The greatest library in the ancient world [was] located not in Italy but in Alexandria, the capital of Egypt and the commercial hub of the eastern Mediterranean. The city had many tourist attractions…but visitors always took note of something quite exceptional: in the center of the city, at a lavish site known as the Museum, most of the intellectual inheritance of Greek, Latin, Babylonian, Egyptian, and Jewish cultures had been assembled at enormous cost and carefully archived for research…
Hypatia was the daughter of a mathematician, one of the Museum’s famous scholars-in-residence. Legendarily beautiful as a young woman, she had become famous for her attainments in astronomy, music, mathematics, and philosophy. Students came from great distances to study the works of Plato and Aristotle under her tutelage. Such was her authority that other philosophers wrote to her and anxiously solicited her approval. “If you decree that I ought to publish my book,” wrote one such correspondent to Hypatia, “I will dedicate it to orators and philosophers together.” If, on the other hand, “it does not seem to you worthy,” the letter continues, “a close and profound darkness will overshadow it, and mankind will never hear it mentioned.”
Wrapped in the traditional philosopher’s cloak, called a tribon, and moving about the city in a chariot, Hypatia was one of Alexandria’s most visible public figures. Women in the ancient world often lived sequestered lives, but not she. “Such was her self-possession and ease of manner, arising from the refinement and cultivation of her mind,” writes a contemporary, “that she not infrequently appeared in public in presence of the magistrates.” Her easy access to the ruling elite did not mean that she constantly meddled in politics. At the time of the earlier attacks on the cult images, she and her followers evidently held themselves aloof, telling themselves perhaps that the smashing of inanimate statues left intact what really mattered. But with the agitation against the Jews it must have become clear that the flames of fanaticism were not going to die down.
Hypatia’s support for Orestes’ refusal to expel the city’s Jewish population may help to explain what happened next. Rumors began to circulate that her absorption in astronomy, mathematics, and philosophy – so strange, after all, in a woman – was sinister: she must be a witch, practicing black magic. In March 415 the crowd, whipped into a frenzy by one of Cyril’s henchmen, erupted. Returning to her house, Hypatia was pulled from her chariot and taken to a church that was formerly a temple to the emperor. (The setting was no accident: it signified the transformation of paganism into the one true faith.) There, after she was stripped of her clothing, her skin was flayed off with broken bits of pottery. The mob then dragged her corpse outside the city walls and burned it. Their hero Cyril was eventually made a saint.