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Hypatia of Alexandria

Hypatia of Alexandria (c. 370 - 415) was a neo-Platonic philosopher and mathematician, who was murdered by Christian monks. Several works are attributed to her by later sources, including commentaries on Diophantus's Arithmetica, on Apollonius's Conics and on Ptolemy's works, but none have survived.

She was the daughter of Theon, the last fellow of the Museum of Alexandria, which was adjacent to or included the main Library of Alexandria. Hypatia did not teach in the Museum, but received her pupils in her own private home. Theophilus, the patriarch of Alexandria, had destroyed all "pagan temples" in the city in 391 (as requested by a decree of the Emperor Theodosius), which may have included the Museum and certainly included the Serapeum (a temple and "daughter library" to the Great Library). The Museum was the "Temple of the Muses", so it was a temple according to Theodosius' decree.

Hypatia clearly lived during a power struggle between pagans and tolerant Christians on the one side, and dogmatic Christians who demanded the final destruction of paganism on the other. Hypatia herself was a pagan, but was respected by many Christians, and exalted by some (though by no means all) later Christian authors as a symbol of virtue, often portrayed as a life-long virgin. These later accounts should not be seen as strict historical records, though, as they often contradict each other.

Her contemporary Socrates Scholasticus in his Ecclesiastical History portrays her as a follows:

"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."

Some insights into the power struggle of the time are granted by the letters written by Synesius of Cyrene, Bishop of Ptolomais, to Hypatia, whom he loved and respected as a teacher. In one of them, he complains about dogmatic thinkers: "Their philosophy consists in a very simple formula, that of calling God to witness, as Plato did, whenever they deny anything or whenever they assert anything. A shadow would surpass these men in uttering anything to the point; but their pretensions are extraordinary." In this letter, he also tells Hypatia that "the same men" had accused him for storing copies of "unrevised copies" of books in his library. This indicates that books were rewritten to suit the prevailing Christian dogma. [1]

Hypatia's death

The possibility of forged documents is important, as it makes it hard to get accurate information about Hypatia's later murder. Theories range from a local, spontaneous Christian uprising tolerated by the Christian patriarch Cyril over a conflict between Cyril and the more tolerant prefect Orestes to a conspiracy supported by the Emperor himself. Another point of view holds that Hypatia was part of a "rebellion" and her murder unfortunate, but inevitable. John, Bishop of Nikiu, a 7th century author, described her death as follows [2]:

"And [after an alleged Jewish massacre was punished by the Christians and the Jews expelled from the city] a multitude of believers in God arose under the guidance of Peter the magistrate -- now this Peter was a perfect believer in all respects in Jesus Christ -- and they proceeded to seek for the pagan woman who had beguiled the people of the city and the prefect through her enchantments. And when they learnt the place where she was, they proceeded to her and found her seated on a (lofty) chair; and having made her descend they dragged her along till they brought her to the great church, named Caesarion. Now this was in the days of the fast. And they tore off her clothing and dragged her [till they brought her] through the streets of the city till she died. And they carried her to a place named Cinaron, and they burned her body with fire. And all the people surrounded the patriarch Cyril and named him 'the new Theophilus'; for he had destroyed the last remains of idolatry in the city."

Socrates Scholasticus complements this account by stating that, while she was still alive, Hypatia's flesh was torn off using oyster shells. This is notable, because John of Nikiu also portrays Hypatia as a witch:

"And in those days there appeared in Alexandria a female philosopher, a pagan named Hypatia, and she was devoted at all times to magic, astrolabes and instruments of music, and she beguiled many people through (her) Satanic wiles. And the governor of the city honored her exceedingly; for she had beguiled him through her magic. And he ceased attending church as had been his custom."

The punishment of witchraft had been determined decades earlier by Emperor Constantius, as noted in Soldan's and Heppe's Geschichte der Hexenprozesse [3, p.82]:

"Things changed with Constantius, who thoroughly tried to get rid of magic and therefore of paganism. In one of the laws he passed for that reason he complains that there were many magicians who caused storms with the help of demons and who harmed others' lives. The magicians caught in Rome were supposed to be thrown to wild animals, the ones picked up in provinces were to be tortured and, if they persistently denied, the flesh should be torn off their bones with iron hooks."

With no iron hooks available, Hypatia's death seems to match the prescribed punishment for witchraft precisely. She may have been the first famous "witch", as was noted by many church-critical authors. In spite of Cyril's involvement in her murder, he was later declared a saint.

Some authors have used Hypatia's death as a symbol of the repression of reasoned paganism by irrational religion. Included among these authors was the astronomer Carl Sagan, who provided a vivid account of her death and the burning of the Library of Alexandria in his popular science book Cosmos. Earlier writers with that perspective include Voltaire and historian Edward Gibbon. A recent work by the Polish historian Maria Dzielska explains Hypatia's death as the result of a struggle between two Christian factions, the moderate Orestes, supported by Hypatia, and the more rigid Cyril.

[1] Letter 154 of Synesius of Cyrene to Hypatia (online version).

[2] John, Bishop of Nikiu: The Life of Hypatia. Chronicle 84.87-103 (online version).

[3] Soldan, W.G. und Heppe, H., Geschichte der Hexenprozesse, Essen 1990. (English translation by Erik Möller.)

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