Knowledge can be a wonderful thing. But in the case of the ancient philosopher and mathematician Hypatia of Alexandria, it was also be a death sentence. Hypatia was one of the most important intellectuals of Byzantine Empire in the 4th Century, and her story is both inspiring and terrifying, providing a glimpse into a period of history that viewed intellectualism with skepticism and outright resentment.
Hypatia was a thinker of the highest order, a teacher, and an inventor, but she was also a pagan and was not afraid to speak her mind in a landscape of religious separatism, conflict, and fear. Being a woman of intelligence, beauty, and strength could not save her from the shocking death she would meet at the hands of her own people. During a dangerous time when science and religion were often pitted against one another in the quest for universal understanding, it was precisely her knowledge and fearlessness that would place a target on her back. Her life of excellence would come to mean nothing as a clash of powerful men rendered her one of the most tragic scapegoats in history.
A woman like Hypatia - so powerful, so intelligent - was greatly feared by many in Alexandria. Because of this - and the fact she believed in paganism - many believed she had to be silenced for the good of the state. A magistrate named Peter the Lector gathered his fellow religious zealots and hunted her down as she made her way from her lecture at the university. They ripped her from her carriage and proceeded to tear her clothes, pulling her along by her hair through the streets of the city.
The mob then dragged her into a nearby church where they stripped her naked and grabbed whatever they could find to destroy her—in this case, the roofing tiles and oyster shells that laid around the freshly constructed building. And with them, they tore her flesh from her body, skinning her alive and slaughtering her in the name of all Christiandom. Her body was then ripped apart by the angry mob and burned at the alter.
On the orders of Cyril, the bishop of Alexandria, the University of Alexandria where she and her father Theon had taught was sacked and burned to the ground as a sign of intolerance. In the aftermath of her brutal death, there was a mass exodus of intellectuals and artists who feared for their safety, and a newly-minted sense of Christian power was installed in the great city.
Cyril was applauded for his support of Hypatia's death and was later declared a saint by the church who greatly admired his annihilation of the pagan interlopers. Hypatia’s death was not an aberration or a crime - it was policy. And her grisly execution has remained a watershed moment in history, clearly delineating the rise of intellectualism from the Christian reformation. Many marked her death as the end of Classical antiquity.
Hypatia had many admirers, one of whom was the civil governor of the city, Orestes. He was mostly a pagan and an independent thinker, often in league with the Jewish community, who did not want to give all of Alexandria over to the Christian church. Despite his complicated beliefs, he supported the separation of church and state and defended both Hypatia and Theon to the skeptics. But there were also people like Archbishop Theophilus - who had destroyed the pagan libraries - looking to spread the Christian message. When he died in 412, he left his nephew Cyril in his stead, a man who took up the position with an even greater sense of vengeance.
Of course, Cyril and Orestes clashed, specifically around the time when the Jews began a violent conflict with the Christians. As a result, Cyril turned aggressively on the Jews and expelled them from the city, looting their homes and temples. Orestes was appalled and complained to the Roman government in Constantinople. Cyril tried to apologize for his rash decision, but Orestes refused the reconciliation and was subsequently targeted for assassination by 500 of Cyril’s pernicious monks. Even though Hypatia was not involved directly in this proceedings, she was a friend of Orestes and pontificated in the realm of non-Christian theology - two things that made her an easy target for an increasingly angry sect.
This feud between Orestes and Cyril ultimately set the stage for the tensions that caused Hypatia's death.
When Cyril and Orestes could not reach an agreement, the tide of religious unrest grew steadily day by day. The tension in the streets of ancient Alexandria was palpable, and there was danger in the air. Rumors began to spread about Hypatia - perhaps she was keeping Cyril and Orestes from uniting, using her intellect and witchy wiles to pit Orestes against the Christians. After all, she was a pagan and a woman - the perfect scapegoat for the problems of influential men.
In such a male-dominant political struggle, it made sense to target the woman who did not accept the ways of the dominant paradigm but used her intelligence to cast doubt upon their devotions. Because of this, many accused her of worshiping Satan.