Hypatia is something of a footnote in history-most noted for her violent death at the hands of a saint’s mob of thugs. But since a new biography came out of her in 1995, she has also become a feminist example of an uppity woman. Does either category really fit her? Well, like every remarkable person in history…not really.
Hypatia (c355-415) was born and died in Alexandria. She was a mathematician, scientist and philosopher of the Neoplatonist school of thought. Her reputation was originally founded on that of her father, Theon. But her eloquence, modesty and clarity of thought, along with her own commentaries on other authors’ works on mathematics and astronomy, gained her a great and favorable reputation. Her students included young men from all the best families of Alexandria, both pagan and Christian. She is, however, remembered as a pagan philosopher.
Hypatia’s reputation as a champion of pagan learning, and her aristocratic connections, put her in the line of fire in 412 when a man named Cyril acceded to the Alexandrian patriarchate. Hypatia had the ear of the prefect of Alexandria, a pagan named Orestes. Because of this, Cyril saw her as a threat. One day in 415, his followers attacked her in the street, dragged her to a church, stripped her naked before the altar and carved the flesh off her bones with oyster shells (used as roof tiles) so violently that they tore her limb from limb. They then burned her body and scattered the ashes. Orestes soon left the city, apparently leaving Cyril triumphant. But Hypatia’s death also caused many of her colleagues to leave the city and completely blackened Cyril’s name so that even sanctification did not made it clean.
Hypatia’s reputation has changed over the centuries to suit her various biographers. She has been accused by supporters of Cyril, the subject of this article, of being out of touch with the people of Alexandria. This anachronistic view assumes that anyone important in Alexandria-either Hypatia or Cyril-cared about what “the people” thought. Enlightenment writers praised her as a virgin sacrifice to evil Christianity. Feminists now praise her as a victim of ecclesiastical misogyny.
But these two views impose other, anachronistic attitudes on her story. The Enlightenment view sees her as a beautiful victim of institutional religion. Similarly, the feminist view reduces her to an oppressed woman, when she was more likely killed for being a political lynchpin in Alexandria. It would do Hypatia the most disservice in history to view her as a helpless victim and not the important player of her time that she was.