• K.E. Berr

Hypatia of Alexandria

The Woman Who Knew Too Much

Hypatia of Alexandria was one of the most prominent mathematicians, astronomers and philosophers of the classical era. In part due to Hypatia's work, the city of Alexandria was an intellectual rival to Athens, and her tragic death would lead to the classical era's downfall.

A drawing of Hypatia of Alexandria.

Early Life

Hypatia of Alexandria's early life is unclear. She was born sometime between 355 and 370 AD, though most historians agree that her birth was likely closer to 355. It is unknown who Hypatia's mother is or if she had any siblings, but her father was the Greek scholar Theon. Hypatia was born in the city of Alexandria at a time when the city had begun to intellectually compete with Athens.

However, what Alexandria was mainly known for were the frequent religious conflicts between Christians and Pagans. The Christians politically ruled over the city and regularly imposed restrictive laws upon other religions. This often led to violence, as well as a deep rivalry between the groups.

Hypatia herself was born into a Pagan family and likely identified as such, although her family had a high standing in the city, one that went beyond religion. Theon was well-respected as a scholar and mathematician and had already gained both fame and credibility from his commentaries on the works of Euclid.

According to Greek tradition, a son would be raised to follow his father's career. Despite having a daughter, Theon would treat Hypatia no differently. He would take it upon himself to educate Hypatia in his own fields of expertise. Along with daily lessons to sharpen her mind, she followed a strict physical routine to help her stay in shape. She was known to drive chariots, walk miles on the daily, rowed frequently, rode horses, and climbed mountains. Much of this was due to Theon's wish to create what he deemed a "perfect human being".

An illustration of Hypatia studying the stars.

As a child, Hypatia was educated in mathematics, astronomy, astrology and philosophy. Her father also taught her about the different cultures and religions of the known world, which furthered her understanding of others at a young age. He also taught her how to pass her knowledge along and how to use her words for change rather than violence. It is said that while Hypatia was still young, her knowledge would come to surpass her father's.

Hypatia would form a deep bond with her father while she was young, looking to him not just in a paternal way but also as a mentor. She was inspired by him, as well as previous philosophers and scholars such as Plato, Aristotle and Plotinus. Soon, she followed in their footsteps.

Hypatia with her students gathered around her during a lecture.

Serving as a Scholar

Women in academia were rare during this period, but that would not stop Hypatia. While still in her early twenties, she began to teach the people of Alexandria. Quickly, she became popular among the scholars and students of Alexandria. Even outside of Alexandria, scholars began to discuss Hypatia and her work, and she would become known across the scholarly world. People would even journey from other cities just to see her speak. Hypatia quickly gathered a loyal group of students and followers who attended her lectures and followed her teachings. While many had doubted her, they were soon won over by her natural ability to speak, and her talent to teach even the most difficult subjects.

A medieval fresco, likely inspired by the story of Saint Catherine of Alexandria, itself inspired by Hypatia.

Hypatia taught many subjects, including astrology, astronomy, mathematics and philosophy. Her teachings in philosophy are now a part of what is considered the Neoplatonic school of thought. The main theory of Neoplatonism is that there is a higher field of reality, although it cannot be reached through thought or language. It is also believed by followers that the purpose of one's life should be to do everything possible to reach this higher plane. Other philosophers later added to the theory, classifying levels of the higher field of reality based on how well the human mind can think. Hypatia also built on the theory, adding to it scientific theories and facts.

Socrates of Constantinople once said of Hypatia; "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 presence of the magistrates... neither did she feel abashed in going to an assembly of men. For all men on account of her extraordinary and virtue admired her more."

As Hypatia began to make a name for herself, violence within the city only began to increase. Many Christians were upset that a woman, and a Pagan at that, was in a place in which she had power over people's minds. It did not help that her teachings were known to contradict their own.

However, Hypatia did not face the same threats of violence as many other Pagans did. Theophilus was the Christian archbishop of the city and held more power than those in the government, often imposing many of the laws. He also had a close friendship with Synesius, one of Hypatia's best students and later the Bishop of Ptolemais. Synesius would help Theophilus in understanding Hypatia's teachings, and Theophilus came to respect Hypatia and her theories. So, he made sure to exempt her from any laws that would impose on her rights, and allowed her to freely continue teaching. He also made it known to the Christians of the city that she was to be left out of any feuds involving religion.

Raphael's 'School of Athens', which features this figure believed to be Hypatia.

Hypatia was easily more well-regarded and knowledgable than many of her male contemporaries. It was not long before she was considered a top mind in the academic world. She attracted the attention of many other scholars and was often written about. Damascius, another top scholar of the time, wrote of her popularity; "Donning the tribon [a robe worn only by male scholars], the lady made appearances around the centre of the city, expounding in public to those willing to listen on Plato or Aristotle or some other philosopher. There was a great crush around the doors [of her home], a confusion of men and horses, of people coming and going and others standing about for Hypatia the philosopher was now going to address them and this was her house."

A suitor (unsuccessfully) attempting to woo Hypatia.

Hypatia was famous. Her knowledge was well known, and she was a popular name throughout the known world. This, of course, brought with it some unwanted attention. Not just from those who wished to stop her from teaching, but also from those who wished her attention.

Throughout her life, Hypatia would refuse to marry and have children. She instead followed Plato's idealogy, which taught that one should live a life of celibacy in order to abolish the familial structure. By doing so, people would not form bonds which could possibly hold them back from progressing in society. Not only that, but by remaining celibate, this would benefit her standing in society. Among the upper class of Alexandria, celibacy was a virtue greatly admired.

Of course, this was not enough to stop men from attempting to pursue her. Many would attempt to do so, but none would succeed. It is said that there was one student who was so enamoured with Hypatia that several times he asked her to marry him. Each time, he was met with a no. Hypatia was concerned over what she described as 'lovesickness'. She realized that not only did she have to stop him for her own sake, but she also had to save him from himself. One day, when he again attempted to woo her, she angrily confronted him, calling his love nothing but lust and claiming that it blinded him to what a woman was truly like. Shocked by the usually calm teacher, he was cured.

By the time Hypatia was 30, she had written commentaries on Euclid and Ptolemy, along with commentaries on Apollonius of Parga's "Conics", a book about geometry and the division of light in cones. She had also written a commentary on Diophantus of Alexandria's number theory and arithmetic theory. As well, she had created a new method of long division and her own astronomical table. Although it is possible that this method and table were not original work and were instead a revision of her father's previous work. It is likely she wrote much more, although much of her work has been lost or destroyed. We know though, that she was likely one of the first to realize the path the earth took in orbiting the sun.

A modern Iranian astrolabe.

She would also create the astrolabe, a device that helped to examine and measure celestial bodies in the night sky. It is possible that the astrolabe was invented a century before Hypatia was born, although there is evidence to support that Hypatia was its inventor, considering her father wrote a treatise on astrolabes and Synesius would credit her with their creation. This device would come to be highly important for astronomers for centuries, and are still used from time to time in the modern day. Hypatia would also assist in the creation of the hydroscope, a device used to look below the surface of the water.

Around 400, Hypatia was named the head of the Platonist School in Alexandria. This likely made her one of, if not the first, woman to ever be hired as a professor in a formal school. At the school, she taught astronomy and educated students on the philosophy of Plato and Plotinus. As she had before, she taught both Christian and Pagan men and the school was not religiously divided. It was instead a sanctuary from the city's religious class. Hypatia would refuse to take a stance in the religious debate, choosing education over religion.

During her time as a professor, Hypatia likely spent much of her time in the Second Library of Alexandria, a place she would have exclusive access to. However, Theophilus would destroy it during his reign. As Theophilus' reign continued, the laws he imposed became stricter, and life only became more difficult in Alexandria.

After Theophilus' death in 412, he would be succeeded by his nephew, Cyril, and life in Alexandria would only get worse.

A painting of Hypatia from the 19th century. In one hand, she grasps a papyrus. In the distance, a church procession can be seen, which Hypatia seems concerned about.

Death

Orestes was elected around the same time Cyril came into power. Orestes was known to be a vocal critic of Cyril, particularly when it came to Cyril's rule through fear and violence. Though Orestes was also a Christian, he refused to back the church and quickly formed a rivalry with Cyril.

Hypatia and Orestes were known to be both colleagues and friends. After Cyril came into power, Hypatia found that she could no longer stand by while the Christians ruled with violence. She would become a part of Orestes' cause, and though she would not be as outspoken, she was often protesting alongside him. However, taking this stance brought her into the rivalry, and Cyril was not as merciful as Theophilus.

When Cyril banished Jews from Alexandria, Hypatia supported the Jewish resistance group. This event would eventually lead to Orestes forming his own political party. Hypatia backed this, which brought support from Pagans, scholars, and others who were persecuted within the city. Hypatia already had many political ties in the city, and many leaders sought her advice over the years. She continually counselled politicians on leading through civility rather than violence. Soon, the power structure in Alexandria began to shift towards government ruling over church.

This angered Cyril. He urged Christians across the city to carry out violent attacks against Orestes. However, after a failed assassination attempt, Cyril realized that Orestes was too powerful. If Cyril was to have Orestes killed, he would likely be blamed for it and would face repercussions. So, Cyril switched his attention to Hypatia. While Hypatia was important to the city, she was an easy target.

Cyril planned not to have her killed directly, that would be too obvious and would only lead back to him. Instead, he planned on inciting further violence in the streets of Alexandria until he could send the Parabalani, a group of Christian monks, to kill her. Cyril began to spread rumours about Hypatia, stating that she was a sorceress who practiced witchcraft, citing her studies of astrology and ties to Paganism as evidence of this.

Hypatia had her suspicions, and Orestes had her placed under government protection. Nearly every day, riots broke out all over the city. As violence increased, it was deemed too dangerous to continue protecting Hypatia, and her government protection ended.

A drawing of Hypatia being dragged through the streets while monks stone her.

In 415, Hypatia was travelling through the city after a lecture when she was suddenly attacked by the Parabalani. She was dragged from her chariot, down the street and into a church. There, she was tortured, possibly for days, although it is unclear for exactly how long. She was stripped by the Parabalani, who then beat her broken pottery and tiles. From there, it is unclear exactly what happened to her, though there is much speculation. It is believed that the Parabalani burned her, before proceeding to scrape her skin off with oyster and scallop shells. It is also believed that they ordered dogs to attack her and tear her limbs off.

A painting depicting a scene from an 1853 novel on Hypatia, which sees her asking Christ why she is been targeted shortly before she is killed.

How Hypatia was ultimatley killed is also unclear. There are three believed theories; she was either dragged through the streets until she died, beaten to death, or set on fire. After she was finally killed, her body was tied to a chariot and the Parabalani paraded it through the streets of Alexandria. That way, she would serve as a warning to anyone else who dared to speak out against Cyril.

Hypatia's death shocked the people of Alexandria. It seemed unjust, especially when she had stayed out of politics for so many years. More than anything, though, it seemed senseless in its brutality, even for Cyril.

After her death, the whole city seemed to change. Orestes felt that he could no longer continue his fight against Cyril and with no one to oppose him, Cyril was able to increase his rule over the city. Pagan temples were burnt down across the city. Hypatia's attackers, the men of the Parabalani, would face no consequences for her death. Cyril would later be named Saint Cyril of Alexandria, as the church deemed him a protector of Alexandria after saving it from the threat of Paganism.

Shortly after Hypatia's death, Orestes left Alexandria. He disappeared from the historical record and it is unclear what happened to him. He was not alone in fleeing the city, either. Many philosophers, scholars, and other intellectuals were forced to flee. Cyril would shut the university down and later had it destroyed.

Records and written works by the city's scholars were lost. Nearly all of Hypatia's written works, as well as records on ger, were lost, either to neglect or intentional destruction. It didn't help that, unlike many other philosophers, Hypatia had not appointed a successor. There was no one left to defend her legacy because of that. Alexandria's status as a city of scholars faded. Many historians now consider Hypatia's death to have signalled the end of the classical era of philosophy.

Legacy

It would take many years for Alexandria to return to its greatness. Lecture halls were built and rebuilt and many continued to teach after her death, even if the philosophical world had changed. Hypatia was a Neoplatonist philosopher, and she would not be the last. She would not even be the last female Neoplatonist. For the most part, the field of Neoplatonism is not practiced in the modern-day.

Ironically enough, Hypatia's life would come to inspire Christian myth in the following decades, particularly the story of Saint Catherine of Alexandria. She first pops up around the 8th century, though she is said the have been born in the 3rd century. Said to have been born a Pagan, she converted at a young age and is later credited with converting 50 Pagans philosophers after an intellectual debate. As a result, she was tortured and killed. Saint Catherine likely did not exist, and many details of her life are said to be directly inspired by Hypatia.

An actress in costume as Hypatia.

Hypatia would return to the public eye in the 18th century, though she would be used to justify anti-Catholic sentiments. When neo-Hellenism became popular in the 19th century, a legendary view of Hypatia also became popular. The most notable depiction of Hypatia would come from Charles Kingsleys 1853 novel Hypatia; Or New Foes With an Old Face. Throughout the late 18th century, it inspired several works of art and in 1893, it would become a play.

Depictions of Hypatia range from insufferable and intolerant to helpless and romanticized, and Kingsley's novel tends to fall into the latter of the two categories. She was less herself, knowledgable and driven to educate others, and more depicted through male Victorian authors looking to write romantic novels, although it did inspire a renewal in her memory. In 1884, a main-belt asteroid would be discovered, and it would be dubbed 238 Hypatia. Later, she would serve as a heroine for early feminists and suffragists.

Conclusion

For centuries, the legacy of Hypatia has not been one of her own. She has been used to further anti-Catholic sentiments, to fuel romantic movements, and as a symbol for causes that were not necessarily her own. Her work though should not be diminished, and that is what she should be remembered for more than anything.

Hypatia and her work forever changed the world of academia, not just in her time in Alexandria, but even now across the world. She brought forth new scientific ideas and inspired the world of philosophy, and was eager to relate this to her students.

Her death brought to an end the classical world of philosophy. Even though much of her work and her contemporary's work has been lost and destroyed, its impact was greatly important. Even now, over 1500 years after Hypatia's death, we can appreciate what she did and see just how much one single event can impact the world, and how one single woman can change it for the better.


Notes:

  • What contributes to the unclear nature of Hypatia's death are the later works that depict her as a character rather than a historical figure. Particularly the work of author John Toland, who created details of her death to create a negative depiction of Catholicism. Hypatia's death, while still being cruel, likely was not as awful as it has been claimed.

Further Resources:

  • Hypatia: Mathematician, Inventor, and Philosopher by Sandra Donovan is a 2008 biography on Hypatia.

  • Hypatia of Alexandria, a paper by A.W. Richeson can be found here.

  • A Christian Martyr in Reverse: Hypatia is an excerpt from the book A Full Moon of Women: 29 Word Portraits of Notable Women From Different Times and Places written by scholar Ursule Molinaro.

Sources

Photos