Hypatia

c. 370 415

The first notable female astronomer and mathematician, she taught in Alexandria and became head of the Neoplatonist school there. Her father Theon was a writer on mathematics with whom she collaborated. She earned the resentment of Archbishop Cyril of Alexandria, and was murdered by a Christian mob.

The contemporary historian Socrates Scholasticus of Constantinople (b. c. 380) described the events of this period in his Ecclesiastical History, covering the years 305-439. Paganism had been made illegal by an edict of the Emperor Theodosius I in 391. The temples of Alexandria were closed by Patriarch Theophilus of Alexandria. Socrates Scholasticus provides the following account of the destruction of the temples in Alexandria, in the fifth book of his Historia:

"At the solicitation of Theophilus, Bishop of Alexandria, the emperor issued an order at this time for the demolition of the heathen temples in that city; commanding also that it should be put in execution under the direction of Theophilus. Seizing this opportunity, Theophilus exerted himself to the utmost to expose the pagan mysteries to contempt. And to begin with, he caused the Mithreum to be cleaned out, and exhibited to public view the tokens of its bloody mysteries. Then he destroyed the Serapeum, and the bloody rites of the Mithreum he publicly caricatured; the Serapeum also he showed full of extravagant superstitions, and he had the phalli of Priapus carried through the midst of the forum. ... Thus this disturbance having been terminated, the governor of Alexandria, and the commander-in-chief of the troops in Egypt, assisted Theophilus in demolishing the heathen temples."

It is unclear whether this included the final destruction of the Libraries at the Serapeum and at the Museum, some may have survived until the Arab invasion of 642, but evidently Greek scholars were working under the opprobrium of the church. The murder of Hypatia led to the departure soon afterward of many scholars, which marked the end of Alexandria as a major centre of ancient learning. Concerning Hypatia Socrates Scholasticus wrote:

"There was a woman at Alexandria named Hypatia, daughter of the philosopher Theon, who made such attainments in literature and science, as to far surpass all the philosophers of her own time. Having succeeded to the school of Plato and Plotinus, she explained the principles of philosophy to her auditors, many of whom came from a distance to receive her instructions. On account of the self-possession and ease of manner, which she had acquired in consequence of the cultivation of her mind, she not unfrequently appeared in public in presence of the magistrates. Neither did she feel abashed in going to an assembly of men. For all men on account of her extraordinary dignity and virtue admired her the more." and: "Yet even she fell a victim to the political jealousy which at that time prevailed. For as she had frequent interviews with Orestes [the Roman Governor], it was calumniously reported among the Christian populace, that it was she who prevented Orestes from being reconciled to the bishop. Some of them therefore, hurried away by a fierce and bigoted zeal, whose ringleader was a reader named Peter [Cyril's assistant], 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 by scraping her skin off with tiles and bits of shell. After tearing her body in pieces, they took her mangled limbs to a place called Cinaron, and there burnt them."

Hypatia is often regarded as a rationalist martyr.


Sources and Links

Chambers Biographical Dictionary, 8th edition 2007.
Wikipedia Biography
in Women's History
from Byzantine Encyclopedia The Suda.
MacTutor Biography
Wikipedia Socrates Scholasticus
Wikipedia Orestes