Hypatia, Scholar and Teacher of Ancient Alexandria

Julia Margaret Cameron via Wikimedia // Public domain
Julia Margaret Cameron via Wikimedia // Public domain / Julia Margaret Cameron via Wikimedia // Public domain

The late 4th and early 5th century philosopher and mathematician Hypatia was one of the most admired women in Alexandria, but she was also one of the most hated. She was the first known woman to both study and teach mathematics, astronomy, and philosophy, drawing students from far and wide, but she was also unabashedly pagan in a time when the city’s authority figures were Christian. In the end, her commitment to her beliefs would cost her her life.

Scholars differ on the date of Hypatia’s birth. It is thought that she was born between 350 and 370 CE in Alexandria, Egypt, which at the time was the sophisticated center of learning in the ancient world. She was the daughter of famed mathematician Theon, who wrote commentaries on works by the mathematicians Euclid and Ptolemy (his version of Euclid's Elements was the only one known until the 19th century), and who also wrote a popular treatise on the astrolabe, an instrument used to chart the position of celestial bodies.

Theon considered Hypatia his intellectual heir and tutored her in art, astronomy, literature, science, and philosophy. She taught math and philosophy at the university of Alexandria, where her father was director. She also wrote, producing several commentaries, and collaborated on more written works with her father. Sadly, none of her works survive, although some scholars believe that part of Theon’s version of Ptolemy’s Almagest was actually written by her.

Hypatia was a follower of the Neoplatonist school of thought, based partially on the teachings of the philosopher Plato. The Greek Neoplatonist philosopher Damascius described Hypatia’s work by saying: "The lady made appearances around the center of the city, expounding in public to those willing to listen on Plato or Aristotle." She is said to have been a popular teacher—and after her father died, was considered the foremost mathematician in the world.

Hypatia never married and most likely remained celibate due to her Neoplatonist beliefs. Damascius noted that she was "honest and chaste," while Socrates Scholasticus spoke of her "extraordinary dignity and virtue."

Orestes, the Roman prefect of Alexandria, admired her mind and sought her counsel. He was a Christian, but tolerant of all the faiths that co-existed in Alexandria, and he worked to form bonds between them. This tolerant attitude would place him in direct conflict with Cyril, the city’s new archbishop, and ultimately lead to Hypatia’s death.

Archbishop Cyril was not as tolerant of other faiths. When he became archbishop in 412, he closed and plundered churches belonging to another Christian sect. After a massacre of Christians by Jewish extremists, Cyril expelled all Jews from the city. Orestes opposed Cyril’s actions and complained to Rome, which led to an unsuccessful assassination attempt on the prefect’s life.

He survived, but Hypatia was less fortunate.

When a rumor spread that she was causing the conflict between Orestes and Cyril, a fanatical Christian sect murdered Hypatia in a particularly gruesome way.

On a March evening in the year 415 or 416 (accounts vary), a mob blocked her chariot as she was driving home. They pulled her from the chariot, stripped her naked, and stoned her to death with roofing tiles. The frenzied mob then reportedly tore her body apart, and burned what remained of her.

Some historians considered Hypatia’s death to be a deliberate act taken by Cyril against Orestes, who refused to reconcile with him. Other historians do not hold Cyril directly responsible for Hypatia’s death, while acknowledging that he did promote the intolerance that helped turn a mob against a prominent pagan figure.

Ironically, despite the fact that she was murdered by a Christian mob at least in part because she promoted Neoplatonist ideas, some of her teachings would eventually influence Christian doctrine. One of her students, Synesius, became a Christian bishop, and some scholars say that his earlier Platonic studies influenced the church’s doctrine of the Holy Trinity.

Today, she is remembered as one of the first women known to have studied math and philosophy, and her name lives on in a scholarly journal devoted to feminism and philosophy. She is sometimes credited with the line: "Reserve your right to think, for even to think wrongly is better than not to think at all."