Although she represents all that is best in Paganism, and he all that is worst in Christianity, it is my opinion that they are each truly representative of their respective religious traditions, and, more specifically, that her brutal murder is also representative of the wider conflict between those two traditions.
Three scholars who have studied this period as close as any are Edward Gibbon, J.B. Bury, and Ramsay MacMullen, and the fact is that it is an almost grotesque understatement to put it this way. What is not an understatement is to say that, at least in the English language, the literature on late Roman history can be neatly divided into two categories: (1) the writings of Gibbon, Bury and MacMullen, and (2) everything else.
The remainder of this post will consist of excerpts from the writings of these three historians. The images in this post are all from the movie Agora, starring Rachel Weisz as Hypatia and Sami Samir as Cyril.
1. From Ramsay MacMullen's Christianity and Paganism in the Fourth to Eighth Centuries:
It used to be thought that, at the end, the eradication of paganism really required no effort. The empire in its waning generations had suffered decline not only material but spiritual. Of itself, "paganism had by late antiquity become little more than a hollow husk." [MacMullen is here quoting a 1995 article by New York Times art critic Pepe Karmel: "Persistence of pagan myth in modern imagination"] To replace it, only a preferable alternative was needed which, when supplied and explained, over the course of time inevitably found acceptance. But historians seem now to have abandoned this interpretation (even if, outside their ranks, it persists for a time). The real vitality of paganism is instead recognized; and to explain its eventual fate what must also be recognized is an opposing force, an urgent one, determined on its extinction. Such a force is easily felt in Christian obedience to the divine commands of both Testaments, calling for the annihilation of all error. It was this that controlled the flow of religious history from the fourth century on.Long before it could be expressed in actions, urgency was clear in the way Christian writers described paganism. From the start, it is not easy to find in the whole of their literature a matter-of-fact, uncolored reference to its beliefs or rituals or (of course, especially) the actual images of gods. Some touch of denigration is almost always added. We might suppose Christians therefore lived in a fog of dark disapproval which they were supposed to breath in and make a part of themselves, if they listened to their leaders or read their works, while of course living also in a mist of love -- for each other. Needless to say they could not all, in each moment, respond as they were bid. Instead they responded only in fits and bits, as one might expect, not always with outrage toward their unbelieving neighbors nor ever-charitably toward their own fellows. Periodic outbursts, however, of hate-filled mob or gang violence after the mid-fourth century are indeed recorded -- reference will be made to them in what follows -- and the role of the church leadership in exciting them is clear. The leaders' appeals could be heard over a general background of terms such as "mad," "laughable," "loathsome," "disgusting," "contaminating," "wicked," "ignorant," and so forth, characteristic of ancient invective and freely applied by Christians to everything religious that was not also Christian. More to the fore were specific demands for aggressive action by fulminating synods or individual zealots, of whom I may pick out Firmicus Maternus in 346, adjuring the emperors, "Little remains, before the Devil shall lie utterly prostrate, overthrown by Your laws, and the lethal infection of a vanquished idolatry shall be no more. . . . The favoring numen of Christ has reserved for Your hands the annihilation of idolatry and the destruction of profane temples." Adjuration rises to a shout: "Abolish! abolish in confidence, most holy emperors, the ornaments of temples. . . . Upon You, most holy emperors, necessity enjoins the avenging and punishing of this evil, . . . so that Your Severities persecute root and branch, omnifarum, the crime of idol worship. Harken and impress upon Your sacred minds what God commands regarding this crime" (and he goes on to work up Deut. 13.6-9, "If thy brother, son, daughter, or wife entice thee secretly, saying, 'Let us go and serve other gods, . . . . thou shall surely kill" them). A little more focused than Firmicus' exhortations will be the legislation of the time with its own version of inflammatory name-calling, for example, aimed at "pagans and their heathen enormities, since with their natural insanity and stubborn insolence they depart from the path of the true religion . . . [in] nefarious rites of their sacrifices and false doctrines of their deadly superstition." At the end, most sharply of all, specific injunctions on specific occasions by leaders to particular audiences. John Chrysostom by letter to the monks or Augustine to his congregation, demanded action.Firmicus was writing toward the turn of that point where appeals for toleration also change, from the Christian to the non-Christian. Ecclesiastical leaders now began to exercise their superior powers proportionately against their various enemies; what had been words, earlier, became reality and event. Among those enemies, not to be forgotten, were Jews and Manichees against whom laws and arms were turned in about the same period and manner, while sectarian rivalries within the church continued unabated and with freer use of force, now that it was safe (so, in the century opened by the Peace of the Church, more Christians died for their faith at the hands of fellow Christians than had died before in all the persecutions). These areas of religious strife I recall only to make plain in other ways the great urgency lying behind those Old and New Testament commands cited above, which would allow no truce with error. Christians might point with envy to the concordia that prevailed among non-Christians, just as non-Christians pointed with amazement at the murderous intolerance within the now dominant religion; but there could be no compromise with the Devil.Christian readiness for action carried to no matter what extremes has not always received the acknowledgment it deserves in modern accounts of the period. Among them, prior to the 1980's, readers will be hard put to find Firmicus' word "persecution" describing the conduct of the Christian empire toward tis non-Christian subjects. Instead, they will find a reference to that happy moment in 312 "when the era of persecutions ended [!] and Christianity became publicly established in the Later Roman Empire." Still in the 1990s, congratulation is made on the process of converting the ancient empire "without society tearing itself apart . . . . the fourth century said goodbye to religious strife." [The first part of the quote is from Stephen Wilson's Introduction to his Saints and their Cults (1983), while the second is from R.M. Price's "Pluralism and Religious Tolerance in the Empire in the Fourth Century", which is published in Papers presented at the 11th International Conference on Patristic Studies (1993).]The lynching of Hypatia took place toward the beginning of the fifth century (A.D. 415). Her fate is illuminating. It may be recalled that, snatched from the street by a mob of zealots in Alexandria, she was hacked to death in the gloom of the so-called Caesar-church and her body burned. She was a non-Christian and a prominent voice for her views; she had become the focus of the patriarch Cyril's resentment; the lector had caught his master's wishes and led the crowd that killed her. All this seems certain. In the background, explaining Cyril's heat, were the indirectly connected Greek-Jewish tensions in the city and the patriarch's and the provincial governor's conflict over their respective followings and strength. In the contest between these two, the patriarch called on his parabalani, church workers with some muscle, as well as hundreds of monks from the Nitrian wilds with still more muscle. The monks shouted against the governor [Orestes] and stoned him, though he escaped alive. They constituted, with the civil and episcopal authorities and nameless zealots, the available agents of that reforming urgency which governed religious change in the centuries post-400, all conveniently seen in action in the drama that ends with the death of Hypatia.
[Ramsay MacMullen, Christianity and Paganism in the Fourth to Eighth Centuries, pp. 12-15]
In the first years of his pontificate his chief objects were to exalt his own authority above that of the civil governor of Egypt, the Augustal Prefect, and to make Alexandria an irreproachably Christian city by extirpating paganism which still flourished in its schools, and by persecuting the Jews who for centuries had formed a large minority of the population. He was an ecclesiastical tyrant of the most repulsive type, and the unfortunate Hypatia was the most illustrious of his victims.
Hypatia was the daughter of Theon, a distinguished mathematician, who was a professor at the Museum or university of Alexandria. Trained in mathematics by her father, she left that pure air for the deeper and more agitating study of metaphysics, and probably became acquainted with the older Neoplatonism of Plotinus, which, in the Alexandrian Museum, had been transmitted untainted by the later developments of Porphyrius and Iamblichus. When she had completed her education she was appointed to the chair of philosophy, and her extraordinary talents, combined with her beauty, made her a centre of interest in the cultivated circles at Alexandria, and drew to her lecture-room crowds of admirers. Her free and unembarrassed intercourse with educated men and the publicity of her life must have given rise to many scandals and backbitings, and her own sex doubtless looked upon her with suspicion, and called her masculine and immodest. She used to walk in the streets in her academical gown (τρίβων, the philosopher's cloak) and explain to all who wished to learn, difficulties in Plato or Aristotle. Of the influence of her personality on her pupils we have still a record in some letters of Synesius of Cyrene, who, although his studies under her auspices did not hinder him from adopting Christianity, always remained at heart a semi-pagan, and was devotedly attached to his instructress. That some of her pupils fell in love with her is not surprising, but Hypatia never married.
The cause of the tragic fate, which befell her in March A.D. 415, is veiled in obscurity. We know that she was an intimate friend of the pagan Orestes, the Prefect of Egypt; and she was an object of hatred to Cyril, both because she was an enthusiastic preacher of pagan doctrines and because she was the Prefect's friend.
The hatred of the Jews for the Patriarch brought the strained relations between Cyril and Orestes to a crisis. On one occasion, seeing a notorious creature of Cyril present in an assembly, they cried out that the spy should be arrested, and Orestes gratified them by inflicting public chastisement on him. The menaces which Cyril, enraged by this act, fulminated against the Jews led to a bloody vengeance on the Christian population. A report was spread at night that the great church was on fire, and when the Christians flocked to the spot the Jews surrounded and massacred them. Cyril replied to this horror by banishing all Hebrews from the city and allowing the Christians to plunder their property, a proceeding which was quite beyond the Patriarch's rights, and was a direct and insulting interference with the authority of Orestes, who immediately wrote a complaint to Constantinople. At this juncture 500 monks of Nitria, sniffing the savour of blood and bigotry from afar, hastened to the scene. These fanatics insulted Orestes publicly, one of them hitting him with a stone; in fact the governor ran a serious risk of his life. The culprit who hurled the missile was executed, and Cyril treated his body as the remains of a martyr.
It was then that Hypatia fell victim in the midst of these infuriated passions. One day as she was returning home she was seized by a band of parabalani [παράβολοι] or lay brethren, whose duty it was to tend the sick and who were under the supervision of the Patriarch. These fanatics, led by a certain Peter, dragged her to a church and, tearing off her garments, hewed her in pieces and burned the fragments of her body. The reason alleged in public for this atrocity was that she hindered a reconciliation between Orestes and Cyril; but the true motive, as Socrates tells us, was envy. This ecclesiastical historian does not conceal his opinion that Cyril was morally responsible.
There can be no doubt that public opinion was deeply shocked not only in Alexandria but also in Constantinople. Whatever Pulcheria and Atticus may have thought, the Praetorian Prefect Aurelian, who was the friend of her friend Synesius, must have been horrified by the fate of Hypatia. It would seem that the Empress found it impossible to act on the partial and opposite reports which were received from Orestes and Cyril, and a special commissioner, Aedesius, was sent to Alexandria to investigate the circumstances and assign the guilt. We have no direct information concerning his inquiry, but it would appear that it was long drawn out and it was publicly recognised that the parabalani were dangerous. The government consequently reduced the numbers of their corporation, forbade them to appear at games or public assemblies, and gave the Prefect authority over them. But within little more than a year the influence of Cyril at the pious court of Pulcheria elicited a new decree, which raised the number of the parabalani from 500 to 600 and restored them to the Patriarch's authority. If condign punishment had been inflicted on the guilty we should probably have heard of it. The obscure murderers may have escaped, but "the murder of Hypatia has imprinted an indelible stain on the character and religion of Cyril of Alexandria."[J.B. Bury, History of the Later Roman Empire, pp. 216-219]
The name of Cyril of Alexandria is famous in controversial story, and the title of saint is a mark that his opinions and his party have finally prevailed. In the house of his uncle, the archbishop Theophilus, he imbibed the orthodox lessons of zeal and dominion, and five years of his youth were profitably spent in the adjacent monasteries of Nitria. Under the tuition of of the abbot Serapion, he applied himself to ecclesiastical studies with such indefatigable ardour, that in the course of one sleepless night he has perused the four Gospels, the Catholic epistles, and the epistle to the Romans. Origen he detested; but the writings of Clemens and Dionysius, of Athanasius and Basil, were continually in his hands: by the theory and practice of dispute, his faith was confirmed and his wit was sharpened; he extended round his cell the cobwebs of scholastic theology, and meditated the works of allegory and metaphysics, whose remains, in seven verbose folios, now peaceably slumber by the side of their rivals. Cyril prayed and fasted in the desert, but his thoughts (it is the reproach of a friend) were still fixed on the world; and the call of Theophilus, who summoned him to the tumult of the cities and synods, was too readily obeyed by the aspiring hermit. With the approbation of his uncle, he assumed the office and acquired the fame, of a popular preacher. His comely person adorned the pulpit, the harmony of his voice resounded in the cathedral, his friends were stationed to lead or second the applause of the congregation, and the hasty notes of the scribes preserved his discourses, which, in their effect, though not in their composition, might be compared with those of the Athenian orators. The death of Theophilus expanded and realized the hopes of his nephew. The clergy of Alexandria was divided; the soldiers and their general supported the claims of the archdeacon; but a restless multitude, with voices and with hands, asserted the cause of their favorite; and, after a period of thirty-nine years, Cyril was seated on the throne of Athanasius.The prize was not unworthy of his ambition. At a distance from the court, and at the head of an immense capital, the partriarch, as he was now styled, of Alexandria had gradually usurped the state and authority of a civil magistrate. The public and private charities of the city were managed by his discretion; his voice inflamed or appeased the passions of the multitude; his commands were blindly obeyed by his numerous and fanatic parabolani, familiarized in their daily office with scenes of death; and the praefects of Egypt were awed or provoked by the temporal power of these Christian pontiffs. Ardent in the prosecution of heresy, Curial auspiciously opened his reign by oppressing the Novatians, the most innocent and harmless of sectaries. The interdiction of their religious worship appeared in his eyes a just and meritorious act; and he confiscated their holy vessels, without apprehending the guilt of sacrilege. The toleration, and even the privileges of the Jews, who had multiplied to the number of forty thousand, were secured by the laws of the Caesars and the Ptolemies, and a long prescription of seven hundred years since the foundation of Alexandria.
Without any legal sentence, without any royal mandate, the patriarch, at the dawn of day, led a seditious multitude to the attack of the synagogues. Unarmed and unprepared, the Jews were incapable of resistance; their houses of prayer were levelled with the ground, and the episcopal warrior, after rewarding his troops with the plunder of their goods, expelled from the city the remnants of the unbelieving nation. Perhaps he might plead the insolence of their prosperity and their deadly hatred of the Christians, whose blood they had recently shed in a malicious or accidental tumult. Such crimes would have deserved the animadversion of the magistrate; but in this promiscuous outrage, the innocent were confounded with the guilty, and Alexandria was impoverished by the loss of a wealthy and industrious colony. The zeal of Cyril exposed him to the penalties of the Julian law; but in a feeble government, and a superstitious age, he was secure of impunity, and even of praise. Orestes complained; but his just complaints were too quickly forgotten by the ministers of Theodosius, and too deeply remembered by a priest who affected to pardon, and continued to hate, the prefect of Egypt. As he [Orestes] passed through the streets, his chariot was assaulted by a band of five hundred of the Nitrian monks; his guards fled from the wild beasts of the desert; his protestations that he was a Christian and a Catholic were answered by a volley of stones, and the face of Orestes was covered with blood. The loyal citizens of Alexandria hastened to his rescue; he instantly satisfied his justice and revenge against the monk by whose hand he had been wounded, and Ammonius expired under the rod of the lictor. At the command of Cyril his body was raised from the ground, and transported, in solemn procession, to the cathedral; the name of Ammonius was changed to that of Thaumasius the wonderful; his tomb was decorated with the trophies of martyrdom, and the patriarch ascended the pulpit to celebrate the magnanimity of an assassin and a rebel. Such honours might incite the faithful to combat and die under the banners of the saint; and he soon prompted, or accepted, the sacrifice of a virgin, who professed the religion of the Greeks, and cultivated the friendship of Orestes. Hypatia, the daughter of Theon the mathematician, was initiated in her father's studies: her learned comments have elucidated the geometry of Aollonius and Diophantus, and she publicly taught, both at Athens and Alexandria, the philosophy of Plato and Aristotle. In the bloom of beauty, and in the maturity of wisdom, the modest maid refused her lovers and instructed her disciples; the persons most illustrious for their rank or merit were impatient to visit the female philosopher; and Cyril beheld, with a jealous eye, the gorgeous train of horses and slaves who crowded the door of her academy. A rumor was spread among the Christians that the daughter of Theon was the only obstacle to the reconciliation of the prefect and the archbishop; and that obstacle was speedily removed. On a fatal day, in the holy season, of Lent, Hypatia was torn from her chariot, stripped naked, dragged to the church, and inhumanly butchered by the hands of Peter the reader, and a troop of savage and merciless fanatics: her flesh was scraped from her bones with sharp oyster shells, and her quivering limbs were delivered to the flames. The just progress of enquiry and punishment was stopped by seasonable gifts, bu the murder of Hypatia has imprinted an indelible stain on the character and religion of Cyril of Alexandria.[Edward Gibbon, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, pp. 781-783]