Mathematician, philosopher, and all-around-badass Hypatia of Alexandria is best remembered for two things: her renowned philosophical, mathematical, and astronomical teachings and her grisly murder at the hands of a mob of angry monks in 415 A.D.
An expert overachiever, Hypatia was one of the most extraordinary women of her time. She was a leading mathematician and astronomer, a sought-after teacher, and a prolific writer, known for stopping random people in the middle of the street and engaging them in thoughtful conversations about Plato and Aristotle.
Unlike your philosophy major roommate who killed every dorm party with drunken ramblings, however, Hypatia’s pontificating was actually appreciated by the locals, and she was quite popular throughout Alexandria. Magistrates sought her out for advice, and students traveled for miles to work with her
Records tell us Hypatia was also very beautiful (we told you she was an overachiever), and a number of men professed their love to her throughout the years. Despite these advances, Hypatia was celibate and remained one of the rarest types of people of that time: a woman completely in control of her own life.
Though records of Hypatia’s early life are sketchy at best, we know she was born sometime between 350 and 370 A.D. to Theon of Alexandria, a mathematician and scholar who was the last known member of the world-renowned Library of Alexandria. Theon took a great interest in his daughter’s education and taught her himself from a young age.
Like any budding genius and irreverent daughter, however, Hypatia grew quickly bored with her father’s teachings and began exploring topics on her own. Eventually, Hypatia surpassed her father and became the leader of the Neoplatonic school in Alexandria, a first for a woman of her time.
It was during her time as a teacher that Hypatia first met Orestes. Like many young men, Orestes fell in love with Hypatia for her intelligence and beauty. Committed to her work and her celibacy, Hypatia turned down Orestes’ advances, but the two remained close. This relationship would eventually lead to Hypatia’s death.
In Hypatia’s time, Alexandria was plagued by a series of civil wars caused by the split of the Roman Empire and the subsequent struggle for power amongst the Christians, Jews, and pagans. There was near constant fighting in Alexandria, and over some pretty weird stuff, too, like the fact that the Jews were dancing and celebrating too much (seriously). Over time, the Christians in Alexandria slowly accumulated more and more power and started kicking out everyone else.
In 391 A.D., Theophilus, who was archbishop of the Christian church at the time, ordered the last remnants of the Library of Alexandria destroyed. A religious zealot, Theophilus celebrated the destruction of the world’s greatest stronghold of knowledge as a victory against heathen spirits who aimed to corrupt the common man.
Theophilus was eventually succeeded as bishop by his nephew, Cyril. Like his uncle, Cyril was a pretty hateful guy, and he continued the terrible work of eliminating people of other faiths throughout Alexandria.
Opposing Cyril’s reign of terror was Orestes (remember him?). Hypatia’s former student had risen through the ranks to become governor of Alexandria. Eventually, a power struggle broke out between Cyril, who ruled the main religious body in the city, and Orestes, who was the head of the civil government.
Orestes was a Christian himself, but he wasn’t okay with Alexandria coming totally under religious rule and, unlike Cyril, he appreciated and admired people of other faiths. The two fought for months.
Eventually, Cyril started to gain the upper hand. After Jewish extremists massacred a number of Christians, Cyril led a crowd in expelling all Jews from Alexandria and looting and destroying Jewish homes and temples. Orestes tried to protest the expulsion of the Jews from Alexandria to the Roman government in Constantinople and Cyril, in turn, tried to have Orestes assassinated.
During this time, Hypatia had been a consistent and loud pagan voice.
As a student and teacher of the Neoplatonic school, Hypatia continued to openly practice paganism and didn’t bother to hide her convictions from the growing Christian majority. At a time when many pagans had started converting to Christianity out of fear of persecution, Hypatia remained steadfast in her beliefs.
Eventually, a rumor began that Hypatia was preventing Orestes and Cyril from reconciling. Orestes had been seeking Hypatia’s advice on how to handle the conflict for some time and, as tensions grew, Hypatia was seen as an impediment to peace.
One particular mob of monks, led by Peter the Lector, latched onto this rumor.
As a private citizen, Hypatia wasn’t protected by guards like Orestes. So when the mob went searching for her, they were easily able to find and kidnap her.
The mob dragged her through the streets of Alexandria, burning her and scraping off her skin with oyster shells. They eventually took her to a church where they beat her with roofing tiles, tore off her limbs, and burned her remains.
Cyril never claimed responsibility for the attack, but he certainly didn’t denounce it either. In fact, Cyril justified the mob’s actions by saying that Hypatia represented idol-worship. Cyril’s reign of terror in the name of spreading Christianity would earn him the title of saint. Meanwhile, later Christians, like John of Nikiu, would seize on Cyril’s depiction of Hypatia and denounce her for her “satanic wiles” and her devotion to “instruments of magic.”
It was John of Nikiu’s hysterical description of Hypatia that would cause this bold, forward-thinking scholar to earn the title of the world’s first witch.
This article first appeared on museumhack.com on October 27, 2017