Was not Hypatia the greatest philosopher of Alexandria, and a true martyr to the old values of learning? She was torn to pieces by a mob of incensed Christians not because she was a woman, but because her learning was so profound, her skills at dialectic so extensive that she reduced all who queried her to embarrassed silence. They could not argue with her, so they murdered her.
―Iaian Pears, The Dream of Scipio
Some people say knowledge is a dangerous thing—and in the case of the woman philosopher, Hypatia of Alexandria, they would be right. Her story as one of the most meaningful intellectuals of the Byzantine Empire is both inspiring and terrifying, providing a glimpse into a time when science was viewed with skepticism and outright resentment. Born around 355, Hypatia was the leading mathematician and astronomer of her time and the first woman to make her way into these disciplines during the Greco-Roman era of the 4th century. She was a symbol of what it meant to embrace intellectualism on a superior level, rendering all things in the universe as motivations for learning, not war. She was a thinker of the highest order, living in a world landscaped by religious conflict, separatism, and fear. Even more fascinating is the way her life illuminated the plight of science during a time of extreme religious separatism—a time when these two entities were often pitted against one another in a battle for universal understanding.
Although a popular lecturer and a favored teacher, she was also a known “pagan” who espoused the Neoplatonist ideas (platonism) of the famous Athenian philosopher Plato back in 400 B.C. These teachings (which later gave way to Western thought) promoted an intense concern for the quality of human life as being ethical, spiritual, and even political—thinking with both the heart and mind. Hypatia and Plato both asserted there were abstract objects existing in a “third realm” that united the external and internal world of consciousness, the opposite of nominalism. In simple terms, these concepts promoted the idea that there are parts of reality which can be felt but not explained, uniting everyone and the entire universe in a central sameness of Good. This summit of existence was the One—the source of all things—with the power to elevate the human experience through virtue, study, and meditation.
While these musings were certainly based in the esoteric, they were also a major influence on Christian mysticism and were widely adopted by the Christian church who took Plato’s words as God’s thoughts. Unlike her male counterparts, Plato and Socrates, Hypatia was never fully recognized for her philosophical accomplishments but rather silenced by the bloody contempt of those who feared her power and intelligence. Even though she is credited with inventing the astrolabe used in the study of astronomy and furthering the platonic concepts of her predecessor, she is remembered more for her grisly death than the merit of her work.
About 600 years before her birth, Alexander the Great founded the Egyptian city of Alexandria in 331 B.C., making it one of the most culturally sophisticated learning centers in the ancient world. Not only was it beautiful to behold, but it contained more than half a million scrolls of learning, all housed in the beloved library of Alexandria.
Although this time in ancient Egypt was filled with darkness, slavery, violence, and religious unrest, Alexandria was a city overflowing with artifacts of academia influential enough to spur a movement of intellectualism in a time of extreme ignorance. It was a place of hope for a brighter future filled with decency and discussion, a dismissal of the human depravity known until that point. Alexandria provided an opportunity for man to drag himself out of the quagmire of hatred and find salvation in the power of thought.
But Alexandria was not to last, undergoing a slow decline in 48 B.C. when Julius Caesar conquered the city and burned down the priceless library. By 364, right around the time Hypatia was born, the Roman empire split, leaving Alexandria in a state of religious pandemonium. Christians, Jews, and pagans continued to fight for dominance of the area for the next few decades and managed to wipe out even more of the library’s contents in the process. When the Roman emperor Theodosius Augustus ordered all pagan temples to be destroyed in 391, any remaining shreds of knowledge or history in the city’s library and museum disappeared, and a church was built on the site.
One man who had spent his career poring over those precious scrolls and adding to their depths through extensive writings was Theon, the last known member of the museum, and Hypatia’s father. Himself a recognized mathematician and astronomer, he had raised his daughter within the code of a son, teaching her everything he knew about the mysteries of the universe and the science behind his assertions. He taught her to be thoughtful, ambitious, and healthy in her physcial life, not necessarily an idea many considered. Some say he was determined to raise the perfect human, bestowing upon her every bit of his vast knowledge. His works on Euclid’s Elements was seminal and remained relevant in academia all the up until the 19th century.
Hypatia collaborated on his commentaries, and because her gender prohibited her from recognition, it was suspected she published her own works under Theon’s name—specifically, Book III of her father’s version of Ptolemy’s Almagest which established the motion of the stars and planetary paths. This work was deeply profound in the scientific world and wouldn’t be overturned until the time of Galileo in the 17th century.
Hypatia had academia in her blood and spent her days teaching in her home, writing, and lending her innovative discussion to anyone willing to listen. She was bright in her own right, expansively aware, and open to new ideas, even those that flew in the face of established religious thought.
She was a student of science and data, not fear, and her work as a teacher reflected her openness to that which she did not fully understand. This was proven through her relationship with Synesius, a student of hers who would go on to become a bishop in the Christian church, using the Neoplatonic principles she taught as a framework for his theology. Hypatia may have been a pagan within the context of a swirling religious backdrop, but her interests were anchored in concepts rather than doctrine, and she pursued intellectualism for the freedom and exercise it gave her mind.
Within the 10th-century Suda lexicon, Hypatia was described as “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.” She never married and lived a chaste life, free from the complications of men—possibly in keeping with Plato’s assertion that the familial system was a waste of time. How then did such a woman come to be brutally dragged through the streets of Alexandria by her hair and ripped to shreds by the people of her own community?
To understand the dangerous nature of her life in 4th-century Egypt, it’s important to see the bigger religious picture. Although Hypatia may have walked a path of intellectual righteousness, the rest of the city (and the larger region) was in the midst of a transition from a polytheistic state to a Christian entity, and the struggle was beginning to fall in favor of the latter. In the eastern Roman Empire, Alexandria became the hotbed for this theological clash with marauding monks out to destroy what was left of the old ways. And this did not just cover temples and statues—it extended to science, education, medicine, philosophy, and the arts, all of which stood as an affront to the name of God. Christianity was literally razing the landscape in an attempt to wipe the slate clean and install a new sense of civilization, one that had no space for any intellect of opposition.
Without recognizing it, the tide began to turn quickly in Alexandria when Archbishop Theophilus (who had destroyed the last vestiges of Alexandria’s great library) died in 412, leaving his nephew Cyril in his stead. Theophilus was a devout Christian, but he had never chastised Hypatia or her father for their works, likely due to her adoring and influential pupil Synesius who kept the Christian wolves at bay. When he and Theophilus both died, it left Hypatia exposed and left without any protectors. Cyril, like his uncle, resented other faiths and continued his uncle’s tradition of destroying them whenever possible.
But Hypatia did have one powerful friend and admirer—the civil governor of the city, Orestes. He was mostly a pagan and an independent thinker, often in league with the Jewish community, who did not want to give all of Alexandria over to the church. Despite his complicated beliefs, he supported the separation of church and state, a pretty revolutionary notion at the time. Of course, he clashed with Cyril who believed in total domination, and the struggle peaked around the time when the Jews began a violent conflict with the Christians. As a result, Cyril turned aggressively on the Jews and expelled them from the city, looting their homes and temples. Orestes was appalled and complained to the Roman government in Constantinople. Cyril tried to apologize for his rash decision, but Orestes refused the reconciliation and was subsequently targeted for assassination by 500 of Cyril’s pernicious monks. Even though Hypatia was not involved directly in this proceedings, she was a friend of Orestes and pontificated in the realm of non-Christian theology—two things that made her an easy target for an increasingly angry sect.
Rumors began to spread throughout the city—Hypatia was, in fact, the one who was keeping the two powerful men from uniting, using her female intellect to pit them against one another. She was the perfect scapegoat. In such a male-dominant political struggle, it made sense to target the woman who did not play her part, did not bow and grovel and apologize, did not accept the ways of the dominant paradigm but used her intelligence to cast doubt upon their devotions. It must be her fault this religious conflict could not be resolved, a product of her (wait for it…) “Satanic charms” and enchantment over Orestes’s sound judgment.
A woman like this—so powerful, so intelligent—she must be stopped; she must be silenced for the good of the state. And so, in the year 415, a magistrate called Peter the Lector gathered his fellow Christian zealots and hunted her down, ripping her from her carriage and dragging her behind it into a church where they stripped her naked. In their midst of their mob rage, they grabbed the most convenient weapon with which to destroy her—the roofing tiles and oyster shells that lay around the freshly constructed building. And with them, they tore her flesh from her body, skinning her alive and slaughtering her in the name of all Christiandom. And so it is described in Charles Kingsley’s 1853 novel, Hypatia:
On, up the nave, fresh shreds of her dress strewing the holy pavement—up the chancel steps themselves—up to the altar—right underneath the great still Christ: and there even those hell-hounds paused. She shook herself free from her tormentors, and springing back, rose for one moment to her full height, naked, snow-white against the dusky mass around—shame and indignation in those wide clear eyes, but not a stain of fear. With one hand she clasped her golden locks around her; the other long white arm was stretched upward toward the great still Christ appealing—and who dare say in vain?—from man to God.
Her body was then ripped apart by the angry mob and burned at the alter. Although Hypatia was close to 60 years old when she killed, the famous 19th-century painting by Charles William Mitchell is a disquieting representation of a much younger woman—perhaps just another indication that men were never able to really see Hypatia for what she was, only what they wanted her to be.
In the aftermath of her death, the University of Alexandria where she and her father had taught was sacked and burned to the ground on Cyril’s orders, and any remaining pagan temples were quickly destroyed. There was a mass exodus of intellectuals and artists who feared for their safety, and a newly-minted sense of Christianity was installed in the great city. Cyril was later declared a saint by the church for his suppression and annihilation of the pagan interlopers. Hypatia’s death was not an aberration or a crime—it was policy. Even though it did not cause much of a disturbance for the city, it has long been recognized by history as a watershed moment that clearly delineated the classical age of paganism from the Christian reformation.
And the rest is history.