Julius Kronberg's painting of Hypatia Julius Kronberg's painting of Hypatia. Photo: Public Domain

Antiquity’s most famous female philosopher is a pivotal figure for discussions about gender and politics, argues Sean Ledwith

One of the most infamous murders in ancient history took place in March 415 CE in the great Egyptian port city of Alexandria. Hypatia was a mathematician, astronomer, physicist and leading figure in the influential school of Neoplatonist philosophers in the city. She was also a high-profile member of the social circle around the city’s political and social elite which included its most powerful figure, the prefect Orestes. In that year, she was the victim of a brutal and fatal attack, graphically described by the great eighteenth-century historian Edward Gibbon in his classic work, Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, first published in 1776:

‘On a fatal day, in the holy season of Lent, Hypatia was torn from her chariot, stripped naked, dragged to the church, and inhumanly butchered by the hands of Peter the reader, and a troop of savage and merciless fanatics: her flesh was scraped from her bones with sharp oyster shells, and her quivering limbs were delivered to the flames.’

Ancient culture wars?

Gibbon is a notable member of long-standing tradition of historians who regard Hypatia’s violent death as a pivotal moment in world history that marked both the end of the classical world which had encompassed the achievements of ancient Greece and Rome, and the supposed onset of a period of lesser cultural interest, which used to be denoted as ‘The Dark Ages’. She has also become a symbol, in the eyes of some, of a perennial battle between the forces of scientific enlightenment and those of religiously motivated ignorance. Carl Sagan, the US astronomer, promoted this latter view of Hypatia as an early martyr for the cause of secularism in his seminal television history of science, Cosmos, first broadcast in the 1980s:

‘The growing Christian church was consolidating its power and attempting to eradicate pagan influence and culture. Hypatia stood at the focus, at the epicentre of social forces. Cyril, the bishop of Alexandria, despised her: in part because of her close friendship with a Roman governor, but also because what she symbolized: she was a symbol of learning and science which were largely identified by the early church with paganism.’

Sagan goes on to relate how Hypatia’s death was preceded a few years before by Alaric the Goth’s sacking of Rome, then followed by the burning of all her books, the destruction of the Great Library of Alexandria (which actually had already happened) and the usurpation of the last Roman emperor in the West in 476. This reflects an influential historical narrative – also propagated by Gibbon – that her demise at the hands of a Christian mob is primarily representative of an ancient iteration of the so-called culture wars between religion and science. Implicit in this perspective is the notion that historical change is primarily rooted in ideological battles between rival views of the world, such as Christianity versus atheism. In contrast, Marxism sees the rise and fall of civilisations as the playing out of contradictions at a deeper level between the forces and relations of production. From the perspective of historical materialism, it is simplistic therefore to view the death of Hypatia as a straightforward clash between religion and science, or as part of a collective descent by humanity into an era of cultural relapse. One of her most recent biographers, Edward Watts, notes how an appreciation of the role of social class is essential to comprehend the true significance of her death:

‘Historians writing about Hypatia have tended to focus on fourth- and fifth-century Alexandrian religious dynamics, but spatial and socioeconomic divisions mattered far more than religious differences to Hypatia’s contemporaries. Most fourth- and fifth-century Alexandrians and pagans did not understand religious differences in the same way that modern religious communities do. They did not see stark divisions between Christians and pagans and would not have naturally been hostile toward people with different belief.’

Daughter of the elite

Hypatia was born sometime in the second half of the fourth century CE into the family of Theon, a prominent philosopher and mathematician in the city. Academic divisions between subjects were not as clearcut in the ancient world as they are today, and Theon was also the author of numerous works on astrology, astronomy and divination – some of which were in poetic form. He was the head of a private school for the children of the city’s urban elite and it was this advantage that permitted Hypatia as a young girl to enjoy the exceptional opportunity to study a broad-based curriculum to a high level. Even girls from wealthy backgrounds in the Greek world would only have been taught to read and write up to the age of five and then expected to prepare for matrimonial duties. Theon’s paternal protection was undoubtedly a major factor in Hypatia’s ability to access intellectual study to an advanced level that would have unusual even for a daughter of the upper class. Noticeably, she never married, despite contemporary norms, which was probably the outcome  of her own preference but must also have been with the approval of her father.

Whatever privileges Hypatia enjoyed growing up in upper-class circles, there is no doubt she was a person of formidable intellectual stature and, in the eyes of her contemporaries, developed her faculties to an extent that surpassed those of her father. Sadly, none of her actual writings have survived, and we only have records of the titles or subjects of her investigations. She appears to have collaborated substantially with her father on commentaries on Ptolemy, the great second-century CE Alexandrian astronomer and, in her own right, to have produced analyses of other great mathematicians of the Hellenistic era such as Apollonius and Diophantus.

Despite the claims of writers who want to overstate the significance of Hypatia, there is no evidence that she was a particularly original or innovative thinker, or that she participated in the invention of new scientific instruments of the era such as the astrolabe or the hydroscope, as is sometimes claimed. This is not to downplay, however, the undoubted intellectual rigour for which she was famed, or the courage she must have displayed in the face of a hostile social environment.

No martyr

As well as being a noted astronomer and mathematician, Hypatia was also a proponent of the philosophical system known as Neoplatonism, which sought to develop the original ideas of Plato from the golden age of Athenian civilisation in the fourth century BCE that there was a higher level of reality than the one we experience with our five senses. Neoplatonism, associated with the second century CE thinker Plotinus, posited there were eternal cosmic principles underlying the physical realm we inhabit, such as the One, the Soul and Nous.

The terms may be different in the traditional Christian theology of the Trinity, but there is an obvious intellectual affinity here with the faith which, by Hypatia’s time, had been adopted as the official doctrine of the empire. The lack of direct conflict between her belief system and that of Christianity is further evidence by the figure of Synesius who was one of her most noted students and who went on to become Bishop of Cyrene. The two conducted a correspondence that lasted up until her death and must have been based on a mutual appreciation and respect for each other’s belief system.

Neoplatonism was an explicitly religious world view and could be interpreted as an essentially transitional perspective between the paganism of the ancient Greek world and Christianity which would come to dominate medieval society in Europe. The dialectical nature of a Marxist understanding of the end of the classical world would perceive that, in Hypatia’s time, these two ideologies were actually moving towards each other in terms of their shared idealism.

The key point for assessing Hypatia’s historical significance is that in no way was she an advocate for the anti-religious and atheistic viewpoints that would be associated with much later thinkers in the era of the Enlightenment and beyond. Those, like Carl Sagan, who present her as a martyr for science as we understand it are fundamentally misreading the nature of her ideas and the reasons for her murder. One of the subjects, for example, she discussed in writing with Synesius was the prophetic value of dream interpretation – obviously a wholly unscientific notion.

The Great Library

As Edward Watts notes above, the key to comprehending the murder of Hypatia is to see her in the context of class conflict as it was playing out in fifth-century Alexandria. Founded by the eponymous Greek conqueror seven centuries before her time, the city had developed as the greatest city in the Empire after Rome itself. Strategically located in the Eastern Mediterranean, Alexandria was brilliantly placed to benefit from the expansion of trade (including slavery of course) as the empire surged across North Africa, the Middle East and into Western and Northern Europe. Intellectually, the city was the epicentre of Hellenistic culture as its world-renowned Great Library, founded by Alexander, became the repository for the vast store of knowledge that had accumulated in all disciplines since the emergence of ancient scholarship centuries beforehand. Brilliant intellects such as Archimedes, Aristarchus and Eratosthenes made their pathbreaking scientific discoveries in the city. The Great Library was the embodiment of the spirit of intellectual endeavour that had been transmitted, across millennia, from the early civilisations of Egypt and Mesopotamia to the latter ones of Greece and Rome.

Alongside its dazzling intellectual reputation, however, Alexandria was inevitably also the site of a rigidly hierarchical class system with most of the city’s 500 000 population living in squalid and cramped conditions, trying to survive a daily existence of grinding poverty. One modern historian of the city, Christopher Haas, notes the polarised class dynamics that characterised the social environment amid which Hypatia lived and died:

‘Urban society in late antique Alexandria appears to have been fundamentally two-tiered with a small number of wealthy honestiores standing in contrast to the poorer bulk of the urban population or humiliores … Despite subtle gradations in prosperity and poverty among the lower orders, the opulent and privileged lifestyles enjoyed by the Alexandrian elite in late antiquity placed this class on a vastly different social level that that of most Alexandrians.

In the second century CE, this class conflict on an ideological level was inevitably played out through the prism of the various forms of religion which uneasily co-existed in the city, particularly Christianity, Judaism and Hypatia’s own aristocratic brand of paganism. The city had become notorious for its combustible nature in terms of ideological battles being expressed in ferocious street battles. One contemporary observer of Alexandria noted:

‘The people in general are an inflammable material and allow very trivial pretexts to foment the flame of commotion. It is said that everyone who is so disposed may, by employing any casual circumstances as a means of excitement, inspire the city with a frenzy of sedition and hurry the populace in whatever direction and against whomsoever it chooses.

For most of her life, Hypatia seems to have skilfully performed a mediating role between these competing belief systems and their associated political groupings. She was famed for the notably conciliatory nature of her interventions in public life and was clearly not committed to confronting Christians in an antagonistic manner, as portrayed by later writers such as Gibbon and Sagan. This ameliorative quality on her part was recorded by a contemporary Christian writer:

‘Because she was skilled and articulate in her speech and wise and politically virtuous in her actions, the city seemingly loved her and particularly prostrated itself before her, and the governors always greeted her first when they came into the city.

Symbol of the regime

An intensification of ideological and class conflict from about 410 CE between factions of the city’s Christian community, however, would be the fateful undoing of Hypatia’s attempt to navigate a way through Alexandria’s social and political flux. Orestes, the prefect of the city, was a figurehead of the upper class who was drawn into a power struggle with Bishop Cyril who drew his support predominantly from the ranks of the urban poor. Hypatia was well known as an intimate of the former and it was this reason – not because of her supposed scientific tendencies – that she was most likely attacked by some of Cyril’s supporters when they accidentally came across her riding home unguarded in her chariot that fateful day. Edward Watts identifies this class-based context as the real key to understanding her tragic death:

‘She was not an imperial official but, to Cyril’s supporters, she nevertheless represented a hostile imperial regime working against the bishop … It is not clear that the attackers set out to kill Hypatia but, when they found her out in public without protection, the passion of the moment seized them.

Ultimately, the classical world crumbled not because of the anti-intellectualism of any of the myriad belief-systems that emerged in its twilight, but because of the explosive contradictions at the heart of the slave mode of production upon which it was founded. For all her undoubted academic brilliance, at no point did Hypatia, or any of the other great minds that resided in Alexandria, question the basis of a viciously exploitative social system founded on the ownership of other human beings.

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Sean Ledwith

Sean Ledwith is a Counterfire member and Lecturer in History at York College, where he is also UCU branch negotiator. Sean is also a regular contributor to Marx and Philosophy Review of Books and Culture Matters