Ancient History & Civilisation


After Rome and Constantinople it is logical to look at Alexandria, Antioch, and Carthage. These were the next largest cities in the Mediterranean basin in antiquity. It is notoriously difficult to work out population figures for ancient cities, and there are wide margins for error. A cautious discussion suggests that Alexandria may have had a population between 200,000 and 400,000, and Antioch between 150,000 and 300,000.31 In terms of size, Carthage was probably closer to Antioch than to Alexandria. It is no coincidence that Alexandria and Carthage were the ports through which grain was channeled to the two capitals. This guaranteed employment for countless shippers, dealers, porters, transport managers, ship-owners, bureaucrats, and businessmen. Both cities therefore were huge trading and service centers. Further, the fact that grain, in bulk, passed through these cities every year, meant that neither was likely to suffer acute shortages, and they could support urban populations that were much larger even than other port cities. Ammianus provides an example in the case of the governor of Africa in 370, Hymetius, who, at a time of famine, sold grain to the people of Carthage from the supplies due to be sent to Rome (Ammianus 28.1).

Our knowledge of late Roman Alexandria is extraordinarily uneven. Although we are well informed about ecclesiastical politics by the rich patristic sources and about administrative practices by the papyri, almost nothing remains at Alexandria of the city's early churches; and no papyrus documents and very few public inscriptions have been recovered from Alexandria itself.32 Before the seventh century, the city was never in a war zone, subjected to a major siege, or at the center of military activity. It therefore appears only intermittently in the secular historians. Much of Alexandria's social and economic history has disappeared into a black hole.

The site at the western edge of the Nile Delta was chosen because its two harbors, protected by the offshore island of Pharos, made it the natural point of exchange between the Nile Valley, the most fertile and productive agricultural region of the Graeco-Roman world, and the Mediterranean waterway. A major canal linked Alexandria and its harbor with the western branch of the Nile, and it was cut off from the desert to the south by the shallow waters of Lake Mareotis. The city's hippodrome, half a kilometer long, which adjoined the great temple of Sarapis, was enclosed by the bend of the Nile canal.

The city was about five kilometers in length from east to west and up to two kilometers wide, surrounded by a fifteen-kilometer defensive wall.33 Excavations along the main east–west street have identified one of the central insulae of the city plan. Large houses of the first and second century AD were extensively damaged in the third, abandoned in the early fourth, and replaced by public buildings in the mid-fourth century. These included a small theater, two suites of auditoria which have been identified as lecture rooms, and a public bath house. These structures, which were maintained until the seventh century, must have been the setting for some of the cultural and educational activity for which Alexandria was famous.34 Throughout antiquity Alexandria's schools and the famous library, whose site has never been identified, were a magnet to trainee philosophers, public speakers, theologians, and doctors. It was a cultural powerhouse both in the pagan and the Christian tradition.

Alexandria was the residence of the prefect of Egypt until the office was replaced under Theodosius I by the Praefectus Augustalis. As far as we know the only emperor of late antiquity to visit the city was Diocletian himself, who campaigned in Egypt to reassert Roman control in Upper Egypt and Ethiopia and to suppress the internal rebellion of Domitius Domitianus.35 In comparison to what is known from the other great population centers of the ancient world, this amounted to a power vacuum. Urban unrest, rioting, and major disturbances, which had to be suppressed by military intervention from the Roman garrisons of Lower Egypt, were a recurring feature of Alexandrian history. Church leaders were able to mobilize social networks in support of theological or other causes, and there were major religious confrontations in the fourth and fifth centuries.

The vast sanctuary of the Graeco-Egyptian god Sarapis, built by the Ptolemies and enlarged by the Romans in the Severan period, occupied one of the low hills on which the city was built, at the southwest corner, along the line of a road which led northwards to the so-called heptastadion, the kilometer-long causeway that divided the western from the eastern harbor. A statue of Diocletian was erected on a single tall column in the sanctuary area and marked it out as a focal point of Roman power. “Its splendour,” said Ammianus, “is such that mere words can only do it an injustice, but its great halls of columns and its wealth of life-like statues and other works of art make it, next to the Capitol, which is the symbol of the eternity of immemorial Rome, the most magnificent building in the whole world” (Ammianus 22.16, trans. Hamilton).36

The destruction of the Sarapeum is one of the iconic moments in the Christian narrative of the overthrow of ancient paganism. In 391–2 the bishop of Alexandria, Theophilus, successfully petitioned Theodosius for permission to transform a temple of Dionysus into a church. A Christian mob broke into the holy of holies and mocked the phalluses and other pagan symbols they found there. The pagans reacted violently by killing some Christians and taking others who had been wounded into the walled enclosure of the Serapeum. A siege followed. The Christians outside received support from the Dux Aegypti in command of Roman troops, and from the prefect Euagrius; the besieged pagans were spurred on by a philosopher Olympius, who told his followers that the destruction of pagan images did not impair the power of the ancient gods, which resided in heaven. Reports of Christian casualties were brought to the emperor Theodosius, who declared them to be martyrs, and the opening words of his edict, which denounced the pagans as guilty, were hailed with acclamation by the Christian mob, which proceeded to fall on the guards at the gate and stormed the sanctuary.37 The destruction of the Serapeum, which represented a climax to the religious intolerance of the last years of Theodosius I, forced many pagan intellectuals to flee Alexandria.

The violent scenes were echoed a generation later, instigated by Theophilus’ successor in the See of Alexandria, his nephew Cyril. He mobilized his followers first in 414 against the Jews, and then against pagan intellectuals in the city. The Jews had provoked hostility by attending theater performances on the Sabbath. They were goaded into violence by a rabble-rousing supporter of Cyril, who was arrested by the Roman prefect Orestes. In the course of events the Jews supposedly plotted to burn down a church, and Cyril used the opportunity to attack and brow-beat Orestes, and to organize Christian attacks on Jewish synagogues. Many Jews were killed (Socrates, HE 7.14–15). It emerges that they were in part at least the unwitting victims of a power struggle between Cyril and Orestes. In the following year a group of 500 monks waylaid the prefect in his carriage and stoned him. Other Alexandrians came to the prefect's rescue and arrested one of the perpetrators, who was tortured to death during his interrogation. The next year Christian violence claimed its most famous victim, the philosopher Hypatia, daughter of the Platonist Theon, who had left Alexandria when the Serapeum was destroyed. Hypatia had become a confidante of Orestes, who accordingly was himself accused of being a pagan. A Christian gang, led by a church reader called Peter, dragged Hypatia from her carriage to the city's main church, which had been constructed on the site of the former imperial temple, and murdered her in a hail of broken roof tiles. Her body was dismembered and incinerated. The church historian Socrates protested at these outrages, but Cyril escaped largely uncensored.38

The historical accounts of these episodes in Alexandria leave open many questions about their causes, but they provide a clear sense of their social context and illustrate the brutalization of local politics.39 The bishops of the city could call on ill-educated supporters from the proletariat, who did not hesitate to employ extreme violence in a fanatical cause. It is revealing that the city councilors of Alexandria, an educated minority, petitioned the emperor in 416 in protest against the violence of the gangs of the bishop's supporters, the parabalani. Theodosius II responded only as far as ordering that their numbers should be limited in future to five or six hundred persons.40

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