Orestes of Alexandria: Mythology, Overview

Instructor: Flint Johnson

Flint has tutored mathematics through precalculus, science, and English and has taught college history. He has a Ph.D. from the University of Glasgow

Learn about Orestes of Alexandria, the Roman governor of Egypt who found himself in the middle of a clash between the Jews and Christians and was forced to leave his posting.

A Simple Posting, A Complicated Time

In 415, Orestes was given the position of praefectus Augustalis, which made him the Roman governor of Egypt. At the time, Egypt wasn't being threatened by the Germanic tribes as Europe was, so it was peaceful posting. On the whole, however, the rest of the Roman Empire was falling apart. Only five years before, Rome itself had been sacked. The Vandals had already crossed into Africa, and the Visigoths would soon move into Spain in search of land.

Internally, Rome was having difficulties too. Less than a century earlier, Christians had been persecuted. But in the early fifth century, Christianity was a state religion and its followers were unofficially persecuting pagans. In Europe, temples were being burned and statues toppled. Trying to find a way for both groups to get along was a challenging job for any governor.

St. Cyril's Christianity and Hypatia's Influence

Two people greatly affected Orestes' time in Alexandria: Cyril the bishop and Hypatia the philosopher. Before we get into their interactions, let's first get a bit of background on both.

Cyril came to Alexandria as bishop in 412. Later, he would become the figure at the center of Christian discussions about the nature of Mary and Jesus Christ, and whether or not they were the actual embodiment of God. Cyril wasn't afraid to stand up for the unpopular position (he believed the two figures were divine), and more often than not, his arguments would eventually sway people to his view. But when he came to Alexandria as bishop in 412, all that was still in his future.

St. Cyril: The Christian leader in Alexandria
St. Cyril of Alexandria

Hypatia was the leading philosopher of her day. She taught Christians, pagans, and Jews alike, from all over the Roman Empire, in the scientific and philosophical school of Plato. Because of her status, she was held in high esteem by pagans, Jews, and Christians throughout the empire. Hypatia was also a friend of Orestes.

The Clash

Cyril announced his presence in Alexandria almost immediately by closing down Novatian churches and confiscating their goods. The Novatians were a sect of Christians who believed that anyone who had renounced their Christian faith under persecution should not be accepted back into the church.

When Orestes arrived in Alexandria, he announced that he would issue an edict. Cyril sent a teacher named Hierax listen to the edict and tell him about it. However, when Hierax came to hear Orestes speak, the Jews in the crowd recognized him. They thought he'd been intentionally sent to agitate them and rioted.

Orestes arrested Hierax and had him tortured and killed him so that the crowd would calm down. Orestes had also heard about Cyril and thought this action would make a good statement about who ruled Alexandria. Cyril didn't take it that way, though. He claimed the act was a persecution against Christians and threatened to attack the Jews unless it stopped.

In retaliation, the Jews sent the word out during the night that the Church of Alexandria was on fire. They killed every person who left their homes to save it. Furious, Cyril had all the Jews evicted from the city and gave their property to his followers. His acting without Orestes' consent only made Orestes more angry. Eventually Cyril admitted he had acted badly. He offered Orestes a copy of the Gospels, which meant that he accepted Orestes' political authority over him. Orestes wouldn't take it, though.

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