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.
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.
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
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.
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
admirers included Alexandria’s governor, Orestes. Her association with
him would eventually lead to her death.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
in English; born between AD 350 and 370; died March 415) was a
considered the first notable woman in
who also taught
She lived in
Egypt, and was killed by a
who falsely blamed her for religious turmoil.
Some suggest that her murder marked the end of what is traditionally
although others such as Christian Wildberg observe that
philosophy continued to flourish until the age of
in the sixth century.
she belonged to the mathematical tradition of the
she followed the school of the 3rd century thinker
enquiry and encouraging logical and mathematical studies.
The name Hypatia derives from the adjective ὑπάτη,
the feminine form of ὕπατος (upatos),
meaning "highest, uppermost, supremest".
Hypatia was the daughter of
who was her teacher and the last known mathematician associated with the
She traveled to both
before becoming head of the Platonist school at Alexandria in
According to the 10th century
she worked as teacher of philosophy, teaching the works of
It is believed that there were both Christians
among her students.
Although Hypatia was herself
pagan, she was respected by a number of Christians, and later held
up by Christian authors as a symbol of virtue.
declared her "the wife of
but agreed she had remained
Hypatia rebuffed a suitor by showing him her
rags, claiming they demonstrated that there was "nothing
beautiful" about carnal desires.
Hypatia maintained correspondence with her former pupil
of Cyrene, who in AD 410 became bishop of
Together with the references by
these are the only writings with descriptions or information from her
pupils that survive.
The contemporary Christian historiographer
Scholasticus described her in his Ecclesiastical History:
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
unfrequently appeared in public in 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.
Many of the works commonly attributed to Hypatia are believed to have
been collaborative works with her father, Theon Alexandricus; this kind
of authorial uncertainty being typical for the situation of feminine
philosophy in Antiquity.
A partial list of specific accomplishments:
Her contributions to science are reputed to include the charting of
and the invention of the
used to determine the relative density and gravity of liquids.
bishop of Cyrene, wrote a letter defending her as the inventor of the
although earlier astrolabes predate Hypatia's model by at least a
century - and her father had gained fame for his treatise on the
Believed to have been the reason for the strained relationship
between the Imperial Prefect
and the Patriarch
Hypatia attracted the ire of a Christian population eager to see the two
reconciled. One day in March AD 415,
during the season of
her chariot was waylaid on her route home by a Christian mob, possibly
led by a man identified only as Peter, who is thought to be Peter
the Reader, Cyril's assistant. The Christian monks
her naked and dragged her through the streets to the newly
Caesareum church, where she was brutally killed. Some reports suggest
(pot shards) and set
while still alive, though other accounts suggest those actions happened
after her death:
of Nikiû (7th-century)
Yet even she fell a victim to the political jealousy which
at that time prevailed. For as she had frequent interviews with
Orestes, it was calumniously reported among the Christian
populace, that it was she who prevented Orestes from being
reconciled to the bishop. Some of them therefore, hurried away
by a fierce and bigoted zeal, whose ringleader was a reader
named Peter, waylaid her returning home, and dragging her from
her carriage, they took her to the church called Caesareum,
where they completely stripped her, and then murdered her by
scraping her skin off with tiles and bits of shell. After
tearing her body in pieces, they took her mangled limbs to a
place called Cinaron, and there burnt them.
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 Satanic wiles...A multitude of
believers in God arose under the guidance of Peter the
magistrate...and they proceeded to seek for the pagan woman who
had beguiled the people of the city and the prefect through her
enchantments. And when they learnt the place where she was, they
proceeded to her and found her...they dragged her along till
they brought her to the great church, named Caesareum. Now this
was in the days of the fast. And they tore off her clothing and
dragged her...through the streets of the city till she died. And
they carried her to a place named Cinaron, and they burned her
body with fire.
to the Age of Reason
Shortly after her death, a
letter attacking Christianity was published under her name.
According to Bryan J. Whitfield, the pagan historian
was "anxious to exploit the scandal of Hypatia's death",
and laid the blame squarely on the Christians and Bishop Cyril. His
account was incorporated in the
and so became widely known. However, Damascius is the only ancient
source to say that Cyril was responsible.
In the 14th century, historian
Makrembolitissa as a "second Hypatia".
In the early 18th century, the
Toland used her death as the basis for an
tract entitled Hypatia: Or the history of a most beautiful, most
vertuous, most learned, and every way accomplish’d lady; who was torn
to pieces by the clergy of Alexandria, to gratify the pride, emulation,
and cruelty of their archbishop, commonly but undeservedly stil’d St.
This led to a counter-claim being published by
Lewis in 1721 entitled The History Of Hypatia, A most Impudent
School-Mistress of Alexandria.
Eventually, her story began to be infused with Christian details, as
it was first substituted for the missing history of
Catherine of Alexandria.
In the nineteenth century, interest in the "literary legend of
Hypatia" began to rise.
Saluzzo Roero's 1827 Ipazia ovvero delle Filosofie suggested
that Cyril had actually converted Hypatia to Christianity, and that she
had been killed by a "treacherous" priest. In 1843, German
authors Soldan and Heppe argued in their highly influential History
of the Witchcraft Trials that Hypatia may have been, in effect, the
first famous "witch"
punished under Christian authority (see
In his 1847
et Cyrille, French poet
Leconte de Lisle portrayed Hypatia as the epitome of
"vulnerable truth and beauty".
Kingsley's 1853 novel Hypatia - or New Foes with an Old Face,
which portrayed the scholar as a "helpless, pretentious, and erotic
recounted her conversion by a Jewish-Christian named Raphael Aben-Ezra
after supposedly becoming disillusioned with Orestes.
In 1867, the
Margaret Cameron created a portrait of the scholar as a young woman.
References to Hypatia appear in other fiction. Some authors mention
her in passing, such as
Proust, who dropped her name in the last sentence of "Madame
Swann at Home," the first section of
a Budding Grove. Some characters are named after her, such as
Hypatia Cade, a precocious child and main character in the
fiction novel The Ship Who Searched by
Groff's 2000 play The Five Hysterical Girls Theorem features
a character named Hypatia who lives silently, in fear that she will
suffer the fate of her namesake. Hypatia is the name of a 'shipmind'
(ship computer) in The Boy Who Would Live Forever, a novel in
sees the protagonist meet a secluded society of
creatures who all take their name and philosophy from Hypatia.
A fictional version of the historic character appears in several
works and indeed series, such as the
of Alexandria series written by
Freer, which includes fictitious references to Hypatia's conversion
to Christianity and subsequent correspondence with
of Hippo; the
Maltese adventure Fable of Venice, by characteristic
superposition of anachronistic elements, sees Hypatia preside over an
intellectual salon in
Italy; and as a recurring character in
London Williams' juvenile fiction
Boy. She also appears, briefly, as one of the kidnapped
scientists and philosophers in the
and the Rani.
A Personal Voyage, discussed Hypatia and gave a detailed
speculative description of her death, linking it with the destruction of
of Alexandria, and declaring her, without corroboration, its last
librarian. A more scholarly historical study of her, Hypatia of
Alexandria by Maria Dzielska (translated into English by F. Lyra,
University Press), was named by
Magazine as an "Outstanding Academic Book of 1995,
She has been claimed by
wave feminism, most prominently as
A Journal of Feminist Philosophy, published since 1986 by
Dinner Party awards her a place-setting, and other artistic
works draw on or are based on Hypatia.
The last two centuries have seen Hypatia's name honored in the
sciences, especially astronomy.
belt asteroid discovered in 1884, was named for her. The
was named after the philosopher, in addition to craters named for her
father Theon and for Cyril. The 180 km Rimae Hypatia is
located north of the crater, one degree south of the equator, along the
By the end of the twentieth century Hypatia's name was applied to
projects ranging in scope from an
typeface (Hypatia Sans Pro),
to a cooperative community house in
genus of moth also bears her name.
Her life continues to be fictionalised by authors in many countries
and languages. Two recent examples are Ipazia, scienziata
alessandrina by Adriano Petta (translated from the Italian in 2004
as Hypatia: Scientist of Alexandria), and Hypatia y la
eternidad by Ramon Galí, a fanciful
history, in Spanish (2009)..
The 2008 novel Azazīl, by
Muslim author Dr. Yūsuf Zaydan, tells the story of the
religious conflict of that time through the eyes of a monk, including a
substantial section on Hypatia.
Zaydan's book has been criticized by
Two examples in English are Remembering Hypatia: A Novel of Ancient
Egypt by Brian Trent,
and Flow Down Like Silver, Hypatia of Alexandria by
Longfellow, which was published in September 2009 as the second in a
trilogy of the divine feminine, the first being
More factually, Hypatia of Alexandria: Mathematician and Martyr
(2007) is a brief (113 page) biography by Michael Deakin, with a focus
on her mathematical research.
Her life is portrayed in the Malayalam novel 'Francis Ittikkora'(2009)
authored by TD Ramakrishnan.
In the 2009 movie
Amenábar, Hypatia is depicted by
The Fathers of Ignorance and
the beginning of the dark ages
"It is Our will that all the peoples who are ruled by the administration of Our
Clemency shall practice that religion which the divine Peter the Apostle
transmitted to the Romans....The rest, whom We adjudge demented and insane,
shall sustain the infamy of heretical dogmas, their meeting places shall not
receive the name of churches, and they shall be smitten first by divine
vengeance and secondly by the retribution of Our own initiative" (CTh. XVI.1.2).
The Greatest Criminals and mass murders
Theophilus of Alexandria, (died 412) was
from 385 to 412. He is regarded as a saint by the
He was a
Pope at a time of conflict between the newly dominant Christians and
the pagan establishment in
each supported by a segment of the Alexandrian populace.
In 391, Theophilus (according to
discovered a hidden
temple. He and his followers mockingly displayed the pagan artifacts to
the public which offended the pagans enough to provoke an attack on the
Christians. The Christian faction counter-attacked, forcing the pagans to
retreat to the
A letter was sent by the emperor that Theophilus should grant the
offending pagans pardon, but destroy the temple; according to
Scholasticus, a contemporary of his, the latter aspect (the
destruction of the temple) was added as a result of heavy solicitation for
it by Theophilus.
Scholasticus goes on to state that :
this opportunity, Theophilus exerted himself to the utmost ... he
to be cleaned out... Then he destroyed the Serapeum... and he had
carried through the midst of the forum. ... the heathen temples...
were therefore razed to the ground, and the images of their gods
molten into pots and other convenient utensils for the use of the
The destruction of the Serapeum was seen by many ancient and modern
authors as representative of the triumph of Christianity over other
religions. When the philosopher
was lynched by an Alexandrian mob, they acclaimed Theophilus's nephew and
as "the new Theophilus, for he had destroyed the last remains of
idolatry in the city".
Theophilus turned on the followers of
after having supported them for a time. He was accompanied by his nephew
Cyril to Constantinople in 403 and there presided at the "Synod
of the Oak" that deposed
Theophilus is portrayed in Flow Down Like Silver, Hypatia of
Longfellow, a novel published in 2009.
Cyril of Alexandria (c. 376 - 444) was the
of Alexandria from 412 to 444. He came to power when the city was at
its height of influence and power within the
Empire. Cyril wrote extensively and was a leading protagonist in the
controversies of the later 4th and 5th centuries. He was a central figure
Council of Ephesus in 431, which led to the deposition of
Cyril is counted among the
Fathers and the
of the Church, and his reputation within the Christian world has
resulted in his titles Pillar of Faith and Seal of all the
Emperor, condemned him for behaving like a proud pharaoh, and
bishops at the
of Ephesus declared him a heretic, labelling him as a "monster,
born and educated for the destruction of the church".
Cyril is controversial because of his involvement in the expulsion of
and Jews from Alexandria and the murder of the pagan philosopher
Historians disagree over the extent of his responsibility for these
Catholic Church did not commemorate Saint Cyril in the
Calendar: it added his feast only in 1882, assigning to it the date of
9 February, the date on which it is still observed by those who use
calendars later than 1882 but prior to the 1969 revision, which assigned
to it the date of 27 June, considered to be the day of the saint's death,
as celebrated by the
The same date has been chosen for the Lutheran calendar. The
Orthodox Church and
Catholic Church celebrate his feast day on 9 June and also, together
Athanasius I of Alexandria, on 18 January.
with Pagans during the reign of Theodosius I
For the first part of his rule, Theodosius seems to have ignored the
semi-official standing of the Christian bishops; in fact he had voiced his
support for the preservation of temples or pagan statues as useful public
buildings. In his early reign, Theodosius was fairly tolerant of the
pagans, for he needed the support of the influential pagan ruling class.
However he would in time stamp out the last vestiges of paganism with
His first attempt to inhibit paganism was in 381 when he reiterated
Constantine's ban on sacrifice. In 384 he prohibited
pain of death, and unlike earlier anti-pagan prohibitions, he made
non-enforcement of the law, by Magistrates, into a crime itself.
In 388 he sent a prefect to Syria, Egypt, and Asia Minor with the aim
of breaking up pagan associations and the destruction of their temples.
at Alexandria was destroyed during this campaign.
In a series of decrees called the "Theodosian decrees" he
progressively declared that those Pagan feasts that had not yet been
rendered Christian ones were now to be workdays (in 389). In 391, he
reiterated the ban of
sacrifice and decreed "no one is to go to the sanctuaries, walk
through the temples, or raise his eyes to statues created by the labor of
(decree "Nemo se hostiis polluat",
The temples that were thus closed could be declared "abandoned",
of Alexandria immediately noted in applying for permission to demolish
a site and cover it with a Christian church, an act that must have
received general sanction, for
forming crypts of churches, and temples forming the foundations of 5th
century churches appear throughout the former Roman Empire. Theodosius
participated in actions by Christians against major Pagan sites: the
destruction of the gigantic
of Alexandria by soldiers and local Christian citizens in 392, according
to the Christian sources authorized by Theodosius (extirpium malum),
needs to be seen against a complicated background of less spectacular
violence in the city:
mentions street-fighting in Alexandria between Christians and
non-Christians as early as 249, and non-Christians had participated in the
struggles for and against
in 341 and 356. "In 363 they killed Bishop George for repeated acts
of pointed outrage, insult, and pillage of the most sacred treasures of
By decree in 391, Theodosius ended the subsidies that had still
trickled to some remnants of Greco-Roman civic Paganism too. The
fire in the Temple of
Forum was extinguished, and the
Virgins were disbanded. Taking the
were to be punished. Pagan members of the
in Rome appealed to him to restore the
of Victory in the Senate House; he refused. After the last
Games in 393, it is believed that Theodosius cancelled the games
although there is no proof of that in the official records of the Roman
Empire, and the reckoning of dates by
soon came to an end. Now Theodosius portrayed himself on his coins holding
The apparent change of policy that resulted in the "Theodosian
decrees" has often been credited to the increased influence of
of Milan. It is worth noting that in 390 Ambrose had excommunicated
Theodosius, who had recently given orders which resulted in the
of 7,000 inhabitants of
in response to the assassination of his military governor stationed in the
city, and that Theodosius performed several months of public penance. The
specifics of the decrees were superficially limited in scope, specific
measures in response to various petitions from Christians throughout his
Some modern historians question the consequences of the laws against
Theodosius died, after battling the vascular disease
17 January 395. Ambrose organized and managed Theodosius's lying in state
in Milan. Ambrose delivered a
titled De Obitu Theodosii
in which Ambrose detailed the suppression of heresy and paganism by
Theodosius. Theodosius was finally died in Constantinople on 8