“(In 381 and beyond) a wave of violent attacks against heretics, Jews, and pagans swept the (Mediterranean) region, with many assaults incited or winked at by bishops and perpetrated by zealous monks determined to “purify” their society. Half-consciously, the Mediterranean world was beginning its transformation from “a society in which Christianity was merely the dominant religion” to “a totally Christian society.” When monks in one Mesopotamian town burned a synagogue to the ground, the emperor ordered the local bishop to pay restitution for the crime out of church funds, but was dissuaded from enforcing his order by Bishop Ambrose of Milan, who threatened to withhold communion from anyone who aided the “enemies of Christ.” Theodosius was even less solicitous of the pagans, and issued a stream of orders outlawing their sacrifices and closing their temples. Again, contrary to his wishes, but beyond his control, mobs inspired by militant churchmen took matters into their own hands. In Alexandria, a crowd reportedly whipped to a frenzy by the fiery archbishop Theophilus attacked the Serapeum, an ancient temple with a world-famous library donated by Cleopatra, and utterly destroyed it.

The empire’s remaining pagans were left vulnerable to attack by militants we would now call extreme “fundamentalists.” Temple-burning became something of a popular sport in the East, and cultural treasures by the score disappeared in the flames lit by religious fanaticism. This situation still prevailed early in the fifth century, when the See of Alexandria was occupied by Archbishop Theophilus’s nephew Cyril, a brilliant, passionate, and intolerant official “notorious for his love of quarreling, his violence, and his impetuousness.”

Perhaps because of Cyril’s evangelical militancy, there was bad blood during his episcopate between the city’s Jewish and Christian communities. The Jewish community in Alexandria was very large- probably in excess of 200,000 people out of a total population of approximately one million- and very old. Jews had resided in Alexandria long before the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem by the Romans. In the year 415, for reasons that remain obscure, the archbishop incited a large crowd of Christians to attack the Jewish quarter. The result was the worst anti-Jewish riot in the city’s history- what one historian calls “history’s first large-scale pogrom,” with synagogues sacked, property looted, and many residents murdered or mistreated. The precise extent of the violence remains unknown, but the terror was sufficient to drive large numbers of Jews out of the city and to impel the prefect of Alexandria, an imperial official named Orestes, to intervene on their behalf. This intervention, however, was a trigger for more violence. When Orestes came to Cyril’s cathedral to express the emperor’s displeasure with the disorders and to demand the restoration of the victim’s homes and properties, he was confronted by a large group of stone-throwing monks who had come from their mountain outside of town to protect their beloved archbishop against imperial bullying. One stone-thrower, a monk named Ammonius, struck the prefect with a rock and injured him, whereupon Orestes had the monk arrested, tried summarily, and tortured to death. Cyril recovered Ammonius’s body and treated the remains as the relics of a martyr.”

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