Rise of Christianity in Rome

Greenblatt considers the rise of Christianity to have been so detrimental to Roman intellectual and cultural traditions because Christians felt they had the right to be extremely cruel to the non-Christians. He cited several examples where Christians continuously assaulted non-Christians and destroyed their possessions in Alexandria, the intellectual and cultural center of the ancient world. It all began when Constantine started the process of making Christianity the official religion of Rome.

By 391 CE, during the reign of Theodosius the Great, he prohibited “public sacrifices and cultic major sites” including the destruction of paganism. Christian mobs in Alexandria then began to roam around the streets and insulted the pagans. The Christians even performed public mockery by parading the pagan cult objects through the streets. These awful actions obviously angered the pagans so they attacked the Christians and “then withdrew behind the locked doors of Serapeon.” The Christians attacked them as well and destroyed the marble, ivory, and gold statue of the god using axes and hammers that they brought with them. As if that weren’t enough, they brought the pieces to the different parts of the city including the theater and burned them. Theophilus, the leader of Alexandria’s Christian community, ordered the monks to move to pagan temples that they eventually converted into churches.

A few years later, Theophilus’ successor Cyril, did nothing different and more. He expanded the violent attacks upon the Jews, which occurred in different public places like the theater, streets, churches, and synagogues. They even “broke into and plundered Jewish shops and homes.” Like the pagans, Jews were angered by the Christians’ actions so they mocked and threw stones at them. Cyril ordered that the city’s largest Jewish population should be expelled. Alexandria’s governor, Orestes, didn’t support this demand and Hypatia, the city’s pagan intellectual elite agreed with him. Hypatia was an astronomer, musician, mathematician, and philosopher. Rumors started to circulate that her interests in these subjects were black magic, so she was accused of being a witch. Christian mobs took Hypatia and brought her to a church where she was stripped, beaten, and slaughtered. Her body was dragged outside the city walls and then burned.

No one can tell for sure, but the Christians’ violent assaults may have reached other institutions like libraries and museums as they contained statues, altars, and other non-Christian belongings. Pagan poet, Palladas, expressed his devastation through his poem and said, “our way of life is dead and gone.” Furthermore, according to Greenblatt, the murder of Hypatia “effectively marked the downfall of Alexandrian intellectual life.” This could be true as Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus observed that Romans lost interest in serious reading near the end of the century.