyed within a year of Hypatia’s death.”

The problem with this is that the last remnant of the Library of Alexandria were almost certainly destroyed in 391, 24 years before Hypatia’s death, and most of the library was likely destroyed, by accident, centuries earlier.

It sounds strange, but we actually don’t have a very good idea of when the Library of Alexandria was destroyed. As best we can tell, much of it was burned unintentionally when a fire spread through the city during Julius Caesar’s invasion in 48 BC. While the majority of the library may have survived that war, it was almost certainly destroyed in the war between Emperor Aurelian and Queen Zenobia of Palmyra in the 270s AD. This also appears to have been unintentional, as a large part of the city was burned.

What little was left of the library was deliberately destroyed in 391, when Emperor Theodosius I banned Paganism. The remaining repository of books in Alexandria was destroyed along with the Pagan temple it was stored in.

I admire most of Dr. Sagan’s and Dr. Tyson work, but when they characterize Hypatia’s death and the burning of the Great Library as the deliberate (and linked) actions of an anti-intellectual mob, they are simply misrepresenting the history.

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About Alex R. Howe

I'm a full-time astrophysicist and a part-time science fiction writer.
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3 Responses to Cosmos follow-up: Hypatia and the Library of Alexandria

  1. Tim O'Neill says:

    “What little was left of the library was deliberately destroyed in 391, when Emperor Theodosius I banned Paganism. The remaining repository of books in Alexandria was destroyed along with the Pagan temple it was stored in.”

    It was? So why do none of the five accounts of the demolition of the Serapeum mention any library? At least two of these accounts are hostile to Cyril’s faction and one, that of Eunapius, was by a vehemently anti-Christian philosopher. Yet we get not a hint about any library. If we go back to earlier in the fourth century we have an account of an earlier sack of the temple, led by a guy who later became renowned for his own great library – so it’s not hard to connect the dots there. Then we get Ammianus’ description of the Serapeum from the mid fourth century mentioning the library but using the past tense. So when he saw the temple there was no longer any library there. Then we get the 391 demolition as a reaction to the derelict temple being used as a base by a gang of murderous pagan terrorists (part of the story which, strangely, almost never gets mentioned).

    So no library was destroyed in 391 AD because it was no longer there. It’s interesting how the idea that this “Christians destroyed the Grwat Library” myth keeps getting perpetuated despite the fact it has zero foundation in the evidence.

    http://armariummagnus.blogspot.com.au/2010/05/hypatia-and-agora-redux.html

    • Alex R. Howe says:

      It’s true that the historical accounts do not favor the theory that religious forces destroyed the library, and I certainly wasn’t trying to imply that. My main point was that the destruction was based in politics, greed, and war, not the anti-intellectualism that Dr. Sagan and Dr. Tyson suggest.

  2. Nice post, Alex. I’ve been blogging about the political nature of Hypatia’s death for years, although I readily admit that politics and religion are inextricably entwined during this time period. Many groups have claimed Hypatia as their martyr and find it very difficult to give up the narrative that “Hypatia was murdered BECAUSE she was a scientist/feminist/pagan.” History is rarely that simple.

    Ditto the destruction of the Great Library; many incursions over many years, but it makes a wonderful metaphor/shorthand for anti-intellectualism. It’s the rare institution that lasts for a 1000 years through wars, regime change, and religious upheaval; and those that do, evolve and change to fit the times. For those that think the ancient knowledge would have come down to us unchanged, if the Library was spared, also forget the human element. Copyists and translators constantly introduced errors. “Librarians” curated the collection as newer histories and geographies came out; poets, playwrights, and other authors went in and out of fashion; books were “banned” by those in power. The neglected books, if they weren’t destroyed by the librarians for space, were prey to bugs and moisture. Too bad they didn’t have the internet back then. We just have to worry about a global EMP wiping out all of our knowledge!

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