A Short Animated Introduction to Hypatia, Ancient Alexandria’s Great Female Philosopher

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Rise and Fall of the Great Library of Alexan­dria: An Ani­mat­ed Intro­duc­tion

Carl Sagan Explains How the Ancient Greeks, Using Rea­son and Math, Fig­ured Out the Earth Isn’t Flat, Over 2,000 Years Ago

Free Cours­es in Ancient His­to­ry, Lit­er­a­ture & Phi­los­o­phy 

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • Tim O'Neill says:

    There is a lot that is fan­ci­ful in this video. The idea that there was any accu­sa­tion of “witch­craft” against Hypa­tia can only be found in a very late source — John of Nikiu. The sources close to her time make no men­tion of this and say the accu­sa­tions were pure­ly polit­i­cal: that Hypa­tia was pre­vent­ing a rec­on­cil­i­a­tion between the two fac­tions of Cyril and Orestes. Nikiu was writ­ing cen­turies lat­er and try­ing to spin the sto­ry to make Cyril into its hero, so it is most like­ly this “witch­craft” accu­sa­tion is his inven­tion.

    And the claim that philoso­phers “fled Alexan­dria in the wake of her mur­der” is fan­ta­sy. This is found nowhere in any of the sources. It’s also con­tra­dict­ed by the fact that Alexan­dria remained a cen­tre of learn­ing long after her death and many philoso­phers — pagan and Chris­t­ian — con­tin­ued to work there. Hie­ro­cles, Ascle­pius of Tralles, Olym­pi­odor­us the Younger, Ammo­nius Her­mi­ae and Her­mias all flour­ish­ing there in the fifth cen­tu­ry and then John Philo­ponus in the sixth cen­tu­ry. And Hypa­tia was­n’t even the last female, pagan philoso­pher — Aedisia taught there, entire­ly unmo­lest­ed by wicked mobs of monks, just a few years lat­er.

    Please stop per­pet­u­at­ing Gib­bon’s myth that Hypa­ti­a’s mur­der had some­thing to do with her learn­ing and that it rep­re­sent­ed some break down in the ancient philo­soph­i­cal tra­di­tion. Both these claims are non­sense.

  • Dragoș Hălmagi says:

    When you rec­om­mend a book, you should also read it. From Maria Dziel­ska’s Hypa­tia of Alexan­dria (p. 105):

    “We there­fore can­not join with those who lament Hypa­tia as ‘the last of the Hel­lenes’ or who main­tain that Hypa­ti­a’s death marked the demise of Alexan­dri­an sci­ence and phi­los­o­phy. Pagan reli­gios­i­ty did not expire with Hypa­tia, and nei­ther did math­e­mat­ics and Greek phi­los­o­phy. (…) The Alexan­dri­an school achieved its great­est suc­cess at the turn of the fifth and sixth cen­turies in the per­sons of Ammo­nius, Dam­as­cius (asso­ci­at­ed with Alexan­dria and Athens), Sim­pli­cius, Ascle­pius, Olym­pi­odor­us, and John Philo­ponus.”

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