FYI logo

Great Hypatia

by Ford Kidd 10 months ago in Historical
Report Story

Light of philosophy in Ancient Alexandria

Rachel Weisz as Hypatia. Image from

The philosopher woman is an exotic phenomenon. So it was believed at the time of Hypatia, in 300-400 AD. She grew up in the family of one of the greatest scientists in Alexandria and surpassed her father; taught mathematics, astronomy, and philosophy, was religiously tolerant, which attracted students of pagans, Jews, and Christians; acted as a trusted advisor to the city rulers and went down in history as the greatest scientist of ancient Alexandria. TED-Ed released a video lecture on Hypatia, how she was accused of sorcery and made a scientist a victim of Christian fanaticism.

The story of the philosopher still excites the minds of people of art and science. Voltaire and Charles Kingsley wrote about this incredible woman, and a lunar crater and an asteroid were named after her. In 2009, director Alejandro Amenabar shot the historical drama Agora, which tells the story of the fate of Hypatia of Alexandria. The film was criticized for historical inaccuracies, but many details from the life of this person still remain in the field of discussion.

In the city of Alexandria in 415 AD. e. the bishop and the prefect were in a state of struggle. It all started with a disagreement over the conduct of the monk militia and ended with an accusation of sorcery against one of the most powerful figures in the city. Hypatia of Alexandria was an outstanding mathematician, philosopher, advisor to the rulers of the city. Over the centuries, the details of her life have become the subject of much controversy and almost acquired mythical status.

It is generally accepted that none of Hypatia’s own writings have survived, but the stories of contemporaries and students about her work and life paint a picture of the qualities that made her a famous scientist and ultimately led to her death.

Hypatia was born in about 355 in Alexandria, then part of the Egyptian province of the Praetorian Prefecture of the East of the Roman Empire, and famous for its intellectual center.

Her father Theon of Alexandria was a Greek mathematician and astronomer; her mother was unknown. Growing up, Hypatia surpassed her father in both mathematics and philosophy, became the most prominent scientist in the city, and took his place at the head of the school of Neoplatonism Theon-Hypatia, similar to a modern university. She refined scientific tools, wrote math textbooks, and developed a more efficient method for dividing numbers. But perhaps the most significant contribution to the intellectual life of Alexandria she made thanks to her teachings.

The philosophy taught by Hypatia was based on the legacy of Plato and Aristotle, as well as the mystical philosopher Plotinus and the mathematician Pythagoras. The amalgamation of such influential ideas formed a school called Neoplatonism. For the Neoplatonists, mathematics had a spiritual aspect divided between four branches – arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music. These subjects were studied not only for the sake of curiosity or practical benefit but also because they confirmed the belief that numbers are the sacred language of the universe.

In the repetitive patterns of algebraic formulas and geometric shapes, the orbits of the planets, and the harmonic intervals of musical tones, the Neoplatonists saw a rational cosmic force in action. Students delved deeper into this ordered mathematical world in order to achieve a higher unity with the power that is called “One”.

Image from

Hypatia was considered a pagan – a traditional Roman belief before Christianity – she did not worship any particular deity or deities, and her ideas could be applied alongside several religious viewpoints. Jewish, Christian, and pagan students came from the farthest corners of the empire to study with her.

Christianity has recently become the state religion of the empire. The local Archbishop Cyril steadily increased his political power, calling on zealous Christian monks who had turned against them to destroy pagan temples and harass the Jewish population. In so doing, he encroached on the secular authority of the Roman prefect, Orestes, who was a moderate Christian, leading to bitter social enmity between them. Since Hypatia was considered a wise and impartial figure, Prefect Orestes turned to her for advice, and she recommended to act with honesty and restraint. But when a group of monks provoked a riot, severely wounding Orestes, he tortured their leader to death. Cyril of Alexandria and his followers blamed Hypatia, claiming that she practiced witchcraft to turn Orestes against Christianity. In March 415, the revolted monks of the archbishop seized Hypatia on the streets of the city and brutally killed, dismembering the body.

The death of Hypatia marked a turning point in the politics of Alexandria. After her assassination, other philosophers in the Greek and Roman tradition fled and the city’s role as an educational center diminished. Indeed, the inquisitive, bright, and impartial spirit which she promoted died with Hypatia.


About the author

Ford Kidd

Reader insights

Be the first to share your insights about this piece.

How does it work?

Add your insights


There are no comments for this story

Be the first to respond and start the conversation.

Sign in to comment

    Find us on social media

    Miscellaneous links

    • Explore
    • Contact
    • Privacy Policy
    • Terms of Use
    • Support

    © 2022 Creatd, Inc. All Rights Reserved.