The Polymath Philosopher
Hypatia of Alexandria was a mathematician, astronomer, philosopher, teacher, political advisor, and writer. The daughter of well-known mathematician Theon of Alexandria and an unknown mother, Hypatia was born in Alexandria, Egypt sometime between 350 and 370 CE.
Alexandria was then part of the Roman Empire and was the third largest city in the Empire. Multi-cultural, a centre for learning and religion (Pagan, Jewish and Christian faiths), Alexandria was a bustling city in which Hypatia could learn from established mathematicians and philosophers (at this stage, there was very little difference between the two subjects), study and write, and gather students from across Egypt and the wider Mediterranean world to attend her classes.
Hypatia was an accomplished researcher who engaged closely with past philosopher-mathematicians’ works, writing commentaries on treaties by Diophantus and Apollonius. The main reason these works survive, is because of Hypatia’s commentaries, which are thought to have been intended to further her students’ understanding of complex mathematical problems.
Hypatia was described as ‘self-possessed’ by Socrates of Constantinople, her close contemporary, and someone who was not easily intimidated! In fact, Hypatia herself was perfectly confident to appear before assemblies or address the leaders of Alexandria, including the Roman Prefect Orestes to whom she became a close political advisor, teacher, and friend.
During Hypatia’s lifetime, Alexandria was a part of the Roman Empire, ruled by the Roman Emperor Theodosius I (379- 392), followed by the Emperors of the Eastern Empire Arcadius (383-395 CE) and Theodosius II (408- 450 CE). However, the influence of Christian bishops was increasing, and they were often at odds with Roman officials, including the Prefect Orestes.
Whilst Hypatia went from student to teacher, the situation in the city was becoming increasingly fraught. Alexandria’s intellectual elite were mostly in favour of the Pagan religion. The Pagan intellectuals sought to protect ancient religious artefacts when violence broke out in the late 4th century CE. A series of riots eventually led to the destruction of the Serapeum of Alexandria, a temple complex which had been a centre of Pagan religion and learning, having housed a collection from the Library of Alexandria. The violence ended with the temple destroyed, at great cost to the assaulting Christians, and its defenders were forced to flee Alexandria.
Tensions and tempers were running high!
In 412 BCE Cyril was appointed, or rather seized power after the death of Theophilus, as Bishop. Life for the Alexandrian Pagan and Jewish population, who had been able to practice their respective religions freely before, now changed dramatically.
Cyril immediately began to persecute the Novatians (a Christian sect) and the Jewish population. A power struggle broke out between Cyrus and Orestes. Things came to a head when the Prefect Orestes arrested, tortured and executed one of Cyril’s henchmen, Hierax.
Cyril was furious and set about attempting to destroy Orestes and his supporters including Hypatia. Cyril and his advisors were quick to place the blame on Hypatia, who had regular meetings with Orestes.
In 415 BCE, a Christian mob led by a man named Peter and encouraged by Bishop Cyril set out to kill Hypatia. According to Socrates of Constantinople, Hypatia was dragged by a mob into a church where she was stripped naked and beaten to death. Her body was then burned.
The manner of death was designed to humiliate Hypatia, destroying her dignity by removing her clothing.
Cyril, was later canonised (made a saint) which is pretty depressing considering how, 1600 years later, we’re still giving power and honours to men who conduct or incite violence against women.
Nonetheless our heroine Hypatia’s legacy continued and still continues, in literary writings, reflecting a symbol of intellect, wisdom, and the importance of an enquiring mind.
A Few Things to Note
- The primary sources for Hypatia’s life and times (and the late Imperial period generally) are more difficult to find online. However, the secondary sources listed below provide a good overview of the primary sources at our disposal.
Socrates of Constantinople, Ecclesiastical History
Dzielska, M. 1996. Hypatia of Alexandria. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Watts, E.J. 2017. Hypatia: The Life and Legend of an Ancient Philosopher. Oxford: Oxford University Press.