Photo: Agora (Real Story Based Movie on the Life of Hypatia)
Born: c. 350–370 AD
Born Place: Alexandria, Province of Egypt, Eastern Roman Empire
Died: March 415 AD (aged 45–65)
Death Place: Alexandria, Province of Egypt, Eastern Roman Empire
Era: Ancient philosophy
Region: Western philosophy
Main interests: MathematicsAstronomy
Father: Theon (Director of the Musaeum of Alexandria)
Hypatia was a neoplatonist philosopher, astronomer, and mathematician, who lived in Alexandria, Egypt, then part of the Eastern Roman Empire. She was a prominent thinker in Alexandria where she taught philosophy and astronomy. Although preceded by Pandrosion, another Alexandrine female mathematician, she is the first female mathematician whose life is reasonably well recorded.
Hypatia was renowned in her own lifetime as a great teacher and a wise counselor. She wrote a commentary on Diophantus’s thirteen-volume Arithmetica, which may survive in part, having been interpolated into Diophantus’s original text, and another commentary on Apollonius of Perga’s treatise on conic sections, which has not survived. Many modern scholars also believe that Hypatia may have edited the surviving text of Ptolemy’s Almagest, based on the title of her father Theon’s commentary on Book III of the Almagest.
Hypatia constructed astrolabes and hydrometers, but did not invent either of these, which were both in use long before she was born. She was tolerant towards Christians and taught many Christian students, including Synesius, the future bishop of Ptolemais. Ancient sources record that Hypatia was widely beloved by pagans and Christians alike and that she established great influence with the political elite in Alexandria.
Towards the end of her life, Hypatia advised Orestes, the Roman prefect of Alexandria, who was in the midst of a political feud with Cyril, the bishop of Alexandria. Rumors spread accusing her of preventing Orestes from reconciling with Cyril and, in March 415 AD, she was murdered by a mob of Christians led by a lector named Peter.
Hypatia’s murder shocked the empire and transformed her into a “martyr for philosophy”, leading future Neoplatonists such as Damascius to become increasingly fervent in their opposition to Christianity. During the Middle Ages, Hypatia was co-opted as a symbol of Christian virtue and scholars believe she was part of the basis for the legend of Saint Catherine of Alexandria. During the Age of Enlightenment, she became a symbol of opposition to Catholicism.
In the nineteenth century, European literature, especially Charles Kingsley’s 1853 novel Hypatia, romanticized her as “the last of the Hellenes”. In the twentieth century, Hypatia became seen as an icon for women’s rights and a precursor to the feminist movement.
Since the late twentieth century, some portrayals have associated Hypatia’s death with the destruction of the Library of Alexandria, despite the historical fact that the library no longer existed during Hypatia’s lifetime.۔
Hypatia was the daughter of the mathematician Theon of Alexandria (c. 335 – c. 405 AD). According to classical historian Edward J. Watts, Theon was the head of a school called the “Mouseion”, which was named in emulation of the Hellenistic Mouseion, whose membership had ceased in the 260s AD.
Theon’s school was exclusive, highly prestigious, and doctrinally conservative. Theon rejected the teachings of Iamblichus and may have taken pride in teaching a pure, Plotinian Neoplatonism. Although he was widely seen as a great mathematician at the time, Theon’s mathematical work has been deemed by modern standards as essentially “minor”, “trivial”, and “completely unoriginal”.
His primary achievement was the production of a new edition of Euclid’s Elements, in which he corrected scribal errors that had been made over the course of nearly 700 years of copying. Theon’s edition of Euclid’s Elements became the most widely used edition of the textbook for centuries and almost totally supplanted all other editions.
Hypatia was a Neoplatonist, but, like her father, she rejected the teachings of Iamblichus and instead embraced the original Neoplatonism formulated by Plotinus. The Alexandrian school was renowned at the time for its philosophy, and Alexandria was regarded as second only to Athens as the philosophical capital of the Greco-Roman world.
Hypatia taught students from all over the Mediterranean. According to Damascius, she lectured on the writings of Plato and Aristotle. He also states that she walked through Alexandria in a tribon, a kind of cloak associated with philosophers, giving impromptu public lectures.
According to Socrates Scholasticus, during the Christian season of Lent in March 415, a mob of Christians under the leadership of a lector named Peter, raided Hypatia’s carriage as she was travelling home. They dragged her into a building known as the Kaisarion, a former pagan temple and center of the Roman imperial cult in Alexandria that had been converted into a Christian church. There, the mob stripped Hypatia naked and murdered her using ostraka, which can either be translated as “roof tiles” or “oyster shells”.
Damascius adds that they also cut out her eyeballs. They tore her body into pieces and dragged her limbs through the town to a place called Cinarion, where they set them on fire. According to Watts, this was in line with the traditional manner in which Alexandrians carried the bodies of the “vilest criminals” outside the city limits to cremate them as a way of symbolically purifying the city.
Although Socrates Scholasticus never explicitly identifies Hypatia’s murderers, they are commonly assumed to have been members of the parabalani. Christopher Haas disputes this identification, arguing that the murderers were more likely “a crowd of Alexandrian laymen”.
Socrates Scholasticus presents Hypatia’s murder as entirely politically motivated and makes no mention of any role that Hypatia’s paganism might have played in her death. Instead, he reasons that “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.” Socrates Scholasticus unequivocally condemns the actions of the mob, declaring, “Surely nothing can be farther from the spirit of Christianity than the allowance of massacres, fights, and transactions of that sort.”
The Canadian mathematician Ari Belenkiy has argued that Hypatia may have been involved in a controversy over the date of the Christian holiday of Easter 417 and that she was killed on the vernal equinox while making astronomical observations.
Classical scholars Alan Cameron and Edward J. Watts both dismiss this hypothesis, noting that there is absolutely no evidence in any ancient text to support any part of the hypothesis.
Hypatia has been described as a universal genius, but she was probably more of a teacher and commentator than an innovator. No evidence has been found that Hypatia ever published any independent works on philosophy and she does not appear to have made any groundbreaking mathematical discoveries.
During Hypatia’s time period, scholars preserved classical mathematical works and commented on them to develop their arguments, rather than publishing original works. It has also been suggested that the closure of the Mouseion and the destruction of the Serapeum may have led Hypatia and her father to focus their efforts on preserving seminal mathematical books and making them accessible to their students.
The Suda mistakenly states that all of Hypatia’s writings have been lost, but modern scholarship has identified several works by her as extant. This kind of authorial uncertainty is typical of female philosophers from antiquity.
Hypatia wrote in Greek, which was the language spoken by most educated people in the Eastern Mediterranean at the time. In classical antiquity, astronomy was seen as being essentially mathematical in character. Furthermore, no distinction was made between mathematics and numerology or astronomy and astrology.