My history hero: Hypatia (cAD 370–415)

Actor Brian Blessed explains why he admires a fourth-century mathematician, astronomer and philosopher

An undated portrait of Hypatia

This article was first published in the November 2015 issue of BBC History Magazine 

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Hypatia (cAD 370–415) was a Greek mathematician, astronomer and philosopher from the Egyptian city of Alexandria, then under Roman rule. There she was head of the Neoplatonist school, at which she lectured on various subjects, as well as being a staunch defender of the city’s Great Library. She was brutally murdered by a mob of Christian zealots, possibly working on the orders of Alexandria’s archbishop, Cyril.

When did you first hear about Hypatia?

I was 11 years of age and had just started at Bolton-on-Dearne secondary modern in South Yorkshire. Because our class wasn’t making any progress, the headmaster brought in his wife – a disciplinarian in stockings and spectacles. She said: “I’m going to tell you about a remarkable woman called Hypatia who gave her life for education. She studied at the greatest library the world has ever known – the library of Alexandria. This library contained all the ancient Greek works, the New Testament, the Old Testament, ancient scrolls, ancient history…”

What kind of person was Hypatia?

It was a time when women were regarded as second-class citizens – in fact, men treated them as property. Yet they couldn’t suppress Hypatia’s thirst for knowledge. She had an extraordinary range of accomplishments for someone in any era – and to achieve these as a woman was unthinkable. She gathered knowledge from all over the world and imparted it to the people. All this great art, and she defended it.

What made her a hero?

People expect your hero to be someone like George Mallory or Joe Louis, but Hypatia is, by far, the most sensational hero I’ve ever read about. She was an astronomer, she was a mathematician, she was a philosopher. She was a great beauty too. And she rode to the library on a chariot! Everyone wanted to marry her but she turned them all down, because she was devoted, utterly, to the library. The Greeks and the Arabs and the Phoenicians and the Italians met there. The scientists and the mathematicians and the physicists and the scholars met there and they imparted knowledge.

What do you think was her finest hour?

Probably her opposition to Cyril, the archbishop of Alexandria. He despised her because she stood for learning and science, which the early church had identified as paganism. Their ignorance was quite dreadful. She was in great personal danger but continued to teach. She died on her way to work, set upon by a fanatical mob of Cyril’s parishioners. They dragged her from her chariot, tore off her clothes and flayed her flesh from her bones. She was killed on the spot, torn apart for her defence of art and all that was right.

They then went into the library, burning things, destroying all the writings of centuries, of earliest man. Hundreds of works of art were destroyed, hundreds of manuscripts. Discoveries and ideas and passions were extinguished. The losses were incalculable, but the wonderful Hypatia fought with her last breath to save them. After they’d murdered her, they burned her remains. And Cyril was made a bloody saint.

Can you see any parallels between you and Hypatia?

My biggest love in life is meditation. I love peace, I love science and I love people of this nature. Katharine Hepburn was the closest I’ve come to Hypatia. Hepburn was incredibly powerful and I had marvellous conversations with her about life and education. Hypatia was a part that Hepburn should have played. She had that edge, that power, that passion. She had great knowledge and had studied all the great religions. I challenged and challenged and challenged Hepburn and I learned and learned and learned. I’d have been the same with Hypatia.

If you could meet Hypatia, what would you say to her?

I would say: “Thank you for being a great example. And thank you for being a great servant to the arts and the sciences.” Her tapestry was vast. She was a servant to mankind and we owe her an immense debt of gratitude. I can say – with cosmic gusto – she is my hero. We shall never see her like again.

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Brian Blessed was talking to Nige Tassell. Brian Blessed is an actor and writer. His memoir, Absolute Pandemonium, has just been published by Sidgwick & Jackson