The recent Cosmos series has been a tour-de-force for science education and popularization, equal to the original. However, there is one aspect of both series that I have to take issue with, and that is the holding up of the murder of the philosopher Hypatia and the burning of the Great Library at Alexandria as examples of the decline of intellectualism in the early Christian era.
Hypatia was a neo-Platonist philosopher living in Alexandria, and probably the most famous female scholar of antiquity. It is agreed by all accounts that she was murdered by a Christian mob, specifically, followers of the Bishop, Cyril of Alexandria, in the year 415, as Dr. Sagan and Dr. Tyson both say. However, the account closest to her death says that she was not murdered for being a non-Christian (indeed she was held up by some Christians as a symbol of virtue), but for being an adviser to the Christian governor, Orestes, whom Cyril opposed. (Orestes was more secular than Cyril, opposing the growth of ecclesiastical power and making overtures to Jews and Pagans in Alexandria.)
Cosmos does not make Hypatia’s death so much a religious issue as an anti-intellectual on, but the truth is that it was actually a political one. A second problem comes when Dr. Sagan links her death to the destruction of the Great Library. In fact, in the final episode of the original Cosmos, “Who Speaks for Earth”, Carl Sagan says, “The last remains of the library were destroyed within a year of Hypatia’s death.”
The problem with this is that the last remnant of the Library of Alexandria were almost certainly destroyed in 391, 24 years before Hypatia’s death, and most of the library was likely destroyed, by accident, centuries earlier.
It sounds strange, but we actually don’t have a very good idea of when the Library of Alexandria was destroyed. As best we can tell, much of it was burned unintentionally when a fire spread through the city during Julius Caesar’s invasion in 48 BC. While the majority of the library may have survived that war, it was almost certainly destroyed in the war between Emperor Aurelian and Queen Zenobia of Palmyra in the 270s AD. This also appears to have been unintentional, as a large part of the city was burned.
What little was left of the library was deliberately destroyed in 391, when Emperor Theodosius I banned Paganism. The remaining repository of books in Alexandria was destroyed along with the Pagan temple it was stored in.
I admire most of Dr. Sagan’s and Dr. Tyson work, but when they characterize Hypatia’s death and the burning of the Great Library as the deliberate (and linked) actions of an anti-intellectual mob, they are simply misrepresenting the history.