Hypatia by Pandora Young,

Greek astronomer Hypatia contemplates the motion of celestial bodies in the gallery window by Pandora Young, 2013.

Prints available from the artist: X


The legend of Hypatia goes something like this:

Hypatia was a brilliant philosopher, astronomer, and the first known female mathematician in Western history. She lived and taught in Alexandria in the 5th century CE. She is said to have invented the astrolabe and the hydrometer, and wrote many books. She was beautiful, but spurned romance, preferring to devote her life to her studies. This young woman was violently murdered by a Christian mob for turning the young men of the city against Christianity with her public teachings on pagan science and philosophy.

This story of Hypatia’s death bears a remarkable resemblance to early accounts of Christian martyrs. The truth is more fascinating and complex.

Hypatia was born in Alexandria around 370 CE, during the joint reigns of the Emperors Gratian and Valentinian I. Her father, Theon, was a Greek mathematician and philosopher. He edited and wrote commentaries on works by Euclid and Ptolemy, and is the author of treatises on the astrolabe, optics, and astronomy. He is said to have taught at the Musaeum, or possibly the Serapeum, of Alexandria, a sort of academy and library. It’s not clear whether the Library of Alexandria was still extant at this time.

Theon raised Hypatia like a son, training her to follow his profession. It’s true that she was a beautiful woman, and apparently never married. She was a teacher of Platonic philosophy, mathematics and astronomy, and may have been the first female mathematician in Western history. However, both the astrolabe and hydrometer were invented earlier by someone else. She was the author of several commentaries on mathematics and philosophy. It also turns out there were Christians among her admiring students. One of them, Synesius, went on to become a Neoplatonist philosopher as well as a Bishop.

Alexandria was in a state of political and religious unrest in the early 5th century CE. Cyril, the Patriarch of Alexandria, had an antagonistic relationship with Orestes, the Roman governor of Egypt, who was himself a Christian. But there was also a gulf between the wealthy intellectual Christians of Alexandria, who supported Orestes, and the Christians of the lower classes, who followed Cyril. Cyril was also supported by a group of monks who lived in the desert outside the city, with whom he had spent five years in study. Adding to the tensions, Cyril aroused the hostility of the Jews of Alexandria by writing anti-Jewish diatribes which he instructed his clergy to read to their congregations. Furthermore, there seem to have been a number of people in the city who, while not blatantly flaunting the Imperial proscription against the practice of polytheism, didn’t accept Cyril’s authority because they had not accepted the Christian religion.

Matters came to a head around 415 CE, when 500 monks marched into the Alexandria and publically accused Orestes of not having been baptized. Orestes came out to speak with them, assuring them that he had indeed been baptized, and by the Archbishop of Constantinople. The monks started throwing stones, Orestes’ bodyguards fled the scene, and the governor would have been killed but for the intervention of the people of Alexandria. There were also violent altercations between Christians and Jews, which ended with Cyril seizing Jewish property in retaliation and expelling a number of Jews from the city.

Hypatia was about 45 years of age at this time. According to Synesius, she was Orestes’ friend, and wielded influence among the political leaders of the city. Of all Orestes’ supporters, she was probably targeted because she was known not to have been Christian, and she was a lone woman, without family. In other words, Cyril’s supporters had a convenient pretext, knew she had no personal protection, and they planned to act when there was no one around to rescue her. One day, a Christian mob attacked her, pulling her from her chariot, hacking her to death, and burning the pieces of her body.

The historical record is silent on the investigation of Hypatia’s murder, and apparently no one was charged with the crime. However, a year or so later, the Emperor Theodosius II issued edicts which required bishops with civil concerns appeal to the Imperial governor rather than sending ambassadors directly to the Emperor. Since at the time Alexandria was just below Rome and Constantinople in importance, one can imagine the sort of appeals from Cyril and his sympathizers which provoked these measures.

Cyril’s friends sought to sway the court of public opinion by accounts of the circumstances of Hypatia’s murder, stating she had used magic to sway the opinions of Orestes and the people of Alexandria. Meanwhile, Cyril began to target his written attacks at people in Alexandria who still refrained from becoming Christian. He went on to write Contra Julianum, a rebuttal to the Emperor Julian’s book Against the Galileans. Julian had died in 363, but Cyril’s experiences led him to believe the subject was still topical. He died in 444, and was made a saint and Doctor of the Church.

Orestes is known to have resigned his office within a few years of Hypatia’s murder, and he left Alexandria for good.

Theodosius II died of natural causes in 450. As a measure of the speed with which political change can occur, a relief in the Temple of Hadrian at Ephesus depicts his grandfather, grandmother and father standing in the company of the goddesses Artemis and Athena.

Major Sources for this Article:

Wessel, Susan. Cyril
of Alexandria and the Nestorian Controversy: The Making of a Saint and of a
(Oxford, England: Oxford
University Press,  2004), Google Books. Web. 10 May 2016.

Wilken, Robert, Cyril
of Alexandria’s Contra Julianum
in Robert Austin Markus, William E.
Klingshirn, and Mark Vessey, eds., The Limits of Ancient Christianity: Essays
on Late Antique Thought and Culture in Honor of R.A. Markus
. (Ann Arbor,
Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 1999), pp 42-56. Google  Books. Web. 10 May


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