Hypatia was a philosopher, mathematician, inventor, and many other things besides, a woman of genius and influence who would pay for being so with her life.
Of Greek descent she was born around AD 370 during the dying embers of the Roman Empire, in Alexandria, Egypt the daughter of Theon a teacher of mathematics at the great Museum.
She was a sober and serious young woman determined to follow in her father’s footsteps, and in this she was encouraged.
Dedicating herself to her work she was already teaching neo-Platonic philosophy and mathematics when barely out of puberty. She was also a keen inventor and when she wasn’t teaching she could always be found in her workshop and has been credited with inventing the plane astrolabe (an astronomical instrument that charted the celestial bodies and was used in navigation) the hydrometer (that was used to test the density of liquids) and the hydroscope.
Her reputation as a creative thinker of genius and a woman of substance soon spread and people travelled from miles around to hear her speak and to participate in her classes.
But this wasn’t supposed to be and her success brought her not only admiration but also the envy of a great many men of influence.
Described as being shapely and of good features men seemingly found her attractive but not that she was one to harness femininity to her benefit going barefoot and rejecting female clothing for the traditional attire of the male philosopher.
She also spurned any opportunities for love.
This has led some to believe that she was a lesbian, though why the desire for love might diminish as a result of one’s sexuality remains a mystery.
Though it has also been rumoured she was married, to a fellow philosopher named Isidore. If so, it was a platonic and loveless marriage.
When one of her students declared his undying love for her she responded by showing him a bloody rag, the result of her menstruation. Holding it up to him she said:
“Is this what you love, young man? Beautiful, isn’t it.”
He fled in horror.
On account of her gender alone, Hypatia’s life was both controversial and political. In a male dominated world where women were expected to conform and be subservient she refused to remain silent and obedient.
She was not someone who was willing to be cowed by public perceptions of inferiority and being brash, confident, and out-spoken only added fuel to the burning embers of resentment.
Alexandria was a bustling port city, densely populated with people of all races and beliefs as well as a place of great learning where tensions often ran high.
Always a volatile place it was during Hypatia’s time being torn apart by political and religious dispute.
A party of Christian Zealots led by the Patriarch Cyril vied for political power with the Pagan Establishment.
Hypatia was a close personal friend of the Roman Governor Orestes and a fellow pagan who addressed the common people in his support.
“All formal dogmatic religions are fallacious and must never be accepted by self-respecting persons as final.”
It was clear where she stood on the issue of religion and the Christian Church – faith was a matter of personal conscience and not the domain of priests and scripture.
The Patriarch Cyril was not only jealous of Hypatia’s reputation and critical of her behaviour which he believed undermined society by raising women above their proper station but feared her influence.
She thought that she could live on equal terms with men and this was simply unacceptable.
A Christian opponent wrote:
“In Alexandria there appeared a female pagan philosopher named Hypatia, who was devoted at all times to magic and beguiled people with her satanic wiles.” Propaganda was circulating that she was nothing less than a witch and a willing servant of the Devil.”
The case against her in Christian eyes was growing for not only did she behave beyond the boundaries of acceptability for a woman her support for Orestes against the Patriarch Cyril was helping prevent Christian encroachment on secular prerogatives.
She was an impediment to Alexandria becoming a fundamentalist Christian city – she had to be made an example of.
Hypatia would often travel around the city in her chariot and one evening after a busy day attending lectures and visiting friends she returned home to find a mob congregated outside her home.
This wasn’t as unusual as it might seem for such was her reputation admirers would often gather merely to get a glimpse of her, though this day it appeared more than normal.
As she pulled up a group of young men emerged from the crowd grabbed and forced her to the ground where she was stripped naked and then dragged through the streets of the city to the Church of Caeserium.
Here she was bound and beaten with rocks before barely alive she was taken back onto the streets and torn apart, the various limbs of her body then distributed around the city as a warning not only to her fellow pagans but women who dared to challenge the male patriarchy.
Hypatia, outspoken, single-minded, and determined is the first recognisable female genius of world history – a woman of ideas, a woman of deeds, a woman of substance, and a martyr to reason.