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Hypatia of Alexandria

Essay By: Sabrina Bourque

A brief history of Hypatia, an extraordinary woman who contributed much to science and philosophy in the 4th century.

Submitted:Jan 29, 2012    Reads: 263    Comments: 0    Likes: 0   

Hypatia of Alexandria

History has been said to be written by the victors. This may be true, but then the question becomes 'who were really the victors?' Many scholars and historians consider the Catholic Church to be the true victor, and the main storyteller, in regards to European history. However, using original sources, some events and biographies can be pieced together by recognizing the bias of some religious texts, and using reasonable skepticism to differentiate that from a secular account. These scrutinized accounts may leave the historian with a less exciting tale, but more accurate details in the end result, which is more important when recording history.

Hypatia was born in Roman Alexandria in the mid to late part of the 4th century, during a period where science, philosophy, and democracy were considered the pinnacle of a good life. Women were considered equal to men, at least in intellectual forums, and Hypatia's father was Theon, a respected geometer and philosopher. ("Hypatia.") Her education and accomplishments give testimony to the ideals of Alexandria's quest for knowledge, lack of sexism, and democracy. Her torturous death, however, is an example of total betrayal, and cowardice by the emerging Christian leaders of that time, as well as her fellow Roman scholars and friends, and the few primary sources about her show the difference between biased storytelling and the desire to represent history correctly.

What is usually taught about Hypatia is that she was a well-educated student of Plato, and a philosopher and mathematician who was highly respected by the Pagan government of Alexandria. She was killed by a mob of Christians, as they stripped her, dragged her through the streets of Alexandria, and cut her with sharp objects until she died.

To be truly primary, of course, a document would have to be an autobiographical account. Although Hypatia did write commentaries and edited some of her father's work, she did not write anything, at least which has survived, of her own life. Therefore, historians must rely on the writing of others for information about her. The texts considered primary sources normally considered for the life of Hypatia range from being written during her lifetime to several centuries after her death.

The Ecclasiastical History by Socrates Scholaticus was a comprehensive account written by a Christian historian about events that occurred near his own lifetime. It covers the years 305-439 which include the life of Hypatia, as she died in 415. Although he was a member of the church, it is obvious in his writing that he did not approve of her murder, although he does not argue with the idea that she was overstepping her bounds by being a female educator. In the English translation of his History, he explains "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 going to an assembly of men. For all men on account of her extraordinary dignity and virtue admired her the more." (Scholasticus.) There is a tone of disapproval for her having no qualms teaching and advising men. The Christian religion at the time was in favor of women being solemn, quiet, subservient, and Christian women were never permitted to teach or influence affairs of men, which included government and education.

However, he continues to explain that it was jealousy on the part of the Christians of the influence that Hypatia had on Orestes that led them to murder her. He condemns the action, saying "This affair brought not the least opprobrium, not only upon Cyril, but also upon the whole Alexandrian church. And surely nothing can be farther from the spirit of Christianity than the allowance of massacres, fights, and transactions of that sort."

Separating the factual items in Scholaticus' account from the opinions and fictional assumptions requires the ability to recognize that there are examples of both within the document. Comparing this text with other accounts of Hypatia's life can yield some direction into what is truth and what isn't by discovering what aspects are repeated in other accounts, which can usually be assumed to be more truthful, and which are solely represented by one author, which can usually indicate a personal bias.

The education and chronology of Scholasticus' text can be compared to other works which correspond, although Scholasticus is vague in his description. He talks about her education with Plato and Plotinus, which can be verified in other documents, including those that were written after her death. However, one of her students and later confidants, Synesius, continued to write letters to her after he was made a Bishop and moved to Cyrene.

His letters are of a personal nature, and in the beginning, were asking for scientific equipment to be made and sent to him. Later, he began to discuss his own scientific and philosophical works, and then as his life progressed and his children died and his country abandoned him, he pleaded with her to correspond back to him in hopes that her goodwill would bring him some happiness before he died. Unbeknownst to Synesius, his last few letters went unanswered not because she did not want to respond, but because she had already been brutally murdered by that point. It is thought that Synesius never did learn of the tragedy that had befallen the woman he called "mother, sister, teacher, and withal benefactress, and whatsoever is honored in name and deed." (Synesius of Cyrene)

The dates of the letters and their content correspond with other accounts of Hypatia's life, including her death around 415, around the same time Synesius was questioning why he did not receive any response from her. He also mentions her teaching, which chronologically corresponds to the dates found in Scholaticus' history, as well as the later accounts. Using this method of discovery, we can assume that at least the dates of her lifetime as well as her teaching and education can be true, since they appear parallel in more than one respected source.

Synesius, however, would have had a high opinion of Hypatia, as he considered her to be a friend, confidant, teacher, and listened and heeded her advice. He titles her as an "august Mistress," "dear Hypatia," and even alludes that she would be the only person who could convince him to move away from the war torn Cyrene and back to Alexandria. He asks her advice on whether or not he should publish the findings of some of his own scientific works, and asks her to teach and assist two young men who lost everything in his city because of the war. His description of white and black robed men, and their contradiction in goals is speaking of the Greek philosophers, who wore white robes, and the Christian monks, who wore black robes. These descriptions are indicative of the power struggle going on between the Pagans and the Christians, and further confirms the accuracy of the chronology of Hypatia's life, since that very power struggle is what supposedly was the direct cause of her death.

There are several much smaller mentions of Hypatia that help to correspond the chronology of Hypatia's life, and the truthfulness of the accounts of her education and accomplishments. An inscription in one of her father's published works attributes some editing to Hypatia, indicating that she was, in fact, alive during that time, and that she was educated and intelligent enough to be able to help edit her father's scholarly texts.

Another historian, Philostorgius, wrote a history that has been lost for the most part, but parts of it were restored by Photius, Patriarch of Constantinople. His text summarizes Philostorgius's chapter on Hypatia by stating "Philostorgius says, that Hypatia, the daughter of Theon, was so well educated in mathematics by her father, that she far surpassed her teacher, and especially in astronomy, and taught many others the mathematical sciences. The impious writer asserts that, during the reign of Theodosius the younger, she was torn in pieces by the Homoousian party." This reinforces that her death was caused by uprising Christians, as the Homoousians were a sect of the early Nicean Christians. ("Homoousios.") His dating is also parallel to other works, which also strengthens the timeline of Hypatia's life and events.

Other brief mentions are made about Hypatia, but because of corroborating evidence that the authors were known for being historically inaccurate, these are usually discounted as being truthful. (Deakin.)

One of the most common and more recent primary sources that are used for the history of Hypatia is the Suda (or Souda) Lexicon, a history written in the 10th century. The English translation states that Cyril, a jealous Christian bishop, was so struck by the reverence with which Alexandria raised Hypatia, that he planned her death and is the direct cause of her murder. Although it was not specifically blamed on Cyril, this corresponds to the earlier texts that blame the "opposition of the Pagans," otherwise known as the Christians for the cause of Hypatia's torture and subsequent murder. ("Suda" ). The Suda also recognizes that Hypatia may have also been killed by a rebellious group of Alexandrians, for which no other evidence is supplied. The Suda Lexicon correctly, compared with earlier sources, cites Hypatia's work and education at Alexandria, but then goes on to recount a story about one of her students that fell in love with her. This student professed his love for Hypatia, and she responded by presenting him with soiled menstrual cloths, to demonstrate that if he was enamored by her physical beauty, that he needed to remember that ugliness can come from physical beauty. Apparently, this turned the young man away, proving that she was correct in assuming that he was not prepared to completely love a woman if he was disgusted by something that a beautiful woman produced. There are no other accounts of this story in any other historical document, which does not necessarily mean that it is untrue, but it can't be assumed to be completely accurate. It is likely that this is a parable meant to emphasize the intellect and purity of Hypatia, as it was common to do in the literature of this era.

The final primary source commonly cited for the history of Hypatia was The Chronicle of John, Coptic Bishop of Nikiu. This account was written by John of Nikiu, who was an Egyptian Coptic Christian, a sect of early Christianity. The chronicle was meant to be a history of the events starting with the birth of Adam, the first man created by God according to the Christians, up to the Muslim conquest of Egypt. It is a Christian document with an obvious Christian persuasion. John begins his section about Hypatia by stating "And in those days there appeared in Alexandria a female philosopher, a pagan named Hypatia, and she was devoted at all times to magic, astrolabes and instruments of music, and she beguiled many people through (her) Satanic wiles." This introduction is filled with negative connotations about Hypatia without any evidence or reason whatsoever. The accusations are purely of religious influence. The text goes on to describe a situation where the Jews in the area deceived the Christians into believing that the city was on fire. The Christians ran to put out the fire, but were massacred by the Jews instead. Orestes, the Prefect of Alexandria, failed to respond with a condemnation of the act quickly enough for the Christians, so the Christians retaliated by attacking the synagogues. Although it doesn't mention the deaths of any Jews by Christians, it calls the attacks a conversion to Christianity, it can be assumed that many Jews were killed, as the Christians gained control of Alexandria. At this point in John's account, Peter, a devout Christian (who is praised by John) seeks out Hypatia, as he believes that the Satanic influence of Hypatia is what caused Orestes, and the rest of the Pagans who governed Alexandria, to allow the Jews to go unpunished for the massacre of the Christians. (John, Coptic Bishop of Nikiu )

The final moments of Hypatia's life is factually the same as the other accounts, in that she was stripped, dragged, and tortured until she died in the city. However, the tone of the writing less focused on the factual account of her death as it is heralding her death as a victory for Christianity, and considering her death as the removal of an idol in Alexandria. It does not include any factual content as to her work, her participation in governmental affairs, or education. Although the chronology is seemingly correct, this account is much more opinionated than any of the others, and must be scrutinized carefully in order to sort the facts from the bias of the Christians who saw her murder as a victory.

By taking these sources and using skepticism and cross examination of them, the opinions and unproven portions can be left out, and the repeated facts and ideas can be assumed to be the true history. While we are left with very little personal information, we can still draw quite a bit of information about Hypatia, so that we are able to draw our own opinions of her, instead of relying on the opinions of biased historians. Collecting those facts and putting them in order leaves us with a small but more likely accurate account of the life and death of Hypatia of Alexandria:

Hypatia was born in Alexandria somewhere between 350 and 370. Her father was Theon, a mathematician who was already highly respected for his work. She was allowed to study under Plato, and then went on to become a teacher herself in Alexandria. She was very interested in astronomy, and contributed to the science of the time by inventing an astrolabe, an instrument that was used to measure positions of celestial objects. Hypatia taught many of the city's male children, including those who would grow up to be leaders. She was often allowed to enter the chambers of the government that were usually reserved for men, and was considered to be an advisor for at least one government official, Orestes the Prefect. During a time in which Alexandria became the setting for the power struggle between the Pagans, who were the originators of the city of Alexandria, and the Jews and Christians, Hypatia's status in Alexandria came under fire because of the Christian's disdain for women leaders or advisors. She was killed by a group of Christians in 415, by being stripped naked, stabbed and cut, and dragged through the streets of Alexandria until she died.

Works Cited

1. "Hypatia." Encyclopedia Brittanica, Encyclopedia Brittanica Online. Encyclopedia Brittanica, 2011. Web. 06 Apr. 2011.


2. Scholasticus, Socrates. Ecclasiastical History. 439. eBook.

3. Synesius of Cyrene, . "To Hypatia (The Philospher)." . Ed. Livius.org. Cyrene: Web. http://www.livius.org/su-sz/synesius/synesius_letters.html#The_Letters:_Order_in_the_Manuscript_.

4. "Homoousios." Encyclopedia Brittanica, Encyclopedia Brittanica Online. Encyclopedia Brittanica, 2011. Web. 06 Apr. 2011.


5. Deakin, Michael. "The Primary Sources for the Life and Work of Hypatia of Alexandria." History of Mathematics Paper 63 (1995): n. pag. Web. 6 Apr 2011. <http://www.physics.utah.edu/~jui/3375/Class%20Materials%20Files/y2007m08d22/hypatia-primary-sources.html>.

6. Suda. Byzantine: 10th Cent.. Print.

7. John, Coptic Bishop of Nikiu, . The Chronicle of John. English Translation. London: 1916. Print.


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