Edward Watts looks at the life and legacy of one of the most illustrious women in the ancient world.
Julia Margaret Cameron’s photograph of Marie Spartali in the role of Hypatia.
The ancient world lasted for a long time. 1400 years elapsed between the composition of the Homeric poems and the end of late antiquity, a span of time roughly equal to all of the years that have passed since antiquity concluded. Very few of the billions of men and women who lived and died in these centuries are still remembered. Even fewer continue to excite the passions and curiosity of people in the modern world. This very select group includes antiquity’s most renowned generals, politicians, authors and thinkers. It is also overwhelmingly male, with only a few women like Cleopatra and Sappho crashing this fraternity.
The fourth and early fifth century female Alexandrian pagan philosopher Hypatia is almost unique among the members of this exclusive club. Not only is she a woman amid so many men, but she is far more famous now, more than 1600 years after her death, than she was while she lived. Indeed, Hypatia’s Q rating is among the highest of all ancient philosophers, trailing only Plato, Socrates, Aristotle, and Pythagoras in worldwide Google searches over the past two years. By the same measure, she is more recognizable than all Roman emperors save Augustus and Constantine, nearly every canonical Greek and Latin author, and even many early Christian figures. Indeed, Hypatia is so well known that she has been the subject of novels, plays, paintings, and even a recent feature film.
The reason for her enduring fame, of course, is not what Hypatia accomplished while she lived but the horrific way in which she was seized, stripped, mutilated, and killed by a Christian mob in her home city in March of 415 AD. The story of the slaughter of a female pagan philosopher by rioting Christians naturally inspires visceral reactions— but these reactions, from antiquity until now, arise less from the horror that Hypatia personally suffered than from the symbolic significance of what occurred. People for centuries have been repelled by this act of violence not because of what they know of Hypatia the person but because of how they have been conditioned to respond to violence directed against the social and cultural categories in which they place Hypatia. She was a philosopher and, since the Enlightenment, many in the West have been taught to think positively about philosophers. She was a woman in a world filled with misogyny and we are horrified that this long ago incident of violence against an important woman seems so eerily similar to violent incidents that courageous women still endure around the world. These are understandable reactions to Hypatia’s murder, but Hypatia herself is lost when we react this way. Hypatia becomes a name attached to a broken vessel that we imagine once contained our own positive ideas about rationality and gender equality.
Charles William Mitchell’s lubricious portrait of Hypatia shows one aspect of the legend which this great intellectual became.
Hypatia was, however, a woman before she became a symbol. She was born in the city of Alexandria in the mid-350s, the child of Theon of Alexandria, the empire’s leading mathematician. Seeing her immense intellectual potential, Theon trained his daughter in mathematics and philosophy. This was by no means unusual. The female children of Alexandrian intellectuals were usually well educated, but Hypatia’s exceptional talents earned her unique opportunities. Although she mastered complicated mathematics quickly, she soon came to see in philosophy a set of ideas that led to a higher truth than mathematics. Hypatia’s achievements as a mathematician and her visionary philosophical program so impressed her father that he decided to retire early and hand over the leadership of Alexandria’s most important school to his daughter. Hypatia then became the first woman to hold such a prominent position in the city’s intellectual life.
Hypatia’s school combined the mathematical rigor of the Alexandrian tradition with a Neoplatonic curriculum based on the ideas of Plotinus and Porphyry. In her school, Alexandrian mathematics supported philosophical teaching and philosophical practice. But the philosophy that Hypatia taught was both properly Platonic and religiously nondenominational. The Platonic pursuit of the knowledge of a supreme God could, in Hypatia’s school, lead a student either towards veneration of the Platonic One or the Christian Trinity.
The philosophical revolution that Hypatia led was particularly timely given the rapid evolution of her home city during her lifetime. The Alexandria in which she was born and the city in which she died were dramatically different places. Hypatia was born in a majority pagan city that contained the magnificent Serapeum and Caesareum temple complexes as well as thousands of other temples and shrines at which the regular practice of public pagan rituals occurred. She died in a Christian-majority city that had seen the Caesareum converted into a church and the Serapeum destroyed by a Christian mob following a riot started by Alexandrian pagan teachers. The Serapeum violence also prompted an exodus of many male pagan professors who feared discrimination in their home city. Unlike these men, Hypatia remained steadfastly committed to both Alexandria and to the traditional public role played by ancient philosophers—so she filled the leadership vacuum left by the departure of her male colleagues. Hypatia met with governors and spoke with the city council. She advised her fellow citizens on public policies. And she encouraged everyone, both pagan and Christian, to behave philosophically.
Hypatia’s certainty that hers was the best way to practise philosophy attracted an energetic and religiously diverse group of students to her school during the 390s and early 400s. But the most important thing that Hypatia offered was optimism about Alexandria’s future. Her school and her public activities suggested that all Alexandrians could embrace both the religious changes unfolding in their city and the traditional role that Alexandrian intellectuals had played in shaping scientific, mathematical, and philosophical developments across the Mediterranean. She pointed towards an Alexandria that remained both the empire’s premier center of Hellenic learning and a leading Christian city.
Hypatia performed a crucial act of healing in the 390s, but a new generation came of age in the 410s that had neither experienced this earlier sectarian violence nor learned to appreciate the significance of its end. To these young Christians, reconciliation with Alexandrian pagans seemed unimportant. The pagan community in the city was shrinking, the Christian community continued to grow, and factionalism within the church mattered much more to them than finding common ground with pagans. Times had changed, but Hypatia could not. She remained a figure guided by philosophical truth—and philosophical truth does not evolve as generations pass. Hypatia could not practice the Platonism that she taught unless she continued to be involved in directing all Alexandrians, old and young, to some sort of common understanding about what sorts of conduct would make their city and their community better.
It is hardly surprising that, by 414, Hypatia had fallen dangerously out of step with the concerns of many people in her home city. In that year, a conflict exploded between the bishop Cyril of Alexandria and the Roman governor in charge of Egypt, the prefect Orestes. What began as an isolated disturbance in a theatre metastasized over the next year into a series of violent public demonstrations that, at various points, included a pogrom against Alexandrian Jews and an attempt by Christian monks to stone Orestes. Hypatia worked alongside the governor to try to calm the city. She was not an imperial official, but, to Cyril’s supporters, she nevertheless represented a hostile imperial regime working against the bishop. And, as the conflict came to seem intractable, some of Cyril’s followers decided to attack Hypatia in order to send a message to her ally Orestes that he should negotiate with the bishop. It is not at all clear that the attackers set out to kill Hypatia but, when they found her out in public without protection, the passion of the moment seized them. Hypatia ended up brutally murdered.
Hypatia remains famous to this day in large part because her murderous Christian attackers misunderstood how her killing would be perceived. They saw her as the pagan representative of an obstinate imperial governor and believed that her murder was an act of political and religious resistance. But they were nearly the only ones in the empire to think this. Most everyone else in the Roman world saw Hypatia as a representative of the proper, peaceful working of the classical world. To them, the vicious murder of a philosopher, a figure guided solely by reason, looked like the end of the social compact that had governed the Mediterranean world for much of the past eight centuries. Worse even than the Athenian execution of Socrates, the death of Hypatia symbolized a descent into lawlessness, irrationality, and mob violence. This is why, when the historian Socrates Scholasticus wrote in the 430s, he described Hypatia’s murder as an even greater catastrophe than Alaric’s sack of Rome. He felt that, if someone like Hypatia could be slaughtered in the streets, it was not at all clear what rules now governed conduct in Rome’s empire.
This effort to immediately place larger historical meaning upon the horrible murder of Hypatia made her name unforgettable, but it also obscured what sort of a person Hypatia had been while she lived. Hypatia revolutionized Alexandrian mathematics and philosophy, calmed its political waters, and offered her home city a path towards reconciliation after the bitter religious conflicts of the 390s. And she did all of this despite the fact that her gender subjected her to jokes, gossip, unwanted sexual advances, and myriad other forms of misogyny that no male philosopher ever had to endure. Hypatia the person will not replace Hypatia the symbol in our historical imagination, but her courage and contributions should nevertheless be remembered.
Professor Edward Watts teaches at the University of California, San Diego and has published widely in the field of late antiquity. Last year Oxford University Press published his Hypatia—the Life and Legend of an Ancient Philosopher (‘a book that shows that truth is stranger (and a lot more interesting) than the rose-tinted fiction which has usually enveloped the life and death of this remarkable woman.’ (Peter Brown, Princeton University).