Hypatia’s light was certainly bright. As we look into what caused her to be so admired and envied by those who knew her, we find that she had many gifts. She is said to have been physically beautiful and extremely intelligent. She was a brilliant mathematician, philosopher, astronomer, inventor, and very much a free-thinking individual. We learn that she was the first well-documented woman in mathematics who not only made a substantial contribution to the development of mathematics and geometry, but who was also instrumental in the development of astrometry, the science of charting celestial bodies.
The exact date of Hypatia’s birth is not known, only that she was born between the years 355-370 A.D. in Alexandria, Egypt. Her father, Theon Alexandricus, was an eminent mathematician and the last head librarian of the Museum’s famous library.
Although he had wished for a son, for a “perfect human being”, he nevertheless treated his child with love and respect in spite of her gender, and taught her all he knew in the fields of mathematics and astronomy. When he had nothing left to show his gifted child, he sent her to Athens and to several cities in the Italian peninsula to further expand her horizons. In Athens she studied philosophy at the school of Plutarch the Younger. Upon returning to Alexandria Hypatia took a post as teacher of mathematics and philosophy. Her lectures were so compelling and her material so fresh and intriguing, that students from all over the empire would flock to Alexandria in order to attend her classes at the Museum.
Her teachings were based on Neo-Platonism, a philosophy derived from Plato and developed by Plotinus, which affirms that there is an ultimate reality beyond the reach of thought or language. Plotinus argued that people did not have the mental capacity to fully understand the ultimate reality itself or the consequences of its existence. According to Iambilicus, who expanded this philosophy, there exist further levels of reality beneath the illusive, ultimate reality. Every distinct thought within the human mind belongs to a corresponding level of reality. Hypatia taught these philosophical ideas with a greater scientific emphasis than earlier followers of Neo-Platonism. Eventually she became head of the Neo-Platonist school at the Museum.
For centuries Alexandria had been the universal center of learning. Its university was known as “the institution of the muses” or Museum. Its celebrated library held the original volumes of all the books written in the known world. Unfortunately Alexandria’s decline began when Julius Caesar invaded it and accidentally set the Great Library on fire. In spite of this enormous loss, the library was rebuilt, and the city continued to enjoy its heightened status during the domination of the Roman Empire. A few centuries later, during Hypatia’s lifetime, the fate of Alexandria worsened when the Roman Empire split and Alexandria became part of its eastern half. According to Bishop Gregory it was the Muslim caliph Omar who was responsible for the last and final destruction of the Great Library. However, according to Edward Gibbon in his classic work The Rise and Fall of The Roman Empire, it was the Christians under the command of emperor Theodosius who really carried out such a barbaric act. The precious remaining books written by free-thinking Greek philosophers had to go up in cinders for Christianity to impose its absolutist belief system. Hypatia was the last obstacle to the ecclesiastical goal. She had memorized the destroyed texts from the library. She became an oracle of sorts. Those still seeking remnants of the lost wisdom would consult Hypatia at their own risk.
This great woman could also be considered to be a pioneer feminist, since she had to contend bravely with the norms of her society. Had she been born a few centuries earlier, as an Egyptian woman, she would have enjoyed certain rights that her contemporaries in other ancient societies could not. It is not that the Egyptians of past centuries regarded women as having the same rights as men. Rather, women held a special place for having the power to bear children. For this reason, an Egyptian woman of pharaonic times could, among other things, own and manage property, divorce, remarry and even represent herself in court.
Unfortunately, by the time Hypatia was born, Egypt was a province of the Roman Empire and, in consequence, all Egyptians had to abide by Roman laws. Greco/Roman women, regardless of social status, could not be seen or heard; they were forbidden to join their husbands when visitors called or sit next to them in public. The coliseums and other public places had special sections where women were herded far away from the men. The only women allowed at social gatherings were prostitutes for the amusement of the husbands and their friends. The wives and daughters had to sit quietly in some other room. Greek and Roman societies in ancient times were, put in simple terms, hedonistic boy clubs, while women were nothing more than objects used for pleasure and procreation.
But Hypatia would have none of that. She rejected all misogynist laws and doctrines that were imposed on her and those of her gender. Her values and confident behavior did not sit well with the patriarchs who were further scandalized when they learned that Hypatia had decided to remain unmarried in order to carry on with her intellectual life. Imagine their horror when they heard that she had rejected a suitor by showing him her menstrual rag. Why, she even dressed as a scholar and drove her own chariot! How bold she seemed in the eyes of the holy fathers! How could they bear such appalling behavior? Soon she became the target of the ecclesiastical rulers of Alexandria.
To make matters worse, Cyril had set up a campaign of persecution against all “heretical” scholars. After all, he was abiding by the law conceived at the Council of Laodicea that forbade priests from becoming magicians, enchanters, mathematicians or astrologers. The holy fathers could not be infected by the heathen. The scholars, the Jews, and the pagans had no place in Alexandria. Cyril made plans to clean up his city. Hypatia, the mathematician, the woman who challenged every rule of “decency and decorum” stood between the church and its goals. According to Gibbon it was the Catholics who shrouded the world in the black night of ignorance. As Christianity gained power it kept extending its tendrils over the known world to destroy anything that would stand in its way. Soon the Dark Ages would take hold of Christian-dominated Europe where only the monks would know how to read and write. Everyone else was forbidden to learn. Through fear and ignorance the whole of humanity would become the pawns of the clergy. As the Roman Empire kept falling to pieces, ever-growing turmoil became part of the daily lives of the Alexandrians. The citizens fought among themselves defending their “God-given” creeds. Pagans, Jews and Christians, who up until then had been getting along, began an endless religious war that still lives on in parts of the modern Middle East.
Although Hypatia kept away from the constant disputes she could not help but be a target. Word about her wisdom had reached the far ends of the Roman world. She was the celebrated Hypatia of Alexandria. Heads of state would visit her from all four corners of the empire to seek her advice. Letters addressed to “The Philosopher” would reach her, asking for her opinion on important matters. Orestes, the Roman governor of Alexandria and converted Christian, was among her friends and followers. This influential woman became a threat to Christianity. What follows is a series of events that would inexorably mark her fate.
It all started one evening when a group of Jews were celebrating the Sabbath with music and dancing. To the somber Christians this merriment was considered sinful, so without any regard for the rights of others, and because of sheer hatred, they burst into the theater where the festivities were taking place and saluted the celebrants with a volley of stones. Indignant, the Jews ran to Orestes, who preferred to remain neutral so as not to stir any more hostilities. Convinced that their complaint had been ignored by the authorities, the Jews decided to take matters into their own hands. One night they lured a group of Christians into an enclosed area, locked them in, and stoned them to death. Cyril, who had been planning for a long time to rid Alexandria of Jews and other heathen finally found a golden opportunity to do so. He sent his troops to massacre every Jew they came upon, women and children included. They ransacked and destroyed their homes and houses of prayer. Then they banished the remaining Jews from the city. This time Orestes became outraged. Jews had been protected by the Julian law which gave them the right to live and work in Alexandria, and yet, without any laws to support him, without any mandate from the empire, Cyril had obliterated a large and prosperous group of citizens, an act that would impoverish the city of Alexandria. Orestes was furious. He openly criticized Cyril and his cronies for their criminal acts, but the Christian emperor, Theodosius II, out of superstitious fear, was turning a blind eye. After all, how dare you question the actions of a holy patriarch even if you are the emperor?
Hearing about the accusations made by Orestes against Cyril, a mob of 500 monks angrily descended from the mountains of Nitria, and decided to teach the governor a lesson. They would defend their beloved Cyril who, before his ascension to patriarch, had been a Nitrian monk himself. The leader of this boorish sect of zealots was a loud and obstinate extremist named Ammonius, who worshipped Cyril beyond reason. They mobbed Orestes as he drove through the streets and, ignoring the governor’s protests that he was as Christian as they were, attacked him with such fury that Orestes ended up hurt and bleeding. They would have killed him had it not been for the citizens of Alexandria who rushed to Orestes’ rescue while his own guards were fleeing from the mob. For this attack Ammonius paid dearly as he was apprehended and tortured to death by Orestes. Later, Cyril would try unsuccessfully to secure a place in heaven for this violent oaf by proclaiming him a saint and a martyr. A question comes to mind. How many murderers sit in the hall of the sainted?
The conflicts between Cyril and Orestes kept escalating. Cyril, who intended to take over Alexandria, knew this feud was an inconvenience to his political future and, on several occasions, had the nerve to attempt a reconciliation, but it was to no avail. The governor was firmly at war with the bishop while he kept a close friendship with Hypatia. Cyril began to believe that Hypatia’s good advice was preventing him from winning over Orestes. Soon the smear campaign would begin to poison anyone who would listen. From the pulpit he would criticize her and call her a sorcereress, a soothsayer and a black magician. Eventually a vicious rumor spread among Christians that Hypatia was the reason why Orestes and Cyril could not reconcile. She had to be eliminated.
On March AD 415, as Hypatia was driving herself home from a lecture, a mob of monks, led by a minor ecclesiastic, Peter the lector, believed by some to be Cyril’s personal servant, fiercely came upon this fragile 60-year-old woman and tore her from her chariot, stripped her naked, dragged her to the nearby church of Caesarium and, while she was still alive, proceeded to tear off her flesh with shards of shell pottery, then cut her body into pieces, carried triumphantly her tattered corpse to Cinaron and there set it on fire. But complete obliteration of this remarkable woman did not assuage the rage of the holy fathers. After having silenced the Philosopher’s voice forever, her murderers, with the sanction of the Christian emperor, proceeded systematically to destroy the Great Library and her literary corpus housed in it. Only the titles survive. In spite of the church’s best efforts to rid the world of Hypatia and her work, the seed was planted. Books by rational Greek thinkers such as Euclid’s The Elements, Ptolemy’s Almagest and Diophantus’ Arithmetica have come down to us as a product of Hypatia’s influence. It seems that copies of Hypatia’s hand-written notes on these masterpieces surfaced during the late Middle Ages. Such works as these brought about the Renaissance. The re-birth not only of rational thought, art, philosophy, and the sciences but also of Hypatia herself.
Writers, painters, scientists, philosophers and even her enemies have mentioned her name and told her story to humanity. Such great thinkers as Voltaire, Edward Gibbon, and Carl Sagan have included her in their writings. Here and there within the pages of history, literature and science we find Hypatia. We even learn of Hypatia from the church fathers themselves who continued their relentless smear campaign. In the 7th century, the Egyptian Coptic bishop John of Nikkiu demonizes the Philosopher in his opus The Chronicle, referring to her as “a Hellenistic pagan who was devoted at all times to magic, astrolabes and instruments of music, and who beguiled many people through her Satanic wiles.”
The world of art shares with us its own brush-strokes of Hypatia. Raphael depicted her in his masterpiece “The School of Athens” much to the displeasure of the clergy, who demanded to exclude such an enemy of the church from the painting. Although at first the priests had to be appeased, Raphael eventually found a way for Hypatia’s image to stand again among those of her fellow scholars, assuring the priests it was merely a self-portrait.
As much as they feared and loathed her, the ecclesiastics secretly envied this woman of letters and could not bear the fact that such a gem was not a Christian, so they created their own version of Hypatia and thus the legend of Saint Catherine of Alexandria was born. There are many parallels between these two women, they were both brilliant, educated, firm in their beliefs and martyred because of those beliefs, and they both lived around the same time in history. However, the only problem is that there was no proof that Saint Catherine ever existed, so the church fathers had to backtrack and expel this fictitious creature from the halls of the sainted. In the end Hypatia would forever remain a secular advocate of rational thinking in spite of the Catholic Church’s foolish efforts to disguise her as a Christian.
Cyril’s sainthood is just as fictitious. The heinous acts committed under his authority count as crimes against humanity, and no sort of reason, justification or exoneration can change the fact that he murdered, in a very unsaintly way, a woman of peace and wisdom. But hard as he tried to sweep away all hindrances to his brand of religion, the machinery of Christianity could silence the Philosopher’s voice for only a while. Humanity finally heard it among the ruins and raised it high above the chaos created by twisted ideologies. Hypatia has a voice once again.
“All formal dogmatic religions are fallacious and must never be accepted
by self-respecting persons as final. Reserve your right to think,
for even to think wrongly is better than not to think at all.”