stars of the game: hypatia was a greek philosopher, astronomer and “mother of mathematics…”


Hypatia (born c. AD 350 – 370; died 415) was a Greek Alexandrine Neoplatonist philosopher in Egypt who was one of the earliest mothers of mathematics. As head of the Platonist school at Alexandria, she also taught philosophy and astronomy.

As a Neoplatonist philosopher, she belonged to the mathematic tradition of the Academy of Athens, as represented by Eudoxus of Cnidus; she was of the intellectual school of the 3rd century thinker Plotinus, which encouraged logic and mathematical study in place of empirical inquiry and strongly encouraged law in place of nature.

According to the only contemporary source, Hypatia was murdered by a Christian mob after being accused of exacerbating a conflict between two prominent figures in Alexandria: the governor Orestes and the Bishop of Alexandria. Kathleen Wider proposes that the murder of Hypatia marked the end of Classical antiquity, and Stephen Greenblatt observes that her murder “effectively marked the downfall of Alexandrian intellectual life”. On the other hand, Maria Dzielska and Christian Wildberg note that Hellenistic philosophy continued to flourish in the 5th and 6th centuries, and perhaps until the age of Justinian.


The mathematician and philosopher Hypatia of Alexandria was the daughter of the mathematician Theon Alexandricus

Scene from the film Agora with Rachel Weisz & Michael Lonsdale
Scene from the film Agora with Rachel Weisz & Michael Lonsdale

(ca. 335–405). She was educated at Athens. Around AD 400, she became head of the Platonist school at Alexandria, where she imparted the knowledge of Plato and Aristotle to students, including pagans, Christians, and foreigners.

Although contemporary 5th-century sources identify Hypatia of Alexandria as a practitioner and teacher of the philosophy of Plato and Plotinus, two hundred years later, the 7th-century Egyptian Coptic bishop John of Nikiû identified her as a Hellenistic pagan and that “she was devoted at all times to magic, astrolabes and instruments of music, and she beguiled many people through her Satanic wiles”.  However, not all Christians were as hostile towards her as John of Nikiu: some Christians even used Hypatia as symbolic of Virtue.

The Byzantine Suda encyclopaedia reported that Hypatia was “the wife of Isidore the Philosopher” (apparently Isidore of Alexandria); however, Isidore of Alexandria was not born until long after Hypatia’s death, and no other philosopher of that name contemporary with Hypatia is known. The Suda also stated that “she remained a virgin” and that she rejected a suitor with her menstrual rags, saying that they demonstrated that there is “nothing beautiful” about carnal desire—an example of a Christian source using Hypatia as a symbol of Virtue.

Hypatia corresponded with former pupil Synesius of Cyrene, who was tutored by her in the philosophical school of Platonism and later became bishop of Ptolemais in AD 410, an exponent of the Christian Holy Trinity doctrine. Together with the references by the pagan philosopher Damascius, these are the extant records left by Hypatia’s pupils at the Platonist school of Alexandria. The contemporary Christian historiographer Socrates Scholasticus described her in Ecclesiastical History:

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 infrequently appeared in public in the presence of the magistrates. Neither did she feel abashed in going to an assembly of men. For all men on account of her extraordinary dignity and virtue admired her the more


Two widely cited but divergent texts describe the feud between Orestes, the prefect (or Governor) of Alexandria and Cyril, the Bishop of Alexandria. The feud and the city-wide anger it provoked ultimately brought about the death of Hypatia.

One source, the Historia Ecclesiastica (or “Ecclesiastical History”), was written by Socrates Scholasticus (who was himself a Christian), some time shortly after Hypatia’s death in AD 415. Scholasticus gives the more complete, less biased account of the feud between Orestes and Cyril and of the role Hypatia played in the feud that resulted in her death.


The other source, The Chronicle, written by John of Nikiu in Egypt around 650 AD, demonizes Hypatia and Orestes directly, while validating all Christians involved in the events Nikiu describes. The Chronicle is more biased on the matter of the historical feud, omitting several points of the narrative that are included in Scholasticus’s account.


Ecclesiastical History, Socrates Scholasticus

Orestes, the Roman governor of Alexandria, and Cyril, the Bishop of Alexandria, found themselves in a bitter feud in which Hypatia became one of the main points of contention. In 415 AD the feud began over Jewish dancing exhibitions in Alexandria. Since these exhibitions attracted large crowds and were commonly prone to civil disorder of varying degrees, Orestes published an edict that outlined new regulations for such gatherings and posted it in the city’s theater. Soon after, crowds gathered to read the edict, which angered Christians as well as Jews. At one such gathering, Hierax, a Christian and devout follower of Cyril, read the edict and applauded the new regulations. Many people felt Hierax was attempting to incite the crowd into sedition. Orestes reacted swiftly and violently out of what Scholasticus suspected was “jealousy [of] the growing power of the bishops…[which] encroached on the jurisdiction of the authorities.” He ordered Hierax seized and publicly tortured in the theater.

Hearing of this, Cyril threatened the Jews of Alexandria with “the utmost severities” if harassment of Christians was not ceased at once. In response to Cyril’s threat, the Jews of Alexandria grew only more furious, eventually resorting to violence against the Christians. They plotted to flush the Christians out at night by running through the streets, claiming that the Church of Alexander was on fire. When the Christians responded to what they were led to believe was the burning down of their church, “the Jews immediately fell upon and slew them,” using rings to recognize one another in the dark, while killing everyone else in sight. When the morning came, the Jews of Alexandria could not hide their guilt, and Cyril, along with many of his followers, took to the city’s synagogues in search of the perpetrators of the night’s massacre.

After Cyril rounded up all of the Jews in Alexandria, he ordered them stripped of all their possessions, banished them from Alexandria, and allowed the other citizens to pillage the goods they left behind. With Cyril’s banishment of the Jews, “Orestes […] was filled with great indignation at these transactions, and was excessively grieved that a city of such magnitude should have been suddenly bereft of so large a portion of its population.” Because of this, the feud between Cyril and Orestes intensified, and both men wrote to the emperor regarding the situation. Eventually, Cyril attempted to reach out to Orestes through several peace overtures, including attempted mediation and, when that failed, showed him the Gospels.[clarification needed] Nevertheless, Orestes remained unmoved by such gestures.

Meanwhile, approximately 500 monks who resided in the mountains of Nitria, and who were “of a very fiery disposition,” heard of the ongoing feud between the Governor and Bishop, and descended into Alexandria, armed and prepared to fight alongside Cyril. Upon their arrival in Alexandria, the monks intercepted Orestes’ chariot in town and proceeded to bombard and harass him, calling him a pagan idolater. In response to such allegations, Orestes countered that he was actually a Christian and had even been baptized by Atticus, the Bishop of Constantinople. The monks paid little attention to Orestes’ claims of Christianity, and one of the monks, Ammonius, struck Orestes in the head with a rock, which made him bleed profusely. At this point, Orestes’ guards fled in fear. However, a nearby crowd of Alexandrians came to his aid. Ammonius was subsequently secured and ordered to be tortured for his actions. He died of the torture.

Following the death of Ammonius, Cyril ordered that he henceforth be remembered as a martyr. Such a proclamation did not sit well with “sober-minded” Christians, as Scholasticus pointed out, seeing that he “suffered the punishment due to his rashness…[not because] he would not deny Christ.” This fact, according to Scholasticus, became apparent to Cyril through general lack of enthusiasm for Ammonius’s case for martyrdom.

Scholasticus then introduces Hypatia, the female philosopher of Alexandria and the woman who would become a target of the Christian anger that was inflamed during the feud. Daughter of Theon, and a teacher trained in the philosophical schools of Plato and Plotinus, she was admired by most for her dignity and virtue. Of the anger she provoked among Christians, Scholasticus writes, Hypatia ultimately fell “victim to the political jealousy which at the time prevailed.” Orestes was known to seek her counsel, and a rumor spread among the Christian community of Alexandria blaming her for Orestes’ unwillingness to reconcile with Cyril. A mob of Christians gathered, led by a reader (i.e., a minor cleric) named Peter, whom Scholasticus calls a fanatic. They kidnapped Hypatia on her way home and took her to the “Church called Caesareum. They then completely stripped her, and then murdered her with tiles.” Socrates Scholasticus was hence interpreted as saying that, while she was still alive, Hypatia’s flesh was torn off using oyster shells (tiles; the Greek word is ostrakois, which literally means “oystershells” but the word was also used for brick tiles on the roofs of houses and for pottery sherds). Afterward, the men proceeded to mutilate her and, finally, burn her limbs. News of Hypatia’s murder provoked great public denouncement, not only against Cyril, but against the whole Alexandrian Christian community. Scholasticus closes with a lament: “Surely nothing can be farther from the spirit of Christianity than the allowance of massacres, fights, and transactions of that sort.” read more..

source: wikipedia


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