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Hypatia of Alexandria

June 23, 2017

 

Hypatia of Alexandria is the perfect example of how dangerous being an eloquent, educated woman in the ancient world could be.

 

Born ca. 355-370 C.E., sadly little is known about Hypatia's life. She was the daughter of Theon, a renowned Alexandrian mathematician, who taught at the Museum of Alexandria (a center of learning dedicated to the Muses, and part of the great Library of Alexandria). Guided by her father, Hypatia received a well-rounded education and soon became a renowned lecturer herself in the fields of mathematics, astronomy, and philosophy. She too went on to teach at the Museum, and despite her gender earned the respect, admiration, and loyalty of her peers and students.

 

Because of Alexandria's tumultuous history (primarily, the repeated destruction/burning of the Library), little evidence of Hypatia's work and research has survived into the present day. It is believed that she collaborated with Theon on his commentary on the astronomer Ptolemy's manual Almagest, as well as writing her own commentaries on the geometric and mathematical works Conics  and Arithmetic, respectively. It's possible that Hypatia conducted solo research on Ptolemy's astronomical theories and wrote her own commentary on Almagest, but seeing as no tangible proof of this work exists, this assertion is still disputed by historians.

 

Unfortunately, one of the most memorable things about Hypatia of Alexandria is not her many trailblazing accomplishments, but how she died. During her lifetime, the city of Alexandria was fraught with political and religious turmoil. Christianity became legal in the Roman empire in 313 C.E., and in the decades following the Edict of Milan, favorable attitudes towards the burgeoning religion allowed Christians to begin taking a stand against "pagan" Roman officials in positions of power. One of the most evident manifestations of the tensions between these two groups occurred in 391 C.E., when, under the direction of the Christian bishop of Alexandria Theophilus, a mob of Christians looted and destroyed the Serapeum. The Serapeum was a temple to the Greco-Egyptian god Serapis, and, as part of the Library of Alexandria, is believed to have contained a portion of the Library's treasured inventory.

 

In 412 C.E. Alexandria received a new bishop, Cyril, who was even more vehemently anti-pagan than his predecessor. In his opinion, and those of many extremist Christians at the time, the academic/scientific community which had made Alexandria so renowned and respected throughout the ancient world was inherently linked to the "heretic" views of paganism, and was therefore to be viewed as opposed to the Christian faith. Hypatia, a student and teacher of Neoplatonism, fell into this category of "opposition": she placed a high value on and based her entire life around research, learning, and striving to understand as much of the world as possible through scientific study. Strike one. In addition, the Roman Prefect of Alexandria ca. 412 was a former student of Hypatia's named Orestes. Orestes and Cyril were constantly at odds, and when Cyril discovered Orestes's close connection to the philosopher, he and the other extremists began to direct their animosity towards her. In Cyril's eyes, it improper for the Prefect to be advised by and express loyalty towards a pagan scientist, especially considering the fact that his confidante was also a woman. Strike two.

 

In 415 C.E., on the way back from one of her lectures, Hypatia of Alexandria was ambushed and beaten to death by a mob of angry Christians. Another account claims that Hypatia was kidnapped and taken to a church called the Caesarium, where the mob skinned her with tiles and oyster shells and then burned her body.

 

Most of what is known about Hypatia and her martyrdom comes from the records of the lives of her contemporaries: Cyril (who was later canonized as a saint), Orestes, and her academic peers at the Museum. While we may not know much about the specific details of her life and work, it is clear that Hypatia of Alexandria was a woman of great strength and principle. She was dedicated to her work and her beliefs; she never married, choosing instead to pour all of her energy and focus into her scientific pursuits. When threatened by the wave of political and religious unrest sweeping through her home, she stood her ground, and was willing to make the ultimate sacrifice rather than turn her back on what she believed in.

 

 

 

 

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