I’ve always been fascinated by Hypatia, a Pagan female scholar from Alexandria. In the year 415 CE, she was torn from her chariot by a fanatical Christian mob, the clothes ripped from her body, her flesh scraped from her bones with sharp abalone shells, and ‘her quivering limbs delivered to the flames’.
Hypatia was a mathematician, physicist and astronomer who worked at the Alexandrian library in a position similar to the modern equivalent of professor with chairs in both philosophy and mathematics. She was a prominent Pagan and head of the Neo-Platonist school of philosophy which sought revelation of the Divine through knowledge. She was a great beauty with many suitors, but rejected them all in favour of learning. A pupil of her father’s, the mathematician Theon, she quickly outstripped him, revising his two commentaries and writing two of her own on algebra and conic mathematics. Her pupil Cyrene described her as ‘the illustrious and God-beloved philosopher’. Synesius tells us that she was brilliant, the greatest teacher of her age.
Alexandria was cosmopolitan, and a cultural hub, with wide streets, marble palaces, central heating, gardens, museums, a medical school and several universities. It was a Pagan centre of learning based around the great library where the best minds gathered to evolve a systematic study of mathematics, physics, biology, astronomy, literature, geography and medicine. Their discoveries are still regarded as the foundation of modern learning. Books were gathered from every part of the globe, including Africa, Persia, India and Israel. Scientific research was financed and encouraged. Eratosthenes accurately calculated the size of the earth and argued that India could be reached by sailing west from Spain. Euclid produced a text book on geometry which remains in use today. People came from all over the world to trade and learn.
In Hypatia’s Alexandria, women had high status, social freedom and access to learning, while marriages were not enforced.
However, the growing Christian church was attempting to consolidate its power by eradicating Pagan culture and learning. The ideas of St Augustine and Origen were gaining ascendance; they loathed the flesh and blamed women for sin; learning, philosophy and independent thinking were associated with Paganism. Instead of allowing this learning to continue and evolve, the Christian Church deliberately condemned the western world to a thousand years of poverty and ignorance. Hypatia was the last scientist who worked at the great library. The Library was burned to the ground, its precious books destroyed by a rampaging Christian mob.
Hypatia’s influence over the Roman prefect Orestes had earned her the antipathy of Bishop Cyril who wanted to expel the city’s 40,000 Jews; she had persuaded the prefect to allow them to remain. Cyril led a mob that burned down the synagogues and the houses of the Jews, stoning any Jews they found. Orestes tried to stop the mob, but was attacked by fanatical Christian monks. Fighting back, he managed to capture one of his attackers, a monk called Ammonius, and had him executed for breaking the law. Cyril promptly declared him a martyr and spread the rumour that Hypatia was preventing a reconciliation between himself and Orestes. A brutal Christian mob tore her from her chariot and flayed her alive. Cyril was made a saint.
© Anna Franklin