CHRONICLE OF AN INFAMY OR JESUS CHRIST VERSUS PLATO
“TODAY is my Judgement Day… and I have very little time.”
Trees are said to dream of blue seas, that ever-changing turquoise, while humans dream of tomorrow. But what happens when you are certain that the future will never come?
My name is Hypatia of Alexandria, and when I woke up this morning, I knew that I would be butchered to death by a maddened crowd. I didn’t have much time, but I felt calm. My eyes swept over all the parchment manuscripts and then fell upon the Great Lighthouse that was framed by my windows. Then, that spring of the year 415, I ran convulsively, incipiently within the city in which I was born: Alexandria.
I thought that perhaps the man known as “The Great” would turn in his marble tomb – for sure he would feel some discomfort when he realised the terrible crime about to be committed in the city he had founded. But the tombstones remained sealed. Nobody, not even the dead, would move a finger to help me. So I repeated out loud:
“Today is my Judgement Day… and I have very little time.”
THAT MORNING, the last of my life, I had woken up in a sweat in a room lined with volumes written by learned scholars from the past. In one of the texts that lay there, the old aphorism stated:
“Destiny waits alike for the free man as well as for him enslaved by another's might”.
Through my windows, I looked again at the great white marble cyclops that guided the ships into the port on the Island of Pharos. What could I say to my own giant keystone with whom I shared the Great Secret…
I looked over all my parchment manuscripts again. I wept bitterly, knowing that I would never again contemplate the glowing sunset, never see the sea again. It is said that trees dream of waves and the ever-changing blue, so I closed my eyelids and turned into a tree for a few minutes. Then, as if no-one could ever alter a single line of the Book of Time, I accepted my fate.
Then, I said out loud again:
“My mind travelled through dreams the future to see, and from there it learned from that reality. Or was it that the infinite reality was based on and built from my indelible memory?”
Much calmer then, I put my roots to one side and ceased to be a tree. I freshened up, perfumed myself with violet essence and dressed in my favourite philosopher tunic. Finally, and with great care, I put a parchment manuscript in my pocket and set out towards the town centre and my own death: that morning, I had woken up with that certainty, that premonition.
I had to find one of my beloved philosophy guardians in order to pass on vital information to them – information which only I possessed. That was the only thing that worried me while the sands of time sifted relentlessly down the time-glass.
THE TALE OF MY CRIME inadvertently fuelled my legend. My infamy was considered the true frontier between the radiant Antiquity and the disturbing centuries to follow. At that time, Rome was living in the twilight without thought for tomorrow. The empire was on the cliff-edge, and would eventually be pushed over by unbearable bureaucracy and civil wars.
And I had managed to work as a mathematician, astrologer, teacher and philosopher there, inside the protective bubble that was Alexandria, oblivious to the harsh world outside. Moreover, I was to be the last Library. The Great Library of Alexandria represented the greatest seat of learning… until the Age of the Geniuses… the safekeeping of which had now become my ultimate raison d’être. Therefore, I had to find my disciples before my life was taken from me; I had to pass the Great Secret on to them… before the frenetic crowd tore me to pieces pitilessly.
I quickened my pace while I was pondering: the reasons why or how it had come to this were simple to understand. Patriarch Cyril had planned my murder because of my relationship with Orestes. Orestes was a student of mine, Prefect of Alexandria, and the maximum imperial authority from Constantinople in the city. The religious power of Bishop Cyril was openly opposed to the political power.
His jealousy slowly grew within him, until one day he drove past my building in his carriage and saw a lot of activity, people and fine Arab horses tied up at the door:
“What have I chanced upon here?” the Patriarch asked, possessed by caustic jealousy.
His Roman Senator’s elegant composure started to break up when he heard the answer:
“Theon’s daughter, Hypatia, is going to talk to us about Aristarchus, Hipparchus, Eratosthenes and Ptolemy,” he was told. “She will tell us how they deciphered the language of the cosmos. Guests have arrived from Thebes, Antioch, Carthage and even Damascus.”
“But who is that pagan Hypatia, and who are these people that unashamedly stand in awe of her?” he demanded, “Speak now!”
“Some of her audience and students have high-level ecclesiastical and imperial responsibilities, Sir. She offers counsel to civil servants, Egyptian civil governors, military commanders, important religious leaders and other philosophers. They are all illustrious imperial figures.”
“She will pay the price for her audacity most dearly.”
The truth is that not long remained for his threat to be carried out. I was very conscious of the fact that I had very little time to meet up with my people.
I HAD TO ACT QUICKLY or else the Great Secret would die with me, and that would be terrible for the generations to come. The Alexandria librarians had passed it on to each other for years, and I resolved to dedicate what little life I had left to carry on with that tradition. At a road crossing, I headed for the centre of Alexandria.
It was all going to happen during Lent of the year 415: a maddened crowd formed by monks and the Parabalani (the Patriarch’s military force) was hunting me down. Cyril had spread a slanderous rumour:
“The venerable Hypatia is practising despicable black magic rituals and satanic arts.”
The city had brought about many murderous intentions in the past. The next assassination was going to take place today. It was all going to happen today.
I walked down the wide avenues and thought that I could hear the sound of swords. Christians and Hebrews had been fighting each other ever since many of the Jews had been evicted. That incident had deeply jeopardised the relationship between the church and the Empire, and fed the intolerance that was to end up devouring everything and everyone, starting with me. In less than half and hour I would cease to exist.
I fled through what once were sumptuous streets, and hurried towards the central district of Bruquion, where the Library stood. I wondered if I would find any of my disciples there. However, I doubted if Olympius of Syria were to be found in Alexandria. I did not hold and hope for Hesychius either “What a shame my friend Synesius of Cyrene has disappeared,” I thought, touching the parchment script in my pocket. Together with Olympius, Hesychius and Herculianus, he had formed the Pythagorean tetrad: the guardians of the secrets of philosophy.
I smiled when I remembered the day that Synesius was using a hydrometer in order to tell the future. At the end of one of my divine geometry classes I made a recommendation to him:
“Dispose of that apparatus very carefully, and build an astrolabe. Then you will be able to observe and determine the position and movement of the stars, although in that way you will see the past, not the future.”
The truth is that the ill-fated Synesius never was able to interpret the prophecies that the gods put inside me while I was asleep with his apparatus. The glowing threads that tied me to this reality were about to break.
Then I saw it in the distance.
I SAW the lighthouse dome that was held up by eight columns when, quite by chance, I bumped in to Cyrus, Herculianus’ brother. He was chatting to a government employee and was pleased to see me as always. The civil servant, recognising me, moved away discreetly. After greeting Cyrus, I asked where his brother was.
“He is in Bruquion. He seemed anxious but did not tell me why. What is happening?”
But I didn’t answer him. I just embraced him strongly and in so doing I passed on a small portion of my soul on to him. As I hurried away, I turned my head to give him a sad smile.
Yes, at that moment I realised that Herculianus was the key. EVERYTHING depended on my finding him.
He was noble, loyal, discreet and had influential friends – he knew powerful people and first-rate scholars. Many of them had been students of mine and were close to each other as if they were a family; they formed a very united community. Their link, their unifying force was represented by the solid motto, “Under the sign of Hypatia”. This made me blush but flattered me equally as much.
I had to find that man. Now!
BUT ALEXANDRIA turned out to be too extensive for me. The immense avenues made of stonework and marble, sleepy statues and defenceless obelisks, gardens and agorae, grand administrative buildings and great palaces seemed interminable to me. In such a rushed, excited state, I had underestimated the distances in the city; I was a prisoner in the golden cage that it once was. I did not know the exact moment that my life would come to its fateful end, but I felt that it was imminent. Therefore, for a quarter of a talent, I decided to hire a carriage in which to travel around. Perhaps that was one of the most unfortunate ideas that I had in my life…
“To the Bruquion district, please.”
The old man got the old hack moving whilst I was taken over by a thought: nobody would be able to rectify a situation of which both the State and the Church had lost control. An abyss of misunderstanding separated the two of them and no doubt it would end up in blood and fire. That was as far as the domestic situation was concerned, but abroad the Germanic people were banging on the doors of the Western Roman Empire and soon they would break them down. As a mathematician, the equations were crystal clear to me:
INTERNAL CONFLICTS + EXTERNAL CONFLICTS = COMPLETE CHAOS
In a few minutes I would reach my end coordinates.
The objective was to save the Library from barbarity. I had deduced that once the “guardian of knowledge” had been done away with, they would go after knowledge itself. I remembered how, on one occasion, I had unsuccessfully tried to convince the Bishop Cyril of the similarities between Christian and neo-platonic thought:
“Sir, it is probable that your Jesus Christ and my Plato come up against each other in complex games of cosmic geometry wherever they are out there, maybe sitting on a star.”
But the man I was speaking to, far from being receptive, was openly hostile. Having seen the popularity that I enjoyed, the Patriarch’s jealousy, frustration and envy were sharp shells and jagged fragments of pottery in the making. With these tools I would later be flayed. On that occasion he answered:
“Quiet, heathen! Your words are heretic and your poetry inopportune. You tread on the Holy Scriptures and then you defecate on them.”
“But Sir, we are talking of the same Truth but seen from opposite sides!”
However, my words were nothing but fuel to feed the fire inside the Patriarch. The veins that stood out on his neck seemed to be about to explode. I perceived an almost tangible hate in his reply:
“Quiet, quiet, you wretch!”
Those words were pronounced by a murderer.
IN TWO MINUTES I would reach Alexandria’s old quarters. I analysed my feelings and sensations. Apart from the pressing need to pass on the Great Secret, I had found peace. An interior peace that had been building up within me for decades, sculpted by philosophers’ quills, forged from the love that I had for knowledge. With regard to the world that still surrounded me, a former student would materialise and put my own preoccupations into words. I did not know it yet, but soon I would set out on the most fabulous journey that any being had ever undergone.
I took his last letter out of my pocket. My friend Synesius of Cyrene had written it years ago, just before he had died. I delved into the text:
Cyrene, Cyrenaic Region, Jebel Akhdar Valley
12th February, 412
MY THEIOTATOS, my most divine Hypatia,
First of all, I have to tell you that my staunch devotion to you has not declined during the last years: if you need me I will be at your side until you take your last breath, even when the god of the dead, Hades, winks his eye at me.
I remember your astronomy lessons with great nostalgia. But in order to achieve spiritual heights, certain conditions must be respected: one must have a full stomach and easy access to culture. Such transmission of Knowledge should reach the four corners of the world, all those places that Sophocles told us.
Apart from the factors mentioned, we must not forget those horsemen of the Apocalypse that surround us: famine and death. Will we manage to overcome them one day? Today I dreamt something strange, very strange - you will live to see that joyous day.
The philosophy that you taught us based upon virtue, beauty and contemplation, does it really clash head on with what the Gospel preaches? My beloved, dear, divine Hypatia, is it not true that Plato and Jesus Christ express the same concepts with almost the same words, but from a different angle?
With love, forever, for all eternity,
“WE SHALL MEET THERE, dear Synesius, at the end of eternity, where the Christians believe that God, the saints and the poets that portray heaven reside. Although I believe that we shall become stardust, hopefully made from the same star.” I said out loud whilst I folded my friend’s letter. His words, some of which were truly enigmatic, made a deep impression on me, but reality beat abruptly on the door, dispelling my memories.
At that moment, I reached the crossroads…, although it would be better described as a dead end. I had no doubt about that when I saw the monk Philamon, an old student of mine, surrounded by a crowd of Greeks. The teacher-student relationship between us had at the time lead to a solid friendship. For that reason, when the monk saw me, his face dropped.
As soon as he had realised what was going to happen, he had hurried to warn me, until he had been held up in that quarrel; Alexandria was a tidal flow of all sorts of dissenters, which made it difficult to progress.
Without getting down from the carriage that the driver had now halted, I saw my own death reflected in that man’s face.
A savage mob started to make their way towards the carriage.
When the old man who was driving it realised what was going on, he ran away as if he were possessed by the devil: two dozen hefty mercenaries beat their way through more than a hundred monks with blazing eyes. From my vantage point, I could see what was coming upon me, but I reacted with such sôphrosynê or self-control that I surprised even myself. There was no way I could escape; the crowd that was running away from the savages was blocking the way.
Before the tragedy could be perpetrated I beckoned Philemon over to me. Once he was by my side, I bent down slowly towards him, without getting down from the carriage. I calculated that I had just a few instants to pass the encoded message on to him.
“Look for Herculianus, one of Theodosius’ high ranking officials, and tell him from Theon’s daughter,” the monk closed his eyes tightly to remember my exact words, or maybe so as not to see the lethal pack of hounds that was closing in on us…
“THE INCANDESCENT CYCLOPS STARTS TO PAVE THE WAY TO WISDOM WHERE IT STOPS TRACING THE WAY FOR SHIPS. THE NEW BURNING THORN WILL SET THE COURSE FOR MAN.”
At that moment, Philamon was hit and fell, battered to the ground. He still had his eyes clenched tight and he mouthed words ceaselessly – he was not praying, he was repeating my words over and over again, fully aware of their implications.
The bishop’s hordes of loyal supporters reached the carriage and dragged me out violently. I was taken to Peter the Reader, the monk leading the uprising. Then I was dragged to the Caesareum Church.
NOW INSIDE the ancient temple and at the fountain, the monks undressed me completely, or to be exact, ripped my clothes off violently. Then they left me standing for a few minutes with the water up to my knees, the centre of all attention. The combination of the light that streamed in through the window panes, my serenity, the water lilies that covered part of my skin and the scent of violets that always surrounded me made me feel more beautiful and confident than ever.
The monks looked bewildered. My mouth widened and I burst out laughing. The monks felt awkward and rubbed their eyes, for they could not believe what they saw. What was so amusing about being about to die in the most terrible way imaginable? Then I declared:
“My body will die, but my soul will then become universal and will roam through the centuries. And it will do so until the whole of humanity has Nous, the maximum wisdom, within its reach.”
After that, I was dishonoured, then to be flayed alive. This was done with inconceivable brutality, with fragments of pottery and shells until my flesh was torn from my bones. Then, the maddened crowd of fanatics tore me to pieces by pulling my limbs apart one by one. Afterwards, my remains were dragged to a place called Cinaron, and there they were burnt with outrageous barbarity.
“Recalcitrant pagan, your gods have been reduced to dust at the feet of victorious Jesus Christ,” muttered Patriarch Cyril with a disturbing and diabolical gleam in his eyes when he heard what had happened.
The murderers were never punished. Orestes was removed from office and was never heard of again. I am afraid that together with my assassination, freedom of research and thought, Homer and Plato also died. The Ancient World, that era sprinkled with perfection also died with me.
But, what would have happened if I had not died? What would there have been in store for humanity if the prodigious volume of information of the Library of Alexandria had been safeguarded? And now we should ask ourselves, if it did disappear, how is it possible that I am recounting all this from the future? Maybe the question is: Why should everything that I, Hypatia of Alexandria, once was, completely disappear after my physical death?
I would try to leave my mark on the eternity that stretched out in front of me, meekly at first, like a swallow in the wind. But if subtlety did not work, I would not be disintegrated tamely and be dispersed into the universe. If subtlety did not work, I would not be dissolved into the cosmos like tears in the rain, like a grain of sand on the shore of infinity.
I still have much to do. I would fight the very stars, or all the gods if it was necessary. I would never give up, even if it meant eternal fire or the anger of the lords of the universe. Never!
Those who read on shall be a witness to this.