Hypatia of Alexandria ((Greek: Ὑπατία, Hypatía, pronounced /haɪˈpeɪʃə/ in English; born between 350 and 370; died 415) was a Greek scholar from Alexandria inEgypt, considered the first notable woman in mathematics, who also taughtphilosophy and astronomy. She lived in Roman Egypt, and was killed by a Christianmob who falsely blamed her for religious turmoil. Some suggest that her murder marked the end of what is traditionally known as Classical antiquity, although others such as Christian Wildberg observe that Hellenistic philosophy continued to flourish until the age of Justinian in the sixth century.
A Neoplatonist philosopher, she belonged to the mathematical tradition of theAcademy of Athens represented by Eudoxus of Cnidus; she followed the school of the 3rd century thinker Plotinus, discouraging empirical enquiry and encouraging logical and mathematical studies.
Hypatia was the daughter of Theon, who was her teacher and the last known mathematician associated with the Museum of Alexandria. She traveled to both Athens and Italy to study, before becoming head of the Platonist school at Alexandria in approximately 400. According to the 10th century Byzantine encyclopedia the Suda, she worked as teacher of philosophy, teaching the works of Plato and Aristotle. It is believed that there were both Christians and foreigners 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. The Suda controversially declared her "the wife of Isidore the Philosopher" but agreed she had remained a virgin. Hypatia rebuffed a suitor by showing him her menstrual rags, claiming they demonstrated that there was "nothing beautiful" about carnal desires.
Hypatia maintained correspondence with her former pupil Synesius of Cyrene, who c. 410 became bishop of Ptolemais. Together with the references by Damascius, these are the only writings with descriptions or information from her pupils that survive. 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.
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.
A partial list of specific accomplishments:
- A commentary on the 13-volume Arithmetica by Diophantus.
- A commentary on the Conics of Apollonius.
- Edited the existing version of Ptolemy's Almagest.
- Edited her father's commentary on Euclid's Elements
- She wrote a text "The Astronomical Canon." (Possibly a new edition of Ptolemy's Handy Tables.)
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.
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, during the season of Lent, her chariot was waylaid on her route home by a Christian mob, possibly Nitrian monks 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:
Antiquity to the Age of Reason
Shortly after her death, a forged letter attacking Christianity was published under her name. According to Bryan J. Whitfield, the pagan historian Damascius was "anxious to exploit the scandal of Hypatia's death", 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.
In the early 18th century, the deist scholar John Toland used her death as the basis for ananti-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. 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.