Ten years ago, a film came out called Agora, a biopic of philosopher and mathematician Hypatia of Alexandria, daughter of mathematician Theon, the last recorded director of the Library of Alexandria. The movie wasn’t well-reviewed or widely seen, which is neither here nor there, but it was heavily criticized for historical inaccuracies. This seemed a little silly. “One does not go to the movies to learn about ancient history but to be entertained,” as Joshua J. Mark writes at the Ancient History Encyclopedia. Agora is not an accurate rendering of the little we know of Hypatia, but neither is Spartacus, a far more entertaining film, an accurate depiction of the 2nd century B.C.E. gladiator and rebel.
And yet, we should know who Hypatia was, and we should understand what happened to her, something many of the film’s religiously-motivated critics refused to admit, claiming that the depiction of hostile, anti-intellectual Christians in the movie was nothing more than prejudicial animus on the part of director Alejandro Amenabar. The truth is that “the anti-intellectual stance of the early church is attested to by early Christian writers,” Mark points out. And “the historical records state” that Hypatia “was beaten and flayed to death by a mob of Christian monks who then burned her in a church.”
The TED-Ed video above calls this mob a “militia” who saw Hypatia’s scientific pursuits as “witchcraft.” The charge is, of course, specifically gendered. The manner of her death was so brutal and shocking that “even those Christian writers who were hostile to her and claimed she was a witch,” Mark writes, “are generally sympathetic in recording her death as a tragedy. These accounts routinely depict Hypatia as a woman who was widely known for her generosity, love of learning, and expertise in teaching in the subjects of Neo-Platonism, mathematics, science, and philosophy.”
As is the case with many ancient figures, none of her own writings survive, but both her contemporary critics and sympathetic students record similar impressions of her intellectual curiosity and scientific knowledge. The short video lesson tells us Hypatia was born around 355 A.C.E., which means she would have been around sixty years old at the time of her death. She lived in Alexandria, “then part of the Egyptian province of the Eastern Roman Empire, and an intellectual center.” Educated by her father, she surpassed him “in both mathematics and philosophy, becoming the city’s foremost scholar.”
She eventually succeeded Theon as head of the Platonic school, “similar to a modern university,” and she served as a trusted advisor to the city’s leaders, including its governor, Orestes, a “moderate Christian” himself. Her achievements were many, but her teaching, drawing on Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus, and Pythagoras, was her greatest legacy, the TED-Ed lesson (scripted by Soraya Field Fiorio) asserts. Hypatia’s death not only deprived the city of a beloved teacher and scholar. Her murder, at the behest of Alexandrian bishop Cyril, “was a turning point.” Other philosophers fled the city, and Alexandria’s “role as a center of learning declined.”
“In a very real way,” the lesson tells us, “the spirit of inquisition, openness, and fairness she fostered died with her.”
For a more complete treatment of Hypatia's life and intellectual contributions, read Maria Dzielska's book, Hypatia of Alexandria.