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Religious Conflict in Late Antique Alexandria: Christian Responses to ‘Pagan’ Statues in the Fourth and Fifth Centuries AD

Religious Conflict in Late Antique Alexandria: Christian Responses to ‘Pagan’ Statues in the Fourth and Fifth Centuries AD

By Troels Myrup Kristensen

Alexandria – A Cultural and Religious Melting Pot, edited by George Hinge and Jens A. Krasilnikoff (Aarhus University Press, 2010)

Introduction: At several points in its history, the city of Alexandria witnessed tension between different social, ethnic and religious groups that occasionally erupted into violence. The fourth and fifth centuries CE, a time of religious and social change across the Mediterranean, were no exception. As such, the rise and ultimate “triumph” of Christianity took place within an already complex social, religious and political setting in the Egyptian metropolis.

Religious violence as the outcome of local tensions between Christian and pagan groups is furthermore observable in both the historical and archaeological record for Late Antique Alexandria. Pagan statues came to play a significant role in these conflicts, most notably in the closing of Alexandria’s famous Serapeum in 392 CE. In the Classical world, statues were an important component of civic and religious life in all urban centres, Alexandria included. Christian responses to pagan statues demonstrate both continuity and change, and the destruction of the Serapeum’s cult statue only represents one extreme.

In this paper, I review the literary and archaeological evidence for these responses and what they reveal about early Christian attitudes towards the past.

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