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Hypatia

A.D. 390 - 415

Hypatia was an ancient Greek philosopher and mathematician who lived in the city of Alexandria in Egypt during the late Fourth and early Fifth Centuries A.D. She is generally thought to have been the first woman mathematician, but this is only because there are no surviving records of any earlier women who made contributions in the field. Hypatia received much of her education from her father Theon, who was also a mathematician of considerable ability. She taught and lectured at the fine Ptolemaic Library of Alexandria as well as the University of Alexandria and is known to have done work in math, science, philosophy, and astronomy. In the classical world, the role of a philosopher was a much broader one than we usually think of today. The ancient Greeks believed that all knowledge was somehow related and a philosopher could equally well discuss science, mechanics, mathematics, human values, and theories of government.

Alexandria, the city where Hypatia was born and lived was an amazing place and these were amazing times. Named after Alexander the Great and founded by his general Ptolemy after he had conquered Egypt, it had been one of the most important cities in the ancient world for almost 700 years. It was truly a crossroads of learning and commerce, being the capital of the greatest province in the Roman Empire at the time. The culture was a mixture of that of ancient Greece and ancient Egypt, and Alexandria was located at a crossroads through which most of the trade between East and West must pass. During the early 400's A.D., Alexandria shared the distinction of being a great metropolis with only two other cities, Constantinople and Antioch. All three were located in the region of the world that encompasses Turkey, the Middle East, and Egypt today. Even mighty Rome could not match these cities in size, importance, and splendor, for Rome’s greatness had been on the wane ever since the days of Marcus Aurelius. Alexandria was also the home of the world's greatest library. Copies of almost every important manuscript in the ancient world were kept there. During this period, the Christian Church had become very powerful. A large part of the population of the Roman world looked to them for guidance and it seemed that the bishops of the large cities had as much or more power than even the emperor in Constantinople. Only a hundred years before the Christians were fleeing the persecutions of the emperor Diocletian. After Constantine's Edict of Milan gave them the freedom to worship God as they please, their political power and influence grew rapidly. By the middle of the fourth century, many important posts in the Roman government were occupied by Christians.

It was a combination of all of these things that set the stage for the tragedy that now took place. Cyril was bishop of Alexandria in 415 and it was his ambition to be the most powerful man in Alexandria, second only to the emperor himself. Cyril even defied Orestes, the prefect appointed by the emperor to govern Egypt. He even went so far as to incite a riot of monks in which one of them threw a stone, seriously injuring Orestes. Cyril also tried to have all Jews banished from the city so he could confiscate their property.

Hypatia was a very popular lecturer. Having been appointed to the chair of Philosophy at the University of Alexandria, her lectures attracted many rich and influential people. She would discuss the philosophies of Plato and Aristotle as well as methods for measuring the density of liquids or the properties of conic sections. Though she was a pagan herself, she had many influential friends, both pagan and Christian. She was even asked by a bishop in a distant city to build a hydrometer so that he could test his wines. One of her closest friends was the prefect Orestes, and it is probably this friendship that inflamed Cyril's hatred against her.

One day in March, A.D. 415, Hypatia was leaving one of her lectures and on her way home. She was attacked by a group of Church laymen and dragged from her chariot. These men supposedly had the job of visiting and aiding the poor and sick of the city who were under Cyril's care. In reality, many were criminals and thugs whom Cyril used to intimidate those who might oppose him. They dragged Hypatia into a church, humiliating her in the process. One Peter the Reader clubbed her to death, and her body was dismembered by the frenzied rabble and her remains were burned.

Christian leaders in Alexandria and elsewhere were shocked. Many wondered how a group who had endured such horrible persecutions could themselves turn around and subject others to the same kinds of atrocities. Empress Pulcheria immediately sent a special commissioner to investigate the feud between Cyril and Orestes. There is no record, however, that anyone was ever punished for the murder of Hypatia. It was not common at all for a woman to fill the role of intellectual in the ancient world. Though women of the upper classes often were responsible for managing vast estates and there were quite a few powerful female rulers in antiquity, their role did not extend to academics and higher learning. Hypatia lived almost two hundred years after the court of the Roman Empress Julia Domna played host to the brilliant literary and artistic personalities of the day. It would be almost six hundred years before Lady Murasaki and Anna Comnena wrote their detailed accounts of Heian Japan and Byzantine Constantinople. Unless research uncovers new information, the world would have to wait until the nineteenth century to see yet another famous woman mathematician, Lady Ada Lovelace, who programmed Charles Babbage's mechanical computer.

After the death of Hypatia there were very few mathematical developments in the Western world. For the next twelve hundred years, most mathematical progress would be made by the Arabs and the Chinese.

There are no likenesses of Hypatia in existence. The image displayed on the top of this page is an artists rendition of what a typical young Greek woman of the period might look like.

Courtesy Houghton-Mifflin and AIMS.


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