Hypatia of Alexandria

Hypatia of Alexandria
Hypatia of Alexandria

Hypatia of Alexandria (in Greek: Υπατία) (?370415) was a neo-Platonic philosopher, mathematician, and teacher who lived in Alexandria, then a Greek settlement. 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. Letters to her by her pupil Synesius give an idea of her intellectual milieu. She was murdered in March 415 by a largely Christian mob, led by a magistrate named Peter, for reasons which are still debated. Religion and politics are the two most likely motivations for the mob killing. Her contributions to science are reputed to include the invention of the astrolabe and the hydrometer. It has been romanticized that she had Athene like beauty.

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 some "pagan" temples in the city in 391, which may have included the Museum and certainly included the Serapeum (a temple and "daughter library" to the Great Library). In 391, Emperor Theodosius had published an edict which prohibited visiting pagan temples, and Christians in the entire Roman Empire had embarked on an intense campaign to destroy pagan places of worship.

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, the Christian historiographer 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 people who begin to undertake philosophy after failing at some other career: "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. [1] This indicates that books were rewritten to suit the prevailing Christian dogma, which may also relate to the difficulty of finding accurate contemporary information about Hypatia's life and death.

Hypatia's death

Theories, without sufficient data, (in the ancient world it is common for "historians" to copy from each other without further inquirey,) range from: a local, spontaneous Christian uprising tolerated by the Christian Patriarch Cyril of Alexandria over a conflict between Cyril and the more tolerant prefect Orestes to a conspiracy supported by the Emperor himself, Possibly a lawless, civilian "peasant stock" mob (soldiers are never mentioned) made up of superstitious Christians and non-Christians alike (The surviving evidence indicates the difference between them is minimal in the late 4th and early 5th centuries); led by a charismatic, zealot "Peter". Another point of view holds that Hypatia was part of a "rebellion" and her murder unfortunate, but inevitable.

Socrates Scholasticus described her death as follows in his Ecclesiastical History:

"Yet even she fell a victim to the political jealousy which at that time prevailed. For as she had frequent interviews with Orestes, 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, 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. This affair brought not the least opprobrium, not only upon Cyril, but also upon the whole Alexandrian church. And surely nothing can be farther from the spirit of Christianity than the allowance of massacres, fights, and transactions of that sort. This happened in the month of March during Lent, in the fourth year of Cyril's episcopate, under the tenth consulate of Honorius, and the sixth of Theodosius [AD 415]."

[[John of Niki?n, Bishop of Niki?a 7th century author, described her death as follows, obviously drawing on Socrates but coming to rather different conclusions [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."

John of Niki?o 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 witchcraft 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 witchcraft precisely. She may have been the first famous "witch", as was noted by many church-critical authors. In spite of Cyril's probable involvement in, or at least toleration of, 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. All use ancient writers as their primary sources. Dzielska, alone, relies also on surviving personal letters written by Hypatia students.

[1] Letter 154 of Synesius of Cyrene to Hypatia (online version (http://www.geocities.com/hckarlso/sletter154.html)).

[2] John, Bishop of Nikiu: The Life of Hypatia. Chronicle 84.87-103 (online version (http://www.cosmopolis.com/alexandria/hypatia-bio-john.html)).

Year of birth

Traditionally a recent date of birth has been ascribed to Hypatia, perhaps informed by after-the-fact romanticized descriptions of her which imply youth. Many authors presumed she died in her forties, and thus had been born around 370. However, Dzielska has most recently argued that she was more likely born around 350 and thus would have been in her sixties when she was killed.

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