People primarily remember Hypatia of Alexandria, martyr of female intellectuals and tragic heroine, for two things: her philosophical, mathematical, and astronomical teachings and the fact that she was brutally murdered for them.
Ancient Greece laid the philosophical foundations for much of Western liberal democracy, but women by and large did not produce its influential “bricks” — that is, save for Hypatia. Beautiful, brilliant, and bold, the Greeks adored her; even the men, who should have chided her for entering their turf, bowed to her extraordinary accomplishments.
That adoration makes Hypatia’s murder — one of the most calculated and vicious murders in history — all the more perplexing, at least on the surface. Much of her life has been lost to history, but the era’s political and religious turmoil helps suggest that above all else, her pagan beliefs ultimately led to her death. And, in a sense, immortalized her.
Most historians estimate that Hypatia was born somewhere around 350 AD to the mathematician and philosopher Theon, who encouraged her education from an early age. She did not latch on to her father’s teaching, and quickly found other means to learn about whatever interested her. Outside of mathematics, she was particularly taken by astronomy and built astrolabes, tools for examining and measuring celestial bodies in the night sky.
She also established herself as a member of the Neoplatonic school of philosophy and would drape herself in the robes of the academic elite (something that only men could do at the time, though this did not deter Hypatia in the least), head into the center of the city and tell anyone who would listen her thoughts about Plato. As it turned out, a lot of people were listening, and were captivated by her interpretations — and by Hypatia herself.
People wrote far more about Hypatia after she had died, and they all describe her as being prepossessing, strikingly beautiful with an almost regal air about her. One such ancient encyclopedia described her as “Exceedingly beautiful and fair of form. . . in speech articulate and logical, in her actions prudent and public-spirited, and the rest of the city gave her suitable welcome and accorded her special respect.”
So just how did Hypatia enter male-dominated academia and not only survive, but thrive? Scholars say it may have been the result of one simple thing: celibacy.
The intellectual devoted herself to chastity. She never married and by all accounts was assumed to be a virgin up until her death. Ancient Greek society prized celibacy as a virtue, and as such men and women accepted and respected Hypatia in large part because she appeared to be almost sexless. This made her far less threatening, despite the intensity of her mind and her growing list of scholastic achievements.
Abstinence didn’t immunize her from sexual advances, however. As one story goes, a male student became so enamored with her that she feared for his apparent “lovesickness” and took desperate measures to save him from himself (and we can assume, to save her from having to endure his aggressive flirtations).
As the student yet again professed his love for her, legend has it that Hypatia lifted her skirt, yanked off her sanitary protection, and threw her menstrual-effluent rich rags at her relentless suitor. She then said something to the effect of: Your love is just lust, and you have no idea about the reality of women, so here it is. Now you ought to be cured of your obsession with me.
He was cured, and Hypatia could return to her work. Other men still kept a close eye on her, however, and their intentions were no more gentlemanly. They weren’t out to woo her, though. Nor did they desire to court her. They wanted to kill her.
A Threat To Christianity
Hypatia practiced paganism at a time when Christianity was in its infancy. Still, the burgeoning religion began to grow and as such many pagans had converted to Christianity out of fear of persecution.
Hypatia did not; rather, she continued to practice paganism and made no effort to conceal it. This defiance — though she did, for a time, receive support from the government of Alexandria — made her a target among power-lusting Christian circles. Once Christians incited violence in the city, however, this support disappeared and the government’s attempts to protect her ceased.
One of Alexandria’s most notable bishops, Cyril, led the charge to take down Hypatia. Cyril had not succeeded at directly attacking the government, so he decided to eliminate one of its most powerful assets instead.
Thus, the bishop ordered a mob of monks to kidnap Hypatia, and they proceeded to drag her through the streets as they tortured her. The monks burned Hypatia and scraped her skin off with oyster shells. They then took her to a church where they stripped her naked, beat her with tiles, and tore her limbs from her body.
Cyril justified their actions by saying that Hypatia represented idol-worship, which Christianity stood and strove against. Unfortunately for Cyril et al, by killing Hypatia, they immortalized her.
Indeed, had they left Hypatia alone, her work and name would likely have been lost to history. In death, she is as she was in life: unwilling to be silenced, ever-tenacious in her curiosity and wonder.