When we think of women in the history of the church, we typically think of Christian women. But the church and its history incorporate and impact women of other faiths, as the story of the Egyptian Neoplatonist philosopher and mathematician Hypatia demonstrates.
Hypatia (355-415) was a respected Egyptian mathematician and philosopher, who was born and lived in Alexandria. Hypatia was the daughter of the respected mathematician and philosopher, Theon, who instructed her in mathematics and later insisted that she had surpassed her teacher. She is widely revered as the first notable woman in mathematics, the author of commentaries (now lost) on the Arithmetica of Diophantus of Alexandria and the Conics of Apollonius of Perga, as well as a lecturer in Neoplatonist philosophy. Along with her learning, she had a reputation for eloquence, modesty, and extraordinary beauty, all of which made her a popular teacher.
It was this reputation for influence, however, in conjunction with her adherence to pagan religious philosophy, that incited the murderous mob that took her life in 415. Alexandria had been plagued by repeated episodes of inter-communal violence since 391, when Emperor Theodosius I had sanctioned the destruction of Egyptian religious institutions. Hypatia was purported to exercise influence with Orestes, the Roman Christian prefect of Alexandria, who was at the time locked in an ongoing conflict with church leader Cyril of Alexandria. Rumor had it that she was preventing Orestes’ agreement with Cyril. Incensed by this story, a mob of 500 or so of Cyril’s supporters attacked Hypatia in the streets, dragged her to a nearby church, and killed her. The event, later to be described as the death of the classical world, was recognized as a critical moment by the Alexandrians themselves, although the primary sources for Hypatia’s life differ in their support or condemnation of Cyril and the actions of Hypatia’s murderers.
From the standpoint of our review of women’s history, Hypatia’s story reminds us that the history of the church’s struggle for religious dominance had casualties, some of them women. It also dramatizes a hostility towards a woman’s learning and power that were not, in the view of the [male] church leadership, appropriately disciplined by piety and deference to that leadership’s authority – and which could, for that reason, challenge that leadership and its agenda – which has periodically erupted in the history of the Christian community.
Hypatia’s story has led artists, with their own agendas, to include her in major works, despite lacking an authenticated image of the philosopher and mathematician:
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