Hypatia of Alexandria: The Life and Death of a Female Philosopher

Hypatia of Alexandria was a brilliant thinker who met a violent end. One of the ancient world’s most prominent female intellectuals, how did she cause such alarm?

Jun 20, 2021By Alice Bennett, MSt Late Antique and Byzantine Studies, BA Ancient History
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Hypatia Teaching in Alexandria, Robert Trewick Bone, 1790-1840, via the Yale Center for British Art; with A Portrait of Hypatia, by Jules Maurice Gaspard, 1908, Via Project Gutenberg

 

Hypatia of Alexandria was one of the ancient world’s most brilliant female philosophers. She was especially gifted at mathematics, and she taught a number of prominent dignitaries from across the Roman Empire. But Hypatia lived at a time when the Church was growing in power, and before long she was the target of a band of Christian militants. An important and prominent figure in her community, Hypatia was soon involved in a dark conflict between the ambitious Christian bishop, and the local secular authorities. The outcome would be tragedy.

 

Who Was Hypatia Of Alexandria, And What Did She Teach?

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A portrait of Hypatia, by Jules Maurice Gaspard, 1908, Via Project Gutenberg

 

Hypatia was born c.355 CE, and she lived in the thriving intellectual city of Alexandria. According to our sources, Hypatia had an unusually brilliant mind and was extremely talented at mathematics. She was raised by her father Theon, a popular mathematician and philosopher, and she initially worked with her father for many years. One of our principle sources claims that she far outstripped her father in terms of ability as she grew-up.

 

Unfortunately, as with many other writers from the ancient world, her work has mostly been lost to time, so reconstructing what she might have written is difficult. We do know that some of her work included commentaries on a number of important thinkers, including DiophantusArithmetica, the Almagest of Ptolemy, and Apollonius’ work on conical structures. Diophantus’ work in particular was very advanced, consisting of an early precursor to later Arabic algebra.

 

Hypatia’s name is also mentioned several times in connection with astronomy, including in a letter that mentions in passing that she taught one of her pupils how to design an astrolabe — an instrument used to study the heavens.

 

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An Astrolabe, 1885, Via the British Museum

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What Hypatia’s more philosophical teachings may have consisted of, we do not know, but we do know that she was part of the Neoplatonist school that dominated late ancient philosophy. This school saw the study of mathematics in particular as an important intellectual activity that could bring a person closer to the divine.

 

The Neoplatonists combined many ancient philosophies into one tradition, and they believed very strongly in an all-encompassing Godhead, the One, or first principle, which can be experienced through intense contemplation. After Hypatia died, Alexandria would gain a great reputation for its Neoplatonist philosophers, a trend Hypatia herself appears to have set in motion.

 

By the time she reached adulthood, the esteemed female philosopher was running her own school, teaching some of the best and brightest minds from across the empire. Teachers in major intellectual centers such as Alexandria often competed for students from Rome’s aristocratic elite, who frequently embarked on a philosophical education before beginning a career.

 

Hypatia of Alexandria was one of these respected and prestigious teachers; she was admired by her students, and was a popular figure in her local community, who appears to have given the occasional public lecture.

 

Ancient Female Philosophers: How Unusual Was Hypatia?

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The School of Athens, by Raphael, Via the Web Gallery of Art – Hypatia is on the left in white

 

Hypatia is probably the most famous of the female philosophers from the ancient world, because of her shocking death. But how unusual was she? While Hypatia would most definitely have stood out as a novelty, she was not the only woman who taught philosophy under the Roman Empire.

 

Hypatia was part of a long tradition passed down from classical Greece, in which certain schools of philosophy accepted female students and teachers. We have the names of some of these female philosophers from various different philosophical schools, although some traditions gave them greater credence than others. Plato in particular argued in his Republic, that if women and men could be given the same education, they could both take on similar roles in their community.

 

Plato was heavily influenced by one of his forerunners, the Greek Pre-Socratic philosopher Pythagoras. Pythagoras created a sort of philosophical commune which included both men and women, who were educated in philosophy, mathematics, and music.

 

Pythagoreanism was extremely popular for many centuries, and Pythagorean groups were common throughout the Greek and Roman world. Hypatia’s own philosophical school, Neoplatonism, combined the teachings of both Plato and Pythagoras quite comfortably, and she is one of several female philosophers we know of from within this tradition.

 

Pagans And Christians In Late Ancient Alexandria

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Pharos of Alexandria, by Robert Von Sparlart, 1804-1811, Via the Wellcome Collection

 

Unfortunately for Hypatia, she lived during the transitional period between the Classical world and the Early Middle Ages, a time when ideas about philosophy and religion were changing — and fast. Although the Roman Empire had had Christian emperors since Constantine I, during Hypatia’s lifetime, the Emperor Theodosius I would make the most concerted effort yet to stamp out non-Christian religions.

 

By 392 CE, Theodosius had promulgated a series of anti-pagan edicts, removing pagan religious festivals from the calendar, forbidding people from sacrificing in temples, or even walking through them, and disbanding the Vestal Virgins — all in a concerted effort to enforce orthodoxy.

 

Hypatia’s hometown of Alexandria was particularly badly affected by the religious conflicts that arose as a result of this crackdown. Temples were soon abandoned or turned into churches, and those afraid of the potentially demonic power of pagan imagery set about destroying statues, chipping off the hands, feet, and noses of ancient works of art across Egypt. Many pagans did not take these acts of desecration lightly, and in Alexandria, rioting soon broke out between Christians and pagans.

 

One band of particularly loyal pagans created a stronghold for themselves in the temple of Serapis, an important building in Alexandria which contained one of the city’s major libraries. But when the Emperor got word of the conflict, he ordered the pagans to abandon their position in the Serapeum, allowing a riled up Christian mob to trash the place.

 

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Hypatia Teaching in Alexandria, Robert Trewick Bone, 1790-1840, Via the Yale Center for British Art

 

In spite of the rising violence in her city, it was not obvious early in her life that Hypatia was likely to be the victim of any aggressive action. Philosophy fell into a grey area for many Christians, as it covered many topics, and it had long been the backbone of higher education for wealthy people.

 

While Hypatia was a pagan, she seems to have rubbed shoulders quite comfortably with the growing Christian elite in her city. Hypatia’s Neoplatonic philosophy was extremely popular in Late Antiquity, and while some Neoplatonists were heavily invested in pagan rituals, and even magic (theurgy), others focused entirely on an abstract form of theology that was a far-cry from traditional paganism.

 

This form of Neoplatonism had many meeting points with Christian thought. For example, Hypatia herself remained celibate throughout her life, most likely as part of her rejection of the material world, which both many Neoplatonists and Christians believed could distract humanity from connecting to the divine.

 

The ineffable all-encompassing divinity the Neoplatonists believed in could also easily be conflated with the Christian God. Neoplatonism was enormously influential on the early Christian Church, most especially through the figure of St Augustine of Hippo, who used Neoplatonic ideas to interpret Christian dogma.

 

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The Vision of St Augustine, by Fra Filippo Lippi, 1460, Via the Hermitage Museum

 

When Hypatia began teaching in the late 4th century CE, many people saw no contradiction between studying classical philosophy and being a Christian, and at least some of Hypatia’s students were Christians themselves.

 

One of Hypatia’s key pupils, Synesius, later became a bishop in nearby Ptolemais, and he would continue to write mystical texts for the rest of his life, that mixed pagan philosophy and Christian ideas quite comfortably.

 

Fortunately for historians, 156 letters written by Synesius have been preserved, and some of them were written to Hypatia herself. In his letters, Synesius makes it very clear that Hypatia and her circle of students, both pagan and Christian, remained firm friends and kept in contact with each other for the rest of their lives.

 

But while Hypatia had the ear of the elite in her city, both Pagan and Christian, an ever-growing group of religious militants would soon come to disapprove of her school, and they were about to be mobilized by a ruthless Christian Bishop.

 

The Church Militant: The Persecutions Of “Saint” Cyril Of Alexandria

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Saint Cyril and Saint Athanasius, 14th century, Via the Hermitage Museum

 

Hypatia would not feel the brunt of the religious turmoil in her city until the old bishop of Alexandria, Theophilus, died in 413 CE. He was soon replaced by a much more radical preacher, the Bishop Cyril, whose own election was mired by dirty politics and local rabble-rousing. Cyril was later made a saint and a doctor of the church, but he appears to have been an extremely unpleasant character. Upon his election, Cyril was determined to use the radical elements of his own congregation to stir up trouble and gain political power for himself.

 

Alexandria had a very large Christian population but it was also extremely cosmopolitan and the new Bishop was keen to exploit Christian prejudices to make himself more popular. He began by targeting the heretical Christian Novatians, a large unorthodox Christian sect in Alexandria, who were driven from their churches, and before long he went for an even bigger target: Alexandria’s huge and centuries-old Jewish population.

 

One of Cyril’s agents was soon accused of causing trouble among a crowd of Jewish Alexandrians, and he was summarily arrested and executed by the Roman Prefect, a man named Orestes, starting a feud between the two men.

 

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Jesus Unrolls the Book in the Synagogue, by James Tissot, 1886-1894, Via the Brooklyn Museum

 

Orestes, like many other local grandees, was a close personal friend of Hypatia, which would spell serious trouble for her later. Although Prefect Orestes tried to restore order in the city, the situation soon got out of hand. After a group of Jews violently retaliated against some local Christians, Cyril was able to drive the Jews out of Alexandria completely, with the help of an angry mob, completely subverting the power of the furious Roman Prefect.

 

Although the Orestes would write to the emperor to complain about the troublesome Bishop, he seems to have gotten no reply. Cyril’s worst and most violent supporters included radical Nitrian Monks from the Egyptian desert, and the Christian parabolani, a group that was supposed to heal the sick and help the community, but who seemed to be more interested in terrorizing the local population.

 

Orestes’ feud with the bishop did him no favors, and before long some of Cyril’s monks had actually attacked the prefect in the streets, throwing a stone at his head and accusing him of being a pagan and an idolator. The man who threw the stone, a monk named Ammonius, was later arrested and killed, leading Cyril to proclaim him a martyr. As this tense situation continued to escalate dangerously, Cyril and his mob turned their attention to Oreste’s friend, Hypatia.

 

The Murder Of Hypatia Of Alexandria

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Hypatia, by Charles William Mitchell, 1885, from the Laing Gallery, Via ArtUK

 

Hypatia’s murder was not a straightforward religious conflict, but rather it was a battle for power between rival dignitaries. Hypatia was by this point an old woman and she would have been in her 60s when she died, but nonetheless, she still appeared to be a threat in Cyril’s eyes. She was not only connected to the Prefect Orestes, but she was also personally extremely popular. One of our sources recounts that Cyril was furious to see crowds thronging to hear Hypatia speak, and he resolved to destroy her reputation.

 

In a great case of foreshadowing which would set the tone for Christian Europe’s treatment of women in the Middle Ages and beyond, Hypatia’s knowledge and influence were soon branded as witchcraft. This rumor would be repeated centuries later by one medieval chronicler:

 

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 Satanic wiles. And the governor of the city [Orestes] honoured her exceedingly; for she had beguiled him through her magic.
The Chronicle, LXXXIV.87-88, 100-103 (John of Nikiu, 7th century CE)

 

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The Magic Circle, by John Williams, 1886, Via the Tate Gallery

 

Whether Cyril started this rumor himself we cannot be sure, but before long Cyril’s supporters were whispering that Hypatia’s hold over people was the result of sorcery, and to some Christians at that time this was an extremely serious accusation.

 

For example, in the bible it says:

 

You shall not permit a sorceress to live.
— Exodus 22:18

And

A man or a woman who is a medium, or who has familiar spirits, shall surely be put to death; they shall stone them with stones. Their blood shall be upon them.
— Leviticus 20:27

 

Before long, a group of Christian militants led by a church reader named Peter, had taken it upon themselves to interpret the scriptures literally. The mob found Hypatia in the streets of Alexandria and dragged her from her chariot.

 

She was stripped naked before being beaten and stoned to death with roof tiles, in a horrific act of bloody violence, and her mangled body was later unceremoniously burned. Her atrocious death would make her a martyr to many people — both pagan and Christian.

 

Hypatia Of Alexandria In Myth And Fiction

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Print of an Actress portraying Hypatia, 1890s, Via the British Museum

 

In modern times Hypatia of Alexandria has become both a feminist icon, and anti-Christian symbol. But because of what she represents for people, much of the nuance surrounding Hypatia’s life and times has often been lost.

 

By the 18th century, her story was picked up with enthusiasm by enlightenment philosophers, such as Voltaire, who were increasingly rejecting the Christian religion. And during the 19th century, the bestselling novel, Hypatia, by the anti-Catholic Charles Kingsley, used Hypatia as a symbol of the gross misconduct of the Christian Church. In more modern examples, Hypatia has often been used as a symbol of secular reasoning.

 

By far the most famous depiction of Hypatia, comes from the 2009 blockbuster film Agora, directed by Alejandro Amenábar, and starring the brilliant Rachel Weisz.

 

The film plays with the facts of Hypatia’s life in order to create an entertaining narrative, but it does deserve credit for being both a highly enjoyable film and for depicting the late period of Roman history on the big screen, something which has very rarely been done. Nonetheless, the film’s narrative transforms Hypatia into a thoroughly modern hero that she was not.

 

At one point in the film, one of the Alexandrian council members states that they must not listen to the uppity female philosopher because “she believes in nothing.” In reality, as a Neoplatonist, Hypatia would have had deep spiritual convictions. The goal of the Neoplatonist philosophers in the late Roman period was to achieve union with God, through philosophical contemplation and intellectual endeavor. For Hypatia reason and religion were inseparable.

 

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Rachel Weisz, as Hypatia of Alexandria, Via IMBD

 

Hypatia was the victim of a growing and ugly phenomenon, a highly intolerant strain of the Christian religion that would become prominent throughout the Middle Ages; however the religious climate that Hypatia lived in was for the most part, still a complex one. Hypatia was ultimately murdered because she was a powerful person, a woman, and a thinker, who got in the way of a power-hungry person — a man willing to use a hate mob, fuelled by superstition.



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By Alice BennettMSt Late Antique and Byzantine Studies, BA Ancient HistoryAlice has a BA in Ancient History and an MSt in Late Antique and Byzantine studies from the University of Oxford. She is a contributing writer and editor and is particularly passionate about the promotion and protection of historical and archaeological knowledge. In her spare time, she can be found wandering the woods or lurking around ancient monuments, taking photographs.