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|LIFE & WORK|
Hypatia was born in Alexandria in the fourth century CE (there's disagreement about her age at death, so that different scholars put her year of birth at either about 370 or about 355CE). The daughter of the mathematician and philosopher, Theon, who taught at the university of Alexandria, attached to the world-famous library, and who seems to have been responsible for Hypatia's education, though she might also have been taught by Plutarch the Younger in Athens. She helped her father with his books on mathematics, astronomy, and philosophy, and became a teacher at his school, eventually becoming its head.
(The great library at Alexandria was founded by Ptolemy I at the end of the fourth century BCE. It was said to be the largest collection of books in the ancient world (over half a million volumes on some accounts), and it acted as a copying centre, sending books out all over the known world. During its existence it was damaged, sometimes seriously, by fire on a number of occasions, and finally destroyed in 643ce by Caliph Omar I.)
As a teacher she was extremely well-known and respected (it's said that letters addressed simply to "The Philosopher" were delivered to her). She taught from a neo-Platonist standpoint, influenced in particular by Plotinus and the Syrian philosopher Iamblichus of Chalcis (c.250-c.230 CE), but mainly as applied to mathematics and natural philosophy. None of her works survived; we know only their titles, from which it appears that they were mainly commentaries on earlier writers. It has been said that Hypatia's main achievement was the preservation of (especially mathematical) texts which would otherwise have been lost. Most of what we know about her work and life comes from letters preserved by one of her students, Synesius of Cyrene, who went on to become the Bishop of Ptolemais, together with various later romanticised or politicised accounts of her life.
Hypatia's Alexandria was certainly turbulent. Christianity was becoming dominant, and religious riots began to be common in the 390s. Things became worse when Cyril of Alexandria became Patriarch in 412 CE. He instituted a zealous and violent assault on non-Christians and members of other Christian groups; heretical Christian sects had their churches closed and looted, and Jews were attacked on the streets and in their homes and driven out of the city. Hypatia, as a person of education, was a natural target (Christians tended to see learning as evidence of diabolism, and saw little distinction between science and magic), and in addition she was a friend of Orestes, the civil governor of Alexandria, who opposed Cyril. In 415ce, she was attacked by a Christian mob (possibly of Nitrian monks), who stripped her and horribly murdered her. Cyril was later canonised as a saint, and declared a Doctor of the Church.
Hypatia is important for a number of reasons. Apart from her rôle as a popular and charismatic teacher, and as a preserver of ancient thought, she stands as a symbol of the light of learning in a world too often dark with superstition and ignorance, and as a symbol of the ability of women even in the most unlikely places and periods of history to overcome the social and cultural barriers to their intellectual success.