Hypatia and Saint (?) Cyril of Alexandria

Prominent Christians—even saints—were known to act quite badly in late antiquity, even in the judgment of other Christians. Although several bishops of Alexandria are remembered as bulwarks of orthodoxy in this era (especially vis-à-vis Christological theology), some still had severely indecorous moments in their ecclesiastical careers. Athanasius (r. 328–378) was credibly accused of illegal violence against various doctrinal enemies, which was a factor in his repeated exiles.[1] Theophilus (r. 385–412) oversaw a mob’s destruction of the pagan Serapeum, a famous cult site in Alexandria, while he also attacked and helped bring about the exile of John Chrysostom. Chrysostom’s disgruntled allies later report that Theophilus had once even sent a band of thugs (escorted by a Roman military detachment, which he had suborned) to destroy the Origenist monastery of Nitria and abuse the local bishop there.[2] But the perhaps the most infamous incident occurred under the watch/direction of Cyril (r. 412–444), Theophilus’ nephew: the murder of the Neoplatonist philosopher Hypatia in March 415.

The main account of this story comes from the ecclesiastical historian and continuator of Eusebius, Socrates Scholasticus. Socrates first notes that the new prefect of Egypt, Orestes, had become irritated with how the Alexandrian bishops were arrogating civil prerogatives reserved for imperial governors appointed by the emperor (see examples above). When Cyril led a pogrom against the Jews of Alexandria, Orestes grew completely incensed with Cyril and refused to make nice with him.[3] The situation escalated when a throng of angry monks backing Cyril descended on Alexandria to intimidate Orestes and accuse him of paganism. While Orestes was adamantly maintaining his Christianity to the crowd, one monk threw a stone at him, which left a nasty wound. When, after arrest, the monk died under torture (a completely expectable punishment in this context), Cyril turned the fellow into a martyr. Socrates, however, dryly remarks that “the sensible people—even the Christians—did not accept this effort on the part of Cyril.” Rather, they knew this overly-enthusiastic monk had got what was coming to him. Thus, the bitter feud between governor and bishop remained unabated.

This is where Socrates brings Hypatia into the story:

There was a woman at Alexandria named Hypatia, daughter of the philosopher Theon, who made such attainments in literature and science, as to far surpass all the philosophers of her own time. Having succeeded to the school of Plato and Plotinus, she explained the principles of philosophy to her auditors, many of whom came from a distance to receive her instructions.

On account of the self-possession and ease of manner, which she had acquired in consequence of the cultivation of her mind, she not unfrequently appeared in public in presence of the magistrates. Neither did she feel abashed in coming to an assembly of men. For all men on account of her extraordinary dignity and virtue admired her the more. Yet even she fell a victim to the political jealousy which at that time prevailed. For as she had frequent interviews with Orestes, it was calumniously reported among the Christian populace, that it was she who prevented Orestes from being reconciled to the bishop. Some of them therefore, hurried away by a fierce and bigoted zeal, whose ringleader was a reader named Peter, waylaid her returning home, and dragging her from her carriage, they took her to the church called Caesareum, where they completely stripped her, and then murdered her with tiles. After tearing her body in pieces, they took her mangled limbs to a place called Cinaron, and there burnt them. This caused no small disgrace for Cyril and the church of the Alexandrians. For the matters of Christ are thoroughly alien in intention to murders, fights, and things of the sort. This happened in the month of March during Lent, in the fourth year of Cyril’s episcopate, under the tenth consulate of Honorius, and the sixth of Theodosius.[4]

In the last few sentences, Socrates effectively says that everyone knew Cyril was more or less to blame for the hit on Hypatia.

It is not clear that Socrates has any special animus against the bishops of Alexandria, though we think he was a resident of Constantinople. Other than that he was born circa 380–390 and died between 439 and 450 (making him a contemporary to these events), we know little else about Socrates’ biography.[5] What is clear is that he was a Christian, and one who disapproved of the scandalous, bullying behavior of Alexandria’s bishops. In the rivalry between Orestes and Cyril, Socrates sides with Orestes definitively, and he implies this was the opinion of any reasonable observer, Christian or otherwise.

The standoff between the governor and the bishop also provides an interesting counterbalance to the story of Ambrose denying communion to Theodosius I a few decades earlier. Cyril was arguably a more powerful bishop than Ambrose, while Orestes was himself only a governor, not an emperor. And unlike Ambrose’s case, there appear to have been many Christians who thought the bishop, not the civil authority, was the bad actor in Hypatia’s scandalous death.

  1. Stephen J. Davis, The Early Coptic Papacy: The Egyptian Church and Its Leadership in Late Antiquity, (Cairo ; New York: American University in Cairo Press, 2004), 56.

  2. Dialogus de vita Joannis Chrysostomi 7. Davis, 67­–9.

  3. Ecclesiastical History 7.13.
  4. Adapted from https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/source/hypatia.asp, Ecclesiastical History 7.15 (not 6.15). Underlined text is my translation.
  5. Michael J. Hollerich, Making Christian History: Eusebius of Caesarea and His Readers, Christianity in Late Antiquity 11 (Oakland, California: University of California Press, 2021), 61ff.


Related Articles

Other Articles by

Join our Community
Subscribe to receive access to our members-only articles as well as 4 annual print publications.
Share This