The Historical Hypatia

“Agora” and Hypatia – Hollywood Strikes Again

by Tim O’Neill, Armarium Magnum, May 20, 2009

Normally I’d be delighted that someone was making a film set in the Fifth Century (at least, one that wasn’t another fantasy about “King Arthur” anyway). After all, it’s not like there’s a shortage of remarkable stories to tell from that turbulent and interesting time. And normally I’d be even more delighted that they are actually bothering to make it look like the Fifth Century, rather than assuming because it’s set in the Roman Empire everyone needs to be wearing togas, forward combed haircuts and lorica segmentata [segmented armour]. And I would be especially delighted that they are not only doing both these things but also casting the delightful Rachel Weisz in the lead role, since she’s an excellent actress and, let’s face it, pretty cute. And as an amateur historian of science I’m more than happy with the idea of a film that gets across the idea that, yes, there was a tradition of scientific thinking before Newton and Galileo.

So why am I not delighted? Because [Chilean director Alejandro] Amenabar has chosen to write and direct a film about the philosopher Hypatia and perpetuate some hoary Enlightenment myths by turning it into a morality tale about science vs fundamentalism.


Hypatia has long been pressed into service as a martyr for science by those with agendas that have nothing to do with the accurate presentation of history. As Maria Dzielska has detailed in her study of Hypatia in history and myth, Hypatia of Alexandria, virtually every age since her death that has heard her story has appropriated it and forced it to serve some polemical purpose.

Ask who Hypatia was and you will probably be told “She was that beautiful young pagan philosopher who was torn to pieces by monks (or, more generally, by Christians) in Alexandria in 415”. This pat answer would be based not on ancient sources, but on a mass of belletristic and historical literature …. Most of these works represent Hypatia as an innocent victim of the fanaticism of nascent Christianity, and her murder as marking the banishment of freedom of inquiry along with the Greek gods.
(Dzielska, p. 1)

If you had asked me at the age of 15 that’s certainly what I would have told you, since I had heard of Hypatia largely thanks to astronomer Carl Sagan’s TV series and book Cosmos. I still have a soft spot both for Sagan and Cosmos, since – as with a lot of young people of the time – it awakened my love not only of science, but a humanist tradition of science and a historical perspective on the subject that made it far more accessible to me than dry formulae. But popularisations of any subject can create erroneous impressions even when the writer is very sure of his material. And while Sagan was usually on very solid ground with his science, his history could be distinctly shaky. Especially when he had a barrow or two to push.

The final chapter of the book of Cosmos is the one where Sagan pushes a few barrows. Generally, his aims are admirable – he notes the fragility of life and of civilisation, makes some calm and quietly sober condemnations of nuclear proliferation – highly relevant and sensible in the depths of Cold War 1980 – and makes a rational and humanistic plea for the maintenance of a long term view on the Earth, the environment and our intellectual heritage. In the process he tells the story of Hypatia as a cautionary parable; a tale that illustrates how fragile civilisation is and how easily it can fall to the powers of ignorance and irrationality.

After describing the glories of the Great Library of Alexandria, he introduces Hypatia as its “last scientist”. He then notes that the Roman Empire was in crisis in her time and that “slavery had sapped ancient civilisation of its vitality”; which is an odd comment since the ancient world had always been based on slavery, making it hard to see why this institution would suddenly begin to “sap” it of “vitality” in the Fifth Century. He then he gets to the crux of his story:

Cyril, the Archbishop of Alexandria, despised her because of her close friendship with the Roman governor, and because she was a symbol of learning and science, which were largely identified by the early Church with paganism. In great personal danger she continued to teach and publish, until, in the year 415, on her way to work she was set upon by a fanatical mob of Cyril’s parishioners. They dragged her from her chariot, tore off her clothes, and, armed with abalone shells, flayed her flesh from her bones. Her remains were burned, her works obliterated, her name forgotten. Cyril was made a saint.
(Sagan, p. 366)

I gather I was not the only impressionable reader who found this parable made a great impression. One reader of Dzielska’s study, which debunks the version Sagan propagates, wrote a breathless review on that declared:

Hypatia was first brought to my attention by Carl Sagan in his television series Cosmos. She has often been represented as a pillar of wisdom in an age of growing dogma. Unlike with Socrates we know much less about her life and teachings. She is remembered precisely as a martyr who was sacrificed rather than executed by a literalist Christian mob inspired by “St” Cyril, apparently as she was regarded as a threat to Christendom and theology by certain regio-political figures.

That actually makes you wonder if they had read Dzielska’s book at all.

While Sagan is the best known propagator of the idea that Hypatia was a martyr for science, he was simply following a venerable polemical tradition that has its origin in Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire:

A rumor was spread among the Christians, that the daughter of Theon was the only obstacle to the reconciliation of the prefect and the archbishop; and that obstacle was speedily removed. On a fatal day, in the holy season of Lent, Hypatia was torn from her chariot, stripped naked, dragged to the church, and inhumanly butchered by the hands of Peter the Reader and a troop of savage and merciless fanatics: her flesh was scraped from her bones with sharp oyster-shells and her quivering limbs were delivered to the flames.

Like Gibbon, Sagan links the story of the murder of Hypatia with the idea that the Great Library of Alexandria was torched by another Christian mob. In fact, Sagan presents the two events as though they were subsequent, stating “[the Library’s] last remnants were destroyed soon after Hypatia’s death” (p. 366) and that “when the mob came …. to burn the Library down there was nobody to stop them.” (p. 365)

In the hands of Sagan and others both the story of Hypatia’s murder and the Library’s destruction are a cautionary tale of what can happen if we let down our guards and allow mobs of fanatics to destroy the champions and repositories of reason.

The Great Library and its Myths

This is certainly a powerful parable. Unfortunately, it doesn’t correspond very closely with actual history. To begin with, the Great Library of Alexandria no longer existed in Hypatia’s time. Precisely when and how it had been destroyed is unclear, though a fire in Alexandria caused by Julius Caesar’s troops in 48 BC is the most likely main culprit. More likely this and/or other fires were part of a long process of decline and degradation of the collection. Strangely, given that we know so little about it, the Great Library has long been a focus of some highly imaginative fantasies. The idea that it contained 500,000 o0r even 700,000 books is often repeated uncritically by many modern writers, even though comparison with the size other ancient libraries and estimates of the size of the building needed to house such a collection makes this highly unlikely. It is rather more probable that it was around less than a tenth of these numbers, though that would still make it the largest library in the ancient world by a wide margin.

The idea that the Great Library was still in existence in Hypatia’s time and that it was, like her, destroyed by a Christian mob has been popularised by Gibbon, who never let history get in the way of a good swipe at Christianity. But what Gibbon was talking about was the temple known as the Serapeum, which was not the Great Library at all. It seems the Serapeum had contained a library at some point and this was a “daughter library” of the former Great Library. But the problem with Gibbon’s version is that no account of the destruction of the Serapeum by the Bishop Theophilus in AD 391 makes any mention of a library or any books, only the destruction of pagan idols and cult objects:

At the solicitation of Theophilus, Bishop of Alexandria, the Emperor issued an order at this time for the demolition of the heathen temples in that city; commanding also that it should be put in execution under the direction of Theophilus. Seizing this opportunity, Theophilus exerted himself to the utmost to expose the pagan mysteries to contempt. And to begin with, he caused the Mithreum to be cleaned out, and exhibited to public view the tokens of its bloody mysteries. Then he destroyed the Serapeum, and the bloody rites of the Mithreum he publicly caricatured; the Serapeum also he showed full of extravagant superstitions, and he had the phalli of Priapus carried through the midst of the forum. Thus this disturbance having been terminated, the governor of Alexandria, and the commander-in-chief of the troops in Egypt, assisted Theophilus in demolishing the heathen temples.
(Socrates Scholasticus, Historia Ecclesiastica, Bk V)

Even hostile, anti-Christian accounts of this event, like that of Eunapius of Sardis (who witnessed the demolition), do not mention any library or books being destroyed. And Ammianus Marcellinus, who seems to have visited Alexandria before 391, describes the Serapeum and mentions that it had once housed a library, indicating that by the time of its destruction it no longer did so.  The fact is that, with no less than five independent accounts detailing this event, the destruction of the Serapeum is one of the best attested events in the whole of ancient history.  Yet nothing in the evidence indicates the destruction of any library along with the temple complex.

Still, the myth of a Christian mob destroying the “Great Library of Alexandria” is too juicy for some to resist, so this myth remains a mainstay for arguments that “Christianity caused the Dark Ages” despite the fact it is completely without foundation. Amenabar couldn’t resist it – [his] movie features an anxious Hypatia scrambling to rescue precious scrolls before a screaming mob bearing crosses bursts through a barred door to destroy what he’s dubbed “the second library of Alexandria” (presumably he means the Serapeum). Sagan, on the other hand, put the destruction of the Library after her murder. In fact, it seems no such destruction happened either in her lifetime or after it and the idea it did is simply part of the mythic parable.

The Hypatia of History

The real Hypatia was the daughter of Theon, who was famous for his edition of Euclid’s Elements and his commentaries on Ptolemy, Euclid and Aratus. Her birth year is often given as AD 370, but Maria Dzielska argues this is 15-20 years too late and suggests AD 350 would be more accurate. That would make her 65 when she was killed and therefore someone who should perhaps be played by Helen Mirren rather than Rachel Weisz. But that would make the movie much harder to sell at the box office.

She grew up to become a renowned scholar in her own right. She seems to have assisted her father in his edition of Euclid and an edition of Ptolemy’s Almagest, as well writing commentaries on the Arithmetica of Diophantus and the Conics of Apollonius. Like most natural philosophers of her time, she embraced the neo-Platonic ideas of Plotinus and so her teaching and ideas appealed to a broad range of people – pagans, Christians and Jews. Amenabar’s film depicts her as an atheist, or at least as wholly irreligious, which is highly unlikely. Neo-Platonism embraced the idea of a perfect, ultimate source called “the One” or “the Good”, which was, by Hypatia’s time, fully identified with a monotheistic God in most respects.

She was admired by many and at least one of her most ardent students was the Bishop Synesius, who addressed several letters to her, calling her “mother, sister, teacher, and withal benefactress, and whatsoever is honoured in name and deed”, saying she is “my most revered teacher” and describing her as she “who legitimately presides over the mysteries of philosophy” (R. H. Charles, The Letters of Synesius of Cyrene). The Christian chronicler quoted above, Socrates Scholasticus, also wrote of her admiringly:

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 presence of the magistrates. Neither did she feel abashed in coming to an assembly of men. For all men on account of her extraordinary dignity and virtue admired her the more.
(Socrates Scholasticus, Ecclesiastical History, VII.15)

So if she was admired so widely and admired and respected by learned Christians, how did she come to die at the hands of a Christian mob? And, more importantly, did it have anything to do with her learning or love of science?

The answer lies in the politics of early Fifth Century Alexandria and the way that the power of Christian bishops was beginning to encroach on that of civil authorities in this period. The Patriarch of Alexandria, Cyril, had been a protégé of his uncle Theophilus and succeeded him to the bishopric in AD 412. Theophilus had already made the position of Bishop of Alexandria a powerful one and Cyril continued his policy of expanding the influence of the office, increasingly encroaching on the powers and privilages of the Prefect of the City. The Prefect at the time was another Christian, Orestes, who had taken up his post not long before Cyril became bishop.

Orestes and Cyril soon came into conflict over Cyril’s hard-line actions against smaller Christian factions like the Novatians and his violence against Alexandria’s large Jewish community. After an attack by the Jews on a Christian congregation and a retaliatory pogrom against Jewish synagogues led by Cyril, Orestes complained to the Emperor but was over-ruled. Tensions between the supporters of the Bishop and those of the Prefect then began to run high in a city that was known for mob rule and vicious political street violence.

Hypatia, whether by chance or choice, found herself in the middle of this power struggle between two Christian factions. She was well-known to Orestes (and probably to Cyril as well) as a prominent participant in the civic life of the city and was perceived by Cyril’s faction to be not only a political ally of Orestes but an obstacle to any reconciliation between the two men. The tensions spilled over when a group of monks from the remote monasteries of the desert – men known for their fanatical zeal and not renowned for their political sophistication – came into the city in force to support Cyril and began a riot that resulted in Orestes’ entourage being pelted with rocks, with one stone hitting the Prefect in the head. Not one to stand for such insults, Orestes had the monk in question arrested and tortured, which led to the man’s death.

Cyril tried to exploit the torture and death of the monk, making out that it was effectively a martyrdom by Orestes. This time, however, his appeals to the Imperial authorities were rejected. Angered, Cyril’s followers (with or without his knowledge) took revenge by seizing Hypatia, as a political follower of Orestes, in the street and torturing her to death in vengeance.

The incident was generally regarded with horror and disgust by Christians, with Socrates Scholasticus making his feelings about it quite clear:

[Hypatia] 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 [oyster shells]. After tearing her body in pieces, they took her mangled limbs to a place called Cinaron, and there burnt them. This affair brought not the least opprobrium, not only upon Cyril, but also upon the whole Alexandrian church. And surely nothing can be farther from the spirit of Christianity than the allowance of massacres, fights, and transactions of that sort.
(Socrates Scholasticus, Ecclesiastical History, VII.15)

What is notable in all this is that nowhere in any of this is her science or learning mentioned, expect as the basis for the respect which she was accorded by pagans and Christians alike. Socrates Scholasticus finishes describing her achievements and the esteem with which she was held and then goes on to say “Yet even she fell a victim to the political jealousy which at that time prevailed”. In other words, despite her learning and position, she fell victim to politics. There is no evidence at all that her murder had anything to do with her learning. The idea that she was some kind of martyr to science is totally absurd.

History vs the Myths. And Movies.

Unfortunately for those who cling to the discredited “conflict thesis” of science and religion perpetually at odds, the history of science actually has very few genuine martyrs at the hands of religious bigots. The fact that a mystic and kook like Giordano Bruno gets dressed up as a free-thinking scientist shows how thin on the ground such martyrs are, though usually those who like to invoke these martyrs can fall back on citing “scientists burned by the Medieval Inquistion”, despite the fact this never actually happened. Most people know nothing about the Middle Ages, so this kind of vague hand-waving is usually pretty safe.

Unlike Giordano Bruno, Hypatia was a genuine scientist and, as a woman, was certainly remarkable for her time (though the fact that another female and pagan scientist, Aedisia, practised science in Alexandria unmolested and with high renown a generation  later shows she was far from unique). But Hypatia was no martyr for science and science had absolutely zero to do with her murder.

See also: Hypatia and “Agora” Redux

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