Last Updated on May 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1796
Philammon may never have left the little colony of monks three hundred miles above Alexandria had he not strayed into an ancient temple in search of kindling. There, on the temple walls, he sees paintings of a life unknown to him in his monastic retreat, and he longs to visit...
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Philammon may never have left the little colony of monks three hundred miles above Alexandria had he not strayed into an ancient temple in search of kindling. There, on the temple walls, he sees paintings of a life unknown to him in his monastic retreat, and he longs to visit the greater outside world. That very day, against the advice of the abbot and Aufugus, a monk whom he highly respects, he starts out in a small boat and travels down the river toward Alexandria.
In that splendid city at the mouth of the Nile lives Hypatia, the beautiful philosopher and teacher, one of the last to champion the ancient Greek gods. As she sits with her books one day, she is visited by the Roman prefect, Orestes, with the news that Pelagia, a beautiful courtesan who is Hypatia’s rival for the hearts and souls of men, has left the city. Pelagia transferred her affections to Amal, a Goth chieftain, and joined him on a trip up the Nile in search of Asgard, home of the old Gothic gods.
Cyril, the patriarch of Alexandria, reports to Orestes that the Jews of the city are about to rise and slaughter the Christians, but Orestes chooses to ignore the matter and let events take their course. Hypatia, who also has reason to oppose the Christian patriarch, suggests that Cyril make his charges before the Roman tribunal, which would, of course, postpone action against the Jews.
On his way to the palace, Orestes meets a wealthy young Jew, Raphael Aben-Ezra. Raphael suggests that the prefect plead ignorance of any plot in his reply to Cyril. Raphael also discloses to the Roman that Heraclian, a Roman leader, recently sailed for Italy, where he planned to destroy the Gothic conquerors of Rome and make himself emperor. His news leads Orestes to think of the power he might hold south of the Mediterranean if the expedition succeeds.
Sailing down the Nile, Philammon meets Pelagia and the party of Goths traveling in the opposite direction. He helps the men kill a hippopotamus. When he warns them that they can never cross the cataracts to the south, the Goths decide to turn back. Philammon is given a place in their boat.
Orestes sends Hypatia a letter delivered by the old Jewish crone Miriam. It contains Raphael’s news and a proposal that Hypatia marry the prefect and share the throne he is planning to create for himself in Egypt. Hypatia’s reply is that she will accept the offer if Orestes will renounce his Christian faith and aid her in restoring the Greek gods. Having no desire to face excommunication, Orestes is disturbed by her answer. At Raphael’s suggestion, he decides to wait for a month in the hope that Hypatia’s desire to marry a future emperor will overcome her religious zeal.
When they arrive in Alexandria, Philammon leaves the Goths and delivers to the patriarch Cyril the letters of introduction he carries. While waiting to see the patriarch, Philammon overhears a plot to raid the Jewish quarter the next day.
That night, as he lies in bed in the patriarch’s house, Philammon hears cries that the Jews are burning Alexander’s Church. Joining a crowd of monks hurrying toward the edifice, he is attacked by a band of Hebrew marauders. The report of the conflagration, however, is false; it has been a trick of the Jews to lure the Christians into ambush. During the street fighting, the Roman constabulary, which is supposed to keep order, remains aloof.
Miriam takes a mysterious interest in Raphael’s welfare. The next morning, she hastens to his quarters to warn him to flee. Christians are attacking the Jewish quarter and are pillaging the houses and expelling their inhabitants. To Miriam’s exasperation, Raphael shows no interest in the fate of his wealth. Calmly exchanging his rich robes for a Christian’s tattered rags, he prepares to leave the city. Miriam is left to save what she can of his possessions.
Philammon is one of the Christians who aids in despoiling the Jews. During the rioting, he begins to compare the conduct of the monks of Alexandria with the principles of charity and good works he was taught. Hearing of Hypatia and her teachings, he naïvely goes to the museum where she lectures, in the hope of converting her to Christianity by his arguments. Nearly put out of the building by her pupils when he rises to dispute with her, he is spared at Hypatia’s request. After the lecture, she invites him to visit her the following day.
The Alexandrian monks are incensed when they learn that Philammon listened to the discourse of a pagan. When he visits Hypatia again, they accuse him of being a heretic, and the young monk barely escapes being murdered. Charmed by Hypatia’s beauty and purity, Philammon begs to become her pupil.
Raphael flees to Italy and finds himself in a devastated Rome. Heraclian, after his defeat by the Goths, is preparing to reembark for Africa. After Raphael saves one member of the ill-fated expedition and his daughter, Victoria, from two barbarian soldiers, he sails with them from Ostia to Berenice, a port on the coast of Africa.
Meanwhile, in Alexandria, Philammon becomes Hypatia’s favorite pupil. Learning that the youth deserted his Christian brethren, Aufugus goes to the city to find him. One day, the two men meet in the street. Aufugus, seeing that Philammon is determined to remain with his mentor, declares that the young monk is actually his slave and appeals to Orestes, who is passing by, to force Philammon to go with him. Philammon flees to take temporary refuge with the Goths in Pelagia’s house.
After Philammon returns to his own rooms, he receives a summons from Miriam. She confirms the fact that he is Aufugus’s slave, for she saw Philammon bought in Athens fifteen years before. Although Miriam receives the report of Heraclian’s defeat by fast messenger, she writes a letter declaring that Heraclian was the victor. She sends Philammon to deliver the letter to Orestes.
The prefect immediately plans a great celebration, in which the beautiful Pelagia will dance as Venus Anadyomene. Philammon hotly objects to the plan, for when Miriam told him he was a slave she implied also that Pelagia was his sister. Orestes is annoyed and orders the monk to be thrown into jail. There, Philammon is held prisoner until the day of the celebration. Released, he hurries to the arena in time to witness the slaughter of some Libyan slaves by professional gladiators. Orestes, with Hypatia beside him, watches from his box.
When Pelagia is carried into the amphitheater by an elephant and introduced as Venus, Orestes’ hirelings try to raise a cry to proclaim him Emperor of Africa. No one responds. Pelagia dances before her audience until Philammon, overcome by shame, can bear the sight no longer. Running to stop her shameful dance, he is caught up by the elephant’s trunk and would have been dashed to death if Pelagia had not persuaded the animal to put him down. Pelagia leaves the amphitheater. Philammon is hustled away by the guards.
Orestes, however, is determined that his plan should succeed. When the uproar caused by Philammon begins to die down, he steps forward and offers himself as emperor. As was prearranged, the city authorities begin a clamor for him; but hardly did they start their outcry before a monk in the topmost tiers shouts that Heraclian was defeated. Orestes and Hypatia flee.
When he returns home, Philammon finds Pelagia in his quarters. He begs his sister, as he now calls her, to leave the Goth, Amal, and repent her ways, but the courtesan refuses. Instead, she entreats him to ask Hypatia to accept her as a pupil, so that Amal, whose affection for her is failing, will love and respect her as the Greek woman is respected. Hypatia, however, has no pity for her hated rival. Philammon, carrying the news of her refusal to his sister, cannot help thinking fondly of his own religion with its offer of pity to all transgressors.
Hypatia knows the populace will soon be clamoring for her blood and that she will be forced to flee. In one last desperate effort to hold to her creed, she forces herself into a trance that she might have a visitation from the gods. The only face she sees, however, is Pelagia’s.
When Miriam visits Hypatia the same day with the promise that she will see Apollo that night if she will visit the house of the Jewish woman, the distraught philosopher agrees; but the Apollo the crone shows her is Philammon, stupefied by drugged wine. As Miriam foresaw, Hypatia realizes at last that the only gods she will ever see are those that exist in her own mind. Shamed and angered, she goes away. The final blow to fall on Hypatia is the news Raphael brings her on his return to Alexandria the next day. Under the persuasion of Augustine, the famous philosopher-monk, he became become a converted Catholic before leaving Berenice and married Victoria. That afternoon, as she starts for the museum to give her farewell lecture, Hypatia is torn to pieces by some of Cyril’s monks.
When he learns of Hypatia’s fate, Philammon visits Pelagia and pleads with her to flee with him. He then meets Amal by chance. In the struggle that ensues, they fall from a tower together, and the Goth is killed. After Amal’s death, Pelagia is willing to leave the city. Together they return to the desert, where Pelagia lives in solitary penitence and Philammon becomes abbot, eventually, of the community he left. Brother and sister die at the same time and are buried in a common grave.
Before he departs from Alexandria forever, Raphael learns from Miriam that she is his mother. Jewish by birth, she was converted to Christianity and lived in a convent until it was sacked by heathens. Afterward, she renounced her faith and swore the destruction of everyone not of her own race. Raphael was given to a rich Jewish woman, who represented him to her husband as her own child. After confessing her relationship to her son, Miriam dies on his shoulder. She was mortally wounded by the Goths after the death of their leader.
The victory that the patriarch Cyril gains by Hypatia’s death is only temporary. Although it marks the end of her creed in Egypt, it also signifies the decline of the Egyptian church; for the Christians, splitting into many factions, do not hesitate to use on one another the same violence they once displayed toward the Greek philosopher.