The dream of reason produces monsters.

Goya, Los Caprichos

If Alexandria was the ideal crucible in which to forge new ideas about God and divinity, it was not prepared for the firestorm those new ideas would unleash. Alexandria was the city that questioned everything—from the shape of the earth to the divinity of the emperors—but not all of its subjects took this academic criticism well. The earth had not complained when Eratosthenes had measured it; triangles, circles, and cones had quietly surrendered their secrets to Euclid. But while a difference of opinion in geometry or astronomy was just that—a difference of opinion—a difference of opinion in religion was heresy. Opinions were met with counteropinions. Heresy was met with persecution and often death. So it was with explosive results that the greatest heresy of the early Christian church emerged in the one city with the pedigree to have created it.

Arius may not have been born in Alexandria, being of Libyan and Berber descent, but he arrived in the city in the later years of the third century and from that point on he would make it his only home. He had chosen a career in the fledgling church, but his questioning, some would say confrontational, perhaps even “Alexandrian,” nature had made his rise uneven. In particular he had shown a dislike of the dogmatic authorities of the day, represented by Alexander, the patriarch of his home city. In an age when the church was obsessed with schism and heresy, arguing over the exact interpretation of the nature of God, Arius was almost deliberately provocative, backing schismatic causes and twice getting himself excommunicated while still just a presbyter. So it was that from what should have been a simple lecture by the patriarch to his young charges arose the greatest and most damaging heresy in the early church.

The church father Socrates Scholasticus tells us that Alexander had chosen to lecture his pupils, including Arius, on a particularly tricky subject. He had decided to speak in detail (too much detail, according to Socrates) about the greatest theological mystery of all: the unity of the Trinity, or how the Godhead was three parts, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, yet also just one part and hence all equal.

Arius, ever quizzical and ready for an argument, took the bait, according to Socrates simply to annoy his master:

A certain one of the presbyters under his jurisdiction, whose name was Arius, possessed of no inconsiderable logical acumen . . . , from love of controversy took the opposite opinion . . . and as he thought vigorously responded to what was said by the bishop. “If,” said he, “the Father begat the Son, he that was begotten had a beginning of existence: and from this it is evident, that there was a time when the Son was not. It therefore necessarily follows, that he had his substance from nothing.”

Socrates Scholasticus, Ecclesiastical History, book 1, chapter 5

It was a perfectly logical piece of argument, and had this been a debate on logic in the porticoes of the museum, Arius might have expected some applause. But this was not a matter of logic, not a matter which Alexander wished to discuss. This was an article of faith, a matter of belief, and his presbyters were meant to accept it without question.

Arius would not and, receiving no conclusive answer to his point, began to elaborate his own idea further, acquiring his own adherents; and, as Socrates put it, “thus from a little spark a large fire was kindled” (Socrates Scholasticus, Ecclesiastical History, book 1, chapter 6).

Encouraged by the response from some Christians, Arius traveled to his friend Eusebius of Nicomedia, where he began codifying his ideas in a book that would turn that fire into an inferno. In this book, known as The Banquet or, in Greek, Thalia, Arius proposed that God the Father was the only God and that Christ was created by him, not an integral part of him. Today this may seem a rather dry and academic point, but in Alexandria it was dynamite. The idea created a sensation and the inns and churches of Alexandria were soon filled with arguments over the true nature of Christ. In the marble colonnades street philosophers argued for and against the idea, while the doctrine rapidly became the talk of Christian society. That Arius had written his work in an easily read, populist style made it even more fashionable.

But the arguments were not confined to the polite exchanges of the museum, or even the soapbox harangues of the street preachers. In an early church, battered and bruised from numerous bloody persecutions, desperately trying to assert its authority, arguments over Arius and his “Arianism” often ended in bloodshed. The doctrine in effect created a turf war between two opposing factions of the church, each of which of course claimed to hold the only true interpretation of the faith. As emperors came and went, so bishops and priests of each camp were excommunicated and exiled, reinstated and returned. The atmosphere was highly inflammatory, with both parties claiming their opponents were responsible for terrible atrocities, most of which probably never happened but all of which served to further enrage the street mobs and radical monks that both camps used to support their campaigns.

In the end the Christian emperor Constantine, who had himself converted to Christianity, at least nominally bringing the Roman Empire with him, decided to intervene. So he wrote to the head of each faction—the patriarch Alexander and Arius—in an attempt to ease passions, suggesting that they differed only on the interpretation of a small and obscure point of doctrine. Remembering the reputation of the city where the fight was raging, he patiently reminded them:

You are well aware that even the philosophers themselves are united under one sect. Yet they often differ from each other on some parts of their theories: but although they may differ on the very highest branches of science, in order to maintain the unity of their body, they still agree to coalesce. Now, if this is done among them, how much more equitable will it be for you, who have been constituted ministers of the Most High God, to become unanimous with one another in such a religious profession.

Letter of the Emperor Constantine, in Socrates Scholasticus,
Ecclesiastical History, book 1, chapter 7

Despite this eminently sensible attempt to pour oil on troubled waters neither the Arians nor their opponents were prepared to listen, nor were they about to do as Constantine had suggested. The religious ideas now coming out of the city may have been created in an atmosphere of tolerance, but having defined their own positions, they would allow no further debate or diversion. This radicalism had been born in Alexandria and grown in Alexandrian soil, and it would poison and eventually kill the city that had nurtured it.

As Alexander would allow no differences in religion, so eventually the whole Christian church was forced to choose, and in 325 a weary Constantine ordered the bishops to gather in council at Nicaea to decide once and for all what the official church did and did not believe. The result was the Nicene Creed, still used in churches today. In it there was no place for Arianism. Patriarch Alexander seemed to have won and Arius was banished.

Some of the credit for Alexander’s apparent triumph at Nicaea must go to his deacon Athanasius. He was a young and fervent Christian who had accompanied the patriarch to the council as his secretary, having already served at his side for several years. Athanasius was a unique product of his time and a man who could have been produced only by the city of his childhood—Alexandria. Here he had received the education still traditional among the wealthier elements of society, learning grammar and rhetoric before finishing his education in the lecture halls of the philosophers of the museum. He had then thrown himself into the life and controversies of the church, witnessing firsthand both the sophisticated academic arguments in the city for and against Arianism and the stark fundamentalist Christianity of the desert monks who from this date would play an increasing role in his city’s fortunes.

Contemporaries describe him as relatively short and thin but full of energy, his “finely shaped” head crowned with sparse auburn hair. He was said to have a ready wit, be affable in company, pleasant in conversation, and quick to learn. But the passion of his religion betrayed itself in his unyielding and unsparing debating style. If there was an Alexandrian to answer Arius’s criticism it was he, and his rise through the church hierarchy was rapid, until at just thirty-three, on the death of his mentor, he found himself the new patriarch of his home city.

Fourth-century Alexandria was as idiosyncratic and energetic as its new patriarch. The Ptolemaic temple of Serapis still functioned, and pagan philosophers still bowed to the great cult statue there, created centuries before by Bryaxis. Nearby the Jewish synagogues familiar to Philo and perhaps even the writers of the Septuagint still flourished, and in between them Christian churches had now sprung up. In the streets the pagan fortune-tellers still offered glimpses of the future to those with a few coins in their pockets, while populist Neoplatonist and evangelical monks vied for the ears and hearts of passersby. In this multicultural, multilingual milieu the new patriarch began his turbulent career, one that would change the face of his city and his religion forever.

Athanasius inherited one niggling problem from Alexander. Arianism, though condemned at Nicaea, was not dead, despite the death of Arius himself, who—one church father claimed—died when, seized with the realization of his own wickedness, he became so incontinent that he passed his own bowels. Under a series of weak emperors the fortunes of pro-and anti-Arian factions waxed and waned, during which time Athanasius was alternately feted and denounced, expelled and reconciled. During his episcopate he was variously charged with sorcery, corruption, and murder. Somewhere between five and seven times he was driven from his city and forced to take refuge with the desert monks, in western Europe, and once even in his own father’s tomb. But for each reverse there was a restoration, and Athanasius himself recorded in ever more polemical detail his changes of fortune, stoking the political fires in Alexandria. On the occasion of one return the Arians claimed that people complained and even wept at the news of his return and refused to meet with him.

He responded furiously (referring to himself in the third person):

Now such was not the case, but, quite the contrary, joy and cheerful-ness prevailed, and the people ran together, hastening to obtain the desired sight of him. The churches were full of rejoicings, and thanksgivings were offered up to the Lord everywhere; and all the Ministers and Clergy beheld him with such feelings, that their souls were possessed with delight, and they esteemed that the happiest day of their lives.

Athanasius, The Orations of St. Athanasius Against the Arians, chapter 1

Every swing of the Arian pendulum brought a more emphatic, more violent, more fundamentalist response from the protagonists. Athanasius himself was now known as “Athanasius contra mundum”—“Athanasius against the world.” Suspicions were stoked, factions formed, sects became mobs, and their cry in the streets was not “think” but simply “choose.”

Perhaps fortunately, Athanasius would not live to see the end results of his church’s radicalization. After an exhausting and turbulent career he died peacefully in his bed, having spent a lifetime fighting for the view of Christianity that he had heard agreed to at Nicaea—a fight which would gain him the titles “Doctor of the Church” and “the Father of Orthodoxy.” On these foundations would be built the medieval Catholic Church, but they would be laid in the ruins of the city he had ruled.

With the Christian church apparently absorbed with its own internal battles, life for those outside its influence in Alexandria may have seemed little changed. Indeed, on the surface the city was still an eclectic center of learning. Christians found enlightenment at the catechetical schools; Jewish philosophy was taught at the rabbinical school; and the museum and library, whatever the predations of previous centuries, were still filled with scholars. Among this last group, around the middle of the century, lived a little-known member of the museum whose family was also about to have a profound effect on both the life of the city and the fortunes of the world beyond.

Theon first appears in the record as an astronomer and mathematician who in 364 was credited with correctly predicting eclipses of both the sun and the moon. He was in many ways the archetypal member of the museum of this era, a local scholar who never left his city and whose epithets, “Egyptos” and “Alexandreus,” suggest that he traced his lineage back through both Greek and Egyptian roots. Because some of his writings survive we know something of his passions and can gain one of our last glimpses of the great library at work. Theon studied in the Alexandrian way, building his own work around the creation of new editions of the great books in the library and preparing his own commentaries on them. He produced editions of Euclid’s Elements, Data, and Optics, and wrote commentaries on Claudius Ptolemy’s Almagest and Handy Tables.

But Theon also had philosophical interests that were very much of his own time. Amid the bitter recriminations of the Arian heresy it might seem that Christianity was already the only religion in town and that faith had been reduced to a matter of which Christian interpretation one chose to follow. This was not the case, however, and the uncertainty of their modern world encouraged even some of the philosophers of the museum to seek answers beyond logic in the more mystical aspects of Neoplatonism.

In this religiously charged atmosphere Theon had taken an interest in divination. In this city of soothsayers and priests he looked for divine truths in the books of the library and the circling of the stars. The chronicler Malalas tells us that he wrote commentaries on the books of the legendary father of alchemy, Hermes Trismegistus, and the mystical Orphic oracles. He is also said to have written a work entitled On Signs and the Examination of Birds and the Croaking of Ravens as well as treatises on the function of the star Sirius and the influence of the planetary spheres on the Nile River.

These may seem like unusual departures for a man who spent his days studying the very down-to-earth geometry of Euclid. But although Theon was at one level a scientist by any modern definition, in his eyes the world was a magical place, filled with omens and hints of the Platonic forms that lay beneath the veneer of reality. For him, to study the heavens was to study the minds of the gods, from which might be deduced not only the physical operation of the world, but clues to the future of individuals and nations. These thoughts found expression in poems attributed to him on astrological themes, one of which survives in the Corpus Hermeticum, a collection of texts of “secret wisdom” compiled during the Renaissance from various classical materials. In this Theon speaks of the seven sparkling spheres of heaven and how their interaction determines the lives of everyone on earth. To him destiny lay in the stars, in the crystal spheres whose mathematical precision reflected universal laws laid down by the supreme God behind all things, the everlasting Aion.

Nor was Theon alone in these beliefs. In this uncertain age it was not only the Christians, Jews, and pagan cults that looked to the supernatural for answers. In the museum itself Theon could have met, and probably knew well, other occultists such as Paulus of Alexandria and the anonymous writer now known to us simply as “the Astrologer of the Year 379.” It was against this background that the Christian patriarch Theophilus came to power in Alexandria in 385. In his eyes the paganism of Theon and the members of the museum was not simply harmless hocus-pocus but a threat, like any belief that deviated from the patriarch’s orthodox views. The early, bloody history of the church and its hard-won agreement on what was orthodox and what was heresy had made it combative. The Christians of the empire had often been persecuted for their beliefs, but now their moment in the sun had come. The empire was Christian, and for Theophilus that could mean only the destruction of paganism altogether. In June 391 an opportunity came to do just that: The news reached Alexandria that the emperor Theodosius had banned all pagan practices.

The focus of Theophilus’s attack would not be the museum itself but the Serapeum, home to the ancient Ptolemaic cult of Serapis and the location of the “daughter library.” As news of the edict of suppression spread, fear gripped the city’s pagans. The prophetic Antoninus, son of Sosipatra, had already foretold the fall of the temple, and a group of pagans now fearfully barricaded themselves inside, under the unlikely command of a cabal of philosophers.

These men were a cross section of an ancient world on the verge of disappearing. They included Olympius, a servant of Serapis, the seven-hundred-year-old god of the Ptolemies who had been forged by the Greeks to help them rule a foreign land; Ammonius, a priest of the Egyptian god Thoth, whom the Alexandrians associated with the Greek god Hermes but whose Egyptian roots lay in a religion older than the pyramids; Helladius, a priest of Ammon, the oracular god who had informed Alexander of his own divine origins at Siwa; the poet Palladas, known for his bitter epigrams written in the persona of a pagan schoolteacher forced to live in a Christian city; and finally Claudian, whose icy poetry would one day find him favor in Rome as court poet. But these eclectic representatives of Alexandria’s old guard were not there simply to await martyrs’ deaths; they intended to go out fighting.

From their stronghold they organized repeated sorties against the Christian mob, picking fights where they could and dragging away any Christian foolish enough to approach the compound unprotected. So bitter had the enmity between these groups become that reports speak of them crucifying those they caught. It must have made for an extraordinary and terrifying sight as Theophilus’s Christians and Olympius’s pagans became caught up in the white-hot zealotry of a religious war. It seems almost impossible today to imagine poets and philosophers battling in the streets with monks and Christian converts, but both were battling not for ideas but for beliefs—beliefs that both would die for.

In the end the pagans paid the highest price. The street battles dwindled into occasional skirmishes, and the pagans dug in inside the Serapeum had nowhere to go. When the running battle came to the attention of the Christian emperor he ordered his representatives in Egypt—the praefectus augustalis (prefect) and the dux aegypti (military commander)—to intervene. The pagans were ordered out of the Serapeum, and the Christian mob flooded in. Olympius and his compatriots had to watch as Bryaxis’s 750-year-old statue of Serapis, a wonder of the world to many who had seen it, was dragged out into the street and smashed with a soldier’s ax.

No reports survive of what happened when the mob reached the daughter library, which Bishop Epiphanius of Salamis, who died in 402, claims in his Weights and Measures was still stored in the Serapeum. In fact his is the only source which claims the library was still there; all other descriptions of the temple’s sacking are silent on the issue, including even that of the vehemently anti-Christian Eunapius of Antioch, whom we might expect to put any thinkable atrocity at Theophilus’s door. So in this moment the fate of one of Alexandria’s great libraries again slips through our fingers. It may be that the collection had already been moved, althrough if so, we have no record of where it went. If it did remain in the Serapeum, then the centuries of writing kept in a pagan temple could only have raised suspicions. Whatever was contained in those scrolls belonged to the old world, the pagan world, and could have no place in the new Christian Alexandria. The early Christian writer Paulus Orosius in his Seven Books of History Against the Pagansdoes not mention specific temples but seems to think the destruction of books kept within them was commonplace: “Today there exist in temples book chests which we ourselves have seen, and, when these temples were plundered, these, we are told, were emptied by our own men in our time, which, indeed, is a true statement” (Paulus Orosius, Seven Books of History Against the Pagans, book 6, chapter 15).

So we must presume that the Serapeum library was destroyed. One thing alone is certain: If it was kept there or elsewhere, the daughter library was never heard of again.

Those philosophers who had actively fought to preserve the Serapeum now either fled, like Claudian, to Rome, or were deprived of their religious positions and state funding. Of the effect of the destruction on Alexandria and her pagan citizens we have only the cold verses of Claudian and the bitter and rueful lines of Palladas’s epigrams, in one of which he can’t help but compare the vicissitudes of his life with the fate of the seafarers whom he must have watched come and go through the Great Harbor of his city every day:

Life is a dangerous voyage; for tempest-tossed in it we often strike rocks more pitiably than shipwrecked men; and having Chance as pilot of life, we sail doubtfully as on the sea, some on a fair voyage, and others contrariwise; yet all alike we put into the one anchorage under earth.

Palladas, “The Voyage of Life,” in J. W. MacKail, Select Epigrams
of the Greek Anthology, chapter 12, epigram 22

But not everyone had fought for or against Theophilus; not every Neoplatonist had cast off his philosopher’s robes to take up arms in the name of Serapis, Hermes, or paganism in general. Though Claudian had fled and Palladas had sunk into a sea of despair, their loss had not left the lecture halls of Alexandria empty quite yet.

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