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Life In Late Antiquity

ISSUE:  Winter 1998
Alexandria in Late Antiquity. By Christopher Haas. Johns Hopkins. $45. 00.
The Virgin and the Bride: Idealized Womanhood in Late Antiquity. By Kate Cooper. Harvard. $37. 50.

“Late Antiquity” is that slice of history filling the space between the Roman emperor Constantine, the first Christian emperor, and the rise of Islam. This is the period which Edward Gibbon chose for detailed study in his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, and when he reached the reign of the emperor Heraclius who died, having first won back the Near East from the Persians, and then lost it again to the Arab invaders with their new religion, he notified his readers than henceforth his treatment would be sketchier: the annals of the Roman Empire, which we call the “Byzantine Empire” even though its subjects had no doubt that they were Roman, had become a “tedious and uniform tale of weakness and misery.” But Gibbon taught us to look at “Late Antiquity” as a paradigm of imperial decline, and until the mid-point of the present century, historians of the ancient Mediterranean world were more interested in the rise and maintenance of empire than its decline. It was not until the British Empire faded out of existence that British historians turned with enthusiasm to the study of late antiquity. But in the last 25 years they have made up for previous neglect and the ardor has spread to this side of the Atlantic.

Haas’s Alexandria in Late Antiquity, and Kate Cooper’s The Virgin and the Bride represent two modern thrusts in the present-day research of the late antiquarian. The first is a social history of city life. Alexandria, before the foundation of modern Cairo sucked away its vitality, was a turbulent, multicultural center like no other in the Mediterranean world. The second is a study of one of the phenomena of late antiquity, the cult of virginity, which seems to have run counter to the needs of contemporary society. The Byzantine Empire needed people. In particular, it needed them after bubonic plague swept away perhaps 40 per cent of the population in the sixth century. Yet Christian teachings of this period exalted virginity as the supreme virtue not merely for women but for men as well.

First, Alexandria. Tradition had it that Christianity arrived in Egypt with St. Mark, but until the conversion of the emperor Constantine, it remained a largely pagan city, where the festivals of the Egyptian gods attracted wildly enthusiastic crowds. In the southwest corner of the city was the temple of Serapis, a vast complex of buildings including lecture halls, a library and auxiliary shrines for Anubis and Isis, and as long as the great Serapeum stood, paganism remained a vital force. But in 391, a battle in the streets between pagans and Christians ended with the ruin of the temple and the destruction of the ivory-and-gold cult statue of Serapis, and within the temple precincts there settled a band of monks. The pagans waited for the river Nile to express its anger at the desecretion, but the Nile seems not to have noticed: the next year it flooded as bountifully as ever. But paganism still dominated the Alexandrian schools, where the most celebrated teacher of the early fifth century was Hypatia, daughter of an eminent mathematician who attracted a throng of students, and perhaps held an endowed chair in philosophy. She enjoyed the patronage of the prefect of Egypt, Orestes, a Christian himself but on bad terms with the patriarch of Alexandria, Cyril, who saw Hypatia as a dangerous rival. There is no clear evidence to link Cyril directly with Hypatia’s murder, but he provided the rhetorical environment for it. One day in 415, as Hypatia was riding through the city, her carriage was stopped by a mob which dragged her to the cathedral church, tortured her and then, taking her to another site, cremated her on a brushwood pyre. The cathedral church where Hypatia was martyred had originally been built by Cleopatra to commemorate Julius Caesar and it had continued as a cult center for the worship of the Roman emperors until it was converted into a church; the two obelisks which stood before it are now, one on the Thames Embankment in London, and the other in New York.

Hypatia’s death was part of a larger struggle between the patriarch of Alexandria and civil authority, represented by Orestes, the prefect appointed by the emperor. With a stronger emperor on the throne than Theodosius II, Orestes might have maintained his authority, but faced with Cyril, an able, wily theologian who commanded a mob spearheaded by a gang of tough, muscular hospital attendants called the parabalani, and assisted by redneck monks, his vulnerability was painfully clear. The Jewish community in Alexandria, which had been important in the city’s earlier history, had shot its bolt in a revolt against Rome in 115—117 which ended with its virtual annhilation. Yet the community had partly recovered by Late Antiquity, and Cyril fulminated against it, but the imperial government represented by the prefect continued to protect Jewish rights and privileges until one night, shortly after Hypatia’s death, a mob of Jewish zealots set fire to a church, and when some Christians rushed out to save it, they were cut down by Jewish swordsmen. In the riots that followed, the Alexandrian synagogues were seized and the Jews expelled from the city. Orestes had cultivated the leaders of the Alexandrian Jewish community, and he was “filled with great indignation” (to quote an historian of the period), and “excessively grieved” at the expulsion. But in the end, it was Orestes who was forced to yield, and he exited history into obscurity. Cyril remained unchallenged until his death, when his archdeacon Dioscorus succeeded, and since he felt insecure on the patriarchal throne, he hounded Cyril’s family out of Alexandria.

Haas has managed to put all this and much more, into its contemporary setting. This is a splendid book. It stops, for practical purposes, with the mid-fifth century, but an epilogue takes the reader to the Arab conquest in 642 and beyond. The year 642 marked a shift in political control of Alexandria from the Byzantine emperor to the Mohammedan caliph, but not much else. Alexandria’s decline belongs to the ninth and tenth centuries. Nonetheless its decline was probably inevitable. Alexandria belonged to the Mediterranean world and lived on Mediterranean commerce, to say nothing of the intellectual life of the Mediterranean. When the center of the Islamic world shifted to Baghdad, Alexandria found itself in the unaccustomed role of a provincial city.

Egypt of Late Antiquity was also a land of ascetics, “unhappy exiles from social life. . .” (to quote Edward Gibbon again) “impelled by the dark and implacable genius of superstition.” Kate Cooper’s The Virgin and the Bride explores part of this dark and implacable genius in the late Empire: sexual renunciation. Asceticism was never specifically Christian. There were pagan ascetics long before the monastic movement began in Egypt and the attraction of asceticism is clear enough. The ascetic life endowed its practitioner with moral superiority and sanctity, and along with those qualities came authority. The ordinary variety of humankind paid attention when the holy man spoke. Yet it is fair to say that one aspect of early Christian asceticism has been hard for male historians to comprehend, and that is the appeal of female virginity. When a holy man abstained from sexual intercourse, he was denying himself pleasure and battling against carnal weakness, all of which were considered marks of righteousness. But for a woman in Late Antiquity, virginity and motherhood, which was a good thing too, were antithetical. What was virginity’s attraction?

I am not sure that Kate Cooper has answered the question, even with a quarter century of scholarship in Women’s Studies to help her. She begins by finding the roots of the cult of virginity in the ancient novel, where romantic heroines, always young and innocent, preserve their virginity intact for their lovers, with whom they will live happily ever after when the novel ends. The notion may begin there, but Cooper moves quickly to the female saint, and recognizes rightly that female virginity is connected with power. The society of the ancient world used women ruthlessly to perpetuate the family. A woman who chose virginity was withdrawing from society and asserting her own autonomy as an individual. What is remarkable is that early Christianity did not condemn her withdrawal. Logic may have left the Christian theologians little choice; they had inherited an ideal of feminine purity from the pagan world which was expressed in the romantic novel where the heroine safeguards her virginity for her future husband, and once it was combined with the ascetic model of early Christianity, it emerged as the seductive figure of the bride of Christ who preserves her virginity for her true lover in the next world. Or so I would argue, though Cooper does not.

All this was a little hard on the married woman who might also have aspirations to sanctity. Cooper directs us, however, to the little-known “Passion of Anastasia” which she interprets as an effort to show that the virginal ideal could guide married women as well. Anastasia was married, although she was widowed early, and her real adventures took place after her impossible husband died. Cooper’s effort to make her a paradigm of a pious married Christian woman is a little strained. Yet she makes a valid point: overemphasis on virginity could transform the devout married woman into a second-class citizen in the city of God and no doubt the church wanted to avoid that consequence. Like the modern feminist movement, the cult of virginity in the late Empire tended to downgrade the procreation of children as an honorable pursuit.

“What remains to be understood,” writes Cooper in her conclusion, “is how the introduction of this new figure of female reluctance and authority changed the symbolic and moral economy of the Roman Mediterranean at the end of antiquity.” With that she introduces a homily on the space which modern women occupy in the postcolonial world order. Her conclusion is notable for its caution, and I found it unenlightening. Yet Cooper’s book, taken as a whole, is full of flashes of insight.


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