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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Hypatia (born between AD 350 and 370; died March 415) was a Greek female philosopher who lived and taught in Alexandria. She lived in Roman Egypt, and was killed by a Christian mob who falsely blamed her for religious turmoil. Some suggest that her murder marked the end of what is traditionally known as Classical antiquity, although others such as Christian Wildberg observe that Hellenistic philosophy continued to flourish until the age of Justinian in the sixth century. In the 2009 movie Agora, by Alejandro Amenábar, Hypatia is depicted by Rachel Weisz.



Hypatia was murdered during an episode of city-wide anger stemming from a feud between Orestes, the prefect of Alexandria, and Cyril, the Bishop of Alexandria.

Her death is symbolic for some historians. For example, Kathleen Wider proposes that the murder of Hypatia marked the end of Classical antiquity, and Stephen Greenblatt observes that her murder "effectively marked the downfall of Alexandrian intellectual life". On the other hand, Christian Wildberg notes that Hellenistic philosophy continued to flourish in the 5th and 6th centuries, and perhaps until the age of Justinian I.

Scholasticus' account

Of the many accounts of Hypatia's death, the most complete is the one written around 415 by Socrates Scholasticus and included in the Historia Ecclesiastica (Ecclesiastical History).

According to this account, in 415 a feud began over Jewish dancing exhibitions in Alexandria, which attracted large crowds and were commonly prone to civil disorder of varying degrees. Orestes, the Roman governor of Alexandria, and Cyril, the Bishop of Alexandria, engaged in a bitter feud in which Hypatia eventually became a main point of contention. Orestes published an edict that outlined new regulations for such gatherings, and crowds gathered to read the edict shortly after it was posted in the city's theater. The edict angered Christians as well as Jews. At one such gathering, Hierax, a devout Christian follower of Cyril, read the edict and applauded the new regulations. Many people felt that Hierax was attempting to incite the crowd into sedition. Orestes reacted swiftly and violently out of what Scholasticus suspected was "jealousy [of] the growing power of the bishops…[which] encroached on the jurisdiction of the authorities". He ordered Hierax to be seized and tortured publicly in the theater.

Hearing of Hierax's severe and public punishment, Cyril threatened to retaliate against the Jews of Alexandria with "the utmost severities" if the harassment of Christians did not cease immediately. In response to Cyril's threat, the Jews of Alexandria grew even more furious, eventually resorting to violence against the Christians.

Socrates of Constantinople's account says that the Jews had plotted to flush out the Christians at night by running through the streets claiming that the Church of Alexander was on fire. Christians had then responded to what they believed was their church burning down, and "the Jews immediately fell upon and slew them," using rings to recognize one another in the dark and killing everyone else in sight. According to the accusation, the Jews of Alexandria could not hide their guilt when the morning came, and Cyril, along with many of his followers, took to the city's synagogues in search of the perpetrators of the massacre.

Cyril rounded up all the Jews in Alexandria, then ordered them to be stripped of all possessions, banished them from Alexandria, and allowed their goods to be pillaged by the remaining citizens of Alexandria. Overlooking the supposed massacre of the night before, "Orestes [...] was filled with great indignation at these transactions, and was excessively grieved that a city of such magnitude should have been suddenly bereft of so large a portion of its population." The feud between Cyril and Orestes intensified because of these things, and both men wrote to the emperor regarding the situation. Eventually, Cyril attempted to reach out to Orestes through several peace overtures, including attempted mediation. When that failed, he made an appeal to Orestes's allegiances as a Christian Roman, showing the Gospels to him. Nevertheless, Orestes remained unmoved by such gestures.

Meanwhile, approximately 500 monks resided in the mountains of Nitria who were "of a very fiery disposition". They heard of the ongoing feud between the Governor and Bishop and descended into Alexandria armed and prepared to fight alongside Cyril. Upon their arrival, the monks intercepted Orestes's chariot and proceeded to bombard and harass him, calling him a pagan idolater. In response to such allegations, Orestes countered that he was actually a Christian and had even been baptized by Atticus, the Bishop of Constantinople. The monks paid little attention to Orestes's claims of Christianity, and one of the monks named Ammonius struck Orestes in the head with a rock, causing him to bleed profusely. At this point, Orestes's guards fled in fear, but a nearby crowd of Alexandrians came to his aid. Ammonius was subsequently captured and ordered to be tortured for his actions, during which he died.

Following the death of Ammonius, Cyril ordered that he henceforth be remembered as a martyr. Such a proclamation did not sit well with "sober-minded" Christians, as Scholasticus pointed out, seeing that he "suffered the punishment due to his rashness he would not deny Christ". This fact, according to Scholasticus, became apparent to Cyril through general lack of enthusiasm for Ammonius's case for martyrdom.

Scholasticus then introduces Hypatia, the female philosopher of Alexandria and the woman who became a target of the Christian anger that was inflamed during the feud. She was the daughter of Theon and a teacher trained in the philosophical schools of Plato and Plotinus. She was admired by most for her dignity and virtue. Scholasticus writes that Hypatia ultimately fell "victim to the political jealousy which at the time prevailed". Orestes was known to seek her counsel, and a rumor spread among the Christian community of Alexandria blaming her for Orestes's unwillingness to reconcile with Cyril. A mob of Christians gathered, led by a reader (i.e., a minor cleric) named Peter, whom Scholasticus calls a fanatic. They kidnapped Hypatia on her way home and took her to the "Church called Caesareum. They then completely stripped her, and then murdered her with tiles." Socrates Scholasticus was interpreted as saying that, while she was still alive, Hypatia's flesh was torn off ὀστράκοις, which literally means "with or by oyster shells, potsherds or roof tiles". Afterward, the men proceeded to mutilate her and, finally, burn her limbs. News of Hypatia's murder provoked great public denouncement, not only against Cyril but against the whole Alexandrian Christian community. Socrates closes with a lament: "Surely nothing can be farther from the spirit of Christianity than the allowance of massacres, fights, and transactions of that sort."

The account given in the Chronicle of John of Nikiû

Hypatia's death is also told in another source, The Chronicle, written by John of Nikiû in Egypt around 650. This account demonizes Hypatia and Orestes directly, while validating all Christians involved in the events John describes. The Chronicle is more biased on the matter of the historical feud, omitting several points of the narrative that are included in Socrates' account.

John, who lived several hundred years after the events he describes, writes bitterly of Hypatia, claiming that "she beguiled many people through (her) Satanic wiles". Orestes, who John writes was himself a victim of Hypatia's demonic charm, regularly honored her and abandoned the Christian Church in order to follow her teachings more closely. Moreover, the bishop claimed that Orestes himself persuaded others to leave the Church in favor of Hypatia's philosophical teachings and went as far as to host such "unbelievers" at his house.

One day, Orestes published an edict "regarding public exhibitions in the city of Alexandria" and all citizens gathered to read the edict. Cyril, curious to see why the edict caused such an uproar, sent Hierax, a "Christian possessing understanding and intelligence", who, although opposed to paganism, did as Cyril asked and went to learn the nature of Orestes's edict. Meanwhile, the Jews who gathered in anger over the edict believed that Hierax had come only for the sake of provocation (which, according to Socrates’ text, was Hierax's intent). Upon this assumption, Orestes had Hierax punished for a crime for which "he was wholly guiltless".

For the punishment and torture of Hierax, as well as the death of several monks, including Ammonius, Cyril grew increasingly furious with Orestes. Cyril then warned the Jews against any further harm upon the Christians. However, with the support of Orestes, the Jews felt confident in defying Cyril's authority, and so one night ran through the streets proclaiming: "The church of the apostolic Athanasius (Alexander) is on fire: come to its succour, all ye Christians." The Christians responded to the alarms only to be slaughtered by the Jews in a coordinated ambush.

The next morning, all remaining Christians of the town came to Cyril with news of the massacre, after which Cyril marched with them to purge the Jews from Alexandria. In so doing, Cyril allowed the pillaging of their possessions, and soon after purified all the synagogues in the city and made them into Churches. In the expulsion of the Jews, Orestes was unable to offer them any assistance.

Shortly thereafter, a group of Christians, under Peter the magistrate, went looking for Hypatia, the "pagan woman who had beguiled the people of the city and the prefect through her enchantments". They found her sitting in a chair, at which point they seized and brought her to "the great church, named Caesarion", where they proceeded to rip the clothes off her body. Then they dragged her through the streets of Alexandria until she died and burned her remains. John's description of Hypatia's death also differs from that of Socrates. Following the death of Hypatia, Bishop Cyril was named "the new Theophilus". With the death of Hypatia, John writes, the Christians had expelled the last remnant of pagan idolatry.

Comparison of the two accounts

Yet even she fell a victim to the political jealousy which at that time prevailed. For as she had frequent interviews with Orestes, it was calumniously reported among the Christian populace that it was she who prevented Orestes from being reconciled to the bishop. Some of them, therefore, hurried away by a fierce and bigoted zeal, whose ringleader was a reader named Peter, waylaid her returning home and, dragging her from her carriage, they took her to the church called Caesareum, where they completely stripped her, and then murdered her with tiles. After tearing her body in pieces, they took her mangled limbs to a place called Cinaron, and there burnt them. --Socrates of Constantinople (born after 380, died after 439)
And, in those days, there appeared in Alexandria a female philosopher, a pagan named Hypatia, and she was devoted at all times to magic, astrolabes, and instruments of music, and she beguiled many people through Satanic wiles ... A multitude of believers in God arose under the guidance of Peter the Magistrate ... and they proceeded to seek for the pagan woman who had beguiled the people of the city and the Prefect through her enchantments. And when they learnt the place where she was, they proceeded to her and found her ... they dragged her along till they brought her to the great church, named Caesareum. Now this was in the days of the fast. And they tore off her clothing and dragged her ... through the streets of the city till she died. And they carried her to a place named Cinaron, and they burned her body with fire. -- John of Nikiû (7th century)

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