Literatur | Philosophie | Sprache


Soraya Schwensow, 2003 | Züberwangen, SG


The fourth–century was a time of upheaval in the Roman Empire. Christianity substantially grew in importance while political and economic turmoil eventually divided the Empire into two parts. Amidst this, two extraordinary personalities flourished in Alexandria: the female Neoplatonist philosopher Hypatia and Bishop Cyril. With the focus on religious dissent, this paper aims to reconstruct and compare Cyril’s and Hypatia’s circumstances and viewpoints. Challenging the commonly held view that they should be typical representatives of the opposing Christian and pagan faiths, this paper focuses on their similarities. It thus provides an alternative perspective on both ancient and modern religious dissent.


This paper aims to present (I) how dissent between pagans and Christians manifested itself in the fourth and fifth centuries in the city of Alexandria and (II) which viewpoints and roles Hypatia and Cyril adopted in them. In the subsequent comparison between the two, an attempt is made to reconstruct their lives as accurately as possible, taking into consideration (III) what aspects Hypatia and Cyril had in common, how they differed, and (IV) interacted.


To provide an accurate insight into this period and its perception, special attention is paid to ancient sources, presented both in original language and in translation partly provided by the author herself. Of fundamental importance was the consultation of secondary literature, not only allowing to interpret these primary sources in their context but also to study in depth events such as the destruction of the Serapeum and the legal and economic changes from a historical and archaeological point of view. In order to clarify the most critical points, interviews conducted with professors who are experts in the field were of utmost value. In reconstructing Cyril’s and Hypatia’s views and involvement, the first step was to identify whom they interacted with most, what their opportunities and restrictions were.


Despite Hypatia’s and Cyril’s different social environments and genders, many similarities are found in their influence, prestige and abilities as intellectuals. Furthermore, Neoplatonism and Christianity had many parallels in their beliefs and despite a generally misogynistic environment, Hypatia managed to acquire an equally high reputation as Cyril had. One can assume that an aspect genuinely distinguishing Cyril and Hypatia was the social context they had grown up in and their resulting different attitudes to the events in Alexandria. Since the political and economic shifts leading to a decline in religious tolerance favoured the Christian Church, Cyril derived many benefits from them. Consequently, it can be inferred that he had a positive attitude towards them, perhaps even promoting them. Conversely, Hypatia presumably, as a Neoplatonist philosopher and since students of all faiths attended her classes, had a rather tolerant religious attitude. One can suppose that in her role of advisor to Egypt’s prefect Orestes, Hypatia sided with the city government condemning such outbreaks of violence. While, in principle, Cyril and Hypatia would not have been so different, their worlds were no longer compatible and they avoided direct contact with each other. Since Hypatia was eventually regarded as a threat to Cyril’s authority, she was murdered by a Christian mob in AD 415.


Problematically, Cyril never expressed his opinion about the events in Alexandria in his writings, while Hypatia’s thoughts have not been preserved at all. Thus, the reconstruction of their viewpoints is to a certain extent based on hypotheses and oriented according to those of their contemporaries. This approach has proved nevertheless rewarding in realising that the initial assumption of Cyril and Hypatia belonging to completely opposing parties, has been replaced by a much more nuanced picture. Neither the commonly held image of pagan emperors as bloodthirsty persecutors nor the notion of an uneducated, barbaric horde of monks are entirely accurate. These outbreaks of violence are neither a Christian nor a pagan problem, they are a human one.


It is astonishing that despite having so many things in common, people should feel so alienated and that such outbreaks of violence should occur instead of reaching out to each other more often, and recognising their similarities, which would allow for reconciliation. This thought should be kept in mind in our modern times of unrest. Even if similarities are sometimes concealed, they can often be seen at a second glance.



Würdigung durch die Expertin

Benedetta Foletti

Soraya Schwensow gelingt es, die turbulenten Ereignisse in der Weltstadt Alexandrien des IV.-V. Jh. n.Chr. aus der Perspektive der hochgebildeten heidnischen Philosophin Hypatia und des Patriarchen Kyrill überaus anschaulich zu verlebendigen. In kritischer Auswertung der lückenhaften Überlieferung rekonstruiert sie den historischen Kontext und arbeitet Unterschiede und Gemeinsamkeiten im intellektuellen Profil der Widersacher heraus. Blutige weltanschauliche Konflikte sind leider wieder brandaktuell: In diesem Sinne blickt Soraya auf die Antike, auch um Lehren für unsere Gegenwart zu ziehen.



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