Hey everyone! I took a hell of a trip into the past these last few days and I’m still buzzing with excitement. If you guys wanna dive into the life of a very unique and influential woman whose story has become legend, hold on tight and read on. Sorry to everyone else for the irrelevant post, I’m gonna put a “Read More” tag right here so you don’t get chocked from the block of text that follows. A nice short is coming up sometime later today 🙂
First of all, does any of you know who Hypatia is? I will make a wild guess and say that your thoughts right now are either “Oh yeah, that ancient philosopher/mathematician/whatever who was violently murdered by a Christian mob back whenever” or “Who?”. To those rare souls who know better, bravo to you. I’ve known about her all my life, but not thanks to my country’s educational system. One would think that during Byzantine history classes, somewhere between murdered emperors and Turkish invasions there would be a paragraph going “There was a woman once in Egypt who talked about philosophy, teached astronomy and mathematics and was the greatest mind of her time, while everyone else were killing each other over whose God was better”. Alas, I’m afraid Hypatia is one of those historic figures you have to read about yourself (or have excellent parents, that was my case) otherwise it’s very difficult to know their true stories.
So I did my research about her these days, I read 1 of the 2 books with legitimate scholarly research on her life and work. I have ordered the 2nd, it’s not here yet. That one focuses more on her work (as much as it can, that is). The information we have about her is scarce at best, but brave historians have put enough together to clear out the true story. I will divide my narration in these sections:
1) Her life (as we know it so far)
2) Her work (as we know it so far)
3) How Hypatia became a martyr for various causes through the centuries
I want this to be as factual as possible so no pictures included (since they all are fabricated). I also warn you that because so little is known about Hypatia, historians argue about lots of things when it comes to her life and work. I am going to provide some links with source material at the end of the post for those who want to check stuff up for themselves. The rest of you will have to trust my word. I don’t recommend googling because most of the articles written don’t have their facts straight.
1) Her life (as we know it so far)
Hypatia of Alexandria was born somewhere between 355-370 AD. Historians are divided as to when exactly she was born since their sources vary on the subject. Yeah, unfortunately history is not what one would call an exact science. What we do know is that she lived her whole life in Alexandria, Egypt. Alexandria was the third grandest city of that time and was still very much Greek. It was also in great internal turmoil due to the great sociological changes that were taking place. Christians, Jews and Pagans were fighting for dominance. After Christianity became a legal religion, the Christians took over the place, which meant that they were greater in numbers and influence. The city was in an uproar. Some historians say that Alexandria of that time was as turbulent and troubled as Baghdad or Beirut is today. Still, it had a museum, library, pagan temple, churches, synagogues theological, philosophical and rhetorical circles, as well as mathematics and medicine schools. All in all, everything a population could need regarding their intellectual needs at that time in history.
Her father was Theon of Alexandria. He was a member of the museum of Alexandria and he himself was a scholar and a mathematician (more on his work in the next section). Hypatia grew up under his guidance and became a scholar, a mathematician and an astronomer herself. She assisted her father in his work (more on this in the next section) but unlike her father, she was a renowned neoplatonist philosopher as well (today we would probably call her a polymath).
She was well known and admired by the world of her time. She was a teacher of mathematics, astronomy and philosophy and a continuator of the Greek ideals. Men from all over the -then known- world would go to Alexandria to become her students. Wealthy men from powerful families of course, not your average Joe’s. Her integrity and honesty, her soundness of mind, her sense of justice and her indifference towards other people’s religious beliefs were elements that made her a prominent figure in the society of the time and she was admired by all around her regardless of whether they were Pagans, Christians or whatever. Her students held her in high regard throughout their lives, spoke very highly of her, often seeked her guidance and they themselves ended up having important positions in the world (whether that was in church or government).
As you can understand, she influenced the highest levels of society. Whenever she would give a lecture (usually in her home) the place would burst with admirers. Government officials, students and members of the church would hold on to her every word.
It is of no surprise that such a position made her an object of resentment to her influential opposite. Yeah, she wasn’t the most popular girl when it came to the opinion of Cyril of Alexandria. You see, when Hypatia was at the hight of her glory (modern historians believe she was in her 60s when she died, so let’s say mid 50s here to be more accurate) Cyril had just become the new archbishop. And he was as rigid and demanding as they come, he wanted influence and power and he wanted it like, right now, if you please. He was in open conflict with every religion and sect imaginable and of course, he was in conflict with the prefect of Alexandia, Orestes.
Here’s the crucial part when it comes to Hypatia’s death. Cyril had many open disputes regarding governance issues with Orestes and the later would not succumb to the former’s demands. Now, I have already been less than objective when it comes to Cyril’s ideas in the paragraph above so I’m not gonna comment further on the why these two where in conflict. Let’s just say that Cyril had his influential place in society by being the archbishop. Orestes needed equal political back up and influence in order to stand up to him. Guess who was his back up. That’s right. Hypatia was (as we said before) very, very important in Alexandria. She also had considerable moral authority in the city, she had friends and admirers in the highest government posts. It is a simple equation, Cyril wanted Orestes to submit to his demands, Orestes wouldn’t do that (for reasons I won’t mention because without adequate source material they would be speculations) so Orestes had to be thrown out of the way. Orestes had Hypatia’s back up, so, by getting Hypatia out of the way, Orestes would soon follow.
It has never actually been proven that Cyril ordered Hypatia’s murder, but the historical sources find this to be more than likely. We do know that he resorted to the most classic, oldest trick in the book when it comes to getting women out of the way. Yeeeah, witchcraft it is. History has done it again. “Astronomy my ass, the woman is a heathen, a pagan a damn witch. She cast her magic spells on Orestes and God cannot reach out to him. We must end this satanic creature to bring back peace to the community” and so forth. It is important here to note that even though Hypatia was so important to the higher classes of society, the general public only had a vague image of her as an all around nice lady. But we all know that all good things get thrown out the window when a woman is accused of witchcraft by the church. So one day somewhere around 415 AD a mob of angry Christians (and here I quote Socrates Scholasticus) : “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 with tiles. After tearing her body in pieces, they took her mangled limbs to a place called Cinaron, and there burnt them”. After that, Orestes fled from Alexandria never to be heard from again, Cyril took over the city and when he died he became a saint of the Catholic and the Orthodox church.
What I’m gonna say next is just my opinion and not a historical fact. But it just seems to me as if Hypatia’s story was deliberately wiped off history by the historians of the time and I find that to be unjust. I cannot understand how we can have so little information on such an important figure while at the same time know in detail who killed whom and who was who’s bastard child when it came to the throne of the Roman empire. All that, was captured in great detail. But in the case of a woman, who was held in such high regard by the great minds of her time, who for all we know could have been a trailblazer of her time, to whom we might owe a great lot of our knowledge of ancient mathematics at least (I will write about that on the section about her work), we don’t even have a single written document proven to be hers. She has no voice of her own, our information is second hand at best. I cannot be the only one who thinks it unlikely that such a reality just happen and wasn’t somehow deliberately inflicted. I mean, yeah, due to wars and ignorance a whole lot of knowledge was lost ’till humanity became organised enough to catalogue everything. But it seems a bit too much (to me at least) that Hypatia was forgotten in such a way. I will say more on that when I reach my conclusions of the whole story, which will be in a later post.
I hope you enjoyed the journey so far, I’ll post the next part in a few days. I’ll probably gather everything up and make a seperate page for her so this story doesn’t get mixed up with what this blog actually is. Have a nice day if you had the courage to read so far!
Edit: After some clarification by a very informed commenter, you can scratch the part about Hypatia being accused of witchcraft. I said at the beginning that this article would have its facts straight as much as possible and so it will. And since said accusations have not been proven by history they are hereby pushed to section 3: myths, literature and allegations.