An ode to Hypatia:
Thou Art Not Born For Death, Immortal Bird
No Hungry Generations Tread Thee Down
Let us now praise famous women and our mothers that bore us [no pun intended]The woman I am about to praise this delightful autumn morning was indeed famous but she was never a mother; for she died as she lived; a spotless virgin dedicated to the cause of mathematics and philosophy.
Hypatia was the daughter of the mathematician and philosopher Theon. Theon had written an excellent commentary on Euclid’s geometry, and his name would have been well remembered by posterity had not his daughter outshone him.
Hypatia was born in Alexandria in 370?A.D. Alexandria in those days was the capital of Egypt. Egypt was a part of the Roman Empire and had a Roman governor. Its populace was various and mixed: native Egyptians, Greeks, Jews and Romans. Indeed Egypt was the melting pot of the whole world where East met the West.
There all the religions had existed in harmony: ancient Egyptian, Paganism of the Greeks, Judaism of the Jews and Christianity of the later Romans. Theon was Greek in origin, and a Pagan by birth.
Alexandria was then one of the greatest cities of the Empire if not of the whole world. It rivalled Athens and Rome as a centre of excellence. There were no unemployed or unemployable in the whole city; even the lame and the blind found something worthy of their labour. The Alexandrians manufactured papyrus, blew glass and wove linen. Furthermore the trade of Asia and Africa passed through Alexandria on the way to Rome, its harbour was blessed by a splendid lighthouse on the island of Pharos. Though founded by Alexander the great, it was the genius of the Ptolemies, the ruling dynasty, that raised this city to celestial heights. The Ptolemies patronized art and culture and Alexandria boasted one of the greatest libraries of antiquity, nay, some scholars believe it had the greatest library that ever was. Librarians, teachers and students were funded by the public exchequer to devote their time and energy studying and teaching. Theon was the chief librarian during his longevity.
In addition to the library, Alexandria had a magnificent temple of Serapis which paralleled the Parthenon of Athens and the temple of Capitoline Jove at Rome. It was a unique blend of the best of the Egyptian architecture with the creators of the Athenian Acropolis. The Egyptians and the Greeks worshipped there. Serapis was credited to being the source of the Nile and was responsible for the annual flooding which made Egypt the coveted granary of the Roman Empire.
Hypatia was the student of her father from whom she learnt her mathematics .She is credited with writing commentaries on the Arithmetica of Diophantus, on the Conics of Apollonius and the Arithmetical canons of Ptolemy. All these books are now lost. Later on she travelled to Athens where she learnt Philosophy and became a teacher in the Neo-Platonic school. It may be recalled that the study of science and philosophy was no easy matter for a woman in those days and to excel at it and become a teacher was simply unheard of. Hypatia not only excelled but her renown spread far and wide.
This Neoplatonic school was founded by Plotinus, Porphyry and Iamblichus. She was the greatest votary of this philosophy in Alexandria and her classes were always full of students eager to learn the mysteries of human existence. There exists an interesting story of Hypatia being constantly pestered by one of her over-eager pupils for her amorous favours which many modern-day feminists cite as an example of sexual harassment in those days. Far from it; sexual harassment has little to do with sex and even less with harassment, it is all about power and supremacy. As Hypatia was more powerful than her pupil the allegation of sexual harassment holds no water. Hypatia however dissuaded her ardent pupil by displaying a bloodied sanitary napkin and exclaiming “This is of my flesh. If you love me you have to accept this also.” The horrified pupil beat a hasty retreat. For, truly, if a man loved a woman he loved her in her entirety, including her red roses and white roses [menstruation and leucorrhea].
Hypatia taught at the museum of the academy which stood near the temple of Serapis. She had refused many suitors, for philosophy was her first and only love. Many were the students who traveled by land and sea from Athens and Rome, Constantinople and Antioch to hear her expound the intricacies of Plato and Aristotle.
But those were strange times, harsh times. Less than a century earlier the Emperor Constantine had embraced Christianity and it had now become the state religion. Rome was no longer Pagan, it was Christian. But Christianity was split into multiple sects and creeds. The capital was shifted from Rome to Byzantium, now renamed Constantinople. Christianity, the religion of love and compassion, was turned inside out by their followers and preachers. Christians persecuted Christians on specious interpretations of the Holy Book. The history of this period makes gory reading. The streets of all the major cities of the Empire were littered with the corpses of the devout; even elderly matrons and young ladies were not immune to unmentionable and unspeakable violations.
A semblance of normalcy, and only a semblance, was restored during the reign of the most Christian Emperor Theodosus. The orthodox faith now became the official religion of the Empire and all other forms of worship were prohibited by law. Christianity was young and virile. With utter viciousness she sought to destroy all the temples, shrines, religious texts and emblems of the unbelievers. She had the might of the state and the sword of the Roman Army behind her.
At Alexandria, power was shared by a prefect who was a civil magistrate and by a bishop who was the spiritual leader. The bishop at this period was Theophilus who is described by Gibbon as “the perpetual enemy of peace and virtue; a bold, bad man, whose hands were alternately polluted with gold and blood.” To the everlasting shame of the orthodox faith the ignominy of the destruction of the Alexandrine library lies in the sullied hands of Theophilus. Unquenchable being his zeal and fury, he now proceeded to raise the temple of Serapis to rubble. He succeeded majestically in this disgraceful enterprise and one of the marvels of antiquity was forever lost to us.
After the death of Theophilus, his nephew Cyril succeeded to the bishopric. Cyril was raised as a monk, and now he enjoyed absolute power in Alexandria, basking in the confidence of the Roman Emperor
Theodosius. There was indeed a civil magistrate, Orestes by name and a Christian by faith, who tried to prevent the excesses of religious fanaticism of the bigots.
But Cyril was made of a different stuff. Little did he care for religious tolerance and the niceties of human behaviour. Gibbon mentions "Without any legal sentence, without any royal mandate, the patriarch, at the dawn of day, led a seditious multitude to the attack of the synagogues. Unarmed and unprepared, the Jews were incapable of resistance; their houses of prayer were levelled with the ground, and the episcopal warrior, after rewarding his troops with the plunder of their goods, expelled from the city the remnant of the unbelieving nation."
The Jews who had lived in Alexandria from the time of Alexander were now finished as a nation. Alexandria lost a cultured and creative minority.
Orestes however made an attempt to check this lawlessness of Cyril and his supporters but to no avail. The Emperor of Rome was a puppet in Cyril’s hands. Orestes used to confide in Hypatia, the most famous personage of Alexandria, who advised him not to lose heart. Orestes although a devout Catholic did not subscribe to the religious fanaticism sweeping through Alexandria.
Having tasted victory in his action against the Jews, Cyril cast his vision on the most spectacular icon of Paganism, Hypatia. Gibbon writes ‘In the bloom of beauty, and in the maturity of wisdom, the modest maid refused her lovers and instructed her disciples; the persons most illustrious for their rank or merit were impatient to visit the female philosopher; and Cyril beheld, with a jealous eye, the gorgeous train of horses and slaves who crowded the door of her academy’
It was the year 415 A.D. Cyril decided to strike. On a clear day as Hypatia was boarding her chariot to go to the Academy hundreds of half starved monks set upon her, dragged her to a nearby church, stripped her naked and flayed her alive with oyster shells, spattering the walls with her innocent blood. The horror is unimaginable and the disgust is revolting. A woman of repute whose very shoestrings Cyril was unworthy to untie, lay brutally massacred by the goons unleashed by this excellent representative of the Christian faith in a church where the saviour of mankind was worshipped.
These monks were the real barbarians in those days" The monks, who rushed with tumultuous fury from the desert, distinguished themselves by their zeal and diligence ... In almost every province of the Roman world, an army of fanatics, without authority and without discipline, invaded the peaceful inhabitants; and the ruin of the fairest structures of antiquity still displays the ravages of those barbarians who alone had time and inclination to execute such laborious destruction."
Thus perished Hypatia who had the mind of Socrates and the spirit of Plato in the body of Aphrodite. Her crime? She was a woman, an intellectual and a Pagan. Three heinous offences in those days, sufficient to label her a witch and harlot, when men like Cyril were championing the cause of the Catholic church. For his labours Cyril was canonized and made a saint! Well done Cyril.
Hypatia was the glory of her age and the wonder of ours. The world had to wait the revolutions of sixteen centuries when another woman could equal her in intellectual pursuits. The murder of Hypatia heralded the Dark Ages when scholarship of any sort was frowned upon and condemned by the church. The best books of ancient Greece and Rome were consigned to the flames. Little, very little, of the majesty of the writings of the ancient sages remain.
It will be only befitting to give a few quotations attributed to Hypatia before ending.
"Life is an unfoldment, and the further we travel, the more truth we comprehend. To understand the things that are at our door is the best preparation for understanding those that lie beyond."
All formal dogmatic religions are fallacious and must never be accepted by self-respecting persons as final.
Reserve your right to think, for even to think wrongly is better than not to think at all.
To teach superstitions as truth is a most terrible thing.
Wonderful isn’t it?
Edward Gibbon: DECLINE AND FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE
Mangasar M Mangasarian : THE MARTYRDOM OF HYPATIA
Kenneth Humphreys : MURDER OF HYPATIA