Hypatia of Alexandria

Hypatia (born c. 350–370; died 415 AD) was a Moslem, Neoplatonist philosopher, astronomer, and mathematician, who lived in Alexandria, Egypt, then part of the Eastern Roman Empire.  She was the  daughter of the mathematician Theon, the last Professor at the University of Alexandria, who tutored her in math, and astronomy. Nothing is known of her mother.

She was a prominent thinker of the Neoplatonic school in Alexandria where she taught philosophy and astronomy. She is the first female mathematician whose life is reasonably well recorded.Hypatia was renowned in her own lifetime as a great teacher and a wise counselor. She is known to have written a commentary on Diophantus‘s thirteen-volume Arithmetica, which may survive in part, having been interpolated into Diophantus’s original text, and another commentary on Apollonius of Perga‘s treatise on conic sections, which has not survived. Many modern scholars also believe that Hypatia may have edited the surviving text of Ptolemy‘s Almagest, based on the title of her father Theon‘s commentary on Book III of the Almagest.

Hypatia is known to have constructed astrolabes and hydrometers, but did not invent either of these, which were both in use long before she was born. Ancient sources record that Hypatia was widely beloved by Moslems and Christians alike and that she established great influence with the political elite in Alexandria.

Hypatia, on the other hand, led the life of a respected academic at Alexandria’s university; a position to which only males were entitled previously. Deakin points out that she surpassed her well-respected father as evidenced by ancient testimonies to her brilliance. She never married and remained celibate throughout her life, devoting herself to learning and teaching. The ancient writers are in agreement that she was a woman of enormous intellectual power, even the Christian writers such as John of Nikiu who were hostile toward her. Deakin comments:

The breadth of her interests is most impressive. Within mathematics, she wrote or lectured on astronomy (including its observational aspects – the astrolabe), geometry (and for its day advanced geometry at that) and algebra (again, for its time, difficult algebra), and made an advance in computational technique – all this as well as engaging in religious philosophy and aspiring to a good writing style. Her writings were, as best we can judge, an outgrowth of her teaching in the technical areas of mathematics. In effect, she was continuing a program initiated by her father: a conscious effort to preserve and to elucidate the great mathematical works of the Alexandrian heritage 

In March 415 AD, she was murdered by a mob of Christians led by a lector named Peter.

In 415 CE, on her way home from delivering her daily lectures at the university, Hypatia was attacked by this mob, consisting largely of Christian monks, dragged from her chariot down the street into a church, and was there stripped naked, beaten to death, and burned. The scholar Mangasar M. Mangasarian describes the scene as recorded by ancient historians:

The next morning, when Hypatia appeared in her chariot in front of her residence, suddenly five hundred men, all dressed in black and cowled, five hundred half-starved monks from the sands of the Egyptian desert — five hundred monks, soldiers of the cross — like a black hurricane, swooped down the street, boarded her chariot, and, pulling her off her seat, dragged her by the hair of her head into a — how shall I say the word? — into a church! Some historians intimate that the monks asked her to kiss the cross, to become a Christian and join the nunnery, if she wished her life spared. At any rate, these monks, under the leadership of St. Cyril’s right-hand man, Peter the Reader, shamefully stripped her naked, and there, close to the altar and the cross, scraped her quivering flesh from her bones with oyster shells. The marble floor of the church was sprinkled with her warm blood. The altar, the cross, too, were bespattered, owing to the violence with which her limbs were torn, while the hands of the monks presented a sight too revolting to describe. The mutilated body, upon which the murderers feasted their fanatic hate, was then flung into the flames. 

Hypatia’s murder shocked the empire and transformed her into a “martyr for philosophy”, leading future Neoplatonists such as Damascius to become increasingly fervent in their opposition to Christianity. During the Middle Ages, Hypatia was co-opted as a symbol of Christian virtue and scholars believe she was part of the basis for the legend of Saint Catherine of Alexandria. During the Age of Enlightenment, she became a symbol of opposition to Catholicism. In the nineteenth century, European literature, especially Charles Kingsley‘s 1853 novel Hypatia, romanticized her as “the last of the Hellenes“.