Ms. Blog Countdown to 2011

December 30


We're almost at the end of our countdown, so I thought for today we could go back to the beginning--or, rather, one beginning--with a brief profile of Egyptian philosopher, mathematician and astromer Hypatia of Alexandria. Born in 370 AD, Hypatia was viciously murdered by Christian radicals in 415 AD, who persecuted her for her Pagan teachings and her passionate refusal to convert to Christianity despite growing cultural pressure and threats of violence. She was a teacher of mathematics and published a number of treatises and books in her lifetime, all of which were tragically destroyed when the Museum of Alexandria was looted a few years after her death.

The only record we have of Hypatia's work and life is from the writings of her contemporaries. The following passage comes from Socrates Scholasticus' Ecclesiastical History (cited here), written late 4th century or early 5th century AD:

Of Hypatia the Female Philosopher.

There was a woman at Alexandria named Hypatia, daughter of the philosopher Theon, who made such attainments in literature and science, as to far surpass all the philosophers of her own time. Having succeeded to the school of Plato and Plotinus, she explained the principles of philosophy to her auditors, many of whom came from a distance to receive her instructions.

On account of the self-possession and ease of manner, which she had acquired in consequence of the cultivation of her mind, she not unfrequently appeared in public in presence of the magistrates. Neither did she feel abashed in coming to an assembly of men. For all men on account of her extraordinary dignity and virtue admired her the more. Yet even she fell a victim to the political jealousy which at that time prevailed. For as she had frequent interviews with Orestes, it was calumniously reported among the Christian populace, that it was she who prevented Orestes from being reconciled to the bishop. Some of them therefore, hurried away by a fierce and bigoted zeal, whose ringleader was a reader named Peter, waylaid her returning home, and dragging her from her carriage, they took her to the church called Caesareum, where they completely stripped her, and then murdered her with tiles. After tearing her body in pieces, they took her mangled limbs to a place called Cinaron, and there burnt them. This affair brought not the least opprobrium, not only upon Cyril, but also upon the whole Alexandrian church. And surely nothing can be farther from the spirit of Christianity than the allowance of massacres, fights, and transactions of that sort. This happened in the month of March during Lent, in the fourth year of Cyril's episcopate, under the tenth consulate of Honorius, and the sixth of Theodosius.

For a more contemporary take on Hypatia, you'll find a trailer of the recent film Agora (2009) below; I haven't seen it, so I can't vouch for its historical accuracy, but it looks promising: