Regarding Hypatia

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
4) Conclusion

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 todayStill, 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.


Maria Dzielska: Hypatia of Alexandria
The letters of Synesius, Bishop of Ptolemais
Alan Cameron: Barbarians and Politics


10 thoughts on “Regarding Hypatia

  1. “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.”

    You might want to be careful of that conclusion. I realise Dzielska supports the idea that she was accused of “witchcraft”, but this is actually nowhere to be found in the contemporary reports. Scholasticus puts the whole thing down to pure “political jealousy” and would have good reason to highlight any “witchcraft” accusation by Cyril since, as a Novationist, he was no fan of the bishop’s. The “witchcraft” allegation only comes into the story centuries later, in the account of John of Nikiu. But we know John used Scholasticus as his source and the “witchcraft” element is nowhere to be found in Scholasticus’ account. This means it seems to be Nikiu’s much later embroidery on the story, not an element from the original accounts.

    • Thank you for that clarification! I read in Dzielska’s work the part about witchcraft and it seemed a bit off, but I then it was mentioned again in Alan Cameron’s book “Barbarians and Politics” and my idiot brain thought it validated. I should be more cautious with the existing sources.

      I have a question formed though. If she wasn’t accused of witchcraft and she wasn’t killed for not being a Christian or for being an astronomer etc, what was the motive behind her murder? It’s not as if they could put it down as “killed off because it served our political purposes”, could they?

      • “what was the motive behind her murder?”

        Good question, and one most people don’t bother to even explore. Most people are happy to accept the myth of Hypatia as the martyr for paganism/science/womankind, none of which is sustained by the evidence.

        The answer lies in the context of this incident – both the cultural context and the sequence of events that led to her murder. To begin with, this was a period in which Christianity was still working out its place in Roman society. A century before her death Christianity had still been an illegal and persecuted sect. In the 100 years after Constantine’s conversion, it went from this state, and about 5-10% of the population, to (post 381 AD) the state religion of the Empire. Before this Christian bishops had been effectively the political as well as spiritual leaders of Christian communities in a kind of state-within-the-state. This was because Christianity provided a level of mutual support, protection, social welfare and belonging that other sects did not – which was one of its attractions. It was also because it *had* to do this in times of persecution. And the fact that Chrisitianity modeled its structure on the Roman Imperial administration in many ways meant that once it became a legal and then an Imperial religion, it became very much *part* of the Roman state – almost like a “Department of Religion” headed by the Emperor but run by the bishops in each diocese (the diocese was originally a geographical unit of the Empire, though today it is still the word for the area of a Catholic bishop’s juridiction).

        This meant by Hypatia’s time conflicts were beginning to arise about who exactly were responsible for what and where what we would call “church” ended and “state” began. Strong secular rulers – like most of the emperors – dominated the bishops. But some bishops – like Ambrose in Milan and Theophilus and his successor, our friend Cyril, in Alexandria – jostled with the secular rulers for supremacy and dominance.

        So Hypatia’s death was an episode in what was very much a *political* dispute between Cyril and the Precfect Orestes about who had the authority to call the shots in Alexandria. It was one event in a chain reaction of actions and reactions that began with Orestes resenting Cyril’;s interference, led to the executuion and torture of several of Cyril’s men by Orestes, an unsuccessful appeal to the Emperor by Cyril and finally revenge for the death of one of Cyril’s faction by attacking and assassinating one of Orestes’ faction. Hypatia.

        There is nothing in the evidence to suggest the fact she was a pagan had anything to do with it (we don’t even know if she *was* a pagan). Nor was her learning the issue – Scholasticus explicitly tells us it happened “despite” the widespread respect for her learning, not because of it. That she was a woman may have been a factor, but it can’t have been the cause. A generation after Hypatia we find another renowned female pagan philosopher – Aedisia – happily teaching unmolested by mobs of monks. Scholasticus tells us what the cause was: “the political jealousy that prevailed at the time”. That jealousy was the political clash between Cyril and Orestes over dominance; one that led to several killings, including that of Hypatia.

  2. Tim O’Neil you are a treasure. Thank you so much for your analysis.

    I think it is more telling about the human nature, that a person like Hypatia could be killed in such a way merely for political purposes, than it would be if she was killed for her teachings or beliefs.

    Thank you again for reading my thoughts and for your replies. Can I ask you one last question? Do you know if there is any more recent research on Hypatia’s life and work? I don’t mean in published work necessarily (I know about Deakin’s book for example and I’ve ordered it, it hasn’t been delivered yet) but in active search for sources.

    Does it seem strange only to me that Synesius’ letters to her have survived? I mean, I would understand that her letters to him could be lost or destroyed or whatever, but who found his letters to her? And why did they keep them? And if they did keep them, why not keep whatever other document they had found in her possessions? This question may be stupid but I have no idea whatsoever on how history is written, found and preserved (if I am to judge by this incident alone, it would seem that we know all the things we know out of chance and luck).

    Best wishes

    • “Do you know if there is any more recent research on Hypatia’s life and work? I don’t mean in published work necessarily (I know about Deakin’s book for example and I’ve ordered it, it hasn’t been delivered yet) but in active search for sources. ”

      It’s very unlikely any new sources are going to turn up, unless we are very, very lucky. The fact is that we only have fragments of information about pretty much anyone in the ancient world, including people who were much more important than Hypatia. Beware of Deakin’s book however. He is a mathematician, not a historian. It’s a useful book to put her in the context of the mathematical knowledge of the time, but his understanding of ancient history is minimal and he is heavily influenced by several of the myths about Hypatia, which he accepts uncritically.

      “Does it seem strange only to me that Synesius’ letters to her have survived? I mean, I would understand that her letters to him could be lost or destroyed or whatever, but who found his letters to her?”

      People often had copies of letters they sent made before sending them to keep as a record and as what we would call “a backup”. Delivery of letters was not exactly reliable in the fifth century after all. The survival of any document from 1500 years ago is largely due to luck, but the fact that he was both a neo-Platonic philosopher and a bishop possibly increased the chances of his works and, with them, some of his letters.

      • I see. I know I’m being ridiculous but I’m disappointed by the lack of information about Hypatia.

        It should be more disconcerting that greater works have been lost, but for some reason her story speaks to me and offers me food for thought, so in effect I feel the need to learn more and speak more about her (to learn and speak of the truth of course). I’m even planning on making a documentary about her when I get the time and all the information straight. As you see, she has influenced me greatly.

        People are severely misled when it comes to this part of history and I wish to do my best at informing at least some of them. And of course I will enjoy doing so! There was even a conference in Athens dedicated to her two and a half weeks ago, with recognised scientists and historians in attendance and no one heard anything about it, there was nothing on the press or anywhere else for that matter…

        Your heads up regarding Deakin’s book will be greatly appreciated. I only ordered it so I could understand what information and knowledge Hypatia would have to work on (and from what you say I see that that’s what I’ll get). I rely more on Dzielska’s book when it comes to her life. But if his opinion has been influenced, I imagine his writings on Hypatia’s work will be influenced as well, which is unfortunate.

        “People often had copies of letters they sent made before sending them to keep as a record and as what we would call “a backup”. Delivery of letters was not exactly reliable in the fifth century after all. The survival of any document from 1500 years ago is largely due to luck, but the fact that he was both a neo-Platonic philosopher and a bishop possibly increased the chances of his works and, with them, some of his letters.”

        That explanation is perfectly normal and painfully obvious and I feel like an idiot. Thank you for enlightening me though.

  3. Pingback: Regardin Hypatia #2 | Animestus

    • Hello,

      First of all, I have to be the one thanking you for reading it! No, unfortunately Deakin’s book is not here yet and as I understand it, it will take some time to get here. The distance it has to travel is of considerable amount it seems.

      They did send me a rather hefty preview however and I also found Deakin’s website where he has laid the most basic information he gathered from his research. An article he wrote on Hypatia’s work was very useful too. I was rather disappointed in finding out that mr O’Neil (who commented above) must be quite right in his assertion that it is a rather influenced book. My far grander disappointment was in the fact that it doesn’t seem to add anything when it comes to the already known work of Hypatia. That’s why I decided to write the next article, which focuses on her work before I read Deakin’s book entirely, so that I could be more objective and if anything new comes up I will add to it. I did find very interesting the mathematical side of Deakin’s work. I believe it will fill many gaps in my knowledge of what the ancient mathematicians truly knew and what they worked with.

      I remember your article! I read it when I started roaming the internet for information about Hypatia. It was refreshingly truthful 🙂

      You make some interesting points in your speculations, but I hope you’ll not be offended by the fact that I’d rather not comment. I’m very disturbed by the tremendous amount of theories and misinformation concerning Hypatia that has been circulating the internet, literature and even the press. Whether it is in old history journals or very recent news articles, almost none of us does justice to the woman’s name by telling the truth (especially those old history journals, it was a disgusting experience reading them). I was very ashamed, honestly, when I realized that I myself almost did the very same thing by wanting to use her treatment by history as an excuse to talk about feminism. So I decided not to do it, there’s been enough theorising about Hypatia to last us for all of eternity. I am currently working on my last article in regards to this subject, which will be about the mythos surrounding Hypatia and what legitimate information I can gather as to why history (meaning historians) treated her the way it did. It will be painful for me not to speculate at all when it comes to the why, but I’ll do my best. I feel like I owe it to Hypatia, to be as factual as possible.

  4. Pingback: Regarding Hypatia #3 and #4 | Animestus

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