Library of Alexandria and Christian Destruction of Paganism

Library of Alexandria Remains

(Composed in response to points raised by Stephen Jones in his CreationEvolutionDesign yahoogroup)

The Site Of Alexandriaʼs Ancient Royal Library Discovered!

Site of Alexandriaʼs ancient library uncovered May 15, [2004] CAIRO (AFP)
- Archaeologists have uncovered the site of Alexandriaʼs ancient Royal Library which vanished nearly 16 centuries ago and in which Archimedes and Euclid both studied. An Egyptian-Polish team unearthed the complexʼs 13 conference rooms which would have been able to accommodate some 5,000 students, before the library was burnt during an insurrection against Caesar in the year 48 BC, under Cleopatra VIII. Antony and Cleopatra were believed by some to have moved the library to Serapeum but this was also set sacked and burnt by the Christians around 390 AD and, according to some historians, again during the Arab conquest in 642 AD.

Steve Jonesʼs Comment: I seem to remember a former CED member Ed Babinski (See hypatia.html) blaming the destruction of the Alexandria library on Christians. It seems this is a myth started, or promoted, by Carl Sagan, in his Cosmos TV series and book. But this article says the library of Alexandria was originally destroyed by *pagans*, about a half-century before Christ! If what was then left of the Alexandria Library was “sacked and burnt by the Christians around 390 AD,” it couldnʼt have been a total destruction (assuming it happened at all) if “the library was sacked and burnt again during the Arab conquest in 642 AD.”

Ed Babinskiʼs Response: The article was not mine, however I did write elsewhere on the web that “Christians destroyed the Serapeum.” Before Christianity became the religion of Roman Emperors, the Serapeum had suffered destruction and also had been rebuilt in a grand fashion (including having become a repository of library scrolls). Then Christians destroyed the Serapeum in one or two riotous fits during the reign of the Christian Roman Emperor Theophilus. Christians destroyed many “pagan” buildings and statues during Theophilusʼ reign.

For a discussion of the historical questions surrounding the accounts of multiple “destructions” of the Library of Alexandria in the past (pre-Christian, Christian, and post-Christian) see the extensively referenced and updated Wikipedia article below, that includes the latest information that Steve mentioned above.

According to the conclusion of the Wikipedia article:

“There is a growing consensus among historians that the Library of Alexandria likely suffered from several destructive events, but that the destruction of Alexandriaʼs pagan temples in the late 4th century was probably the most severe and final one. The evidence for that destruction is the most definitive and secure. Caesarʼs invasion may well have led to the loss of some 40,000-70,000 scrolls in a warehouse adjacent to the port (as Luciano Canfora argues, they were likely copies produced by the Library intended for export), but it is unlikely to have affected the Library or Museum, given that there is ample evidence that both existed later. Civil wars, decreasing investments in maintenance and acquisition of new scrolls and generally declining interest in non-religious pursuits likely contributed to a reduction in the body of material available in the Library, especially in the fourth century. The Serapeum was certainly destroyed by Theophilus in 391, and the Museum and Library may have fallen victim to the same campaign.”

And see the extensively referenced online article, “The Mysterious Fate of the Great Library of Alexandria” (updated in 2005).

And see the notes from a Tufts Univ. professor (from 1995).

Finally, note this paragraph from Matthew Battlesʼs book, Library: An Unquiet History (New York: W. W. Norton, 2003), p. 24,32: “The libraries [of Alexandria] were surely in decline under Christians who, following their triumph over pagans, Jews, and Neoplatonists, found the Hellenic riches of the libraries discomfiting. Their anger reached a fever pitch in the fourth century A.D.: Theophilus, patriarch of Alexandria, desired the site of the temple of Serapis for a church; he set loose a mob of Christians, who destroyed the pagan temple, and perhaps, the books of its library as well…The libraries of Alexandria probably shared a modest fate, moldering slowly through the centuries as people grew indifferent and even hostile to their contents. Ancient Greek, never a linguistic monolith in any case, became incomprehensible to Alexandrians of the Christian era with their mixture of Coptic, Aramaic, Hebrew, Latin, and Koine, or demotic Greek. Ignored by the generations to whom they were indecipherable, the scrolls would have been damaged…stolen, lost, and yes, burned. They were replaced by writings of the Fathers and Doctors of the church and by the thinning literature of the declining Roman world.”
For More Specific Information On How And Why The Rise Of Christianity “Thinned Out” The Literature Of The Roman World, See Below

The Christian Destruction Of Paganism

For all their propaganda, Constantine and his successors did not bring about the end of paganism. But what they did bring to the Christian churches was peace [but not peace between Christians], wealth, and, above all, the ability to build up, at a surprising rate, a strong local position.

Constantine set up great basilica churches (true “royal halls,” as the name basilica, from basileus, “king,” implies) in Rome—Saint Peterʼs and San Giovanni in Laterano. At Antioch he built a large, golden-domed octagon opposite the newly-built imperial palace. Above all, he built the Church of the Holy Sepulcher at Jerusalem. These churches were sermons in stone. They spoke far more loudly and more continuously of the providential alliance of Church and empire than did any imperial edict or the theorizing of any bishop. They left visitors amazed:

“The decorations really are too marvelous for words [wrote Egeria, a Spanish pilgrim, on Constantineʼs church of the Holy Sepulcher.] All you can see is gold and jewels and silk… You simply cannot imagine the number and the sheer weight of the candles, tapers, lamps and everything else they use for the services… They are beyond description, and so is the magnificent building itself. It was built by Constantine and. was decorated with gold, mosaic and precious marbles, as much as his empire could provide.”
—Peter Brown, The Rise of Western Christendom, 2nd Ed., (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2003), p.77


Constantineʼs allegiance to his God was backed by massive patronage. Emperors had always honored their favored gods with benefactions and buildings. Constantineʼs patronage was so lavish that he had to strip resources from pagan temples to fund it. One of his early foundations in Rome was the church of St. John Lateran, whose apse was to be coated in gold. Around 500 pounds of it was needed…Another 3,700 lbs was required for light fittings and another 400 pounds of gold for fifty gold vessels.
—Charles Freeman, “The Emperorʼs State of Grace,” History Today, January 2001


Constantine…banned the construction of new pagan temples, the consulting of oracles, and animal sacrifices. That these decrees were enforced sporadically did not detract from their symbolic value…

[During the reign of Christian Emperor Theodosius] bands of wandering monks attacked synagogues, pagan temples, hereticsʼ meeting places, and the homes of wealthy non-believers in Mesopotamia, Syria, Egypt, Palestine, and North Africa. The bishop of Alexandria incited local vigilantes to destroy the Temple of Serapis [also known as the Serapeum], one of the largest and most beautiful buildings in the ancient world that also housed a library…Alexandrian Christians whipped up by Bishop Cyril rioted against the Jews in 415, and then murdered Hypatia, a wise and beloved Platonic philosopher.
—Richard E. Rubenstein, When Jesus Became God: The Epic Fight over Christʼs Divinity in the Last Days of Rome, p.226-227


Between 315 AD and the sixth century thousands of pagan believers were slain. Pagan services became punishable by death in 356 AD.

The Christian Emperor, Theodosius, even had children executed, because they had been playing with remains of pagan statues.

Examples of destroyed Temples: the Sanctuary of Aesculap in Aegaea, the Temple of Aphrodite in Golgatha, Aphaka in Lebanon, the Heliopolis. Christian priests such as Mark of Arethusa or Cyrill of Heliopolis were famous as “temple destroyers.”

In the early fourth century the philosopher Sopatros was executed on demand of Christian authorities.

In the sixth century pagans were declared void of all rights.
—K. Deschner, Abermals krähte der Hahn, (Stuttgart 1962), p.466, 468-469


The Christian zealots for conversion took to the streets or criss-crossed the countryside, destroying no doubt more of the architectural and artistic treasure of their world than any passing barbarians thereafter.
—Ramsay MacMullen, Christianizing the Roman Empire


[Pagan] oracles had remained popular: many were shut down. Great [pagan] temples were deliberately violated: their doors were broken and their sanctuaries defiled, if only to prove that the gods associated with them were unable to protect their shrines against such sacrilege. Statues of the gods were broken up with deliberate care: their heads, arms, and legs were broken off, so as to deprive them of the divine “life“ which their worshippers (and many half-hearted Christians also) had seen in them. These pre-emptive, “first strike” measures were not necessarily expected to convert pagans. They took place, rather, so as to hold in newly converted Christians by removing from them the temptation offered by old places of pagan worship.

The Christian empire was fully implicated in these actions… Constantine and his successors did the same [things that pagan emperors had done to Christians, forbidding their meetings, destroying their property and sacred books, only] in reverse… After 312, first Constantine, then his devout son, Constantius II (337-361), and finally, Theodosius I (379-395) progressively forbade public [pagan] sacrifices, closed temples, and colluded in frequent acts of local violence by Christians against major cult sites—of which the destruction of the gigantic Serapeum of Alexandria, in around 392, was only the most spectacular.
—Peter Brown, The Rise of Western Christendom, 2nd Ed., (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2003), p.73-74


The Theodosian Code And Paganism

In 436, the lawyers of Theodosius II (408-450), the grandson of Theodosius I, met in Constantinople to bring together the edicts of his Christian predecessors in a single book. The subsequent Theodosian Code appears in 438…

When early medieval Christians looked back to Rome, what they saw, first and foremost, was not the “Golden Age” of classical Rome (as we would tend to do). The pagan empire did not impress them. It was the Theodosian Code that held their attention and esteem. It was the official voice of the Roman empire at its greatest, that is, when it was the Roman empire as God always intended it to be—a Christian empire. The Code ended with a book On Religion. This book, in itself, signaled the arrival of a new attitude to religion. Religious belief as such was not treated as a subject for legislation. As we have seen, Roman had always been concerned with the correct performance of religions, with the maintenance of traditional rites. But this attitude had been replaced by the new definition of “religion” which, was we saw, had emerged in the course of the third century A.D. Now it was “thought-crime” itself—wrong view on religion in general, and not simply failure to practice traditional rites in the traditional manner—which was disciplined. In the Theodosian Code, extracts from the laws issued from the reign of Constantine to that of Theodosius II were arranged in chronological order. They communicated a rising sense of governmental certainty. There was to be little place, in the new Roman order, for heresy, schism, or Judaism, and no place at all for “the error of stupid paganism.”
—Peter Brown, The Rise of Western Christendom, 2nd Ed., (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2003), p.75


Pagans had not been clear or unanimous in their belief in an afterlife, but those who credited it looked to mystery cults for insurance in their future. Christians were much more positive. The Christians united ritual and philosophy and brought the certainty of God and history to questions whose answers eluded the pagan schools. Whereas pagan cults won adherents, Christianity aimed, and contrived, to win converts…

Paganism was reclassified as a demonic system. If Satan was the source of error and evil, false teaching and wrongdoing were not merely mistaken: they were diabolic. The division between a Christian “community of goodness” and an “outer world of evil” could easily become too pronounced. The idea of Satan magnified the difference between “true” and “false” Christians and between Christian sinners and saints…

Like Satan, the Last Judgment was a force that Christians exaggerated and then claimed to be able to defeat…This teaching was reinforced by an equally powerful ally, the Christian idea of sin. Sin was not just the sin of an action, or even an intention, but also the sin of a thought, even a passing interest in an appealing man or woman. This combination of rarefied sin and eternal punishment was supported, as we shall see, by books of vision and revelation that were probably more widely read than modern contempt for “pseudepigraphic” forgeries allows: acquaintance with the Apocalypse of “Peter” would make anyone think twice before leaving the Church (we happen to know that “Peterʼs vision of hell” was still read as a holy text in the churches in Palestine on Good Friday during the fifth century). If fears for Eternity brought converts to the faith, one suspects that they did even more to keep existing converts in it.
—Robin Lane Fox, Pagans and Christians (Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., New York, 1987), p.326-327, 330-331, 412


Institutions of higher learning had been largely destroyed. The [Christian] emperorsʼ attacks had centered on the chief of them, Athens and Alexandria, in the late fourth century and were turned against them again toward the end of the fifth and in 529. [“529 A.D.” was the year that the School of Athens was closed by the decree of the Christian Roman Emperor Justinian, the same Justinian who also outlawed sodomy, because, “It is well known that buggery is a principal cause of earthquakes, and so must be prohibited.”—E.T.B.]. As to the initiators of the persecution, the [Christian] emperors themselves, a steady decline in their level of cultivation has been noticed. Thus books and philosophy were bound to fade from sight.

After Constantine there existed an empire-wide instrument of education: the church. What bishops, even emperors, made plain, and what could be heard in broader terms from every pulpit, was an agreed upon teaching. Every witness, every listener should know the great danger to his soul in Platoʼs books, in Aristotleʼs, in any of the philosophical corpus handed down from the past. The same danger threatened anyone using his mind according to their manner, with analytical intent, ranging widely for the materials of understanding, and independent of divine imparted teachings.

Another factor that arose specifically out of the ongoing conversion of the empire was the doctrine of demonic causation. The belief in the operation of maleficent forces on a large scale had to await Christianity; and it was of course Christianity that was to form the medieval and Byzantine world.

Satanic agents were to be seen as the cause not only of wars and rebellions, persecution and heresy, storms at sea and earthquakes on land, but of a host of minor or major personal afflictions. So, in consequence, Christians were forever crossing themselves, whatever new action they set about, and painted crosses on their foreheads too, responding to their leadersʼ urging them to do so. It would protect them against all evil.
—Ramsay MacMullen, Christianity and Paganism in the Fourth to Eighth Centuries


Art, philosophy, literature, the very psychology of Western man, all suffered by the victory of the bishops.
—John Holland Smith, The Death of Classical Paganism


Augustine was at his most disagreeably impatient when faced by groups whom he saw as self-regarding enclaves, deaf to the universal message of the Catholic Church. He insensibly presented the Church not only as the true Church, but as potentially the Church of the majority of the inhabitants of the Roman world. He was the first Christian that we know of to think consistently and in a practical manner in terms of making everyone a Christian. This was very different from claiming, as previous Christians had done, that Christianity was a universal religion in the sense that anyone in any place could, in theory at least, become a Christian. Augustine spoke of Christianity in more concrete, social terms: there was no reason why everybody in a given society (the Jews excepted) should not be a Christian. In his old age, he took for granted that the city of Hippo was, in effect, a Christian city. He saw no reason why the normal pressures by which any late Roman local community enforced conformity on its members should not be brought to bear against schismatics and heretics. He justified imperial laws that decreed the closing of temples and the exile and disendowment of rival churches [Donatist and other churches]. Pagans were told simply to “wake up” to the fact that they were a minority. They should lose no time in joining the Great Majority of the Catholic Church. In fact, the entire world had been declared, more than a millennium before by the prophets of Israel, to belong only to Christ and to his Church, and Augustine quoted the second Psalm as proof: “Ask of me, and I shall give thee the heathen for thine inheritance, and the uttermost parts of the earth for thy possession. Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron.” [Psalm 2:6,8,9,12].

[Of course not everyone was swayed by Augustineʼs arguments.] We have a recently discovered letter that Augustine wrote at the end of his life to Firmus, a notable of Carthage. Firmus had attended afternoon readings of Augustineʼs City of God. He had even read as far as book 10. He knew his Christian literature better than did his wife. Yet his wife was baptized, and Firmus was not. Augustine informed him that, compared with her, Firmus, for all his culture, even his sympathy for Christianity, stood on dangerous ground as long as he remained unbaptized.
—Peter Brown, The Rise of Western Christendom, 2nd Ed., (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2003), p.91, 92


Ironic Postscript Concerning The Christian Destruction Of Paganism:

Augustine and other famed church fathers like Ambrose, lived in the Christian stronghold of North Africa. But after Christianity had superceded Roman paganism in North Africa, Christianity itself was superceded and reduced to a minority religion by Islam. Islam challenged Christianity and soon won the Middle East, North Africa, parts of Eastern Europe, parts of Russia, parts of India, and parts of Indonesia, to become the most widespread non-Christian religion on earth. (For a rough estimate of the numbers of “adherents” of different religions in the world.)

Also, “since the early part of the 20th century, pressure on Christians in the Middle East has resulted in a dramatic decline in their population… The Christian population declined from 35 percent to 5 percent in Iraq, 15 percent to 2 percent in Iran, 40 percent to 10 percent in Syria, and 32 percent to less than 1 percent in Turkey.” (Excerpted from Freeing Godʼs Children: The Unlikely Alliance for Global Human Rights by Allen D. Hertzke. Copyright 2004 by Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.)

[February 11, 2005]

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