Hypatia, a non-Christian philosopher in Alexandria (ca. 355–415), whose murder in 415 has been viewed as a watershed moment in the religious history of the city. Daughter of the mathematician Theon, she studied mathematics and philosophy and in the 380s succeeded her father as head of his school. Teaching in the Plotinian tradition of Platonism, Hypatia attracted elite students of diverse religious affiliations, fostered loving relationships among them and between her and them, and developed connections that made her a prominent intellectual and patron in Alexandria. Such a portrait emerges especially from the correspondence of her former student Bishop Synesius of Cyrene, who addresses her as “mother, sister, teacher, and benefactor for all things” (Letters 10, 15, 16, 81, 124).
Hypatia’s murder by a Christian mob in March 415 resulted from the violent factional politics of Alexandria and has figured prominently in assessments of the character of the patriarch CYRIL I (r. 412–444). The earliest and most reliable account is that of Socrates Scholasticus, some 25 years after the events (History of the Church 7.13–15). According to Socrates, the governor Orestes resented the expansion of Cyril’s power and influence in city affairs, and estrangement between the two men increased due to Cyril’s violent conflict with Alexandria’s Jews, whom the patriarch reportedly drove from the city. As relations between the governor and the bishop worsened, partisans of Cyril questioned Orestes’s identity as a Christian. When monks from the desert of NITRIA arrived in the city to defend the patriarch, one of them, Ammonius, struck Orestes in the head with a rock; Ammonius died under torture, and Cyril provocatively and controversially proclaimed him a martyr.
Orestes regularly consulted with Hypatia, among other leading citizens, as he tried to negotiate his relationship with Cyril. Hypatia’s visible public role in Alexandrian politics was normal for philosophers of her stature, but her gender and pagan identity aroused the suspicions of Christians, who claimed that she was preventing reconciliation between Orestes and Cyril. A mob led by a lower church official named Peter confronted Hypatia in public, dragged her through the streets, murdered her in the Caesareum church, and burned her mangled body. Although he does not report that Cyril ordered the murder, Socrates remarks on the damage this event did to the reputations of the patriarch and of the Alexandrian church as a whole. For Socrates, a fundamentally political conflict between two powerful men, exacerbated by misguided religious zealotry, led to Hypatia’s death.
Later sources hold Cyril more responsible, whether they approve of the murder or not. In his Philosophical History of the early sixth century, the pagan Damascius claims that Cyril envied Hypatia’s popularity and so plotted her murder (chap. 43). In the late seventh century, JOHN OF NIKIOU casts the murder in wholly religious terms (Chronicle 84.87–103). The pagan Hypatia was a witch who used magic to beguile Orestes and stop him from attending church. Although John follows Socrates in naming Peter as the leader of the murderous mob, he portrays Hypatia’s death as the end of paganism in Alexandria and a victory for Cyril, “the new Theophilus,” who “destroyed the last remains of idolatry in the city.” These accounts are much later than Socrates’s report, but a few elements of them may be historical. Damascius preserves old pagan traditions about Hypatia’s virtue, especially her virginity, and John’s depiction of the philosopher as a witch may reflect pro-Cyril propaganda contemporaneous with the events.
With relatively meager evidence for the historical Hypatia, modern depictions of the philosopher in fiction and film have employed her story, for instance, to warn Victorian-era Christians to adhere to a more “manful Christianity” (Charles Kingsley’s Hypatia: Or, New Foes with an Old Face of 1854) and to condemn extremist Christianity for the eclipse of rational knowledge in the West (Alejandro Amenábar’s Agora of 2009). More positively, two academic journals in feminist studies are named for her.
In late ancient Alexandria, Hypatia’s death heralded a period in which Alexandrian patriarchs could threaten and deploy violent force, but it did not represent the end either of paganism or of philosophical instruction in Alexandria; especially the latter thrived at least until the Arab conquest.
- Bernard, A. 2010. “Theon of Alexandria and Hypatia.” In The Cambridge History of Philosophy in Late Antiquity, vol. 1, 417–36. Cambridge, Eng.
- Dzielska, M. 1995. Hypatia of Alexandria. Cambridge, Mass. Rist, J. M. 1965. “Hypatia.” In Phoenix 19: 214–25.
- Watts, E. J. 2017. Hypatia: The Life and Legend of an Ancient Philosopher. New York.