International Women’s Day: Hypatia

I first came across Hypatia in the 2009 film Agora.


Based in Roman-ruled Egypt, the film centers around the raging disputes between the main religions of the day –  Judaism and Christianity, and ends with the death of Hypatia, a Greek philosopher. Essentially, it is suggesting that ancient religions allowed no place for philosophy or science and in fact divide us as people, though this concept may have been made stronger for the sake of the film plot.

Hypatia sprang to my mind as someone to write about, because for a start, women were not really regarded as equals in Ancient Greece or Rome. Hypatia lived in the later stages of the ancient world, around 350-370 AD. But as an aristocrat of her day, money allowed her to thrive in a man’s world.

She was a mathematician (the first known woman mathematician) and philosopher, and as the head of the Platonist school at Alexandria, she taught many male students on these subjects – based on law rather than nature – making her a woman apart from her time. One scene in the film that has stuck in my mind (probably out of shock value), that apparently did happen in real life, is when one of her suitors makes a pass at her (suggested as Orestes in the film though this is not historically true), and she gives him her menstruation rags, saying there is nothing attractive about carnal knowledge. As to the rest of the film, it’s probably fair to say that history has been somewhat distorted.

Essentially, her eventual death resulted from rising tensions between the Christians and Jews. Or rather, the situation was used to get rid of her. Orestes was the governor of Alexandria at this time, and Cyril was the Bishop of Alexandria, and both became more furious with each other’s actions. Although Hypatia was widely held highly and with virtue by most men, it was because Orestes came to her for council that Cyril cited her – an untrustworthy pagan- as the reason for his and Orestes’ inability to get along, which amounted to the wider conflicts between Christians and Jews in the city. Really, he was jealous of her – jealous that people came to her for her wisdom, and that a woman could hold such a power as wisdom.

One report by Socrates Scholasticus states that after Cyril spread these rumours, she was kidnapped by a mob of Christians, stripped naked in a church, and attacked with roof tiles, before her body was torn limb from limb. Another report says that her body was dragged naked through the city. Along with many others, she was made a scapegoat for the conflicts, and it was because she was such a strong female figure, that she was seen as much of a threat as the other men.