Hypatia was a Greek philosopher, mathematician, and astronomer, who lived in Alexandria, Egypt in the 4th century BC, when it was part of the Eastern Roman Empire. She was admired for her groundbreaking ideas but was eventually killed by Christian fanatics, seemingly, for those same ideas.
Hypatia was born between 350–370 AD. Her father, Theon of Alexandria, was also a mathematician and astronomer, and was the head of an exclusive, highly prestigious school. Nothing is known of Hypatia’s mother in any of the known sources.
Hypatia was a Neoplatonist and during her time the Alexandrian school was renowned for its philosophy, when Alexandria was regarded as second only to Athens as the philosophical capital of the Greco-Roman world. It was in this world that Hypatia taught students from all over the Mediterranean, after having studied philosophy in Athens. It is said that she would wear the robes of the academic elite — something that only men were allowed to do at the time. Although there is no information about her publishing any original works, she has been described as a universal genius – more of a teacher and commentator than an innovator. During this time, scholars preserved classical mathematical works and commented on them to develop their arguments, rather than publishing original works. Hypatia wrote in and spoke Greek, which was the language spoken by educated people across the Eastern Mediterranean.
She is known to have edited at least Book III of Ptolemy’s Almagest, which supported the geocentric model of the universe. Furthermore, she is widely thought to have constructed (not invented) planes astrolabes (used to observe, examine and measure celestial bodies in the night sky), as well as hydrometers (instruments to determine the density or specific gravity of liquids). As an astronomer, she also charted the course of planets and stars. In additon to philosophy and Ptolmeic astronomy, she also taught Euclidean mathematics to her students.
She was a gifted orator and her speeches on Plato and his work enthralled her audience, earning her wide respect by the city’s intellectuals and scholars. She was also respected by the Alexandrian Christian community, who admired her chastity (Hypatia was celebate and remained so till her death). Her celebacy also made her popular in the wider Greek society, which highly valued it as a virtue.
Unfortunately, it was Christian fanatics who killed her. Hypatia practiced paganism at a time when Christianity was growing in Alexandria. Theophilus was the bishop of Alexandria from 382 – 412 AD. Although he was militantly opposed to Neoplatonism, he respected Hypatia and it was because of his support that she became popular in Alexandria. After Theophilus died unexpectedly in 412 AD without naming a successor, a power struggle broke out between his nephew Cyril and another bishop known as Timothy. Cyril won and started persecuting those who had supported Timothy, even closing down their churches and confiscating their property.
In this tense environment, Hypatia’s school and followers developed a distrust of Cyril, with some of her previous students asking her to intervene on behalf of two individuals impacted by the ongoing civil strife. In 414 AD, there was a Jewish-led massacre in Alexandria, after Jewish feasts were regulated by the the Roman prefect Orestes because they occured in large crowds and caused riots. The Jews rebelled and this possibly resulted in the massacre. Reacting to this, Cyril closed all synagogues, confiscated properties belonging to Jews and expelled a number of Jews from the city.
Orestes, the Roman prefect of Alexandria, who was also a close friend of Hypatia and a recent convert to Christianity, sent a scathing report to the emperor, having being outraged by Cyril’s actions. This caused further escalation, a riot broke out and a group of Cyril’s Christian followers nearly killed Orestes. As punishment, Orestes had Ammonius, the monk who had started the riot, publicly tortured to death – the fued between Orestes and Cyril magnified. Orestes frequently asked Hypatia for advice because she was respected amongst the people of the city, and had not been involved in any of the stages of the conflict.
Cyril and his followers decided to discredit her and tarnish her reputation by spreading rumours that she was fanning the conflict and practiced idol worhip and satanic rituals. The writings of the seventh-century Egyptian Coptic bishop John of Nikiû allege in his Chronicle: “And in those days there appeared in Alexandria a female philosopher, a pagan named Hypatia, and she was devoted at all times to magic, astrolabes and instruments of music, and she beguiled many people through her Satanic wiles. And the governor of the city honoured her exceedingly; for she had beguiled him through her magic. And he ceased attending church as had been his custom… And he not only did this, but he drew many believers to her, and he himself received the unbelievers at his house.”
According to Socrates Scholasticus (a Greek Christian church historian in the 5th century), during Lent (a Christian season of fasting before Easter) in March 415, a mob of Christians under the leadership of a lector named Peter, raided Hypatia’s carriage as she was travelling home. They tortured her while dragging her through the streets of Alexandria and eventually took her to the Kaisarion, a former pagan temple and center of the Roman imperial cult in Alexandria that had been converted into a Christian church. Here they stripped her naked and tortured her even more using ostraka (translated into either roof tiles or oyster shells). They cut out her eyeballs, tore her body to pieces, dragged the pieces through the city to finally burn them outside the city limits. This was a punishment meted out to the worst criminals in Alexandria.
According to Socrates Sholasticus, Hypatia’s murder was more about the political dispute between the Prefect of Alexandria, Orestes, and the Bishop of Alexandria, Cyril, than about religious beliefs. Cyril’s followers thought she was instrumental in turning Orestes against them and used her philosophy and pagan beliefs as a reason to kill her.
Since her death, she has been mentioned in various letters, novels and books. Even Voltaire mentions her as a believer in “the laws of rational Nature” and “the capacities of the human mind free of dogmas”. Writers have also written her biographies based entirely on fictional accounts and a movie was also made very very loosely based on her life.
Whether the reasons for Hypatia’s murder were religious or political, there is not doubt that she was used as a pawn by powerful men and killed long before her time. She may have contributed immensely to the world had she lived longer.