Rufinus’ account of the fall of the temple of Serapis in Alexandria

This evening I  happened across some files on my hard disk containing an English translation of the Ecclesiastical History of Rufinus.  The following account is given of the fall of the Serapeum in Alexandria:[1]

11.23. I suppose that everyone has heard of the temple of Serapis in Alexandria, and that many are also familiar with it. The site was elevated, not naturally but artificially, to a height of a hundred or more steps, its enormous rectangular premises extending in every direction.

All the rooms up to the floor on top were vaulted, and being furnished with ceiling lights and concealed inner chambers separate from one  another, were used for various services and secret functions.

On the upper level, furthermore, the outermost structures in the whole circumference provided space for halls and shrines and for lofty apartments which normally housed either the temple staff or those called hagneuontes, meaning those who keep themselves pure.

Behind these in turn were porticoes arranged in rectangles which ran around the whole circumference on the inside.

In the middle of the entire area rose the sanctuary with priceless columns, the exterior fashioned of marble, spacious and magnificent to behold.

In it there was a statue of Serapis so large that its right hand touched one wall and its left the other; this monster is said to have been made of every kind of metal and wood. The interior walls of the shrine were believed to have been covered with plates of gold overlaid with silver and then bronze, the last as a protection for the more precious metals.

There were also some things cunningly devised to excite the amazement and wonder of those who saw them.

There was a tiny window so orientated toward the direction of sunrise that on the day appointed for the statue of the sun to be carried in to greet Serapis, careful observation of the seasons had ensured that as the statue was entering, a ray of sunlight coming through this window would light up the mouth and lips of Serapis, so that to the people looking on it would seem as though the sun was greeting Serapis with a kiss.[2]

There was another like trick. Magnets, it is said, have the power to pull and draw iron to themselves. The image of the sun had been made by its artisan of the finest sort of iron with this in view: that a magnet, which, as we said, naturally attracts iron, and which was set in the ceiling panels, might by natural force draw the iron to itself when the statue was placed just so directly beneath it, the statue appearing to the people to rise and hang in the air. And lest it unexpectedly fall and betray the trick, the servants of the deception would say, ”The sun has arisen so that, bidding Serapis farewell, it may depart for its own place.”

There were many other things as well built on the site by those of old for the purpose of deception which it would take too long to detail.[3]

Now as we started to say, when the letter had been read our people were ready to overthrow the author of [the] error, but a rumor had been spread by the pagans that if a human hand touched the statue, the earth would split open on the spot and crumble into the abyss, while the sky would crash down at once.[4]

This gave the people pause for a moment, until one of the soldiers, armed with faith rather than weapons, seized a double-headed axe, drew himself up, and struck the old fraud on the jaw with all his might. A roar went up from both sides, but the sky did not fall, nor did the earth collapse. Thus with repeated strokes he felled the smoke-grimed deity of rotten wood, which upon being thrown down burned as easily as dry wood when it was kindled.

After this the head was wrenched from the neck, the bushel[5] having been taken down, and dragged off; then the feet and other members were chopped off with axes and dragged apart with ropes attached, and piece by piece, each in a different place, the decrepit dotard was burned to ashes before the eyes of the Alexandria which had worshiped him.

Last of all the torso which was left was put to the torch in the amphitheater, and that was the end of the vain superstition and ancient error of Serapis.

  1. [1]Book 11, ch. 23.  Tr. Philip R. Amidon, The Church History of Rufinus of Aquileia, Oxford, 1997. p.80-82.  I’m afraid some of the numeral references are corrupt in my copy.
  2. [2]The existence of the window is confirmed by Alexandrian coinage, and the same arrangement for sun and window is found in other Egyptian temples. The Egyptians thought of the sun as reviving the statues of gods by shining on them and thus recharging them with vital force. The image of the sun kissing Serapis is found on coins and lamps of the period; cf. Thelamon PC 183184, 195197.
  3. [3]The use of magnets in temple ceilings for the purpose Rufinus describes is well attested; cf. Claudian Magnes 22.39; Pliny Natural History 34.42 (a magnet in the ceiling of an Alexandrian temple); Ausonius Mosella 315317; Augustine City of God 21.6.; Thelamon PC 182, 184.
  4. [4]The Egyptians feared the world would collapse in chaos if the customary rites were not performed; cf. Thelamon PC 200, note 19 (papyrological evidence); Corpus Hermeticum, Asclepius 2:4; Ps. Iamblicus, De mysteriis 6.7; Epiphanius, Panarion 18.3.12.
  5. [5]Serapis was depicted with a modiusjug on his head.

9 thoughts on “Rufinus’ account of the fall of the temple of Serapis in Alexandria

  1. Interesting.

    But I find it hard to believe that anyone would overlay silver with bronze to protect it. And if the statue of Serapis was made of iron so that it could be lifted by a magnet, then obviously it was not made of “every kind of metal and wood,” then overplayed with silver, then with bronze to protect the silver. Methinks Rufinus could have thought his description through better, or used an editor.

  2. Interesting that Rufinus details the Sun-gives-a-kiss “trick”.

    BTW, in isopsephy, ὁ Σέραπις has value 666 😉

  3. I found this account while I was looking at accounts of the destruction of a Mithraeum in Alexandria, given in Rufinus, Socrates and Sozomen. The similarities are so great between all three that it is clear that a common Greek source is involved. I think this is supposed to be the lost Ecclesiastical History of Gelasius of Caesarea.

    I didn’t really compare the accounts of the fall of the Serapeum, as I looked at Rufinus last of all; but my guess would be that his text is not first hand.

    Thanks for spotting that point on the statue of Sol. I was confused myself. I over-paragraphed Amidon’s translation, for readability, but I think the text itself is not as clear as may be. Amidon (whose footnotes I largely borrowed above) makes the point that the Serapeum was a small temple which had a larger Roman temple built on and around it.

  4. Sorry for the late contribution, I just saw this now. I’m part of a small team working at the University of Basel on an edition of the fragments of Gelasius, and we looked carefully at the various accounts of the Serapeum in church historians. We think that the original Greek account is not by Gelasius (whose History probably ends with Jovian). It may be the work on the destruction of the temple ascribed by St Jerome to his sometime translator Sophronius (c. 134 in the De viris illustribus, the penultimate entry, before Jerome himself).

  5. Thank you very much for clarifying this: I doubt that most of us would have any idea. The work of Gelasius of Caesarea is so little known.

  6. Indeed, I had no idea who he was when I first saw the job posting for my current position! We hope that by publishing an edition it will draw more attention to him — it’s hard to cite an author when all you have are lists of possible parallels from later sources. Even if later scholars disagree with some of our reconstructions, at least it will get things moving.

  7. I agree – it’s an excellent idea to create a corpus.

    And never worry about later scholars – they need that collection in order to work. When I collected the Coptic fragments of Eusebius of Caesarea’s “Gospel problems and solutions”, I gave all those that I could find that had any claim to be Eusebian. I knew very well that many would not be; but that was not my concern. The point was to make the stuff accessible so that people could sift it.

    Will you make any of the stuff available online? The day of thick, expensive bits of paper hidden in a few research libraries must be drawing to a close.

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