On this day in 415 AD, it is said that Hypatia—considered the first notable female mathematician—was murdered by an angry mob. Hypatia was a philosopher, mathematician, pagan, and of course, a woman. She came to symbolise science and learning. But in an increasingly Christian environment, she was perceived as a heretic, and fell foul to the extremes of religious intolerance.
Hypatia was born around 370, daughter to Theon of Alexandria, a prominent scholar and the last known librarian of the famous Library of Alexandria. Unusual for a woman at that time, she was educated to the highest level, receiving instruction from her mathematician and philosopher father, and perhaps the Greek philosopher Plutarch of Athens.
Her learning gained her a position at the Library of Alexandria, and she became influential in the teaching of Neo-Platonism, a philosophical doctrine born out of the teaching of the Greek philosopher Plato. She was famed in Alexandria for her great intellect, and students came from far and wide to hear her speak. Though much of her writing has been lost, she was known to have produced treaties on a wide variety of subjects, including mathematics and astronomy. She is thought to have developed the plane astrolabe, an instrument used to chart time based on the position of celestial bodies.
Hypatia’s demise was in part due to the religious intolerance that existed in Alexandria during the 4th century. Hypatia was blamed by some for the rift between the Christians and the pagans, and in particular the hostilities that existed between the governor of Alexandria, Orestes, and the Bishop of Alexandria, Cyril.
Orestes was a polytheist who objected to the hard-line approach of the Bishop to non-Christians. Hypatia spoke out in favour of Orestes, which did little to endear her to the uncompromising Bishop. Feeling threatened by the popular and learned Hypatia, the Bishop condemned her for her heretical teaching, making her a target for the more zealous of Alexandria’s Christian citizens.
On 8 March 415, Hypatia was intercepted while riding in her chariot through the Egyptian capital. The mob, led by a figure identified as Peter the Lector, dragged Hypatia from her chariot and took her to the great church at Caesareum. She was subjected to a brutal and bloody attack, her dismembered body being scattered around the city and burned.
Hypatia’s demise brought to a close a period of intellectual enlightenment in Alexandria. Fearing further persecution, many of her students fled to Athens, and the Alexandria Museum entered a terminal decline.
The dramatic circumstances of her death have ensured that she is remembered with an almost mythological status. Reports of her great beauty and fiercely guarded chastity have added to the myth. As little is known of her life, and so little of her writing remains, her violent death at the hands of intolerant zealots has come to define her, as much as her intellectual prowess.
Credit: © The Print Collector / Alamy
Caption: A mid-19th century engraving depicting the death of Hypatia.