Hypatia--a report

Kathryn Aegis (aegis@igc.apc.org)
Wed, 8 Jan 1997 04:30:02 +0000

After a discussion with a good friend of mine who is a classical
scholar, we both hit the books and the Web and compiled a basic
report on Hypatia of Alexandria. Even restricting the search to original
sources and chronologies yielded some contradictions. I will begin with
the basically agreed-upon facts:

Hypatia of Alexandria (375 AD - 415 AD) was born, educated and lived
in Alexandria under the reign of Emperor Arcadius, probably as a Roman
citizen of Greek ancestry. Her father, Theon, was himself a mathematician
and philosopher and is remembered as the last head of the museum at
Alexandria. Her abilities emerged early, and, as Socrates
Scholasticus states in his _Ecclesiastical History_, she achieved
"such attainments in literature and science as to far surpass all the
philosophers of her own time". Her work seems to have focused on
mathematics, astronomy and philosophy.

In Damascus' _Life of Isodore_, we read that Hypatia would don her
philosopher's cloak and walk the streets of Alexandria providing
public commentary on the works of Plato, Aristotle, and other
thinkers. Her acumen and bold personality, combined with her teaching
ability, established her reputation as both an intellectual and a public
figure. She became known as a leading proponent of the neo-Platonist
philosophy that fueled pagan opposition to Christian influence.

Her known works include:
A commentary on the Arithmetic of Diophantes
A Commentary on the Conics of Apollonius
The Astronomical Canon
editor of Theon's Commentary on the Almagest of Ptolemy
(I found a reference calling her Mother of Algebra, but it
led nowhere)

Now, on to the murkier aspects, including accounts of her death:

Damascus states that she married the philosopher Isodorus, but he
also claims that she remained chaste and "always a virgin". He also
praised her natural charm and power over men, telling an amusing
story of how she cut short the affections of a besotted student by
showing him her menstrual cloths. Other accounts claim that she
healed a self-inflicted cut on the same student's leg and cured him
of her.

The events leading up to her murder involve the complex politics and
conflicts between the rising Christians and the pagans/Jews who
resisted. The key player, and the one who clearly instigated her death,
is Cyril, Patriarch and Bishop of Alexandria. The three main accounts
agree that Cyril envied Hypatia's influence in Alexandria, as evidenced by
the gatherings at her home and her friendship with the governor, who
ceased to attend Christian church. In his _Chronicle_, John, Bishop
of Nikiu, writes: "she beguiled many people with her Satanic wiles."

The accounts Scholasticus and Bishop John indicate that Hypatia's
influence was blamed for the non-resolution of a political dispute
between Bishop Cyril and the prefect Orestes. Scholasticus: "it was
caluminously reported to the Christian populace that it was she who
prevented Orestes from becoming reconciled to Cyril." Bishop John's
account provides a detailed chronology of the dispute, but the
passages are so invective towards the Jews that I hesitate to
reproduce it here.

One evening, when Hypatia was traveling by carriage through the
city, probably after a public meeting, she was dragged out of her
carriage by a mob of angry Christians (might have been clerics, might
have been mercenaries). At this point the two original accounts of
her death differ. Scholasticus relates that she was taken to a
church called Caesurum, stripped naked, and murdered with tiles of
some sort. The Greek word he used is 'ostrakois', meaning either
brick roofing tiles or oyster shells. Bishop John relates that she
was taken from her carriage, stripped naked, and dragged through the
streets of Alexandria until she died. Both accounts agree that her
remains were burned in a place called Cinaron.

Bishop Cyril's assessment of Hypatia: "an iniquitious female who had
even presumed, against God's commandments, to teach men."