Hypatia, the much loved pagan philosopher of Alexandria, Egypt, has long been acknowledged as the symbol of the passing of the old ways and the triumph of the new. Hypatia (370-415 CE) was the daughter of Theon, the last professor of the Alexandrian University (associated closely with the famous Library of Alexandria). Theon was a brilliant mathematician who closely copied Euclid's Elements and the works of Ptolemy and, in the language of our day, home-schooled his daughter in mathematics and philosophy (Deakin in Science/Ockham). Hypatia helped her father in writing commentaries on these works and, in time, wrote her own works and lectured extensively, becoming a woman of note in a culture dominated by male writers and thinkers.
Alexandria in Hypatia's Time
Alexandria, Egypt, had long been (since its founding by Alexander the Great) a seat of learning and a place of pilgrimage for philosophers and thinkers from all over the known world. The great Library, housing over 20,000 scrolls and books, was a major attraction for intellectuals, most of whom had money. Alexandria, therefore, was a prosperous pagan city in the year 415 CE but, for the past 15 of those years, had increasingly become a divided city with Jews fighting in the streets with the new religion of Christianity and Pagans and Christians drawing their own battle lines.
Orestes and Cyril
Nowhere was the divide more clearly seen in 415 CE than between Orestes, the Pagan Prefect of Alexandria and Cyril, the Archbishop of Alexandria (who lead the Christian mobs against the Jews of Alexandria, looted their synagogues and expelled them from the city). Orestes maintained his Paganism in the face of Christianity and cultivated a close relationship with Hypatia which Cyril, perhaps, blamed for Orestes' refusal to submit to the 'true' faith and become a Christian. Tensions between the two men, and their supporters, grew increasingly high as each brushed off the other's advances of reconciliation and peace.
Magasarian said of Hypatia:
Hypatia was a remarkably gifted woman. Her example demonstrates how all difficulties yield to a strong will. Being a girl, and excluded by the conventions of the time from intellectual pursuits, she could have given many reasons why she should leave philosophy to stronger and freer minds. But she had an all-compelling passion for the life of the mind, which overcame every obstacle that interfered with her purpose.
By all accounts, Hypatia was a beautiful, chaste and brilliant woman. Even her detractors, and later defenders of Cyril, admitted she was a virtuous, wise and noble philosopher. The historian Durant calls her "the most interesting figure in the science of this age" and reports that, "She was so fond of philosophy that she would stop in the streets and explain, to any who asked, difficult points in Plato or Aristotle" (Durant, 122). This, however, is not the only view of the philosopher:
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. And he ceased attending church as had been his custom....And he not only did this, but he drew many believers to her, and he himself received the unbelievers at his house (Charles, LXXXIV. 87-88).
It did not matter that this report of magic and satanic wiles was not true, nor that Orestes was a pagan, not a Christian, nor did it matter the nobility and virtue Hypatia possessed. One day, in 415 CE, "as Hypatia was returning home, she was set upon, [by a Christian mob] torn from her carriage and dragged into a church, where she was stripped naked and battered to death with roofing tiles, 'and while she was still feebly twitching they beat her eyes out'. They then orgiastically tore her body limb from limb, took her mangled remains out from the church, and burned them" (Deakin in Science/Ockham).
Mangasarian adds, "Some historians intimate that the monks asked her to kiss the cross, to become a Christian and join the nunnery, if she wished her life spared. At any rate, these monks, under the leadership of St. Cyril's right-hand man, Peter the Reader, shamefully stripped her naked, and there, close to the altar and the cross, scraped her quivering flesh from her bones with oystershells. The marble floor of the church was sprinkled with her warm blood. The altar, the cross, too, were bespattered, owing to the violence with which her limbs were torn, while the hands of the monks presented a sight too revolting to describe."
"Pagan professors of philosophy, after the death of Hypatia, sought security in Athens, where non-Christian teaching was still relatively...free" (Durant, 123). Not only the philosophers, but all intellectuals, fled the city of Alexandria. The Temple of Serapis, according to some sources, was destroyed completely at this time (destruction of the Serapeum had been initiated and largely carried out by Cyril's uncle Theophilus some 25 years earlier) and, with it, the Great Library and University were burned with all the scrolls on the shelves (Mangasarian).
Orestes became reconciled to Cyril and converted to Christianity, thus ending the strife in the streets of Alexandria between their supporters. Cyril, himself, was never charged with the murder of Hypatia though, according to his apologist, John of Nikiu: "[After Hypatia's death] all the people surrounded the patriarch Cyril and named him 'the new Theophilus'; for he had destroyed the last remains of idolatry in the city" (Deakin in Science/Ockham). Cyril was eventually made a saint and Alexandria became an important center for the Christian faith. Borrowing a phrase from Durant, "The passage from philosophy to religion, from Plato to Christ" was complete; at least one may be sure it was so in Alexandria after the death of Hypatia.
A version of this article first appeared on the site Suite 101. C. 2009 Joshua J. Mark