When I hear other Pagans talk about "The Burning Times", they often talk about the Inquisition, the Witch Trials of Europe, Salem, etc. and hold them up as examples of Pagan and witchcraft persecution. These are tragedies. But they are tragedies mostly because the folks were persecuted were innocents. Most were, in fact, not witches or even Pagans, though it's possible some were.
The fact that the unspeakable tragedy of Alexandria is rarely mentioned in these discussions is really a pity and one of my pet peeves. Not that the other events were not important. They are important for everyone to remember, Pagan or otherwise, because a witch hunt is never a good thing; whether those being hunted are Witches, Jews, Communists, Muslims or whatever. Let us not forget the Burning Times because we have to recognize it when it happens again. But let's also not forget Alexandria, either. Alexandria was dramatic and significant symbol of the shift from Pagan to Christian domination in the "civilized" world.
When Alexander the Great conquered Egypt, he established Alexandria in 331BCE to be the center of Hellenic culture in Egypt and its new capital under the rule of his general Ptolemy and his descendants. This rule continued for 275 years before it fell to Rome in 30 BCE under the unfortunate Cleopatra VII whose struggles were recorded in dramatic form by Shakespeare and so many others. The early Ptolemies wanted Alexandria to be a great center for learning and culture and created museums, universities and the great Library of Alexandria. Books and scrolls were collected from all over the world, translated into Greek and stored in the Library. It was the largest single collection of the written word in the world with a goal of having a copy of everything ever written. In many cases, the only copy.
At its peak, Alexandria was the second largest city in the world after Rome. In addition to Greeks from many different city states, Alexandria was home to the largest Jewish population in the world and, of course, many Egyptians. There were problems, of course. The Greeks were very proud of being Greek and considered everyone else a barbarian. But Alexandria thrived and became home to some of the greatest minds of our history.
Alexandria was officially annexed by the Roman Empire in the first century CE and remained under Roman control for another 500 years. At that time a new religion began growing in strength and power in Alexandria, a city that encouraged innovation and growth. This religion was Christianity. During the late 4th century CE clashes between Pagans and Christians were commonplace. In 391 CE, the Emperor of Rome, Theodosius I forbade all religious rites that were not Christian and ordered the destruction of all Pagan temples in Alexandria and the Christian mobs were only too happy to comply. The great Library of Alexandria may have been destroyed during this time, history is a little shady on that subject.
Now there's something really important we need to understand here and this is something that many Pagans do not like to hear me say. Christianity was not at fault. Christianity was an unwitting victim. A tool. Because elsewhere in the Roman empire men of power were trying to hold onto their power. Rome had always taken its culture and Gods with them when they annexed areas, often tacking Roman names to the local Gods. When Christianity appeared it became a problem. It was different enough from the myriad Pagan religions they encountered that it was difficult to annex. And worse, unlike Judaism, a hereditary religion, Christianity was looking for converts and found them. Christianity was a further problem because there were so many variants. Not only did they cause trouble for the Pagans, they caused trouble for each other; arguing over things like the divinity of Jesus himself, the nature of God and other things Pagans just wouldn't bother arguing about.
At first they simply outlawed Christianity and issued such edicts against them that might sound familiar to those who have read edicts against Pagans. Claims that they engaged in strange sexual practices and did unnatural things to children were not unusual. The Emperor Constantine first officially legalized Christianity in 313 CE with the Edict of Milan that declared ALL religions permissible. In 325 CE he called the Council of Nicea to settle the disagreements between the Christian sects once and for all. The Council strengthened Christianity by giving it a unified front which later helped create the hierarchy that made the Christian church the most powerful force in the Western world for millennia. But I think Constantine still believed that Christians and Pagans could get along. In 321 he declared that all citizens should honor Sunday as a holy day in honor of Sol. He also supported many of the Christian church's projects including the building of Saint Peter's Basilica while still supporting Pagan projects, such as the Arch of Constantine which sports images of Victoria and was dedicated with sacrifices to Apollo, Diana and Hercules. However, toward the end of his life, Constantine became more and more sympathetic of Christianity and putting some limits on Pagan practices without outlawing them outright. Constantine was baptized on his deathbed and he died bearing the title Pontificus Maximus, the highest title of Rome's official state religion.
Further Emperors did not have Constantine's ability to straddle spiritualities. His son, Constantius II forbade public Pagan rituals and closed Pagan temples. Under him, ordinary Christians felt justified in persecuting Pagans and desecrating temples and monuments. From there, things just got worse until Theodosius I came to power in 381 CE. He enforced anti-Pagan laws so severely that even local authorities were subject to punishment for not persecuting Pagans. He was responsible for Alexandria as well as the disbanding of the Vestal Virgins and extinguishing of the sacred fire in the Temple of Vesta, put an end to the Olympic Games and even outlawed Pagan practice in the privacy of one's own home on pain of death.
As I write this I see in my mind images of families being dragged out of their homes by mobs. Of beautiful statues being pulled down and crumbling into fire. Of personal altars being thrown into the street. Of temples burning. The "Burning Times" of the Middle Ages and Salem are mere shadows of this nightmare.
But I reiterate that Christianity was simply a tool. Christianity is a convenient religion for an Emperor to impose upon his people. A religion with one God naturally supports a Monarchy. When the earliest Christians appeared, I am sure the Roman Republicans recognized this when they declared Christianity illegal. A religion like this stifles individuality, creativity and growth because it allows no room for these things. It excuses atrocities by people in power and encourages those beneath them to simply accept what happens to them because it's Gods will and anyway, it'll all be better after they die. This paved the way for the Holy Roman Empire, the Dark Ages, the Crusades, the Inquisition, need I go on? If the Emperors had not seized upon this tool to solidify their power, what would the world be like today? I can't help but wonder.
Finally, I'd like to recommend the movie Agora, about the destruction of Alexandria and the death of Hypatia. It is not historically accurate. It is woefully inaccurate, actually. But it is a good movie. I loved it. And it made me cry. Not that that is difficult.
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Comments, questions, criticism?