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Hypatia (Υπατία)

Hypatia as imagined by Raphael [1]
Detail from The School of Athens (1509-1510)
Full name Hypatia (Υπατία)
Born c. 370
Died 415
Era Ancient philosophy
Region Hypatia
School Platonism
Main interests Mathematics, astronomy

Hypatia of Alexandria ((Greek: Ὑπατία, Hypatía, pronounced /haɪˈpeɪʃə/ in English; born between 350 and 370; died 415) was a Greek[2][3] scholar from Alexandria in Egypt,[4][5] considered the first notable woman in mathematics, who also taught philosophy and astronomy.[6] She lived in Roman Egypt, and was killed by a Christian mob who falsely blamed her for religious turmoil.[7] Some suggest that her murder marked the end of what is traditionally known as Classical antiquity,[8][9] although others such as Christian Wildberg observe that Hellenistic philosophy continued to flourish until the age of Justinian in the sixth century.[10]

A Neoplatonist philosopher, she belonged to the mathematical tradition of the Academy of Athens represented by Eudoxus of Cnidus;[11] she followed the school of the 3rd century thinker Plotinus, discouraging empirical enquiry and encouraging logical and mathematical studies.[12]



Hypatia was the daughter of Theon, who was her teacher and the last known mathematician associated with the Museum of Alexandria.[13] She traveled to both Athens and Italy to study,[14] before becoming head of the Platonist school at Alexandria in approximately 400.[15] According to the 10th century Byzantine encyclopedia the Suda, she worked as teacher of philosophy, teaching the works of Plato and Aristotle.[16] It is believed that there were both Christians[17] and foreigners[12] among her students.

Although Hypatia was herself a pagan, she was respected by a number of Christians, and later held up by Christian authors as a symbol of virtue.[12] The Suda controversially[18] declared her "the wife of Isidore the Philosopher"[16] but agreed she had remained a virgin.[19] Hypatia rebuffed a suitor by showing him her menstrual rags, claiming they demonstrated that there was "nothing beautiful" about carnal desires.[16]

Hypatia maintained correspondence with her former pupil Synesius of Cyrene, who c. 410 became bishop of Ptolemais.[20] Together with the references by Damascius, these are the only writings with descriptions or information from her pupils that survive.[21] The contemporary Christian historiographer Socrates Scholasticus described her in his Ecclesiastical History:

There was a woman at Alexandria named Hypatia, daughter of the philosopher Theon, who made such attainments in literature and science, as to far surpass all the philosophers of her own time. Having succeeded to the school of Plato and Plotinus, she explained the principles of philosophy to her auditors, many of whom came from a distance to receive her instructions. 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.[12]


Many of the works commonly attributed to Hypatia are believed to have been collaborative works with her father, Theon Alexandricus; this kind of authorial uncertainty being typical for the situation of feminine philosophy in Antiquity.[22]

A partial list of specific accomplishments:

Her contributions to science are reputed to include the charting of celestial bodies[6] and the invention of the hydrometer,[26] used to determine the relative density and gravity of liquids.

Her pupil Synesius, bishop of Cyrene, wrote a letter defending her as the inventor of the astrolabe, although earlier astrolabes predate Hypatia's model by at least a century - and her father had gained fame for his treatise on the subject.[27]


Believed to have been the reason for the strained relationship between the Imperial Prefect Orestes and the Bishop Cyril, Hypatia attracted the ire of a Christian population eager to see the two reconciled. One day in March 415,[28] during the season of Lent, her chariot was waylaid on her route home by a Christian mob, possibly Nitrian monks[28] led by a man identified only as Peter, who is thought to be Peter the Reader, Cyril's assistant. The Christian monks stripped her naked and dragged her through the streets to the newly Christianised Caesareum church, where she was brutally killed. Some reports suggest she was flayed with ostraca (potsherds) and set ablaze while still alive, though other accounts suggest those actions happened after her death:

Socrates Scholasticus (5th-century) John of Nikiû (7th-century) Edward Gibbon (18th-century)

Yet even 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. Some of them therefore, hurried away by a fierce and bigoted zeal, whose ringleader was a reader named Peter, waylaid her returning home, and dragging her from her carriage, they took her to the church called Caesareum, where they completely stripped her, and then murdered her by scraping her skin off with tiles and bits of shell. After tearing her body in pieces, they took her mangled limbs to a place called Cinaron, and there burnt them.

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 Satanic wiles...A multitude of believers in God arose under the guidance of Peter the magistrate...and they proceeded to seek for the pagan woman who had beguiled the people of the city and the prefect through her enchantments. And when they learnt the place where she was, they proceeded to her and found her...they dragged her along till they brought her to the great church, named Caesareum. Now this was in the days of the fast. And they tore off her clothing and dragged her...through the streets of the city till she died. And they carried her to a place named Cinaron, and they burned her body with fire.

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.


Hypatia, painted by Charles William Mitchell in 1885.
Cameron's 1867 photograph Hypatia
An actress, possibly Mary Anderson, in the title role of the play Hypatia, circa 1900.
Hypatia as imagined in a 1908 illustration

Antiquity to the Age of Reason

Shortly after her death, a forged letter attacking Christianity was published under her name.[29] According to Bryan J. Whitfield, the pagan historian Damascius was "anxious to exploit the scandal of Hypatia's death",[30] and laid the blame squarely on the Christians and Bishop Cyril. His account was incorporated in the Suda and so became widely known. However, Damascius is the only ancient source to say that Cyril was responsible.[31]

In the 14th century, historian Nicephorus Gregoras described Eudokia Makrembolitissa as a "second Hypatia".[21]

In the early 18th century, the deist scholar John Toland used her death as the basis for an anti-Catholic tract entitled Hypatia: Or the history of a most beautiful, most vertuous, most learned, and every way accomplish’d lady; who was torn to pieces by the clergy of Alexandria, to gratify the pride, emulation, and cruelty of their archbishop, commonly but undeservedly stil’d St. Cyril.[32] This led to a counter-claim being published by Thomas Lewis in 1721 entitled The History Of Hypatia, A most Impudent School-Mistress of Alexandria.[33]

Eventually, her story began to be infused with Christian details, as it was first substituted for the missing history of Saint Catherine of Alexandria.[34][35]

Nineteenth century

In the nineteenth century, interest in the "literary legend of Hypatia" began to rise.[21] Diodata Saluzzo Roero's 1827 Ipazia ovvero delle Filosofie suggested that Cyril had actually converted Hypatia to Christianity, and that she had been killed by a "treacherous" priest. In 1843, German authors Soldan and Heppe argued in their highly influential History of the Witchcraft Trials that Hypatia may have been, in effect, the first famous "witch" punished under Christian authority (see Witch-hunt).[36] In his 1847 Hypatie and 1857 Hypatie et Cyrille, French poet Charles-Marie-René Leconte de Lisle portrayed Hypatia as the epitome of "vulnerable truth and beauty".[37] Charles Kingsley's 1853 novel Hypatia - or New Foes with an Old Face, which portrayed the scholar as a "helpless, pretentious, and erotic heroine",[38] recounted her conversion by a Jewish-Christian named Raphael Aben-Ezra after supposedly becoming disillusioned with Orestes.

In 1867, the early photographer Julia Margaret Cameron created a portrait of the scholar as a young woman.[39]

Twentieth century

References to Hypatia appear in other fiction. Some authors mention her in passing, such as Marcel Proust, who dropped her name in the last sentence of "Madame Swann at Home," the first section of Within a Budding Grove. Some characters are named after her, such as Hypatia Cade, a precocious child and main character in the science fiction novel The Ship Who Searched by Mercedes Lackey and Anne McCaffrey. Rinne Groff's 2000 play The Five Hysterical Girls Theorem features a character named Hypatia who lives silently, in fear that she will suffer the fate of her namesake. Hypatia is the name of a 'shipmind' (ship computer) in The Boy Who Would Live Forever, a novel in Frederick Pohl's Heechee series. Umberto Eco's novel Baudolino sees the protagonist meet a secluded society of satyr-like creatures who all take their name and philosophy from Hypatia.

A fictional version of the historic character appears in several works and indeed series, such as the Heirs of Alexandria series written by Mercedes Lackey, Eric Flint and Dave Freer, which includes fictitious references to Hypatia's conversion to Christianity and subsequent correspondence with John Chrysostom and Augustine of Hippo; the Corto Maltese adventure Fable of Venice, by characteristic superposition of anachronistic elements, sees Hypatia preside over an intellectual salon in pre-Fascist Italy; and as a recurring character in Mark London Williams' juvenile fiction Danger Boy. She also appears, briefly, as one of the kidnapped scientists and philosophers in the Doctor Who episode Time and the Rani.

American astronomer Carl Sagan, in Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, discussed Hypatia and gave a detailed speculative description of her death, linking it with the destruction of the Library of Alexandria, and declaring her, without corroboration, its last librarian. A more scholarly historical study of her, Hypatia of Alexandria by Maria Dzielska (translated into English by F. Lyra, published by Harvard University Press), was named by Choice Magazine as an "Outstanding Academic Book of 1995, Philosophy Category".

She has been claimed by second wave feminism, most prominently as Hypatia: A Journal of Feminist Philosophy, published since 1986 by Indiana University Press. Judy Chicago's large-scale The Dinner Party awards her a place-setting, and other artistic works draw on or are based around Hypatia.

The last two centuries have seen Hypatia's name honored in the sciences, especially astronomy. 238 Hypatia, a main belt asteroid discovered in 1884, was named for her. The lunar crater Hypatia was named after the philosopher, in addition to craters named for her father Theon and for Cyril. The 180 km Rimae Hypatia is located north of the crater, one degree south of the equator, along the Mare Tranquillitatis.[40]

By the end of the twentieth century Hypatia's name was applied to projects ranging in scope from an Adobe typeface (Hypatia Sans Pro),[41] to a cooperative community house in Madison, Wisconsin. A genus of moth also bears her name.

Twenty-first century

Her life continues to be fictionalised by authors in many countries and languages. Two recent examples are Ipazia, scienziata alessandrina by Adriano Petta (translated from the Italian in 2004 as Hypatia: Scientist of Alexandria), and Hypatia y la eternidad by Ramon Galí, a fanciful alternate history, in Spanish (2009).[42]. The 2008 novel Azazīl, by Egyptian Muslim author Dr. Yūsuf Zaydan, tells the story of the religious conflict of that time through the eyes of a monk, including a substantial section on Hypatia.[43] Zaydan's book has been criticized by Christians in Egypt.[44] Two examples in English are Remembering Hypatia: A Novel of Ancient Egypt by Brian Trent[45], and Flow Down Like Silver, Hypatia of Alexandria by Ki Longfellow, which was published in September 2009 as the second in a trilogy of the divine feminine, the first being The Secret Magdalene.[46]

In addition to books, Hypatia's life has been dramatised (with significant poetic license) into the 2009 film Ágora, directed by Alejandro Amenábar and starring Rachel Weisz as the philosopher.

More factually, Hypatia of Alexandria: Mathematician and Martyr (2007) is a brief (113 page) biography by Michael Deakin, with a focus on her mathematical research.


  1. ^ See The School of Athens, "Who is Who?" by Michael Lahanas. See also: (Italian) Rudi Mathematici, Unwin & Carline 2009.
  2. ^ Mueller, I.; L.S. Grinstein & P.J. Campbell (1987). Women of Mathematics: A Biobibliographic Sourcebook. New York: Greenwood Press.  
  3. ^ 1. Groundbreaking Scientific Experiments, Inventions, and Discoveries, Krebs. 2. The Woman Citizen By Horace Adelbert Hollister.3. Russian Women's Studies: Essays on Sexism in Soviet Culture 4.Available Means: An Anthology of Women's Rhetoric
  4. ^ Hypatia, Encyclopædia Britannica: "Egyptian Neoplatonist philosopher who was the first notable woman in mathematics."
  5. ^ Columbia Encyclopedia, Hypatiacitation:Alexandrian Neoplatonic philosopher and mathematician
  6. ^ a b Toohey, Sue (2003). "The Important Life & Tragic Death of Hypatia". Retrieved 2007-12-09.  
  7. ^ Edward Jay Watts, (2006), City and School in Late Antique Athens and Alexandria. pages 197-198. University of California Press
  8. ^ Women Philosophers in the Ancient Greek World: Donning the Mantle, by Kathleen Wider. Hypatia © 1986 Indiana University Press p. 49-50
  9. ^ Mangasarian, Mangasar Mugurditch. The Martyrdom of Hypatia, 1915
  10. ^ Christian Wildberg, in Hypatia of Alexandria - a philosophical martyr, The Philosopher's Zone, ABC Radio National (4 April 2009).
  11. ^ Hypatia of Alexandria - a philosophical martyr, The Philosopher's Zone, ABC Radio National (4 April 2009).
  12. ^ a b c d Scholasticus, Socrates. Ecclesiastical History.  
  13. ^ Michael Deakin (August 3, 1997). "Ockham's Razor: Hypatia of Alexandria". ABC Radio. Retrieved 2008-05-23.  
  14. ^ Multicultural Resource Center: Hypatia
  15. ^ Historical Dictionary of Feminism, by Janet K. Boles, Diane Long Hoeveler. pp 166.
  16. ^ a b c d e f Suda online, Upsilon 166
  17. ^ Bregman, J. (1982). "Synesius of Cyrene: Philosopher-bishop". Berkley: University of California Press.
  18. ^ Kingsley, Charles. "Hypatia", preface, quoting and agreeing with Gibbon
  19. ^ Great Inspirations - Hypatia
  20. ^ A. Fitzgerald, Letters of Synesius of Cyrene, London, 1926. (Letter 154 of Synesius of Cyrene to Hypatia).
  21. ^ a b c Dzielska 1996
  22. ^ David Engels: Zwischen Philosophie und Religion: Weibliche Intellektuelle in Spätantike und Islam, in: D. Groß (Hg.), Gender schafft Wissen, Wissenschaft Gender. Geschlechtsspezifische Unterscheidungen Rollenzuschreibungen im Wandel der Zeit, Kassel 2009, 97-124.
  23. ^ Dzielska 1995, pp.71-2; "Until recently scholars thought that Hypatia revised Theon's commentary on Almagest. The view was based on the title of the commentary on the third book of Almagest, which read as follows: "Commentary by Theon of Alexandria on Book III of Ptolemy's Almagest, edition revised by my daughter Hypatia, the philosopher." Cameron, who has analyzed Theon's titles for other books of Almagest and for other scholarly texts of late antiquity, concludes that Hypatia corrected not her father's commentary but the text of Almagest itself. Thus, the extant text of Almagest could have been prepared, at least partly, by Hypatia."
  24. ^ Grout, J. (n.d.). "Encyclopaedia Romana: Hypatia". Retrieved 2009-05-16.  
  25. ^ Dzielska 1995, p.72
  26. ^ Ethlie Ann Vare and Greg Ptacek, Mothers of Invention 1988, pp. 24-26.
  27. ^ Chris Marvin, Frank Sikernitsky The Window:Philosophy on the Web
  28. ^ a b O'Connor, John J.; Robertson, Edmund F., "Hypatia of Alexandria", MacTutor History of Mathematics archive, University of St Andrews,  .
  29. ^ Synodicon, c. 216, in iv. tom. Concil. p. 484, as detailed in The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, vol. 8, chapter XLVII
  30. ^ Whitfield 1995, p.14
  31. ^ Dzielska 1996, p.18
  32. ^ Ogilvie, M. B. (1986). Women in science: Antiquity through the nineteenth century. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
  33. ^ The History Of Hypatia, A most Impudent School-Mistress of Alexandria: Murder'd and torn to Pieces by the Populace, In Defence of Saint Cyril and the Alexandrian Clergy. From the Aspersions of Mr. Toland.
  34. ^ Wikisource-logo.svg "St. Catherine of Alexandria". Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. 1913.  
  35. ^ Jameson, Anna. "Sacred and Legendary Art", 1857. pp 84.
  36. ^ Soldan, W.G. and Heppe, H., Geschichte der Hexenprozesse, Essen reprint 1990. p.82.
  37. ^ Edwards, Catharine. "Roman Presences: Receptions of Rome in European Culture, 1789-1945" pp. 112
  38. ^ Snyder, J.M. (1989). The woman and the lyre: Women writers in classical Greece and Rome.. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press.  
  39. ^ Marsh, Jan; Pamela Gerrish Nunn (1998). Pre-Raphaelite Women Artists. London: Thames & Hudson.  
  40. ^ "Hypatia of Alexandria: A woman before her time". The Woman Astronomer. November 11, 2007. Retrieved 2007-12-03.  
  41. ^ "Hypatia Sans Pro, my new typeface". Adobe Systems. Retrieved 2008-08-24.  
  42. ^ Hypatia y la eternidad Gali, Ramón ISBN 978-84-936773-9-8
  43. ^ Rose al-Yusuf, May 9, 2008 reviewed by Arab-West Report, 2008, week 18, art. 48
  44. ^ "The sin of apostasy in ’Azazīl’". Arab-West Report. 2008, Week 28, Art. 29.  
  45. ^ "Remembering Hypatia: A Novel of Ancient Egypt".  
  46. ^ "Flow Down Like Silver, Hypatia of Alexandria".  


This article incorporates text from the public domain Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology by William Smith (1870).

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by Charles Kingsley
A fictionalised account of the life of the Greek scholar Hypatia.

WHEN you shall have read this book, and considered the view of human relationships which is set forth in it, you will be at no loss to discover why I have dedicated it to you, as one paltry witness of an union and of a debt which, though they may seem to have begun with birth, and to have grown with your most loving education, yet cannot die with death : but are spiritual, indefeasible, eternal in the heavens with that God from whom every fatherhood in heaven and earth is named.

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