Hypatia (born c. 350–370 CE; died 415 CE) taught mathematics, astronomy, and philosophy at the Museum of Alexandria, eventually succeeding her father as its head. Although she was an esteemed Neo-Platonist intellectual and the first notable female mathematician, it was her martyrdom that ensured her fame.
She was murdered by a Christian mob, who blamed her for the religious turmoil resulting from conflict between her friend, the Roman prefect Orestos, and Cyril, Bishop of Alexandria. No works of hers survive, but she is credited with inventing a graduated brass hydrometer and the plane astrolabe.
Hypatia of Alexandria was described as beautiful but this fact was rarely brought up in comparison to how intelligent she was. Hypatia was also politically savvy and was quite popular with the Christians and the pagans. She was so beloved by masses that she had political authority among the elites in Alexandria.
Hypatia was the daughter of Theon, who was a mathematician, and like father like daughter Hypatia became very adept in mathematics. In fact, she is one of the first female mathematicians whose life is reasonably well recorded. Philostorgius, a Christian historian, stated that Hypatia outshined her father in mathematics. While no original works of Hypatia’s have survived, it is known that she did edit existing text of Ptolemy’s Algamest.
Hypatia was known to construct astrolabes and hydrometers. Astrolabes were used to figure out the altitudes of astronomical bodies and were also used to navigate with regard to latitude. Hydrometers were used to measure the density of different fluids in ancient times. Hypatia also practiced astronomy but at the time astronomy wasn’t distinguished from the field of mathematics. Astronomy was just as mathematical as geometry was but no one ever distinguishes geometry from mathematics.
Hypatia’s death wasn’t caused solely by religion. Her death was caused by politics and religion wrapped up tight around each other. She was an adviser to Orestes who was in a political feud with the bishop of Alexandria, Cyril. Despite Hypatia’s great popularity with the Alexandrian people, Cyril made many attempts to undermine her credibility. Eventually, she lost the needed political protection and a mob of fanatical Christians murdered her gruesomely.
Hypatia was a Neoplatonist, but, like her father, she rejected the teachings of Iamblichus and instead embraced the original Neoplatonism formulated by Plotinus. She believed that evil did not exist but was rather the privation of good. So when she saw people around her who behaved selfishly or foolishly, she knew that it was because they were ignorant about the universal truths, mathematics, and the Forms. Like any good Neoplatonist, she found peace through seeing the mathematical and astronomical truths of everything. Sure, she saw how souls were corrupted around her by baser things like lust for wealth or power. But probably in the hardest of times throughout her life, she believed that every soul could be rationally perfected, if not in this life, then in the next.
Hypatia’s murder shocked the empire and transformed her into a “martyr for philosophy”, leading future Neoplatonists such as Damascius to become increasingly fervent in their opposition to Christianity. During the Middle Ages, Hypatia was co-opted as a symbol of Christian virtue and scholars believe she was part of the basis for the legend of Saint Catherine of Alexandria. During the Age of Enlightenment, she became a symbol of opposition to Catholicism.
In the nineteenth century, European literature, especially Charles Kingsley’s 1853 novel Hypatia, romanticized her as “the last of the Hellenes”. In the twentieth century, Hypatia became seen as an icon for women’s rights and a precursor to the feminist movement. Since the late twentieth century, some portrayals have associated Hypatia’s death with the destruction of the Library of Alexandria, despite the historical fact that the library no longer existed during Hypatia’s lifetime.
Hypatia’s death sent shockwaves throughout the empire; for centuries, philosophers had been seen as effectively untouchable during the displays of public violence that sometimes occurred in Roman cities and the murder of a female philosopher at the hand of a mob was seen as “profoundly dangerous and destabilizing”. Although no concrete evidence was ever discovered definitively linking Cyril to the murder of Hypatia, it was widely believed that he had ordered it. Even if Cyril had not directly ordered the murder himself, it was self-evident that his smear campaign against Hypatia had inspired it. The Alexandrian council was alarmed at Cyril’s conduct and sent an embassy to Constantinople. The advisors of Theodosius II launched an investigation to determine Cyril’s role in the murder.
The investigation resulted in the emperors Honorius and Theodosius II issuing an edict in autumn of 416, which attempted to remove the parabalani from Cyril’s power and instead place them under the authority of Orestes. The edict restricted the parabalani from attending “any public spectacle whatever” or entering “the meeting place of a municipal council or a courtroom.” It also severely restricted their recruitment by limiting the total number of parabalani to no more than five hundred. According to Damascius, Cyril himself allegedly only managed to escape even more serious punishment by bribing one of Theodosius’s officials.
Neoplatonism and paganism both survived for centuries after Hypatia’s death, and new academic lecture halls continued to be built in Alexandria after her death. Over the next 200 years, Neoplatonist philosophers such as Hierocles of Alexandria, John Philoponus, Simplicius of Cilicia, and Olympiodorus the Younger made astronomical observations, taught mathematics, and wrote lengthy commentaries on the works of Plato and Aristotle. Hypatia was not the last female Neoplatonist philosopher; later ones include Aedesia, Asclepigenia, and Theodora of Emesa.
Hypatia had no appointed successor, no spouse, and no offspring and her sudden death not only left her legacy unprotected, but also triggered a backlash against her entire ideology. Hypatia, with her tolerance towards Christian students and her willingness to cooperate with Christian leaders, had hoped to establish a precedent that Neoplatonism and Christianity could coexist peacefully and cooperatively.
Instead, her death and the subsequent failure by the Christian government to impose justice on her killers destroyed that notion entirely and led future Neoplatonists such as Damascius to consider Christian bishops as “dangerous, jealous figures who were also utterly unphilosophical.” Hypatia became seen as a “martyr for philosophy”, and her murder led philosophers to adopt attitudes that increasingly emphasized the pagan aspects of their beliefs system and helped create a sense of identity for philosophers as pagan traditionalists set apart from the Christian masses.
This Article is a summary of:
- Hypatia of Alexandria (hypatiaofalexandria.org)
- The Philosophy Book
- Hypatia (Wikipedia)