Hypatia Philosophica


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Written by Bradley Skene

Hypatia Society

Once I found myself having dinner at a Franciscan friary. After Grace, the abbot made toasts: To the Martyrs of Rome! To the Martyrs of Alexandria! I drank the posts in good part, but responded with my own, To Hypatia, Martyred by St. Cyril of Alexandria! No one else drank, or reacted at all except with embarrassed looks; I dont think any of the friars knew whom I was talking about. But I felt strangely transported back to the religious controversies of the fifth century.

The image of the later Roman empire in popular culture is one of decadence and hedonism, but the truth was quite the opposite. Alexandria, by the fifth century the greatest city of the Empire, was on fire with rival asceticisms. In the controversies between the Greeks and the Christians, and between Nicean Orthodoxy, Arrians, Monophysites, and Gnostics, each sect claimed authority by professing a greater hatred of the body and contempt for the world. The monks of the desert carried on spiritual warfare, living on the edge of starvation, to recapture through renunciation the heroic suffering of the martyrs of a previous age. Hypatia herself lived her whole life as a virgin, and once dealt with a student that professed his love for her by making him come to share her disgust with the body. In her world asceticism was power: spiritual power to intercede with God and to perform miracles, cultural power to attract the support and adherence of students and followers, and political power to rebuke a corrupt state. Late Antiquity marked a real shift in the character of the Empire for many reasons: pressure form internal economic collapse and from ever stronger attacks by barbarians wanting into the Empire made the state more autocratic; the emergence of the Church as a rival center of power, and one that was able to survive after the state collapsed, made the Empire more chaotic, but paradoxically helped to ensure the survival of its heritage; as the state became militarized men of less sophistication came to the fore and culture became a less important consideration. So to attribute the fall of the Roman Empire simply to a moral and intellectual failure precipitated by the conversion to Christianity, as Gibbon did, and to see Hypatias murder as a dramatic symbol of this failure, the new barbarous Christian world destroying the learning and rationalism of the Greeks, is quite wrong-headed. Gibbon was writing to bolster the Enlightenments hatred of Christian superstition and corruption, and is more engaged in his own age than in the fifth century AD.

Hypatia came from a dynasty of philosophers who dominated the intellectual life of Alexandria throughout the late fourth and early fifth centuries. It is quite wrong to think of them as professors; the life of their school was not a separate ivory tower detached from society, but was an integral part of the community. Hypatia and her father (as the last generation of priests at the Museum) were equally religious authorities and sources of intermediation between the people and a distant state. A better model for comparison would be the Rabbinic dynasties among the Hasidic communities of Eastern Europe in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Cyril, the bishop of Alexandria in Hypatias time and later a saint in the Coptic Church, was part of a similar dynasty: he succeeded his uncle in the episcopate of the city (in 412). Indeed the Cyril first became jealous of Hypatia when he saw the extent of her following gauged by the size each morning of the levy outside her house of clients come to seek her favor or help, and her access to Imperial officials, denied to him because of sectarian differences between himself and Orestes the Imperial Prefect. The conflict between the two figures was an intimate marriage of the political and the spiritual.

Hypatias father was Theon, the author of a number of surviving works, who was one of the last men to hold an official position at the Museum of Alexandria. We must count also in Hypatias dynasty, her intellectual offspring, Synesius, a closely devoted student, who became the Christian bishop of Ptolemais in the Fayyum. The fact that this personal connection transcended sectarian difference shows clearly the importance of personality and charisma in the social and political character of the time. But Hypatia had had another and spiritual father in the philosopher Antoninus, who probably initiated her into the theurgic mysteries of the Chaldaean Oracles (Cameron, et al., 63). These were a series of sayings produced by a father and son both named Julian who had been courtiers of Marcus Aurelius. They had worked through some unknown means of ecstatic divination, but by the Neoplatonists, especially Iamblichus and the Emperor Julians mentor Maximus of Ephesus, had through philosophical interpretation turned them into a sort of sacramental mysticism suitable to act as a counterweight to Christian ritual. They were, predictably, denounced as magic by Christians, but even by conservative philosophers such as Porphyry who held that no ritual element was necessary for philosophical salvation. Antoninus was himself the son of Sosipatra, the great female Neoplatonist of the early fourth century.

Of Hypatias life and work, little is known. Her education would have been universal, equally versed in all the liberal arts: mathematics and geometry, astronomy, physics, grammar, rhetoric, poetry, music, philosophy and theology, and perhaps gymnastics. Synesius letters make it clear that she collaborated with him in the fabrication of scientific instruments. Probably she continued the heritage of her fathers mathematical work. However, we must not misinterpret these facts to make her out a modern scientist. The mathematics and astronomy that concerned the Alexandrian school had the practical purpose of training one to make astrological charts: indeed there is no way in Greek to distinguish between astronomy and astrology, astronomeia and astrologeia being exact synonyms. Mathematics served also the theological purpose of demonstrating the harmony of cosmic principles in support of a type of Neo-Pythagorean/Stoic physics that would by modern standards be classed as magic: the idea that the geometrical relationships of the heavenly bodies reflect the spiritual harmony of the soul and similar stuff. Nevertheless, her few published works (all completely lost now) seem to have involved technical problems in mathematics, which in the abstract the Greek could approach quite rigorously.

What counted in the fifth century was not so much the philosophy taught, as the life the philosopher led. Hypatias spiritual power was recognized because she was seen to live a life of renunciation. She was not in any sense a feminist, symbolizing the triumph of femininity, but rather a denier of her femininity, who publicly denounced the female body as source of unclean pollution and annihilated her own female identity, living and dressing not only humbly, but even as a man, and not an ordinary man, but as a philosopher. She wore the philosophers cloak, which means the threadbare garment of a homeless tramp. Indeed the modern image of the hobo traveling with all his worldly goods tied in a handkerchief to a stick over his shoulder, is a reinterpretation of the ancient iconographic type of the philosopher. The philosopher had conquered his own desires and his own flesh and so was seen to be wise and a powerful warrior. Hypatia had gone further and triumphed over her gender as well. Bu to the same degree this would have inspiring to her followers, it would have been a provocation to her enemies. Recall that one of the formal charges the inquisitors brought against Jean dArc was transvestitism, and Hypatias wearing of mens clothes must have been a privation in the same way.

About Hypatias death we know a little more.

In 391 the Christian Emperor Theodosius decided to enforce Constantines old edicts shutting down the Greek temples. One of the institutions destroyed at this time was the remnant of the Museum. Ptolemy the first Greek ling of Egypt had founded the Museum--the Temple to the Muses--as part of the legacy of Alexander the Great. It is best remembered today for its library, at one time the largest in the world. But, contrary to popular misconceptions, that library had been destroyed in a fire that broke out when Julius Caesar had occupied the city. Later Marc Anthony had made a present to Cleopatra of the books form the library at Pergamum in Asia Minor, but the institution never fully recovered. Nevertheless the Museum continued both as a temple dedicated to the worship of the Muses and as an institution for research and learning. Theon, Hypatias father, and Antoninus, her mentor, were among the last of its priests. Antoninus had been in charge of the Serapeum--temple to the Graeco-Egyptian god Serapis--(an outbuilding of the Museum on the Nile rather than the coast) where the remains of the library were housed at that time. He died in 390, but the following year when the bishop Theophilus unleashed an army monks against the temples, his students put up an armed resistance in the Serapeum and the building and collection were burned down, and the defenders slaughtered, a martyrdom commemorated in the ex eventu prophecy of the Hermitic tractate Asclepius, one of the few books of Greek philosophy to survive into the Latin Middle Ages and which was then grotesquely misinterpreted as a work of Christian tiruphalism: a pagan prophecy of the coming of Christinaity, rather than a lament for the endign of Greek Religion.

Or are you ignorant, Asclepius, that Egypt is the image of heaven? Our land is the temple of the world. And it is proper for you not to be ignorant that a time will come in our land, when Egyptians will seem to have served the divinity in vain, and all their activity in their religion will be despised. For all divinity will leave Egypt, and will flee upward to heaven. And Egypt will be widowed; it will be abandoned by the gods. For foreigners will come into Egypt, and they will rule it. Egypt! Moreover, Egyptians will be prohibited from worshipping GodAnd in that day, the country that was more pious than all countries will become impious. No longer will it be full of temples, but it will be full of tombs. Neither will it be full of gods, but it will be full of corpses. Egypt! For in the time when the gods have abandoned the land of Egypt, and have fled upward to heaven, then all Egyptians will die. And Egypt will be made a desert by the gods and the Egyptians. And as for you, River, there will be a day when you will flow with blood more than water. And dead bodies will be stacked higher than the dams. And he who is dead will not be mourned as much as he who is alive. Indeed, [any survivor] will be known as an Egyptian on account of his language ... - Asclepius, why are you weeping? - but he will seem like a foreigner in regard to his customs... Egypt - lover of God, and the dwelling place of the gods, school of religion - will become an example of impiousness And in that day, the world will not be marveled at... Therefore, it will be despised - the beautiful world of God, the incomparable work, the energy that possesses goodness, the man-formed vision. Darkness will be preferred to light, and death will be preferred to life. No one will gaze into heaven. And the pious man will be counted as insane, and the impious man will be honored as wise. The man who is afraid will be considered as strong. And the good man will be punished like a criminal.

Hypatias modern biographer, Dzielska (83), speculates that she survived this period because she, while a Greek in religion, had no special devotion to Greek religion per se. A different view might see Hypatia rising to prominence only after the death of Antoninus and other potential leaders at the Serapeum. This too would explain why Eunapius, himself a Greek Neoplatonist and a historian of this period, is silent about Hypatia, while she is mentioned with favor by Damascius in his continuation of Eunapiuss work. Certainly Isidore, another leading philosopher at that time, did not take part in the resistance either.

In any case, Hypatias death is linked to a continuation of the civic strife begun with this persecution. Since Greek religion had been effectively ended in Alexandria by his uncle, the new bishop Cyril took it upon himself to persecute the large Jewish population in Alexandria. But this was more than a simple pogrom. The majority of Egyptian or Coptic Christians held monophysite beliefs, that is they denied a human component to the trinity as orthodox Christians elsewhere held. The Emperor Arcadius was orthodox, as was the city prefect of Alexandria, Hypatias friend Orestes. So there was a pronounced rivalry between Christian sects, and in this Cyril was not without friends at court in a controversy that would persist until Byzantine times. More over, political control of the city had long been contested between the bishops and the civil government. Cyril used the chaos created by his pogrom, which succeeded in driving out the entire Jewish population of the city, and the consequent break down of order to replace civil authority with his own. It may be that the first step in this campaign was a prosecution of Hypatia for magic--for gaining undue influence over Orestes with a spell. This may be inferred form the account given from Cyrils perspective in the Chronicle of John. However, any such prosecution was obviously unsuccessful. During the riots, however, Cyrils agents not only martyred Hypatia, but assassinated Orestes as well, and saw him replaced with a client of the bishop. Other Greeks, notably Damascius and his teacher Isidore, were compelled to leave Alexandria at this time also. Thus, as Dzielska points out, Hypatia was killed because of sectarian Christian conflict, rather than conflict between Christians and Greeks. This situation eventually led to open revolt in Egypt against the Empire, which was not quelled until the Arab conquest. Indeed, one factor in the quick conversion of Egypt to Islam must have been the spiritual exhaustion of Egyptian Christianity brought about through this kind of sectarian strife.

The usual dating for Hypatias martyrdom is 415, although nothing whatever is know about her birth or age. Later artistic tradition typically presents her as young and beautiful, but at the time of her death she is likely to have been well into middle age. Her student Synesius, who served as bishop of Ptolemais for some years, had died two years previous and had been born no later than 375, so Hypatia herself could hardly have been still in her youth by 415. Dzielska estimates she was about 60. So modern art is as wrong to represent Hypatia as a beautiful exemplar of youthful femininity at the time of her death as modern scholarship has been to portray her as a feminist, a scientist or an African. The pathetic details of her death are known only through the three main historical accounts of her career, which are quoted in full below.




The Sources of Hypatias Life

The main sources for Hypatia are brief enough to present here in full translations.

Socrates Scholasticus, Ecclesiastical History, 7.14

Socrates was a Christian author, one of several who wrote a continuation of the Ecclesiastical History of Eusebius of Caesarea. His account is surprisingly unbiased in its presentation of Hypatia, probably because of his hostility to Cyril whom he opposed on sectarian grounds.


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. Yet even she fell 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 with tiles.§ After tearing her body in pieces, they took her mangled limbs to a place called Cinaron, and there burnt them. 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. This happened in the month of March during Lent, in the fourth year of Cyril's episcopate, under the tenth consulate of Honorius, and the sixth of Theodosius.



*Orestes was the Imperial Prefect governing Alexandria at that time.

carriage: Older translators often rendered the Greek here chariot, leading to the ridiculous idea commonly seen on the web that Hypatia drove a four-horse team around the streets of Alexandria. No such thing is meant.

§tiles: this means she was stoned to death with broken ceramic roof tiles, a relatively common form of mob violence in antiquity. The myth, frequently found on the web, that she was carved up with oyster shells, results from a lack of understanding of the range of the meanings of the Greek ostracon.

Damascius, Life of Isidore,

Damascius was the last of the great Greek philosophers, who besides his own philosophical works, wrote a memoir of the last generation of Neoplatonists. When the school at Athens was closed down by the Emperor Justinian, he led the philosophical community into exile in the Persian Empire and finally settled at Harran (in modern Iraq), later, and probably not coincidentally, the birth place of Sufism in the next century. His Life of Isidore is lost, except for fragments (quotation in other works), including this quotation form the Suda.



John of Nikiu, Chronicle, 84.87-103.

A bishop himself, John wrote a chronicle of the early Coptic Orthodox church, and tended towards hagiography of St. Cyril. The charge of magic in political controversies and trials was a common own going back to the time of Tiberius and was not a special feature of Christianitys conflict with Graeco-Roman religion. The many attempts on various internet sites to make out Hypatia as the prototype of the witch and her murder the beginning of the Christian persecution of witches are quite misguided. The belief in and persecution of witches grew out of quite different and much later historical circumstances.

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. And the governor of the city* honored her exceedingly; for she had beguiled him through her magic. And he ceased attending church as had been his custom. But he went once under circumstances of danger. And he not only did this, but he drew many believers to her, and he himself received the unbelievers at his house. And on a certain day when they were making merry over a theatrical exhibition connected with dancers, the governor of the city published an edict regarding the public exhibitions in the city of Alexandria: and all the inhabitants of the city had assembled there in the theater. Now Cyril, who had been appointed patriarch after Theophilus, was eager to gain exact intelligence regarding this edict. And there was a man named Hierax, a Christian possessing understanding and intelligence who used to mock the pagans but was a devoted adherent of the illustrious Father the patriarch and was obedient to his monitions. He was also well versed in the Christian faith. Now this man attended the theater to learn the nature of this edict. But when the Jews saw him in the theater they cried out and said: "This man has not come with any good purpose, but only to provoke an uproar." And Orestes the prefect was displeased with the children of the holy church, and Hierax was seized and subjected to punishment publicly in the theater, although he was wholly guiltless. And Cyril was wroth with the governor of the city for so doing, and likewise for his putting to death an illustrious monk of the convent of Pernodj named Ammonius, and other monks also. And when the chief magistrate§ of the city heard this, he sent word to the Jews as follows: "Cease your hostilities against the Christians." But they refused to hearken to what they heard; for they gloried in the support of the prefect who was with them, and so they added outrage to outrage and plotted a massacre through a treacherous device. And they posted beside them at night in all the streets of the city certain men, while others cried out and said: "The church of the apostolic Athanasius is on fire: come to its succour, all ye Christians." And the Christians on hearing their cry came fourth quite ignorant of the treachery of the Jews. And when the Christians came forth, the Jews arose and wickedly massacred the Christians and shed the blood of many, guiltless though they were. And in the morning, when the surviving Christians heard of the wicked deed which the Jews had wrought, they betook themselves to the patriarch. And the Christians mustered all together and went and marched in wrath to the synagogues of the Jews and took possession of them, and purified them and converted them into churches. And one of them they named after the name of St. George. And as for the Jewish assassins they expelled them from the city, and pillaged all their possessions and drove them forth wholly despoiled, and Orestes the prefect was unable to render them any help. And thereafter a multitude of believers in God arose under the guidance of Peter the magistrate -- now this Peter was a perfect believer in all respects in Jesus Christ -- 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 seated on a lofty chair; and having made her descend they dragged her along till they brought her to the great church, named Caesarion. Now this was in the days of the fast [i.e. Lent]. And they tore off her clothing and dragged her till they brought 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. And all the people surrounded the patriarch Cyril and named him "the new Theophilus"; for he had destroyed the last remains of idolatry in the city.

*i.e., Orestes.

the early Christians considered the theater--a center of traditional culture and often the scene of productions based either on myth (and hence likely to be both idolatrous and concerned with subjects such as adultery) or of an obscene character--to be a corrupt institution, likely to lead to sin, and which true Christians would ordinarily avoid.

§the magistrate was an elected official representative of the local elite (something like a mayor in modern terms) and is yet another center of power in Alexandria.

so-called because it was built on the ruins of a desecrated temple of the Imperial cult.



Annotated Bibliography

Amore, Khan, Hypatia (First Books, 2001). A recent novel dealing with Hypatia; notable as an early effort at web-based publishing.

Bell, Sir Harold Idris, and W. E. Crum, edd. Jews and Christians in Egypt: The Jewish Troubles in Alexandria and the Athanasian Controversy illustrated from Greek Papyri in the British Museum, with Three Coptic Texts (London: British Museum, 1924; reprint. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1972). An important collection of documents that supplement the standard account of the pogrom that formed the background of Hypatias murder in Byzantine Church historians.

Bergman, Jay, Synesius of Cyrene, Philosopher-Bishop Transformation of the Classical Heritage 2 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982). The standard scholarly treatment of Hyalites most important student.

Caetani, Roffredo, Hypatia: azione liricia in tre atti (Mainz: B. Schotts Sohnen, 19272). An opera--actually a music drama in the style of Boito's and Bussonis Neo-Wagnerian school--based on the life of Hypatia. to my knowledge it has never been recorded.

Cameron, Alan, and Jacqueline Long, Barbarians and Politics at the Court of Arcadius (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993). A detailed and outstanding history of the political events of Hypatias era.

Charles, R. H., The Chronicle of John, Coptic Bishop of Nikiu (London: Williams and Norgate, 1916; reprint. Amsterdam: APA-Philo, 1981). The only English translation of Johns Chronicle, by the most distinguished scholar of Early Christianity of his generation.

Damascius, The Philosophical History: Texts with Translation and Notes Polymnia Athanassiadi, ed. and trans. (Athens, 1999). This is a new and much improved edition of the Fragments of Damascius work, with a superb English translation and an extensive commentary.

Dzielska, Maria, Hypatia of Alexandria F. Lyra, trans. (Cambridge Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1995). Now the standard biography of Hypatia, translated from Polish. Unfortunately the work is somewhat isolated from current Western scholarship on the period and from current methodology and interests. She does, however, give an extensive discussion both of Hypatia as a mathematician, and of Hypatia as a subject of modern literature.

Fitzgerald, Augustine, trans., The Letters of Synesius of Cyrene (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1926).

Fowden, Garth, The Egyptian Hermes: A Historical Approach to the Late Pagan Mind (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986). Gives a general treatment of the intellectual and spiritual life of Late Antique Egypt (although the Christian component is neglected); especially good on the Serapeum episode.

Eunapius, Lives of the Philosophers Loeb Classical Library, Wilma Cave Wright, ed. and trans. (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1921).

Kingsley, Charles, Hypatia, or new Foes with and Old Face (London, 1853). It is an unhappy turth that this novel, one of the most popualr of the nineteenth century is principally the reason that Hypatia is so-well known today. Its popualrity did far more to bring her fame and celebrity than all of the surviving ancient sources. Most of the msiconceptions about Hypatia that freely circulate today can of course be traced back to this source.

Majerick, Ruth, The Chaldean Oracles: Text, Translation and Commentary Studies in Greek and Roman Religion 5 (Leiden E. J. Brill, 1989).

Marrou, H. I., "Synesius of Cyrene and Alexandrian Neoplatonism," The Conflict between Paganism and Christianity in the Fourth Century Arnaldo Momigliano, ed. (Oxford: Clarendon, 1964.

Rist, John. M. "Hypatia," Phoenix 19 (1965): 214-25. The first fully modern study of Hypatia as a philosopher and still indispensable. Its revision of views current since Gibbon paved the way for all that is best in Dzielska biography.

Sagan, Carl, Cosmos (New York, Random House, 1980). A book more unfortunate in its widespread influence even than Kingsleys and which out-Gibbons Gibbon. Here we read that the Greeks represented everything that was rational, liberal, and scientific, while the dark oppressive forces of Christianity represented all that is irruption, tyrannical, and superstitious, and that the murder of Hypatia was only the beginning.

Synésios de Cyrène, Correspondance texte établi par Antonio Garzya ; traduit et commenté par Denis Roques (Paris : Belles Lettres, 2000). A much improved text and commentary, with French translation.

Zeno, A. C., trans., The Ecclesiastical Histories of Sozomen and Socrates Scholasticus Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 2nd ser., 2 (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1891). An antiquated translation, but still the best available in English. The other work in this volume, the Church history of Sozomen, a Greek who covered precisely the same period as Socrates, was generally meant to discredit Christianity. He is mysteriously silent on Hypatia. Perhaps her significance was more nearly limited to Egypt than we imagine.

When Nature has work to be done, she creates a genius to do it.

--Ralph Waldo Emerson