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date: 19 July 2019

Alexandria, philosophy and science at

The Oxford Dictionary of Late Antiquity
Edward J. WattsEdward J. Watts

Alexandria, philosophy and science at 

Throughout Late Antiquity Alexandria remained one of the Roman world’s leading intellectual centres. At the dawn of the period, Alexandria still welcomed leading thinkers to the Museum; its intellectual life was probably centred in the Bruchion quarter. This quarter of the city was damaged in the attacks on Alexandria by Aurelian and Diocletian, and, by the mid-4th century, the area around the Serapeum, which housed the collections of the ‘daughter library’ to the famous Library of Alexandria, seems to have supplanted it. The Serapeum’s destruction in 392 ultimately led to the creation of a large complex of at least 25 lecture halls in Kom el-Dikka, an area in the centre of the city next to the Tychaeum, a large bath and an open area called the Temenos of the Muses. Completed sometime in the mid-5th century, the Kom el-Dikka complex remained the primary location for grammatical, rhetorical, philosophical, scientific, and medical teaching until the 7th century. Throughout Late Antiquity, these facilities attracted large numbers of students from around the eastern Mediterranean, particularly from Egypt, Gaza, and Anatolia.

One of Alexandria’s greatest strengths was its particular concentration of visionary textual critics, philosophers, scientists, mathematicians, and doctors. In Late Antique Alexandria these interests were blended to a remarkable degree. Many of the most prominent Late Antique Alexandrian philosophers taught and wrote extensively about science and mathematics. These included Theon and Hypatia in the 4th century, Ammonius in the 5th, Olympiodorus in the 6th, and Stephanus in the 7th century. All of them taught both philosophy and science, and many of them wrote commentaries on both philosophical and scientific texts. In addition, Gessius and other Alexandrian physicians combined advanced philosophical and rhetorical training with their medical education. These cross-disciplinary combinations reflect a consensus opinion that science and philosophy were interdependent.

Alexandria’s impressive library and teaching facilities ensured a steady supply of students and excellent teachers, but the sheer size of the intellectual establishment also meant that innovative scientific and philosophical ideas often struggled to enter the mainstream. From Ammonius Saccas, teacher of Plotinus in the 3rd century, to John Philoponus in the 6th century, Alexandrian philosophical innovators often found the city resistant to their challenges to established philosophical norms. Alexandrian teachers also often proved slow to adapt to innovations pioneered elsewhere. Iamblichean Neoplatonism, for example, only seems to have become firmly implanted in the city in the 440s, after Neoplatonist philosophers at Athens began attracting students who were already studying under Alexandria’s more conventional teachers.

The caution and doctrinal conservatism typical of many Alexandrian teachers ensured that their classrooms were friendlier to Christian students than those of contemporary schools in smaller centres like Athens. This had much to do with the long-term presence of Christians in the city’s schools. In the 3rd century, Origen and the future Bishop Heraclas both studied Platonic philosophy in the city. Arius too may have received some philosophical training around the turn of the 4th century. While Christian students remained a fixture in Alexandrian philosophical and medical schools throughout Late Antiquity, conflicts between pagan Alexandrian teachers and church leaders occasionally exploded into violent confrontations. In 392, pagan philosophers fortified the Serapeum and used it as a base from which to counteract Christian provocations. In 415, the philosopher Hypatia was lynched by a Christian mob. And in 486 a riot prompted by the beating of a Christian student by a pagan philosopher led to three days of violence and looting. These incidents were memorable but rare. By and large, Late Antique Alexandrian teachers displayed a remarkable ability to adapt their teaching to suit the needs of their city. While this caused Alexandrian teachers to be more measured in what they taught and how they presented it, this caution also ensured the long-term survival of Alexandrian philosophy and science in what would become an overwhelmingly Christian city.

Edward J. Watts


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