One of History's Greatest Minds, Hypatia, was Brutally Disposed of for being a Woman with too Much Power
One of History’s Greatest Minds, Hypatia, was Brutally Disposed of for being a Woman with too Much Power

One of History’s Greatest Minds, Hypatia, was Brutally Disposed of for being a Woman with too Much Power

Natasha sheldon - December 11, 2018

One of History’s Greatest Minds, Hypatia, was Brutally Disposed of for being a Woman with too Much Power
public domain image of Hypatia, which, unlike other portraits, depicts her Egyptian ancestry. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain

Pagan Martyr or a Victim of Circumstance.

John of Nikiu’s notion of Hypatia’s murder as an execution for witchcraft can be immediately discounted. The Coptic Bishop was writing over two hundred years after the event, and his view was colored by his preoccupations. Damascius is equally biased. As a pagan, he was too eager to discredit the established church by laying the blame for Hypatia’s death with Bishop Cyril rather than a gang of rogue Christian zealots. Both sources, however, agree on the critical elements of the murder, which they acquired from Socrates of Constantinople. Socrates’s account is, therefore, the best place to start looking for a motive for the killing.

Socrates’s states envy was the primary motive behind Hypatia’s death; specifically Christian jealousy of the influence she had over the Roman governor. In the early fifth century, Christianity was still very much in its infancy as a socially established religion. Many of its leading lights were men from modest backgrounds who had not benefitted from the classical education of the still predominantly pagan elite. This contrast between pagan and Christian intellectualism was even starker in Alexandria, home of the famous Great Library and long-established seat of learning.

So, Christians eager to acquire more influence could be forgiven from having a slight inferiority complex- and for feeling resentful of people like Hypatia who were better equipped to speak the established language of power. According to Socrates, Christian’s deemed Hypatia a danger because of “what she knew about astronomy“- a specific reference to her classical pagan education. If envy of Hypatia’s learning was the motive for her murder, then she can be seen as a pagan martyr; albeit in an intellectual rather than strictly religious sense.

One of History’s Greatest Minds, Hypatia, was Brutally Disposed of for being a Woman with too Much Power
Saint Cyril of Alexandria. Picture Credit: José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro / CC BY-SA 3.0

Hypatia’s sex might have strengthened Christian resentment for it must have been doubly irksome to see a pagan and a woman depriving Christian men of influence. Misogyny, however, is not the whole story. Late fourth and early fifth century Alexandria was a hotbed of tension. The city became famous for its sporadic violent riots as Christian’s intermittently struck out at anything that threatened their religious and political supremacy. In 386AD, a Christian mob destroyed the ancient temple to the god Serapis, the Serapaeum. The University of Alexandria and the famous library quickly followed. Bishop Cyril even led Christian mobs which drove the Jews out of Alexandria- and looted their synagogues.

However, the key to power in Alexandria was to control the governor. Perhaps Hypatia’s death was a message to Orestes: if we can kill your closest adviser- you could be next. This made Hypatia a pawn in a larger game rather than the primary target. If this was the case, it was a game Cyril ultimately won. For although outraged riots broke out after Hypatia’s death, her murder also convinced pagan intellectuals they were no longer safe in Alexandria. Most fled to the relative safety of Athens. As for Orestes, he almost immediately converted to Christianity. Seen in this light, Hypatia’s death was not an end in itself but one part of a grand plan to turn Alexandria from a pagan seat of learning into a wholly Christian city.

 

Where do we get this stuff? Here are our sources:

Women’s Life in Greece and Rome, Mary R Lefkowitz and Maureen B Fant, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016.

The Later Roman Empire, Averil Cameron, Fontana,1993

Hypatia of Alexandria: The Primary Sources, Faith L Justice, Historian’s Notebook, March 15, 2012

Hypatia, James Grout, Encyclopaedia Romana.

Hypatia of Alexandria: The Passing of Philosophy to Religion, Joshua J. Mark, Ancient History Encyclopaedia, January 18, 2012

Advertisement