home | history

Hypatia: Murdered Scientist


Hypatia (imagined)

Britannica describes her as:

...the earliest female mathematician of whose life and work reasonably detailed knowledge exists.

She was the daughter of Theon of Alexandria, a mathematician and astronomer. She continued his program, which, Britannica adds, "was essentially a determined effort to preserve the Greek mathematical and astronomical heritage in extremely difficult times."

These were times when women of all classes were focused on children, nursing the sick, and preparing food. Hypatia, on the other hand, was a respected academic at Alexandria's university. She was single and said to be devoted to learning and teaching.

On 8 March 415, a mob of hostile Christians dragged from her chariot and brutally murdered her. This happened while the Roman Empire was ruled by a Christian Empire. Christians felt empowered. (Five years before, after the Goths sacked Rome, non-Christian senators were not speaking their minds because they were afraid of retaliation from Christians. In 415, the Bishop of Alexandria was Cyril, who had been accused by Emperor Theodosius II of behaving like a "proud pharaoh". The city of Alexandria had been a place of frequent violent conflict between its Pagan, Jewish, and Christian inhabitants, with Bishop Cyril trying to assert his authority.

The Prefect in Alexandria was Orestes, who is said to have enjoyed Hypatia's support — Hypatia, perhaps around sixty at the time of her death, said to have had some standing in the community.


Indeed, many students from wealthy and influential families came to Alexandria purposely to study privately with Hypatia, and many of these later attained high posts in government and the Church.

Ancient History Encyclopedia:

The primary sources, even those Christian writers who were hostile to her and claimed she was a witch, portray her as a woman who was widely known for her generosity, love of learning, and expertise in teaching in the subjects of Neo-Platonism, mathematics, science, and philosophy in general.

Some Christians in Alexandria are said to have thought that Hypatia's influence had caused the Prefect Orestes to ignore Bishop Cyril's offerings of reconciliation and from accepting the "true faith" (Christianity). Orestes would be described as having cultivated his relationship with Hypatia to strengthen a bond with Alexandria's Pagan community.

It would be said that Alexandria as a celebrated center of culture and learning was destroyed by religious intolerance, and some would associate Hypatia's murder with this destruction and the end of the classical world.

Voltaire (1694-1778) would portray Hypatia as a freethinking deistic genius murdered by Bishop Cyril's tonsured hounds.

The English Deist historian Edward Gibbon (1737-94), famous for his "Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire" would describe Hypatia's assassination as contributing to the Roman Empire's collapse.

By the 1800s, Hypatia's story would be distorted by legends, including one in which she had converted to Christianity and another that described her as a pretentious and erotic heroine.

An asteroid beyond Mars, discovered in 1884, carries her name. It orbits the sun every 1,811 days.

Copyright © 2018 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.