Hypatia: Rebellious Thinker

⚠️TW: Violence/torture, death/murder

Let’s finish this week of informative articles with a little time traveling. We travel back to the 4th century AD and visit Hypatia of Alexandria. 📝

As this woman might not be familiar to everyone, we want to introduce her as the strong woman she was. Like most of the women in our timeline, she was someone who bent the rules and went against the trend of her time. As philosopher, astronomer and mathematician she not only provided education but used her influence in other ways. 📚🌌

To get an idea who she was, read the full article here!

Hypatia | *ca. 350-370 | † March 451 | Egypt | Philosopher, Astronomer, Mathematician

Hypatia of Alexandria might not immediately ring a bell in your mind when it comes to famous or important women. This might be because she lived so long ago, from approximately 350-370 until 415. But the reason for forgetting her in history might as well be the fact that she is mostly presented as an innocent victim of the growing predominance of Christianity. Hypatia was not a completely innocent victim as most people believe her to be: she knew what she was doing and that, unfortunately, got her killed.

Although there is not that much information that has survived about her life, it is known that she grew up with her father, Theon, being an important and well-known scholar in Alexandria. Theon was mostly a mathematician and astrologer who was interested in pagan religious literature and Greek practices of divination, as well as Greek mathematicians. Hypatia grew up learning from her father and assisting him in his work. She corrected and/or prepared Theon’s texts Almagest and a new edition of Ptolemy’s Handy Tables. Some researchers even think Hypatia’s commentary on the mathematician Diophantus can be found in texts copied or published in later times.

After her father’s death, which probably happened in the early years of the fifth century, she continued her father’s work and she also became a lecturer for her own students, not only in mathematics but also in (Neo-Platonist) philosophy. A lot of her students were highborn and held important positions in and outside of Alexandria, on which she had considerable (political) influence. This circle of students emerged from around 380 and existed until her death.

Because of her connections with people in high positions, in both imperial and religious structures, she was able to practice her teaching and convey her pagan thoughts, even though there was a campaign from the Christian bishop Theophilus against pagans. Hypatia had a good connection with the bishop and was therefore able to still believe in the Greek gods.

It was after the bishop Theophilus died in 414, that trouble started for Hypatia. A conflict arose over who might become Theophilus’ successor. The eventual winner of this conflict, Cyril, was not satisfied with only the religious power, and tried to extend his powers to imperial matters as well. Hypatia and a student of hers, Orestes, a prefect of Alexandria, did not like this. Bishops should not extend their power to imperial matters, was her conviction, other people in imperial positions should hold that power according to Hypatia. She supported Orestes in forming a political party, with which he also received support from leaders of the Jewish community. From this viewpoint, Hypatia can also be seen as a supporter of the Jewish community and their resistance against the Christian predominance and pogroms.

Cyril was not happy with these developments, and also noticed the influence of Hypatia on other officials both in- and outside of Alexandria. He began to see her as a threat for his reign, along with Orestes. Hypatia could have been on good terms with the city’s elite, she was not very popular among the common people of Alexandria. Cyril used this against her, by launching a propaganda campaign against Hypatia, in which she was depicted as a witch who made use of black magic. The people in the city were afraid of black magic and people thought she tried to convert Christians into pagans. The accusation of black magic was based off of, mostly, her father’s writings about astrology, magic and the interpretations of dreams.

One day, when Hypatia came home in her chariot, a group of people led by a man named Peter, dragged her out of the chariot into the church Caesarion. They stripped her from her clothes, and killed her with bits of pottery. In other versions of her death, her body (alive or not) was dragged through the city’s streets. After this horrible death they burned her body on a pyre of sticks in a place called Kinaron. The people who killed her were probably somehow involved with Cyril and were never punished for Hypatia’s murder.
Hypatia was not just an innocent victim, she was an active politician standing up for the non-Christian groups in Alexandria during her lifetime. She was killed because she was so influential and powerful that a man with a high religious position, bishop Cyril, saw her as a threat for his power.

In later times, when a girl or woman in Byzantine was known for their love and knowledge of science and philosophy, she would be referred to by the name Hypatia. Because of this custom the name of Hypatia is passed on throughout history and will not be forgotten.


Author: Veerle Klaassen
Image: Jules Maurice Gaspard


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