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The Important Life and Tragic Death of Hypatia, by Sue Toohey

"Life is an unfoldment, and the further we travel, the more truth we comprehend. To understand the things that are at our door is the best preparation for understanding those that lie beyond."


In the four hundred and fifteenth year of the Common Era, in the city of Alexandria, a tragedy occurred that, according to those who write history, was so insignificant it has barely rated a mention in even the most extensive of historical records. However, this event was not only tragic for the individuals involved, but has had far-reaching consequences for anyone who has ever valued the importance of intellectual freedom and scientific enquiry.

Hypatia of Alexandria, a mathematician, was dragged from her carriage and savagely murdered by a Christian mob in 415CE. She is perhaps better remembered for how she died rather than the way in which she lived. However, Hypatia lived an extraordinary life as the pre-eminent mathematician, philosopher, astronomer and astrologer of her time.

It is not surprising that we have very little knowledge of Hypatia's life. Even in the early fifth century, Christian historians had achieved predominance and it is unlikely that they would have wanted to consign knowledge of this tragedy to history. She was a strong supporter of free enquiry and her murder is believed by many to symbolise the end of an era of intellectual freedom. Margaret Wertheim, in her excellent book 'Pythagoras' Trousers' states, "The great era of Greek mathematical science, which began with the birth of a man, finished with the death of a woman." [1]

Hypatia was born at a time when attitudes to women were deeply influenced by the misogyny of Aristotelian philosophy. Although Plato, and Pythagoras before him, had believed in the intellectual equality of women and both philosophers had encouraged full education of women, Aristotle felt that they did not have the intellectual capabilities of their male counterparts. It was due to the good fortune of having an enlightened father [2] that Hypatia was able to rise above this misogyny and become one of the most educated and influential people of her time.

Because there is no clear evidence, there has been a lot of conjecture as to when Hypatia was born. The previously favoured date was 370CE, making her forty-five when she died. It is now generally accepted that she was born around 355CE, making her sixty at her death. She was reportedly very beautiful although no likeness of her remains. Reports of her beauty may simply be part of the great mystery that surrounds her life.

As was the custom of the time, Hypatia wrote commentaries on popular works including those of Euclid and Ptolemy. However, the only certain trace of her literary activity is in her father Theon's commentary on Book Three of Ptolemy's 'Algamest', which Theon had stated was largely the work of his daughter. She contributed to her father's texts on mathematics and astronomy, often compiling tables of the position of celestial bodies. She was a profound orator and people travelled to hear her speak, often declaring her to be like her patron Minerva, the goddess of wisdom. She is considered by many to be the first woman to make considerable contributions to the science of mathematics.

This was not a good time, however, to be involved in such fields of enquiry. Emperor Constantine had converted to Christianity in 312CE, declaring it to be the official state religion of Rome. Prior to that time, Christianity had simply been one of many religions vying for prominence. What was once a small sect of persecuted followers flourished and became the dominant religion; it wasn't long before the persecuted became the persecutors. Even though religion was ostensibly about the nature of the soul, it was essentially a political movement and those in power chose the god to be worshiped. Christianity, as the religion of meekness and obedience, had an irresistible attraction for Constantine. He believed very much in the power of his rule and despised any form of egalitarianism. A monotheistic religion such as Christianity was ideal for instilling the belief that, as in Heaven, there should be a supreme ruler on Earth. When Christianity gained the upper hand in Alexandria, it set about destroying paganism and all it stood for.

Although Christianity became the dominant religion, several other groups continued to exist. This was by no means a happy co-existence. Alexandria in particular was, as one historian put it, "seething with intercommunal rivalry and sectarian bitterness." [3] In this boiling mix of power and religion, Hypatia studied and taught with apparent equanimity to all. She welcomed anyone as a student, one of the most well known, and perhaps her best supporter, being the Christian Synesius who later became Bishop of Ptolemeis.

By the fourth century, the increasing pressure of religious sectarianism had resulted in the religions of Christianity, Judaism, and paganism becoming more separate and schools based on religious beliefs became the norm. During the time Hypatia was teaching, there was a strong push towards the strengthening of Pythagorean philosophy, generally known as Neoplatonism. This was done largely in an attempt to counteract some of the effects of Christianity. Many saw the teachings of Pythagoras as a worthy rival to the teachings of Jesus. [4]

Christians (or at least those in power) perceived Neoplatonism, probably quite correctly, as a religious rival and therefore something to be destroyed. Many accounts have portrayed Hypatia as some sort of female protagonist who sought to lead people to paganism and away from Christianity. Maria Dzieska [5] reports that she moved in high government circles surrounded by dignitaries and wealthy students and believes that Hypatia would have almost certainly had some influence on political and social life in Alexandria. Hypatia was certainly a follower of Neoplatonic teachings but there is no clear indication that she was part of the push. She was simply a person who saw the value of being knowledgeable in many areas and lived her life to impart knowledge to others.

Being a mathematician or astrologer in 4th century Alexandria was fraught with difficulty. The Council of Laodicea in 364CE had outlawed divination, forbidding priests to practice mathematics and astrology. Canon 36 states:

They, who are of the priesthood, or of the clergy, shall not be magicians, enchanters, mathematicians, or astrologers; nor shall they make what are called amulets, which are chains for their own souls. And those who wear such, we command to be cast out of the Church. [6]

Around the same time, Emperor Constantius (who became Emperor upon the death of Constantine in 337) passed a law that made it illegal to consult a 'soothsayer' or mathematician. Theophilus, Archbishop of Alexandria, saw paganism as an adversary and, with permission from his superiors, ordered the burning down of the Temple of Serapis in 389CE. The destruction of the Library was soon to follow.

In this increasingly volatile climate, mathematicians became more and more ostracized. The Ptolemaic system of the universe was dominant and was to remain so for many centuries. It was considered to be one of the greatest scientific achievements whereby the positions of the planets could be foretold, and eclipses could be predicted with great accuracy. However, foretelling the future was seen as going against the nature of God. Anyone practicing mathematics, astronomy and astrology was seen as a charlatan.

Many Christian writers expressed their strong dislike for astrology. St Augustine of Hippo (354-430), a contemporary of Hypatia, writes of "those who are called genethliaci from their consideration of natal days and now are also popularly termed mathematici". [7] Before his conversion to Christianity, he was known to have consulted astrologers. Once he had converted, his initial objection was not that astrology was inaccurate, but that it was fatalistic whereas God had given us free will. Augustine was one of the few Christians of the time who saw the value in retaining much of the Greek heritage and knowledge of Neoplatonic philosophy, seeing it as valuable in interpreting the bible. However, he came to dismiss astrology outright. [8]

In 412 a series of events occurred that made it increasingly difficult for Hypatia to remain safe. That year, Archbishop Theophilus died and his nephew Cyril, an extremist, succeeded him. While Theophilus did not approve of Hypatia, it appears that he had tolerated her. He had not moved against her in over thirty years of their co-existence, possibly because of his close friendship with Hypatia's student Synesius. Not long after the death of Theophilus, Synesius died leaving Hypatia vulnerable to those who sought to divest Alexandria of her presence. Cyril was a fanatic whose mission was to rid the city of Neoplatonists and Jews. Hypatia became caught in the middle of a power struggle between Cyril and Orestes, the Imperial Prefect of Alexandria and a close friend of Hypatia. Cyril believed that Hypatia's friendship with Orestes was the obstruction that prevented him from persuading Orestes towards a Christian influence. Hypatia's popularity was greater than Cyril's and he saw Hypatia very much as the adversary who was preventing him from gaining complete control of the hearts and minds of Alexandrians who were not yet Christians.

As part of the ongoing campaign to get rid of her, Alexandrians were fed images of Hypatia as a woman who was "an abominable messenger of hell." [9] Stories were spread about her involvement in mathematical and astronomical research. To add credibility to her 'evilness' the people of Alexandria were reminded of her father's well-known preoccupation with astrology and magic, his writings on the interpretation of dreams, and of the astrologers who regularly called at their home. It was her involvement in astronomy and astrology that purportedly aligned her with black magic and divination. She was regarded as a satanic witch who cast spells on anyone in the city. Bishop John of Nikiu, writing in the seventh century, felt that Hypatia had tricked people into following her. "She was devoted at all times to magic, astrolabes and instruments of music, and she beguiled many people through her Satanic wiles." [10]

Why she chose to stay in this environment, we will never know. What we do know is that this decision cost Hypatia her life. In 415CE, during the Christian period of Lent, Hypatia, while on her way home from teaching, was dragged from her carriage and set upon by a mob of Christian zealots. These men, believed to be parabolans, the military arm of Cyril's rule, dragged her into a local church where she was stripped naked, and the skin scraped from her body with sharp objects. [11] The zealots then tore her apart limb from limb and took her body to a place called Cinaron where it was burned. Even though Cyril was not present during the attack and there is no evidence that he ordered the killing, it is believed that he instigated it by his willingness to incite other Christians to violence in the name of the Church. Bishop John of Nikiu, writing later of the event, praised Cyril 'for he had destroyed the last remains of idolatry in the city.'[12]

The murder of Hypatia, a sixty-year-old woman, loved and praised by many for her beauty, wisdom and compassion for all, was not only an act of blind hatred, but also a criminal offence worthy of the harshest penalties being brought against the perpetrators of this heinous act. However, those penalties never came. There were no arrests and no charges. Upon his death, Cyril became a saint after being canonised by the Catholic Church.[13]

Hypatia was living at a time of tremendous change and her death marked the demise of the last phase of ancient science. In a climate where lives were literally at stake, it is not surprising that Neoplatonism did not survive. Many philosophers left the city, fearing the same fate as their beloved colleague. She had lived in an era where scientific enquiry was seen as antithetical to religious dogma and her death was seen by her supporters as "the last candle of free enquiry to be snuffed out before the long night of clerical scholasticism."[14]

Notes & References:

  1 ] Wertheim, Margaret 'Pythagoras' Trousers, God, Physics, and the Gender Wars', Fourth Estate, London, 1997 p37
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  2 ] Theon of Alexandria was a mathematician and philosopher and the last librarian of the fabled Library of Alexandria. One text, written in 1928 says that Theon would have been a great man had his daughter not overshadowed him. It gives warning to male parents against making the same 'mistake' that Theon made.
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  3 ] Dr Michael Deakin - Ockham's Razor, ABC Radio National, 3 Aug 1997
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  4 ] In fact, there are many parallels to the stories of Pythagoras and Jesus. Both are said by their followers to have been born of a virgin and a god, (Apollo in Pythagoras' case) both husbands are said to have received messages (Joseph from an angel and Mnesarchas from the Delphic Oracle) and both are said to have ascended physically into heaven. Given that these beliefs about Pythagoras were recorded before Jesus was born, it has often been suggested that Christians "borrowed" the stories as their own.
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  5 ] Dzielska, Maria. Hypatia of Alexandria. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995 p41.
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  6 ] external link
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  7 ] St. Augustine 'Confessions', translated by Edward Bouverie Pusey.
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  8 ] St Augustine came to believe that astrology was wrong and proposed many objections over the years. When astrologers would refute his arguments with their own he would simply come up with another objection - one of his favourites being 'time twins' who lived very different lives, which he argues at length in 'The City of God'.
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  9 ] Dzielska, Maria. Hypatia of Alexandria, op cit p91
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  10 ] John, Bishop of Nikiu, Chronicle 84.87-103
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  11 ] Some accounts say that it was oyster shells; other accounts say roof tiles. The confusion here may lie in the fact that the Greek word that was used in original accounts was ostrakois, which literally means oyster shells but was also used to describe brick tiles used on the roofs of houses. Either way, it was a very painful death.
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  12 ] John, Bishop of Nikiu, op cit
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  13 ] Ironically, it seems that Hypatia was remembered by the Christian Church as Saint Catherine of Alexandria. She was said to have been martyred after refuting 50 pagan philosophers who were sent to argue her out of her faith. In medieval times, St Catherine was known as the patron saint of philosophers. She later had her sainthood revoked on the grounds of non-existence.
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  14 ] Gottlieb, Anthony, The Dream of Reason, A History of Philosophy from the Greeks to the Renaissance Penguin Books, 2000 p384
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Sue Toohey is an Australian astrologer with an Arts Degree with majors in history and philosophy. She is currently researching the history of astrology and religious thought. Sue wrote this article in response to a request placed in the forum of this site for information on early female astrologers. Although it is clear that many women have played a role in the history of astrology, very little is known about their lives and works. If you have information to add to the comments on this site, please email sue or post your message in the forum.

© Sue Toohey, 2003