Her Tragic Life


     This page in WTM is a very unique one. It was written by a young lady with an extraordinary talent and interest in math. After you read it, I'm sure you'll agree with me.

Hypatia of Alexandria

By Lisa Gardner
age 8
21 July 1999

     I would like to introduce Hypatia, the daughter of Theon, a mathematician and the last 'head' of the important learning institution, the Museum of Alexandria. Hypatia was known for her striking beauty and her mastery of rhetoric, or giving speeches. Many important people came to listen to her, not just on mathematics, or astronomy, but also for her explanations of the philosophy taught by Plato and Plotinus. Her dad had supervised all her early education, but with her greater intelligence, she soon surpassed him, becoming the world's greatest mathematician and philosopher of her time. She chose to dedicate her life to learning, and chose not to marry. Anyway, with her extraordinary dignity and virtue many men still fell under her spell and at least one of her students was goofy enough to admit his love for her. She resorted to a very gross, and harsh lesson to make him stop making romantic advances towards her. (Just another example where girls rule and boys drool.)

     There is some uncertainty in how long Hypatia lived, some historians think she was born in 370 AD, but more now believe it was around 355 AD. Then most think she died in 415, but there is some evidence that it was 416 AD. Even though there were several women in mathematics before Hypatia, she is considered the first significant one, because she was the associated with the most important learning institution in the Roman Empire, the Museum of Alexandria. She lived at a time when being an educated woman, a mathematician or a neoplatonist was dangerous, and because she was devoted at all times to ‘magic’ astrolabes and instruments of music, the Christians labeled her as a pagan and evil.

     Hypatia wrote a commentary on the writings of Diophantus, called Arithmetica, she wrote an explanation of the ideas of conic sections introduced by Apollonius, and with her father helped comment on the book on geometry, called Euclid's Elements. Sadly none of the books she wrote survived, so most of what is known about her come from letters written by one of her famous students, Synesius of Cyrene, to Hypatia and other prominent men. (Synesius helped formulate the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, using neoplatonist principles learned from Hypatia.) His letters show profound admiration for her brilliance and creative scientific ability. (I think he probably was in love with her, too.) In Hypatia’s time the mathematicians and astronomers wrote books of tables of star charts to predict eclipses and the position of the planets. This was real math, but because many of the unschooled Christians did not understand simple math, they thought predicting an eclipse was magic. There was another group of people, at this time that tried to use numerology to predict their own future, and because both mathematicians and charlatans used ‘math’ the Christians wanted to eliminate both from Alexandria.

     For 30 years, while Archbishop Theophilus, and her friend, Synesius were alive Hypatia was not harassed by the Christians. When Cyril inherited his Uncle Theophilus’s position and power, in 412 AD, and then when Synesius himself died in 413 AD she was suddenly left without her powerful protectors.

     Hypatia continued to give many speeches and a lot of the Alexandrian men, and magistrates from great distances came and listened, including the prefect Orestes, governor of Alexandria. Cyril, the Bishop of Alexandria, felt threatened by so many people thinking Hypatia’s views on freedom of thought might be good, and because the church could lose control over the people and their money. Cyril sent some of his 500 private Christian militia after Orestes, but he escaped, but then Orestes’s army caught Peter, one of leaders of Cyril’s men, and tortured him until he died. Cyril knew that as long as Orestes was listening to Hypatia he wouldn't have control over him and the civil government of Alexandria. Cyril then set about stirring up fear in the people by saying Hypatia was evil, and that only he and the church could guarantee a good life after death. From what I have read I don't think it is really known which group of Christian fanatics murdered her, but in the end Hypatia was kidnapped from her carriage, as she was returning home. They dragged her to a church, the Caesarium, today known as St. Michael's, stripped her clothes off, brutally killed her, dismembered her body, and then burned them. (YUCK, this sounds like our current nightly news.) Anyway, some say, after Orestres heard of her death he resigned his position, and fled the city. Soon after Hypatia’s death, the few remaining scholars fled the city, too, and Alexandria stopped being the center of learning and knowledge. Cyril's most vigorous defender, the Coptic bishop John of Nikiu wrote: "[After Hypatia's death] all the people surrounded the patriarch Cyril and named him 'the new Theophilus'; for he had destroyed the last remains of idolatry in the city."


     The following is just a little bit of extra information on something I thought was horrible, that some historians think happened around Hypatia's life time. It might not be ‘really true,’ but if I think about it for more than a millisecond will make my eyes water. Theophilus who, before he died, of course (duh), when he had his army of Christians destroy the pagan temple of Seraphis, they accidentally destroyed part of the building that housed the library of 500,000 papyrus scrolls. Some historians also think what Cyril, after Hypatia’s death, to keep the Christian people in ignorance of other people's point of view, intentionally had his army destroy the last large library in Alexandria of 200,000 historical papyrus scrolls. I think that is very sad, and if this really did happen, I don't think this turkey Cyril should be a Saint!

[I also wish to thank Dr Edith Mendez for taking the time to proofread, and for trying to give me suggestions to keep my report historically correct. --- Lisa :>)]

Information sources:

  1. An Introduction to the History of Mathematics -- Prof. Eves
  2. Hypatia’s Mathematics: A Review of Recent Studies --Edith Prentice Mendez
  3. http://www.polyamory.org/~howard/Hypatia/Hubbard_1928.html Hypatia -- by Elbert Hubbard
  4. http://cosmopolis.com/alexandria/hypatia-bio-suda.html The Life of Hypatia >From Damascius's Life of Isidore, reproduced in The Suda Translated by Jeremiah Reedy
  5. http://cosmopolis.com/people/hypatia.html Hypatia of Alexandria, No date
  6. http://cosmopolis.com/alexandria/hypatia-bio-socrates.html The Life of Hypatia By Socrates Scholasticus, from his Ecclesiastical History
  7. http://cosmopolis.com/alexandria/hypatia-bio-john.html The Life of Hypatia By John, Bishop of Nikiu, from his Chronicle 84.87-103
  8. http://www-groups.dcs.st-andrews.ac.uk/~history//Mathematicians/Hypatia.html Hypatia of Alexandria
  9. http://forum.swarthmore.edu/epigone/math-history-list/toimingkex/v01540b02af 472e97c3ad@%5b194.30.208.70%5d 8th March Author: Antreas P. Hatzipolakis
  10. gopher://gopher.lib.virginia.edu/0R0-18115-/alpha/bmcr/v95/95-7-7, Dzielska, Hypatia of Alexandria a book review
  11. http://www.abc.net.au/rn/science/ockham/or030897.htm Radio National Transcripts: Ockham's Razor Sunday, 3rd August, 1997 Hypatia of Alexandria Maths Lecturer from Monash, Dr Michael Deakin.
  12. http://nunic.nu.edu/~frosamon/history/math.html
  13. http://www-history.mcs.st-and.ac.uk/history/Mathematicians/Hypatia.html
  14. http://forum.swarthmore.edu/dr.math/problems/leisses11.7.html
  15. http://www.geocities.com/Athens/Delphi/1836/hypatia/hypwho.html
  16. http://www.agnesscott.edu/lriddle/women/women.htm
  17. A History of Mathematics -- Carl B Boyer

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