The Death of Hypatia

How a philosopher’s death became a symbol of the struggle for women’s rights.

The Death of Hypatia
Illustration by Savitri Jeppu

How a philosopher’s death became a symbol of the struggle for women’s rights.

Around A.D. 415 or 416, in the streets of Alexandria, Egypt, a group of Christian zealots attacked a woman who was traveling home in her chariot before they dragged her by force to a church, where they killed her. This coincided with a time period of a power struggle in Egypt, leading to much debate and speculation of why she was killed. Was her death linked to those locked in the power struggle? If so, how was she linked to it?

This gruesome event also inspired many people, and the woman became a symbol of feminism and the struggle for women’s rights up until the 20th century. So, who was this woman, and why was she killed?

She was Hypatia. Hypatia was one of the last philosophers in Alexandria and one of several prominent intellectual figures of that time who had mastered a wide range of disciplines, from mathematics to astronomy to philosophy. Although she is best known for her tragic death story, her life is also one that has deeply inspired many.

Hypatia’s father, Theon, was an accomplished librarian and mathematician of his time. He edited and wrote commentaries on the works of Euclid and Ptolemy. Despite this, we know little about his family life. Even the date of birth of his daughter is still debated, with some arguing that she was born in 370, while other historians believe that she was born in 350. Nobody knows.

As a mathematician as well as a librarian, Theon imparted a lot of knowledge to his daughter, especially relating to mathematics and astronomy. That is what shaped the figure of this intelligent woman in the future. Although Hypatia is described as a universal genius, no evidence has been found that she published any independent works on philosophy or made any mathematical discoveries.

In 48 BC, Julius Caesar’s soldiers set fire to some Egyptian ships in the Alexandrian port to block Ptolemy XIV’s fleet. The fire spread to the parts closest to the dock, and just so happened to burn down a major part of the library of Alexandria, and in 272 AD, when the Roman emperor Aurelian waged war to recapture Alexandria, his army destroyed the Broucheion quarter of the city, where the main library was located. The library of Alexandria was no more.

The destruction of the Library of Alexandria meant the scholars of that time had to prioritize preserving and commenting on classical mathematical works rather than publishing original work, and Hypatia and Theon were no exceptions to the case, with the two of them working together to revise old textbooks of geometry, astronomy and algebra.

Aside from this, she and Theon were also the head of a school called the “Mouseion”, named after a prior school which included the Library of Alexandria. Together, they took pride in teaching Neoplatonism as formulated by Plotinus. Hypatia never married, most likely inspired by Plato's idea of abolishing the family system. The then archbishop Theophilus recognised that Hypatia was a role model to the people of Alexandria and tolerated her school, even encouraging two of her students to become bishops under his authority. He also seemed to consider her an ally and did not object to the close ties Hypatia established with the Roman prefects, though her closeness to one of them would end up being the nail in her coffin.

In 412, Theophilus died suddenly. He was soon succeeded by his nephew Cyril, even though Theopilus had not appointed him officially. This of course created an internal conflict within the church at that time between Cyril's supporters and his rival, Timothy. However, Cyril managed to win and punish those who supported Timothy, such as by closing the Noviantis Christian churches which were staunch supporters of Timothy.

In 414, Cyril also closed all the Jewish synagogues in Alexandria, confiscated all of the Jewish properties and  expelled them all from the city. Orestes was angry when he saw Cyril's childish attitude as a religious leader, which he considered as not setting a good example. What Cyril did damaged the harmony of religious life in Alexandria which had long existed, and though Orestes was a Christian he disagreed with and did not recognize Cyril's leadership, which he considered unstable.

The conflict between the two leaders started heating up, and Cyril devised a plan to kill Orestes. However, the group of men assigned to kill Orestes failed to carry out their task, and Orestes ordered that Amonios ,the monk who was considered the mastermind behind his murder plan, be tortured to death in public as punishment.

Orestes often asked Hypatia for advice because she was known as a wise figure, liked by both pagans and Christians because of her moderation. And although Hypatia was a pagan, she had many Christian students, including Synesius who would later become Bishop of Ptolemais. When Cyril learned that Orestes was close to Hypatia, she became his next target. To him, Hypatia was an easy target, and he also had many reasons to kill her—after all, Hypatia was a pagan follower of Neo-Platonic philosophy, and he believed that society, which was predominantly Christian, would definitely side with him.

Cyril and his allies first tried to damage Hypatia's good name, in order to dim the people's trust and sympathy for her. Rumors were made that Hypatia was an anarchistic and provocative woman, and spread her devil worship was the cause of the heated conflict between the church and the government. Finally, in March 415, a group of Christians led by a lecturer named Petros attacked Hypatia's chariot when she was on her way home. They dragged Hypatia into a building that had once been a pagan temple before being converted into a church, where they killed her.

Many say that Hypatia's murder was purely political and had nothing to do with religion, but her tragic fate rocked the empire. Many of the later Neoplatonic philosophers, such as Damascius,  became increasingly aggressive in criticizing and attacking Christianity. Even Voltaire used Hypatia's death as an excuse to condemn the church and religion. This was a real shock, because while she was alive she hoped that neoplatonism and Christianity could coexist peacefully.

The story of Hypatia's death, then, inspired many people. Until the 20th century, Hypatia was used as a symbol of feminism and the struggle for equality for women's rights. In the late 20th century, many depictions emerged linking Hypatia's death to the destruction of the library in Alexandria, despite the fact that the library had been destroyed while the philosopher was still alive. What is clear, though, is that Hypatia was a victim of religious fanaticism, politics, and sectarian conflict in Alexandria.

Although Hypatia is well-known for her gruesome death, it is also important to acknowledge that she lived a very productive life. Without her work, we wouldn’t know of the teachings from the past, or of the lost content of the Library of Alexandria. She also was the first female mathematician with a good record of her life. Her heroism and courage have also been commemorated by Spanish director Alejandro Amenábar in his 2009 film “Agora”, and her legacy still lives on today even in space, with a planet being named after her.