Apparently there's a movie coming out this year about Hypatia.
Hypatia was the greatest female mathematician and scientist of the ancient world, and among the all-time best. She lived in the late 3rd century AD. That's about 700 years after the time of my stories, firmly within the time of the Roman Empire, so you won't be meeting her in my books, which is a pity, because Hypatia was way cool.
Her father was Theon, a strong professional mathematician in his own right, and the ancient equivalent of a professor at the Library of Alexandria in Egypt. He taught his daughter everything he knew, and she took it from there, winning world-wide fame for her intelligence. Her major work was in the branch of mathematics called conic sections, and in astronomy. She taught the neo-Platonist school of philosophy. It was said that anyone within the Roman Empire could send a letter addressed to The Philosopher, and it would find its way to Hypatia.
I may need to stand corrected on this (and I'm probably risking abuse!), but I believe she was the first and so far only woman in history to be universally acknowledged as the foremost intellect of the day. She totally dominated the Library of Alexandria. She was a valued advisor to world leaders.
It seems she had some difficulty dealing with her own sexuality, or it may simply be she suffered from PMT. She's said to have turned away one suitor by throwing her menstrual rags at him and shouting there was nothing good about sex. I'd be willing to bet that little detail doesn't make it into the movie.
Here's the trailer. I've never tried embedding video before, so if it fails to appear, crashes your computer, or gives you cancer, it's probably my fault.
Everything that follows from this point is spoiler city. Or at least, I hope they're spoilers, because if they aren't, there's something seriously wrong with the movie.
If you do not want to read spoilers, STOP READING NOW!
Also be warned you don't want to read what follows before bedtime.
Okay, you've been warned.
The most important thing about Hypatia for us today is not so much her work, but the manner and meaning of her death.
Hypatia was a pagan, as indeed were all the great thinkers up to her day. This was the period we call Hellenistic, when Greek language, Greek culture, and the Greek rational process had spread across the known world, though the Greeks themselves had lost all political and military power five centuries before. The Hellenistic age is usually marked as beginning with the death of Alexander. It ends with the death of Hypatia.
It was Hypatia's misfortune to be born at the moment Christianity overtook the vastly older pagan religions. The great issue of the day was a deep discord between the Roman administrator of Egypt, a fellow called Orestes, and the local Bishop Cyril (later Saint Cyril).
Hypatia was an advisor to Orestes. No surprise there. But a rumor spread through Alexandria that Hypatia was deliberately obstructing Orestes from reconciling with Cyril, presumably because Hypatia was a pagan. The rumor is extremely unlikely; the record shows no sign of hostility on her part. She had numerous Christian students, one of whom went on to become a Bishop. Still, the rumor spread, and she was a pagan. That was enough.
Hypatia was pulled from her chariot by a group of monks and dragged to a major church. One account says Saint Cyril led the mob. Everyone else says it was someone called Peter the Reader. Either way, every account agrees on what happened next.
Hypatia was held down as the monks cut the flesh from her body using oyster shells. She was still alive as they flayed her. She probably died during the subsequent dismembering when they tore her limbs off, again using the oyster shells, and her torso and limbs were thrown onto a fire.
When Hypatia died, Hellenism died with her. She was the very last of the great ancient thinkers. Funnily enough, other intellectuals were disinclined to call attention to themselves after the example made of her.
All that remained was the Roman Empire, which had always been supremely practical but never intellectual, and the now ascendant Christian Church. Human civilization had reached its peak of knowledge and from this point began, slowly at first, to go backwards. In fact, since she came right at the end of the time of ancient inquiry, and since she had the entire Library of Alexandria at her disposal and almost certainly read everything of importance and had the intellect to absorb every word of it, you could argue that Hypatia was the most knowledgable person ever to have lived, up until at least 1500AD.
The world would not recover the level of Hypatia's knowledge for literally 1,000 years, until the Renaissance began to rediscover what had been lost.