"The Perniciously Persistent Myths of Hypatia and the Great Library" by David Bentley Hart in the journal First Things claims that while Hypatia was indeed murdered by a mob of angry Christians, this doesn't really reflect on the Christian culture of the time so much as it does on the class-segregated culture of classical Alexandria and the brutality of the lower classes at the time.

...some of the savages of the lower city decided to take matters into their own hands....

...the true story of Hypatia... [tells] us a great deal about social class in the late Hellenistic world.

Think of it as an ideal Marxist allegory. It may seem unimaginable to us now that Christians from the lower classes in late antique Alexandria could have conspired in the horrific assassination of an unarmed woman and a respected scholar, but, as it happens, that was how Alexandria was often governed at street level, by every sect and persuasion.

In the royal quarter, pagans, Christians, and Jews generally studied together, shared a common intellectual culture, collaborated in scientific endeavor, and attended one another’s lectures. In the lower city, however, religious allegiance was often no more than a matter of tribal identity, and the various tribes often slaughtered one another with gay abandon.

Is this characterization of ancient Alexandria accurate?

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    That article does not come across as credible. It reads like an attempt at debunking a strawman depiction of Hypatia, using a mixture of unsubstantiated assertions and slight mockery. For instance, Hart claims to debunk the idea (of unknown origin) that Hypatia invented the astrolabe, by asserting that Synesius of Cyrene was "explaining to [Hypatia] how the [astrolabe] is made". Every other source says Synesius was crediting Hypatia for teaching him (not inventing) how to make one.
    – Semaphore
    Commented Sep 8, 2015 at 20:11
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    Anything that tries to apply Marx to Ancient times is ipso facto extremely dubious. His theories of workers versus industrialists requires lots of round peg to square hole pounding to fit the dynamics of ancient times.
    – Oldcat
    Commented Sep 9, 2015 at 0:37
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    @Oldcat I think it's a misreading to say that he's trying to "apply Marx" in the sense of actually trying to analyze ancient Alexandrian economics according to Marxist theories. He merely said "think of it as an ideal Marxist allegory." Commented Sep 9, 2015 at 0:54
  • 3
    A Marxist allegory has workers and factories in it. Alexandria had none of those.
    – Oldcat
    Commented Sep 9, 2015 at 0:58
  • 6
    It is very common for Marxist historians to put pre-industrial history into a Procrustean bed to allow their outlook to still work, no matter how distorted the result. Note the scoffing of religious views and differences, which were of extreme importance to people of that time to an extent difficult to comprehend now. You can't possibly be giving a coherent view of the times without considering religion as an important factor.
    – Oldcat
    Commented Sep 9, 2015 at 17:19

1 Answer 1


At that time yes. The Roman Empire was weak and receding and the vacuum that created fueled a struggle between groups looking to fill it. Hypatia wasn't just killed by accident being in the wrong place at the wrong time. She was targeted and assasinated by Christians involved in a violent three way struggle for control of the city of Alexandria with Jews and Rome.

Hypatia's admirers included Alexandria’s governor, Orestes. Her association with him would eventually lead to her death.

Hypatia's crime was she was smart, and an advisor to the Roman governor of Alexandria Orestes. Orestes was a Christian but he governed independently from the Church's bishop Cyril. When a disagreement arose between the two Cyril tried to assassinate the Roman Governor Orestes but failed. Next the Christians took aim at one of his primary advisor in their struggle, the Philosopher Hypatia. She was met on the streets by christians who dragged her out of her carriage and brutally murdered her within a nearby church.

With Cyril the head of the main religious body of the city and Orestes in charge of the civil government, a fight began over who controlled Alexandria. Orestes was a Christian, but he did not want to cede power to the church. The struggle for power reached its peak following a massacre of Christians by Jewish extremists, when Cyril led a crowd that expelled all Jews from the city and looted their homes and temples. Orestes protested to the Roman government in Constantinople. When Orestes refused Cyril’s attempts at reconciliation, Cyril’s monks tried unsuccessfully to assassinate him.

Hypatia, however, was an easier target. She was a pagan who publicly spoke about a non-Christian philosophy, Neoplatonism, and she was less likely to be protected by guards than the now-prepared Orestes.

In the year 415 or 416, the mob of Christian zealots led by Peter the Lector accosted a woman’s carriage and dragged her from it and into a church, where they stripped her and beat her to death with roofing tiles. They then tore her body apart and burned it. Who was this woman and what was her crime? Hypatia was one of the last great thinkers of ancient Alexandria and one of the first women to study and teach mathematics, astronomy and philosophy.

from Smithsonian Magazine

Hypatia, Ancient Alexandria’s Great Female Scholar

An avowed paganist in a time of religious strife, Hypatia was also one of the first women to study math, astronomy and philosophy

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