The Murder of Hypatia
There are several versions of the murder of Hypatia. The fullest and the one closest to events it describes is that of the Christian writer Socrates of Constantinople. Socrates wrote his account of Hypatia’s death some twenty-five years after the event as part of his Ecclesiastical History. In it, he describes how the root cause of Hypatia’s killing lay in her relationship with Orestes, the Roman governor of Egypt. Orestes was relying upon Hypatia more and more for advice- and certain members of the Christian community did not like it.
Orestes, who was a pagan, was involved in a bitter dispute with Cyril, the Bishop of Alexandria. The Christians believed that if Cyril and Orestes reconciled, they would enjoy more influence in Alexandrian life. The trouble was, the pair remained bitterly divided-and the Christian’s believed Hypatia was responsible for the continuation of that divide. So a plot was hatched to kill her.
Socrates’ account suggests that a man named Peter the Reader was the instigator. In March 415 AD, Peter and a group of his followers accosted Hypatia as she returned home. They dragged her from her carriage and took her the Caesarion; a former ancient temple built by Cleopatra, which Alexandra’s Christians had turned, into their principal church. There, they “tore off her clothing and killed her with potsherds.” The murders then tore Hypatia’s body âlimb by limb” and either took her remains to a place in Alexandria known as Cinaron where they were burnt or else scattered them about the city.
Other accounts of Hypatia’s death, while agreeing with Socrates on the particular’s of the murder itself, disagree slightly on the instigators- and the motives. Damascius, a sixth-century pagan writer who recalls Hypatia’s death in his Life of Isidorus placed the blame for Hypatia’s demise squarely at Bishop Cyril’s door. Damascius describes how Cyril happened to be passing Hypatia’s house one day when he noticed a great crowd of people outside it. Some were leaving, while the rest were waiting for admittance. Cyril asked what all the hubbub was about and was told that the philosopher Hypatia was giving a lecture. Cyril was so upset by this visible display of Hypatia’s influence that he hurried away to plan her murder.
John of Nikiu, an Egyptian Coptic bishop writing in the seventh century AD gives a different slant to events. In his version, Hypatia is killed because she was a witch who was a danger to the city. Her science becomes magic as John describes her as“devoted at all times to magic, astrolabes, and instruments of music,” with which she “beguiled many people through Satanic wiles.” Orestes was just one person who “honored her exceedingly; for she had beguiled him through her magic.” John describes how Orestes stopped attending church and began to return to pagan ways. So according to John of Niku, by committing murder, Peter the Reader and his followers were saving Orestes- and the people of Alexandria from Hypatia’s her evil ways.