Hypatia (c. 375–415)

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Hypatia (c. 375–415)

Alexandrian who became one of the most famous intellectuals of her generation, drawing students from all over the Roman Empire. Born around 375 ce; died in 415; daughter of Theon (a mathematician and astronomer associated with the Museum of Alexandria).

Born in Alexandria, Egypt, in 375 or a little earlier, Hypatia was the daughter of Theon, a mathematician and astronomer associated with the Alexandrian Museum. In fact, Theon is the last verified member of that famous institution, founded about 700 years earlier by Ptolemy I, a successor of Alexander the Great and the founder of the dynasty which ruled Egypt until the Romans took direct control of the land in 30 bce. This Museum was not a repository for art, but rather a think tank where famous artists and intellectuals came to ply their expertise initially under the patronage of the Ptolemies, but eventually under the Romans who allowed the city's administration to underwrite the Museum's expenses. Associated with the Museum—or the "House of the Muses"—was the equally famous Alexandrian Library with a collection numbering about 750,000 volumes (each far more expensive to produce than a modern book, for this was an age well before print). This enormous collection was unparalleled and constituted an intellectual resource of the first magnitude, allowing Alexandria to replace Athens as the cultural center of the Greek world.

Traditionally, to be a member of the Museum was to be a member of a religious fraternity, with the Muses—nine goddesses credited with inspiring the intellectually and artistically gifted—receiving their sacred due. The intellectual responsibilities of Museum associates were minimal, but they were compelled to share the fruits of their labors with their patrons and each other through symposia and publication. Regardless, during Hypatia's lifetime, larger social forces compelled the Museum to change with the times. The 4th century ce was the Christian century. When it began, probably no more than ten percent of the population of the Roman Empire were Christians, although these tended to live in cities like Alexandria, in the eastern Mediterranean. However, things began to change drastically when Constantine I the Great legalized Christianity in 312. From that time until Theodosius (Constantine's imperial successor several times removed) essentially outlawed paganism through a series of edicts in 391, the number of Christians multiplied many times. As a result, the culture of the empire became an increasingly Christian one, and many tensions developed as the new Christian majority came head to head with the remnants of the old pagan order. One of these remnants was the Museum. Even though most of the scholars and artists disassociated themselves from the old gods, the establishment was erected around a thoroughly pagan core.

Hypatia was an intellectual prodigy who certainly began her schooling with her father, as her lifelong interests in the fields of mathematics and astronomy indicate. Where she was introduced to a serious study of philosophy, however, is unknown, for her father was not a philosopher. Although Hypatia would later fit well into the neo-Platonic school of Alexandria (which she would head from a very young age), some ancient sources claim that she received her philosophical training at Athens. As enticing as Hypatia visiting Athens may seem, she probably never set foot in Greece. Certainly, Athens had no intellects or resources like those found in Alexandria during the last quarter of the fourth century, for Athens' philosophical heyday was long over by that time. Thus the suggestion that Hypatia studied in Athens probably amounts to no more basis in fact than that the intellectual traditions practiced in Alexandria during Hypatia's lifetime originated in Athens, although Alexandria had replaced Athens as the philosophical center of the Greek world when Hypatia lived.

While still in her 20s, Hypatia developed such a reputation as a mathematician, astronomer, and philosopher that she began to draw students to Alexandria from all over the Roman Empire. Among the mathematical and astronomical works which established Hypatia's reputation were a commentary on Diophantus' Arithmeticorum (a work dedicated to algebraic theorems), a revision of Almagest, the third book of Ptolemy the astronomer (not to be confused with the kings of Egypt), and a commentary on Conic Sections. In the first of these, Hypatia explored the realm of mathematical calculation and ratio without the luxury of Arabic numbers. In the second, Hypatia followed her father's lead in revising Ptolemy's astronomical primer, which had already become the field's standard and would remain so until the Renaissance. Although conceptually flawed, Ptolemy's was one of the greatest scientific tracts of all time. By working within the Ptolemaic tradition, Hypatia accepted its premise of a geocentric (earth centered) universe as opposed to the heliocentric (sun centered) model produced by Aristarchus, another astronomer associated with the Museum in the 3rd century bce. Hypatia's greatest contribution to Ptolemy's work appears to have been in her use of a sexagesimal system of calculation, the process of computing by 60s, such as 60 minutes, 60 seconds, which was especially well adapted to the task of bringing together Ptolemy's theories of cosmic motion with the observable, orbital motions of astronomical bodies. Of course, since the conception of the physical universe as put forth by Ptolemy was fundamentally wrong, Hypatia's contribution to this conception was more rationalization than good science. Of Conic Sections, the final work attested to have been Hypatia's, little can be said. In addition to her contributions to theoretical science, however, she appears to have been an inventor of devices with practical applications. Two such tools are especially noteworthy, the first having been a three-dimensional celestial map and the second a machine to determine the relative specific gravities of different liquids. Hypatia may also have been responsible for adapting an abacus to her sexagesimal system of computation, thus allowing her to be more efficient (and probably faster) in her astronomical calculations.

[Hypatia was] a person so renowned, her reputation seemed literally incredible.


Hypatia's fascination with the heavens stimulated her to become equally intrigued with cosmogony, and the philosophical questions concerning the origins of the universe which cosmogony can generate. Unlike her father, Hypatia began a serious inquiry into the nature of humanity, its purpose, and its relative position in the cosmic hierarchy. As a result, she was drawn to philosophy, and especially to the Plotinian neo-Platonism which in her time was the prominent philosophy of the Museum. It is curious that her metaphysical interests did not lead Hypatia to Christianity, yet it may have been the case that she considered Christianity's intellectual development in her day somewhat crude when compared to the pagan mix of "science" and philosophy such as neo-Platonism had become. One thing seems certain, it was not Christianity's tolerance for magic and mysticism which repelled Hypatia, for the philosophical tradition with which she became associated had more than its share of interest in such things. Although the neo-Platonism of Hypatia's world had long had a scientific foundation and a special interest in mathematics, since the time of Plotinus (3rd century ce) those who worked within the philosophical tradition established by Plato also had a profound interest in religious mysticism. Essentially, the neo-Platonists exploited reason as much as possible in the expectation that it would bring them close enough to "Divinity," thereafter permitting the Divinity or "Essence" to be mystically experienced. Although this attitude had been present in Plato—who believed that the material world was in no sense real, and that reality lay entirely in perfect "Forms" which were immaterial and "rediscoverable" by the philosophically inclined through the application of pure reason (and who, if successful, would know the bliss of basking in the glow of the Forms perceived)—after Plotinus, this bias toward mysticism increased.

Plotinus essentially synthesized rationalism in the Platonic mold with his century's growing interest in the afterlife and faith in salvation—a faith which manifested itself in a number of oriental mystery cults, of which Christianity was only one. Plotinus believed that everything which exists is the product of an immaterial and impersonal force that could variously be called "Goodness," the "One," "Beauty," and/or "Truth." To the extent that one is real, or to the extent that one has value, one is united with this Essence. As one approached this Being through the exercise of reason, one became both more real and of greater value. Since this Essence was often characterized as being the source of all "light," enabling anyone who wished to "see," it is easy to understand how Plotinus and his followers became interested in astronomy, for manifestations of the "One" could easily be discovered in the physical reality of the sun and stars. Of course, Plotinian neo-Platonists were not alone in associating the structure of the universe with the very essence of the divine, for many, including the devotees of Mithras, did much the same. What seems to have marked out the tradition to which Hypatia related, however, was its pursuit of mystical understanding through mathematics, for if one could predict what would happen in the cosmos through the language of mathematics, then one (in a very important sense) had reached an understanding of "reality." Numbers are immaterial, immutable and eternal, it was argued. Thus, those who understood mathematics came to understand the only thing which was all of these—that is, the

"One." Without a knowledge of numbers, it was believed that humankind was cut off from that Source of all goodness, and trapped in a changeable cosmos which was not "real," existing but as a pale shadow of the Essence which animates the universe.

Plotinus' philosophy was, of course, considerably more elaborate than can be explored here, but as it was passed on by his student, Porphyry, it came to be intimately linked with the "truths" thought mystically encrypted in the wisdom of ancient pagan religiosity, both Hellenic and Oriental. It was not that this school of thought paid much heed to the rituals associated with traditional pagan religion, for it did not, but it was thought that the mythological traditions associated with age-old cults often contained truths which could supplement scientific discovery and abet one seeking a reunion with the unity of the "One." Thus, respectful of traditional religion, neo-Platonism at the beginning of the 5th century ce was on a collision course with a decreasingly tolerant Christianity, and Hypatia was the most famous contemporary neo-Platonist.

About the year 400, Hypatia became the head of the neo-Platonic school in Alexandria at a very young age for such a prestigious appointment. She was probably no more than 25 when she became perhaps the most influential academic of her world. In her new post, Hypatia had access to the resources of the Museum and Library, although by this time, the religious rituals which had once bound Museum associates together had been discontinued. In her new academic position (or rather, positions), Hypatia drew a civic salary, a very unusual situation at the time for two reasons: first, she was a woman; and second, because she was a staunch pagan in a city of Christians, ruled over by a Christian administration. What her precise responsibilities were to the city of Alexandria are unknown, but it is likely that she was required to educate the young men and women of the city, thus maintaining for the Greeks in Egypt a link with their Hellenic roots. We know that she taught courses in a number of mathematical fields, in astronomy, and in philosophy, in which her fame so extended as to draw students from far and wide. Besides lecturing in the fields of her own research and development, Hypatia also seems to have provided a series of courses in the historical development of philosophy, including introductions to Plato, Aristotle, Pythagoras, Xenophon, the Stoics, the Cynics, and Plotinus. In short, Hypatia was a kind of university professor, although her range was considerably broader than would be expected from a modern-day counterpart. Regardless, her focus, when not pure mathematics or science, was strictly pagan—she seems to have had no interest in Christianity whatsoever, although from personal experience she certainly became familiar with both the development of Christianity and the major Christian theological issues of her day.

Hypatia maintained a high profile throughout Alexandria—so high in fact that her detractors suggested that she was a brazen woman of loose morals. These allegations were almost certainly no more than scurrilous slander, for one—rather coarse—anecdote suggests that she was one intellectual who eschewed the pursuit of physical pleasure. Romantically wooed by one of her students, Hypatia soundly rebuffed his efforts by producing a used sanitary napkin and claiming that what her would-be lover had set his heart upon was no more worth loving than was the napkin. True beauty, goodness, and virtue were not to be found in the fulfillment of physical love, she proclaimed, but only in the pursuit of philosophy and of science.

Whatever eminence Hypatia achieved as an intellectual was equalled by the esteem with which many in Alexandria held her. So valued was her advice that she was consulted about a range of practical issues, some of which were socially volatile. In particular, a prefect (magistrate) of the city of Alexandria, one Orestes, frequently sounded Hypatia out about the ethics of his position and the politics of the moment. It should be noted that this was not only a rapidly changing world with Christianity becoming a social mainstay, it was also a world which cared not at all to separate church from state. In fact, if there was one thing upon which pagans and Christians could agree, it was that no healthy state could function for long without the political structure being active in the appropriate honoring of the gods or God. The only question was, which God or gods? Although virtually everyone at the time held definite opinions about religious issues, not all Christians were convinced that everything associated with the pagan tradition could, or should, be rejected in toto. Such a man apparently was Orestes, who seems to have both valued the wisdom of traditional Hellenism, and to have been willing to use it in his quest to assert his authority over the city of Alexandria's ecclesiastical administration. The ecclesiastical administration was just as anxious to assume many of the prerogatives customarily thought to have been the rightful possessions of the city's civil authorities.

Orestes' primary rival and Hypatia's ultimate nemesis was Cyril. Born about 375, Cyril succeeded his uncle (Theophilus) as the bishop of Alexandria in 412, somewhat after Hypatia had established herself as one of the city's most powerful intellects. Cyril was an orthodox zealot, who took it upon himself both to cleanse Alexandria of all unorthodox thinking and to purge the church everywhere of all heresy. In the latter capacity, once Cyril inherited the See (seat of authority) of Alexandria and thus became Egypt's "first" citizen, he struggled with Nestorius, the patriarch of Constantinople, over a theological issue concerning the nature of Christ. Nestorius maintained that in Jesus a divine being and a human person were united in perfect harmony of deed, but not in the unity of a single individual. This struck Cyril as blatant heresy, and in response he insisted that Mary the Virgin be deemed the "God-bearer" so as to emphasize the total unity of both aspects of her son. The issue escalated over time—probably because of Cyril's and his community's fear that Constantinople would come to be officially recognized as above Alexandria in the emerging hierarchy of the church. Cyril convened a Church Council at Ephesus in 431 which declared Nestorianism a heresy. As a result, Nestorius lost his post and was banished into the Libyan desert, where he continued in his heresy, and from where his brand of Christianity spread to be especially influential throughout central Asia and the Far East.

Cyril was also active closer to home. For example, he closed the churches of the Novatians, a Christian sect which had been deemed heretical. The Novatians believed that, no matter the reason, the church did not have the authority to absolve those who had lapsed from Christianity into paganism, even those who had been threatened with persecution. By the 5th century, this was an old issue, for the Carthaginian Donatus had raised pretty much the same concern as early as 314. Of course, at that time Donatism had been declared Christianity's first official heresy, and steps had been taken to eradicate its notions. Despite the fact that by the 5th century there was no fear of Christians being persecuted by pagans, the objections against one-time apostates (defectors) returning to the church remained alive. The authority of those church officials who had received their commissions in a direct line from those who had previously fallen continued to be questioned by some, splitting the church.

In addition to problems within the church, Cyril was apparently behind an attempt by orthodox Alexandrians to expel the Jewish community of the city. Riots broke out over this issue, for the Jewish community in Alexandria was almost as old as the city itself and was both large and influential. Although no one could pin the Christian riots against the Jews on Cyril, he certainly did nothing to temper the zeal of his parishioners. More than anything else, it was this breakdown in civil order which pitted Orestes—who clearly thought that Cyril had overstepped the bounds of his authority—against Cyril, and, although he clearly consulted her about other issues, prompted Orestes to seek out Hypatia's advice. After much chaos, Orestes gained control of the situation, and Cyril's anti-Semitic faction clearly suffered a setback, while Cyril personally lost face. Although Cyril should not have blamed Hypatia for his temporary defeat, clearly he associated her—a pagan and a woman to boot—with the forces which had frustrated his vision of a Jew-free Alexandria. Hypatia would become a scapegoat, and what followed was gruesome. Whether Cyril actually hired or merely inspired them is unknown, but shortly after Cyril's setback, a group of monks publicly accosted Hypatia. Pulling her from her chariot, they led her into the Caesarium Church where they took an inhuman revenge for her outspoken attacks upon Christianity in general and Cyril in particular. In the church, the monks stripped Hypatia of her clothes, and, taking shells specially honed to a razor-sharpness, they skinned her alive. Such a death, however, was not enough. Thereafter, these paragons of virtue quartered Hypatia and cremated her severed remains. This heinous abuse of one of late antiquity's greatest minds went unpunished. Cyril went on to become recognized, both in the Latin and Greek Orthodox Churches, as a saint.


Fitzgerald, A. Letters of Synesius. Oxford University Press, 1926.

Socrates Scholasticus. Ecclesiastical History. Book 7. London: H.B. Bohn, 1853.

suggested reading:

Dzielska, Maria. Hypatia of Alexandria. Translated by F. Lyra. Boston, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995.

Kingsley, Charles. Hypatia. 1853.

Quasten, J. "Cyril of Alexandria," in Patrology. Vol. 3, 1960, p. 116+.

Waithe, Mary Ellen, A History of Women Philosophers, 600 B.C.–500 A.D. Boston, MA: Martinus Nijhoff, 1987.

William Greenwalt , Associate Professor of Classical History, Santa Clara University, Santa Clara, California

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Hypatia (c. 375–415)

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