Apparently there's a movie coming out this year about Hypatia.


Hypatia was the greatest female mathematician and scientist of the ancient world, and among the all-time best. She lived in the late 3rd century AD. That's about 700 years after the time of my stories, firmly within the time of the Roman Empire, so you won't be meeting her in my books, which is a pity, because Hypatia was way cool.

Her father was Theon, a strong professional mathematician in his own right, and the ancient equivalent of a professor at the Library of Alexandria in Egypt. He taught his daughter everything he knew, and she took it from there, winning world-wide fame for her intelligence. Her major work was in the branch of mathematics called conic sections, and in astronomy. She taught the neo-Platonist school of philosophy. It was said that anyone within the Roman Empire could send a letter addressed to The Philosopher, and it would find its way to Hypatia.

I may need to stand corrected on this (and I'm probably risking abuse!), but I believe she was the first and so far only woman in history to be universally acknowledged as the foremost intellect of the day. She totally dominated the Library of Alexandria. She was a valued advisor to world leaders.

It seems she had some difficulty dealing with her own sexuality, or it may simply be she suffered from PMT. She's said to have turned away one suitor by throwing her menstrual rags at him and shouting there was nothing good about sex. I'd be willing to bet that little detail doesn't make it into the movie.

Here's the trailer. I've never tried embedding video before, so if it fails to appear, crashes your computer, or gives you cancer, it's probably my fault.

Everything that follows from this point is spoiler city. Or at least, I hope they're spoilers, because if they aren't, there's something seriously wrong with the movie.

If you do not want to read spoilers, STOP READING NOW!

Also be warned you don't want to read what follows before bedtime.

Okay, you've been warned.

The most important thing about Hypatia for us today is not so much her work, but the manner and meaning of her death.

Hypatia was a pagan, as indeed were all the great thinkers up to her day. This was the period we call Hellenistic, when Greek language, Greek culture, and the Greek rational process had spread across the known world, though the Greeks themselves had lost all political and military power five centuries before. The Hellenistic age is usually marked as beginning with the death of Alexander. It ends with the death of Hypatia.

It was Hypatia's misfortune to be born at the moment Christianity overtook the vastly older pagan religions. The great issue of the day was a deep discord between the Roman administrator of Egypt, a fellow called Orestes, and the local Bishop Cyril (later Saint Cyril).

Hypatia was an advisor to Orestes. No surprise there. But a rumor spread through Alexandria that Hypatia was deliberately obstructing Orestes from reconciling with Cyril, presumably because Hypatia was a pagan. The rumor is extremely unlikely; the record shows no sign of hostility on her part. She had numerous Christian students, one of whom went on to become a Bishop. Still, the rumor spread, and she was a pagan. That was enough.

Hypatia was pulled from her chariot by a group of monks and
dragged to a major church. One account says Saint Cyril led the mob. Everyone else says it was someone called Peter the Reader. Either way, every account agrees on what happened next.

Hypatia was held down as the monks cut the flesh from her body using oyster shells. She was still alive as they flayed her. She probably died during the subsequent dismembering when they tore her limbs off, again using the oyster shells, and her torso and limbs were thrown onto a fire.

When Hypatia died, Hellenism died with her. She was the very last of the great ancient thinkers. Funnily enough, other intellectuals were disinclined to call attention to themselves after the example made of her.

All that remained was the Roman Empire, which had always been supremely practical but never intellectual, and the now ascendant Christian Church. Human civilization had reached its peak of knowledge and from this point began, slowly at first, to go backwards. In fact, since she came right at the end of the time of ancient inquiry, and since she had the entire Library of Alexandria at her disposal and almost certainly read everything of importance and had the intellect to absorb every word of it, you could argue that Hypatia was the most knowledgable person ever to have lived, up until at least 1500AD.

The world would not recover the level of Hypatia's knowledge for literally 1,000 years, until the Renaissance began to rediscover what had been lost.


Shadows said...

Why have I never heard of her?! Is this part of that 'Hide all awesome females in ancient history' schematic?

Mimzy said...

I've never heard of her either. It almost makes me angry how history, which is so fascinating, has been so butchered by high school history teachers so that all that remains is dullness and the memorization of dates and names. I dozed or slept though nearly every history class I ever attended in public school. Fortunately for me, my father has always been a WWII history buff and due to him introducing me to the well written history book I love history to the point where my biographies, histories, and classical works threaten to overwhelm my collection of fantasy novels.

Leaving off on the rant on history teachers... Was that the Lighthouse of Alexandria that we saw in the opening of that trailer? Even though I always found history classes so boring, I was always fascinated by the mention of the seven wonders of the world...

If ever you decide to write an article about the Library at Alexandria (or what little we know about it) I would be eternally grateful!

Gary Corby said...

Why you might not have heard of Hypatia before: here's my theory, for what little it's worth. (I have to emphasize this is way outside my normal hunting grounds).

A number of early philosophers, Aristotle in particular, get excellent press from mediaeval writers, and therefore their work and reputations survive to this day. The mediaeval guys copied them, so they're well known.

Mediaeval theologians, who loved Aristotle, had to do some significant doublethink to explain why a pagan could be such a great guy. They came up with the explanation that since he was pre-Jesus, he had no opportunity to be a Christian, although his work in some sense was inspired by God. (Someone who actually understands this would certainly explain it better than me.) The great pagan thinkers even got their own outer circle of hell where the weather was only a trifle warm, or in some versions hung around in purgatory.

The same logic could not apply to Hypatia. Since she was

(a) a female head of the School of Alexandria, and the church was not keen on strong female leaders; and

(b) living at a time when she could have been Christian and chose not to be; and

(c) pretty much stuck to hard science, something else the church was not keen on,

Hypatia got buried by the people who needed to copy her work if it was to survive. Therefore she is virtually unknown.

To be fair (I hope) there was one Christian who fairly worshipped her. That was Synesius, her student who I mentioned in the article went on to become a Bishop. Some of his surviving letters are addressed to Hypatia and a few others mention her. It's only through him we know her philosophical views at all.

One book nominally written by her Dad survives in which he pretty much says right at the start that Hypatia wrote all or most of it. That book's a commentary on Ptolemy's astronomy. She's known to have written a commentary on conic sections (ellipses, parabolas etc), now lost.

That's the sum total of her work that's reached us.

Gary Corby said...

Mimzy, I'm sure that is supposed to be the Lighthouse of Alexandria in the trailer. I'll put it on my pontificate-about-this list.

Thanks for the suggestion!

D.A. Riser said...

Maybe down the road, you should do a book on Hypatia. It sounds like she has an interesting story to tell. Though, I don't think the ending would quite suit modern audiences wanting to leave happy.

Barrie said...

I think there may parts of this movie I couldn't watch! Very interesting post!

Gary Corby said...

I think I might be leaving the book about Hypatia to DKNoFish.

Not that I want to dump on a movie I haven't seen yet, but I will be amazed if she dies as per reality. I'm guessing something more in line with heroic self-sacrifice in a genteel and photogenic manner.

I think I may also detect some unrequited love and a massed attack that I don't think happened.