Friday, January 11, 2008

The life and death of Hypatia of Alexandria


When we think of the ancient world generally we think of it as a 'Man's World'. Even much more so than the modern world in which we live now.

Women were generally not the equal of men in any sense. Historians will disagree if this was always the case but it seems clear that in the western world especially during the tumultuous centuries of the early first millennium it was.

Hypatia was a notable exception. She was born sometime in the mid fourth century CE. She was a mathmetician, philosopher and astronomer who lived in Alexandria. By all accounts she was a pagan living in the time when Christianity was in its ascendancy. Hypatia is hailed as a "valiant defender of science against religion"[1].

Her accomplisments are many:

* A commentary on the 13-volume Arithmetica by Diophantus.

* Edited the third book of her father's commentary on Ptolemy's Almagest.

* Edited her father's commentary on Euclid's Elements.

* Edited a commentary that simplified Apollonius's Conics.

* She wrote the text The Astronomical Canon.

* The invention of the hydrometer.

These are some distinguished accomplishments for a woman of the ancient world!

Why does the average person know nothing of this woman?

Well that probably has to do with the nature of her death. Hypatia was a close friend and confidant of the Roman Prefect of Alexandria, Orestes. Many in the growing Christian church blamed her for the friction between the prefect and the church patriarch Cyril. Orestes stubbornly fought against Cyril’s growing encroachment onto secular matters. Cyril blamed the pagan Hypatia for this state of affairs. Naturally, Prefect Orestes took advantage of Hypatia's support. Hypatia was widely regarded as a great moral and virtuous authority of Alexandria. Cyril greatly coveted this authority.

Sadly, in 415 CE a group of Christians leading a superstitious mob attacked Hypatia on her chariot. They dragged her from her mount, beat her, stripped the flesh from her bones using sharp tiles, hacked her body apart and burned the pieces. Orestes, without the support of Hypatia was forced to abandon Alexandra. This allowed Cyril to rise further and eventually become Bishop of Alexandria, and eventually a saint of the Roman Catholic Church.

This doleful event is seen as one of the nails in the coffin of classical civilization.

R.


1. John William Draper, as quoted in the 1996 The Literary Legend of Hypatia by Maria Dzielska

8 comments:

Anonymous said...

I wrote a paper on Nestorius, Bishop of Constantinople, and Cyril was his archenemy. Nestorius was no sweetheart but when I think of Cyril I think:

Ezekiel 36:23 I will vindicate the holiness of My great name which has been profaned among the nations, which you have profaned in their midst.

That is a very interesting story about Hypatia. Very great and very sad. There were groups of Roman Christians and Roman Pagans who blamed the Goth invasion on the other group, once again verifying the basically xenophobic, fallen nature of all. Augustine actually wrote "City of God" in response to both these groups.

Anonymous said...

previous comment attributed to jason

SirRobert said...

Impressing me yet again Jason!

I didn't know that!

R

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