Several years ago I saw on TV the movie “Agora”, and ever since, the image of Hypatia, the legendary 4th century female scholar and philosopher of Alexandria, has left an indelible mark on my memory. I’m glad that I’ve finally got round to reading Maria Dzielska’s myth-dispelling account of Hypatia’s intellectual life and the times she lived in.
Relying on two ancient historical tomes (Historia Ecclesiastica by Socrates Scholasticus and Suda), plus a collection of correspondence kept by Synesius of Cyrene, who was a well-known disciple of Hypatia’s, the author goes about reconstructing the life and achievements of this influential intellectual, who died a most gruesome death during Lent in 415 after taking a stand behind Prefect Orestes in his political duel with power-hungry Bishop Cyril.
The author also dispels a widespread myth that Hypatia was a youthful woman at the time of her death, and contends that she was around 60 years old at her life’s violent end.
These passages sum up Hypatia’s social and political situation in Alexandria before Cyril became Bishop:
“Esteemed by the ruling elite, sympathetic toward Christians, indifferent to pagan cults, neutral in the religious fights and altercations, she lived in Alexandria for many years enjoying the city’s rulers’ respect and her disciples’ love…… Besides teaching ontology and ethics, Hypatia lectured on mathematics and astronomy.”
“Hypatia herself, not needing to conceal her non-Christian religiosity, enjoyed full intellectual independence and the tolerance of the ecclesiastical authorities.”
In conclusion, Dzielska states:
“Relying on the most important sources and their analysis, we may thus state unequivocally that the conflict between Orestes and Cyril was concluded in a manner and for a reason known and used for ages: murder for a political purpose….. They killed a person who was the mainstay of the opposition against him.”
“Cyril undoubtedly presented the affair as a struggle against paganism (with such of its manifestation as magic and sorcery), as official church propaganda proclaimed after all.”
“A cover-up campaign was orchestrated to protect the perpetrators, affiliated with the church, who murdered a person well disposed toward Christians. We contend against this silence when from the extant fragments we undertake to reconstruct the life and achievements of Hypatia.”