The Death of Dignity and Virtue
There was a woman at Alexandria named Hypatia, daughter of the philosopher Theon, who made such attainments in literature and science, as to far surpass all the philosophers of her own time. Having succeeded to the school of Plato and Plotinus, she explained the principles of philosophy to her auditors, many of whom came from a distance to receive her instructions. On account of the self-possession and ease of manner which she had acquired in consequence of the cultivation of her mind, she not infrequently appeared in public in the presence of the magistrates. Neither did she feel abashed in going to an assembly of men. For all men on account of her extraordinary dignity and virtue admired her the more.
–Socrates Scholasticus, Ecclesiastical History
In the 391st year of the Common Era, an ecstatic mob stood cheering before the Bishop of Alexandria as he stood triumphantly atop the steps of the Serapeum. At his side, Bishop Theophilos’ men tore down the modius-crowned statue of the pagan god, Serapis. This destruction and the Christian celebration thereof came in the wake of Emperor Theodosius’ outlawing all pagan worship, icons, and temples across the whole of the Roman Empire. Though the statue of Serapis had been enormous, the building which housed it was a fairly small edifice set within the confines of the city’s Museum, the intellectual center of Alexandria which also encompassed the greatly famed Library. While the Christians cried in mad and ecstatic joy, two of the city’s great scholars watched on in horror. The eminent mathematician, Theon, and his brilliant daughter, Hypatia, were forced to stand by as a repository containing all the world’s knowledge from the past thousand years was destroyed by zealots and soldiers.
Though her religion had been outlawed, Hypatia nonetheless remained at the heart of Alexandria. Over the next two and a half decades, she continued to study and advance her standing until, despite the prejudices of the age against her gender, Hypatia became the head of the Platonic school of philosophy and one of the world’s foremost experts in astronomy and mathematics. Though she, herself, never succumbed to the pressure towards baptism into Christianity which had afflicted much of the city’s heretofore pagan population, Hypatia practiced no discrimination in her teaching practices. Christian and non-Christian, alike, were welcome in her classroom. This, combined with her eminent grace and unparalleled intellect, made Hypatia uncommonly welcome amongst the region’s elite, having befriended some of the most powerful men of the time.
One of her Christian students, Synesios, left Alexandria to become the Bishop of Cyrene, but he maintained his friendship with Hypatia through written correspondence which remains even to this day. In his letters to her, Synesios displays unbounded respect for his mentor. The bishop conversed with Hypatia over a wealth of varying topics including mathematics, astronomy, engineering, philosophy, and even the interpretation of dreams. Synesios did not begrudge the philosopher her aversion to baptism. His love and reverence for Hypatia did not wane, even once.
Another of Hypatia’s friends was Orestes, governor of Alexandria. Like Synesios, Orestes did not let his Christianity impede his relationship with the city’s leading lady. So greatly did the governor value Hypatia’s intellect that he frequently sought her counsel in regards to the great matters concerning Alexandria– including matters of religious fervor. Since Theodosius’ edict had eliminated the pagans a near quarter-century earlier, the ire of the Christians in the city had fallen upon the rather sizable Jewish population. Violence had frequently broken between Jew and Christian. Orestes sought after Hypatia’s advice even in these situations, so vast was his respect for Theon’s daughter.
When resolving disputes between Christian and Jew, Orestes often found himself at odds with Alexandria’s new bishop. Cyril had succeeded his uncle, Theophilos, to the patriarchy of the city after the older man’s death. Cyril found it entirely deplorable that Orestes might even think to suggest that the Jews should be recompensed for injustices done to them. In one such instance, Orestes demanded that Christians repay the city’s Jews for the value of a synagogue which had been desecrated and burnt in a violent pogrom. Bishop Cyril thought such a pronouncement to be outrageous– even sinful. In a letter to the Emperor, imploring against the Alexandrian governor’s decree, Cyril fully admitted that an injustice had been done to the Jews, but argued that it would be impious for any Christian to give money or support to the Jews, even to rectify such wrongdoing, on account of their deicide against Jesus Christ.
Orestes resented Cyril’s interference in the governance of Alexandria. For his part, Cyril felt that Orestes had betrayed the Church and the sacred faith. What was worse, in the bishop’s estimation, the governor had acted at the direction of a villainous pagan philosopher– and a woman, at that! Cyril knew that Orestes was a very popular man, and it would gain the bishop nothing to attack the governor directly. However, Hypatia proved an easier target. Her refusals toward baptism and the peculiarity of her gender made her a simple mark for Cyril’s vilification. Propaganda spread, and soon a Christian rabble arose decrying Hypatia for a witch and sorceress, a deceiving agent of the enemies of Christ. Word spread quickly, and soon even the reckless and violent Parabolani monks were hearing tales of this evil woman at their monastery in the deserts outside of Alexandria.
Soon, the fires of violence had been stoked to their maximum. In the 415th year of the Common Era, a mob of angry Christians learned of Hypatia’s whereabouts, and promptly set out to her abduction. Finding the lady returning home, the rabble dragged her out of her carriage and carried her along to the church at the Caesareum. Upon arriving, the crowd stripped Hypatia naked and proceeded to brutally beat her with roofing tiles until she laid a bloody corpse upon the church floor. Their ire not yet sated, the mob then rent her limbs from her body and paraded them through the town before finally burning what remained of Alexandria’s greatest intellect in a bonfire at a district called Cinaron.
This event bore a far greater significance than it seemed, on the surface. The death of Hypatia marked the death of the sciences in the Western world for almost eight centuries. After Hypatia, the Dark Ages fell upon our history. Christianity had no interest in exploring astronomy, geometry, and number, preferring instead to direct all of its intellectual focus on theology. A thousand years of Greek dominance in mathematics and astronomy ended, and were it not for the erudition of Arabic scholars taking over the burden of preservation and advancement of these fields, Western science might have been lost for even longer epics of time. Hypatia of Alexandria stands as a symbol, a great beacon a brilliance whose dousing cast us all into darkness.
I recommend that you read Tim O’Neill’s blog post on this topic:
A lovely read, and I thank you for bringing it to my attention. I assume you’re doing so because of two reasons: my assertion in my first paragraph that Theon and Hypatia had to stand by watching as a repository of knowledge was destroyed, and because I indicated that Hypatia’s death marked the death of Western sciences for 800 years.
Mr. O’Neill rightly points out that there was no single event which led to the destruction of the Great Library of Alexandria, and that by 391 the original Mouseion in the Serapeum almost certainly had been destroyed. However, it is fairly clear that there must have remained some repository of knowledge, by 391, since both Theon and Hypatia are known to have produced editions of texts from hundreds of years earlier. Furthermore, while the primary sources do not explicitly describe the destruction of books or libraries in the wake of Theodosius’ proclamation, it hardly seems reasonable to assume that the violent mobs which those sources do describe would have had some predilection against destroying ancient books owned by pagans.
As for my claim that Hypatia’s death marked the end of the Western sciences for eight centuries, I’ll certainly stand by it. Theon and Hypatia are the last Westerners known from history to have produced prolific and original work in mathematics and astronomy for a great many centuries after their time. The primary textbook of mathematics, Euclid’s Elements, became almost entirely lost to the Western world, until around 1120 when Adelard of Barth wrote a Latin edition based on the Arabic translation, because the original Greek text had all but disappeared from history. During the intervening time, it was Arabic mathematicians and astronomers who took up the mantle of scientific exploration, and it was through these Arabic scholars that science ended up being rekindled in the West.
Given that Theon and Hypatia mark the final known scholars of the sciences in the West for at least 700 years, I hardly think it is unreasonable to link the death of Hypatia with that extremely significant absence of thought.