In March of 415 CE, a mob of Christian zealots murdered a scholar in Alexandria. Dragged from a carriage, hauled to a church, stripped naked, beaten to death with broken pottery and burned, the violent manner of this death added weight to a name of enough renown regardless. The scholar’s name is most likely one you have not heard before: Hypatia – one of the last great academics of ancient Alexandria. The first recorded women to study mathematics, astronomy and philosophy, she was a polymath caught up in a time of religious strife – two facts that, together, that would lead to her eventual demise.
Hypatia was the daughter of Theon, the last attested member of the Museum at Alexandria. He passed on to her his knowledge of mathematics and astronomy, and it is thought that she assisted her father in writing and editing several works that have survived. Theon’s version of Ptolemy’s Almagest was one such work, in which an Earth-centric model for the universe was established that would remain unchallenged until Copernicus and Galileo. His preservation of, and commentary on, Euclid’s Elements was another, which became the standard edition of this work on geometry until the nineteenth century.
Despite her father’s own success, Hypatia did not remain long in his shadow. The historian Philostorgius professed that she “far surpassed her teacher, and especially in astronomy, and taught many others the mathematical sciences”. She wrote her own commentaries, elucidating for a wider readership Diophantus’s Arithmetica, the Conics of Apollonius, and The Astronomical Canon. None of these works have survived. Hypatia’s commentaries moved her father’s effort to preserve Greek mathematical and astronomical knowledge into more recent and difficult areas, thus having a profound impact on the survival of early thought in mathematics. Later, Descartes, Newton and Leibniz are among the great names who expanded on the areas in which she worked.
It is evident that Hypatia’s appetite for learning was not satisfied with knowledge of only science. Around 400 she became the head of the Platonist school in Alexandria, where she shared her understanding of philosophy with large crowds of the public and many loyal students. Wealthy young men – all her students were men – were sent from across the empire to receive from her the best education that could be bought. A tenth-century Byzantine encyclopaedia written by Damascius claims that her womanhood in an entirely male-dominated sphere of society, although so unheard of, was not an obstruction to her teaching: “Putting on the philosopher’s cloak although a woman and advancing through the middle of the city, she explained publicly to those who wished to hear either Plato or Aristotle or any other of the philosophers”.
Hypatia’s own philosophy was of the Neoplatonist school – the final form of pagan Greek philosophy. A development upon the ideas of Plato, with some Aristotelian and Stoic elements, this was the belief that everything emanates from “the One” or “the Good” – the highest level of being and source of all perfections. A life spent on the study of geometry, algebra, astronomy and the abstract nature of numbers would no doubt have suited her philosophical interests perfectly; It is a platonic theory that such abstract entities as numbers are objective, independent of the physical world and the symbols used to represent them. Her philosophy also led her to embrace a life of dedicated virginity – possibly in keeping with Plato’s theories on abolishment of the family system.
Aristocratic and influential, Hypatia was both adored and revered by the men she taught and worked alongside. Damascius describes her 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”. This was a woman who clearly found no intimidation in an assembly of wealthy and educated men – who it seems admired her greatly for her mind, irrespective of her gender. Why was it, then, that this loyal support turned so sour before her murder?
In 412, the violent extremist Cyril succeeded Theophilus as bishop of Alexandria. Alexandrian schools were not divided by religion, and so Hypatia taught Christians and pagans alongside one another. She chose not to take a definite side in the power struggle of the time between Christianity and the ancient world, instead encouraging personal meditation on the nature of reality without tethering to any particular deity. However, in viewing herself as a philosopher she was classified a pagan, as classical education and paganism were intimately bound together. The spirit of inquiry fostered by Hypatia’s approach to spirituality was greatly at odds with the church’s religious indoctrination based on submission to a higher power.
Hypatia’s admirers included Orestes, Alexandria’s governor – one of many government officials who sought her advice on municipal matters. He was a moderate Christian who disapproved of Cyril for encroaching on his civil responsibilities, and his intolerance towards the Jewish population of the city. The two powerful men became enemies. When Cyril failed to assassinate Orestes, he shifted his rage onto an easier target – Hypatia. It is thought that Cyril envied this accomplished female scholar’s popularity and powerful allies across the empire, from his own his high position of authority in which he was disliked and unwanted. The bishop incited rumours that she was a sorceress who had bewitched Orestes and the public through her Satanic wiles. These claims were quickly believed by some, based upon her open non-Christian philosophy and work in astronomy which was inseparable from astrology. In consequence, it seems that the cost of Hypatia’s success, popularity and vocal opinion in Alexandria was her life.
Following her violent death, both scholarship and paganism in Alexandria lost momentum. Hypatia became a symbol for feminists, pagans and atheists, and was later used by Voltaire to condemn the Church and religion. Deakin sums up her legacy best: “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”.