She is one of the more romantic figures in science. She was the daughter of Theon, a mathematician who taught at the great school at the Alexandrine Library. She traveled widely and corresponded with people all over the Mediterranean. We know of her only through her letters because all of her work was destroyed when the Great Library of Alexandia was destroyed.
She taught at the school in the Library in Alexandria, Egypt. Letters written and addressed simply to the philosopher were delivered to her. She taught mathematics and natural philosophy. She is credited with the authorship of three major treatises on geometry and algebra and one on astronomy. She invented several tools: an instrument for distilling water, an instrument to measure the specific gravity of water, an astrolabe and a planisphere.
She died violently. She was dragged to her death by a mob who pulled her from her classroom into the streets where they peeled her to death with oyster shells.
She wrote that
All formal dogmatic religions are fallacious and must never be accepted by self-respecting persons as final.
Reserve your right to think, for even to think wrongly is better than not to think at all.
To teach superstitions as truth is a most terrible thing.
Fables should be taught as fables, myths as myths, and miracles as poetic fancies.
To teach superstitions as truths is a most terrible thing.
The child mind accepts and believes them, and only through great pain and perhaps tragedy
can he be in after years relieved of them.
In fact men will fight for a superstition quite as quickly as for a living truth
often more so, since a superstition is so intangible you cannot get at it to refute it,
but truth is a point of view, and so is changeable.
Of course, no actual likeness of Hypatia exists today. This engraving from the book “Little Journeys to the Homes of Great Teachers” by Elbert Hubbard (New York: Roycrafters), 1908, is often used to represent her.
#Hypatia, Ancient Alexandria’s Great Female Scholar
An avowed paganist in a time of religious strife, Hypatia was also one of the first women to study math, astronomy and philosophy
One day on the streets of Alexandria, Egypt, in the year 415 or 416, a mob of Christian zealots led by Peter the Lector accosted a woman’s carriage and dragged her from it and into a church, where they stripped her and beat her to death with roofing tiles. They then tore her body apart and burned it. Who was this woman and what was her crime? Hypatia was one of the last great thinkers of ancient Alexandria and one of the first women to study and teach mathematics, astronomy and philosophy. Though she is remembered more for her violent death, her dramatic life is a fascinating lens through which we may view the plight of science in an era of religious and sectarian conflict.
Hypatia /ˌhaɪˈpeɪʃə, -ʃi.ə/ hy-PAY-shə, -shee-ə (Greek: Ὑπατίᾱ Hupatíā; born c. 350–70; died 415), often called Hypatia of Alexandria (Ancient Greek: Ὑπατίᾱ η Αλεξανδρινή), was a Greek mathematician, astronomer, and philosopher in Egypt, then a part of the Byzantine Empire. She was the head of the Neoplatonic school at Alexandria, where she taught philosophy and astronomy.
According to contemporary sources, Hypatia was murdered by a Christian mob or by Christian zealots known as Parabalani after being accused of exacerbating a conflict between two prominent figures in Alexandria, the governor, Orestes, and the bishop, Cyril of Alexandria.
Founded by Alexander the Great in 331 B.C., the city of Alexandria quickly grew into a center of culture and learning for the ancient world. At its heart was the museum, a type of university, whose collection of more than a half-million scrolls was housed in the library of Alexandria.
Alexandria underwent a slow decline beginning in 48 B.C., when Julius Caesar conquered the city for Rome and accidentally burned down the library. (It was then rebuilt.) By 364, when the Roman Empire split and Alexandria became part of the eastern half, the city was beset by fighting among Christians, Jews and pagans. Further civil wars destroyed much of the library’s contents. The last remnants likely disappeared, along with the museum, in 391, when the archbishop Theophilus acted on orders from the Roman emperor to destroy all pagan temples. Theophilus tore down the temple of Serapis, which may have housed the last scrolls, and built a church on the site.
The last known member of the museum was the mathematician and astronomer Theon—Hypatia’s father.
The mathematician and philosopher Hypatia of Alexandria was the only daughter of the mathematician Theon of Alexandria (c. 335–c. 405). She was educated in Athens. Around 400, she became head of the Neoplatonist School in Alexandria, where she imparted the knowledge of Plato and Aristotle to students, including pagans, Christians, and foreigners.
Although contemporary fifth-century sources identify Hypatia of Alexandria as a practitioner and teacher of the philosophy of Plato and Plotinus, two hundred years later, the seventh-century Egyptian Coptic bishop John of Nikiû identified her as a Hellenistic pagan and that “she was devoted at all times to magic, astrolabes and instruments of music, and she beguiled many people through her Satanic wiles”. However, not all Christians were as hostile towards her: some Christians even used Hypatia as symbolic of Virtue. The contemporary Christian historian Socrates of Constantinople described her in his Ecclesiastical History:
There was a woman at Alexandria named Hypatia, daughter of the philosopher Theon, who made such attainments in literature and science, as to far surpass all the philosophers of her own time. Having succeeded to the school of Plato and Plotinus, she explained the principles of philosophy to her auditors, many of whom came from a distance to receive her instructions. On account of the self-possession and ease of manner which she had acquired in consequence of the cultivation of her mind, she not infrequently appeared in public in the presence of the magistrates. Neither did she feel abashed in going to an assembly of men. For all men on account of her extraordinary dignity and virtue admired her the more.
Hypatia corresponded with former pupil Synesius, who was tutored by her in the philosophical school of Platonism and later became bishop of Ptolemais (now in eastern Libya) in 410, an exponent of Trinitarianism. Together with the references by the pagan philosopher Damascius, these are the extant records left by Hypatia’s pupils at the Platonist school of Alexandria.
Some of Theon’s writing has survived. His commentary (a copy of a classical work that incorporates explanatory notes) on Euclid’s Elements was the only known version of that cardinal work on geometry until the 19th century. But little is known about his and Hypatia’s family life. Even Hypatia’s date of birth is contested—scholars long held that she was born in 370 but modern historians believe 350 to be more likely. The identity of her mother is a complete mystery, and Hypatia may have had a brother, Epiphanius, though he may have been only Theon’s favorite pupil.
Theon taught mathematics and astronomy to his daughter, and she collaborated on some of his commentaries. It is thought that Book III of Theon’s version of Ptolemy’s Almagest—the treatise that established the Earth-centric model for the universe that wouldn’t be overturned until the time of Copernicus and Galileo—was actually the work of Hypatia.
She was a mathematician and astronomer in her own right, writing commentaries of her own and teaching a succession of students from her home. Letters from one of these students, Synesius, indicate that these lessons included how to design an astrolabe, a kind of portable astronomical calculator that would be used until the 19th century.
Beyond her father’s areas of expertise, Hypatia established herself as a philosopher in what is now known as the Neoplatonic school, a belief system in which everything emanates from the One. (Her student Synesius would become a bishop in the Christian church and incorporate Neoplatonic principles into the doctrine of the Trinity.) Her public lectures were popular and drew crowds. “Donning [the robe of a scholar], the lady made appearances around the center of the city, expounding in public to those willing to listen on Plato or Aristotle,” the philosopher Damascius wrote after her death.
Hypatia was one of the last great thinkers of ancient Alexandria and one of the first women to study and teach mathematics, astronomy and philosophy. (Bettmann / Corbis)
Hypatia never married and likely led a celibate life, which possibly was in keeping with Plato’s ideas on the abolition of the family system. The Suda lexicon, a 10th-century encyclopedia of the Mediterranean world, describes her as being “exceedingly beautiful and fair of form. . . in speech articulate and logical, in her actions prudent and public-spirited, and the rest of the city gave her suitable welcome and accorded her special respect.”
Her admirers included Alexandria’s governor, Orestes. Her association with him would eventually lead to her death.
Theophilus, the archbishop who destroyed the last of Alexandria’s great Library, was succeeded in 412 by his nephew, Cyril, who continued his uncle’s tradition of hostilities toward other faiths. (One of his first actions was to close and plunder the churches belonging to the Novatian Christian sect.)
With Cyril the head of the main religious body of the city and Orestes in charge of the civil government, a fight began over who controlled Alexandria. Orestes was a Christian, but he did not want to cede power to the church. The struggle for power reached its peak following a massacre of Christians by Jewish extremists, when Cyril led a crowd that expelled all Jews from the city and looted their homes and temples. Orestes protested to the Roman government in Constantinople. When Orestes refused Cyril’s attempts at reconciliation, Cyril’s monks tried unsuccessfully to assassinate him.
Hypatia, however, was an easier target. She was a pagan who publicly spoke about a non-Christian philosophy, Neoplatonism, and she was less likely to be protected by guards than the now-prepared Orestes. A rumor spread that she was preventing Orestes and Cyril from settling their differences. From there, Peter the Lector and his mob took action and Hypatia met her tragic end.
Cyril’s role in Hypatia’s death has never been clear. “Those whose affiliations lead them to venerate his memory exonerate him; anticlericals and their ilk delight in condemning the man,” Michael Deakin wrote in his 2007 book Hypatia of Alexandria.
Meanwhile, Hypatia has become a symbol for feminists, a martyr to pagans and atheists and a character in fiction. Voltaire used her to condemn the church and religion. The English clergyman Charles Kingsley made her the subject of a mid-Victorian romance. And she is the heroine, played by Rachel Weisz, in the Spanish movie Agora, which will be released later this year in the United States. The film tells the fictional story of Hypatia as she struggles to save the library from Christian zealots.
Neither paganism nor scholarship died in Alexandria with Hypatia, but they certainly took a blow. “Almost alone, virtually the last academic, she stood for intellectual values, for rigorous mathematics, ascetic Neoplatonism, the crucial role of the mind, and the voice of temperance and moderation in civic life,” Deakin wrote. She may have been a victim of religious fanaticism, but Hypatia remains an inspiration even in modern times.
Hypatia was murdered during an episode of city-wide anger stemming from a feud between Orestes, the prefect of Alexandria, and Cyril, the Bishop of Alexandria.
Her death is symbolic for some historians. For example, Kathleen Wider proposes that the murder of Hypatia marked the end of Classical antiquity, and Stephen Greenblatt observes that her murder “effectively marked the downfall of Alexandrian intellectual life”. On the other hand, Christian Wildberg notes that Hellenistic philosophy continued to flourish in the 5th and 6th centuries, and perhaps until the age of Justinian
Hypatia’s death is also told in another source, The Chronicle, written by John of Nikiû in Egypt around 650. This account demonizes Hypatia and Orestes directly, while validating all Christians involved in the events John describes. The Chronicle is more biased on the matter of the historical feud, omitting several points of the narrative that are included in Socrates’ account.
John, who lived several hundred years after the events he describes, writes bitterly of Hypatia, claiming that “she beguiled many people through (her) Satanic wiles”. Orestes, who John writes was himself a victim of Hypatia’s demonic charm, regularly honored her and abandoned the Christian Church in order to follow her teachings more closely. Moreover, the bishop claimed that Orestes himself persuaded others to leave the Church in favor of Hypatia’s philosophical teachings and went as far as to host such “unbelievers” at his house.
One day, Orestes published an edict “regarding public exhibitions in the city of Alexandria” and all citizens gathered to read the edict. Cyril, curious to see why the edict caused such an uproar, sent Hierax, a “Christian possessing understanding and intelligence”, who, although opposed to paganism, did as Cyril asked and went to learn the nature of Orestes’s edict. Meanwhile, the Jews who gathered in anger over the edict believed that Hierax had come only for the sake of provocation (which, according to Socrates’ text, was Hierax’s intent). Upon this assumption, Orestes had Hierax punished for a crime for which “he was wholly guiltless”.
For the punishment and torture of Hierax, as well as the death of several monks, including Ammonius, Cyril grew increasingly furious with Orestes. (Here, John blatantly ignores the assault on Orestes by the 500 monks, in which Ammonius played an active role in bringing about his own torture and death.) Cyril then warned the Jews against any further harm upon the Christians. However, with the support of Orestes (which is in no way implied by Socrates), the Jews felt confident in defying Cyril’s authority, and so one night ran through the streets proclaiming: “The church of the apostolic Athanasius (Alexander) is on fire: come to its succour, all ye Christians.” The Christians responded to the alarms only to be slaughtered by the Jews in a coordinated ambush.
The next morning, all remaining Christians of the town came to Cyril with news of the massacre, after which Cyril marched with them to purge the Jews from Alexandria. In so doing, Cyril allowed the pillaging of their possessions, and soon after purified all the synagogues in the city and made them into Churches (Socrates makes no mention of “purifying” the synagogues). In the expulsion of the Jews, Orestes was unable to offer them any assistance.
Shortly thereafter, a group of Christians, under Peter the magistrate, went looking for Hypatia, the “pagan woman who had beguiled the people of the city and the prefect through her enchantments”. They found her sitting in a chair, at which point they seized and brought her to “the great church, named Caesarion”, where they proceeded to rip the clothes off her body. Then they dragged her through the streets of Alexandria until she died and burned her remains. John’s description of Hypatia’s death also differs from that of Socrates. Following the death of Hypatia, Bishop Cyril was named “the new Theophilus”. With the death of Hypatia, John writes, the Christians had expelled the last remnant of pagan idolatry.