What would you give for the propagation of knowledge, reason, and truth?
Hypatia of Alexandria gave her life.
Hypatia was born in the latter half of the 4th C. C.E. – historians estimate between 355 and 370 – in Alexandria, Egypt. At this time, Alexandria was a center of culture and learning. It was also a place of extreme religious unrest: Christianity was on the rise and as it spread its tentacles, dissenters were severely punished. Hypatia has come to symbolize this conflict. Her story ends when she becomes a martyr in history’s endless struggle between reason and faith.
Hypatia was the daughter of Theon, a mathematician and professor at the University of Alexandria. Theon raised her as one would have raised a son in the Greek tradition of the time: by teaching her his own trade. He tutored her in math, astronomy, and the philosophy of the day, which today would be called science. And he saw to it that she continue her advanced studies in both Alexandria and Athens.
Hypatia thus held a privileged position for a woman of her time. The only famous female scholar from antiquity remembered by history, she was an intellectual dynamo. In addition to her impressive breadth of knowledge, she was charming and charismatic and, apparently, a gifted and infectious teacher: people came from all over to hear Hypatia lecture at the Neoplatonist School in Alexandria.
She taught highly advanced mathematics, the first woman ever known to have done so, and lectured on evolved Platonic theory. All that Hypatia stood for – learning, science, reason, progress – was labeled “pagan” by the early Christians and perceived as a threat to their increasing power.
It didn't help that she was a close friend of the pagan Prefect Orestes. The Christian Archbishop of Alexandria, Cyril, blamed Hypatia for keeping Orestes from the "true faith." Cyril also viewed her as an obstacle for those who might have accepted Christianity but for her charisma, charm, and excellence in making difficult mathematical and philosophical concepts understandable – concepts that contradicted the teachings of the relatively new church.
Ultimately, the age-old conflict between faith and reason cost Hypatia her life. While on her way home from delivering her daily lectures at the university in 415 C.E., she was attacked by Christian zealots. They dragged her to the front of a church, stripped her naked, beat her, then butchered and burned her body. Soon after, Cyril ordered the University of Alexandria sacked and burned, leading to a mass exodus of intellectuals and artists from the newly Christianized city of Alexandria.
Hypatia's death is recognized as a watershed moment in history, delineating the classical age from the age of Christianity. Alexandria, which immediately fell into decline, waned as a center of culture and learning.
Hypatia’s untimely loss remains a symbol of the tragic cost of religious intolerance.
Hypatia dedicated herself to reason and scholarship in the face of prejudice and ignorance. She was the first woman known to history to make a contribution to the advancement of mathematics. Today she is a powerful feminist icon and affirmation for female intellectual ability. This is why she's a Time Traveler Tours #HistoryHero. Many thanks to TTT&T followers, Nivrith and Teresa Robeson, for bringing Hypatia to our attention.
Who's your #HistoryHero?
Tell us in the comments below and we'll feature him or her right here on this blog.