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"Revered Hypatia, ornament of learning, stainless star of wise teaching, when I see thee and thy discourse I worship thee, looking on the starry house of the Virgin [Virgo]; for thy business is in heaven."
Palladas, Greek Anthology (XI.400)
Of the little that is known about Hypatia, the following account by Socrates Scholasticus, which was completed sometime in the decade before the death of Theodosius II in AD 450, is the best and most substantial.
"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 infrequently appeared in public in presence of the magistrates. Neither did she feel abashed in coming to an assembly of men. For all men on account of her extraordinary dignity and virtue admired her the more. 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 with tiles [oyster shells]. 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 [AD 415]."
Ecclesiastical History (VII.15)
In AD 412, Cyril, the nephew of Theophilus, succeeded him as patriarch of Alexandria, the populace of which, says Socrates, "is more delighted with tumult than any other people: and if at any time it should find a pretext, breaks forth into the most intolerable excesses; for it never ceases from its turbulence without bloodshed" (VII.13). Orestes, the new imperial prefect of Egypt, had arrived shortly before and both men became embroiled in a struggle for political power as Orestes resisted ecclesiastical encroachment upon his civil jurisdiction. There had been riots between Christians and Jews and, after a brawl in the theater, the prefect had one of the patriarch's followers arrested and tortured. When Christians were killed in a subsequent attack, Cyril led a mob against the synagogues. The Jews were expelled from Alexandria and their possessions looted. The prefect objected to this forced expulsion and, having rebuffed any attempt at reconciliation, was himself assaulted by monks "of a very fiery disposition" who had come into the city in support of the patriarch. An assailant was captured and tortured to death, and, although Cyril treated the death as a martyrdom, he was obliged to let the matter rest.
A different perspective of Hypatia's death is conveyed by John, Bishop of Nikiu, whose account complements that of Socrates. He blames Hypatia for the prefect's recalcitrance and believed the rumors about her.
"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. And the governor of the city [Orestes] honoured her exceedingly; for she had beguiled him through her magic. And he ceased attending church as had been his custom....And he not only did this, but he drew many believers to her, and he himself received the unbelievers at his house....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. And they tare 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. 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."
The Chronicle (LXXXIV.87-88, 100-103)
It was after these events, relates John, that Hypatia was sought out by the mob, perhaps dragged from the very chair from which she was lecturing, and killed—"torn to pieces" says Philostorgius (Ecclesiastical History, IX) by the Homoousian party (those who accepted the Nicene creed and believed that the Son of God was consubstantial with God the Father).
It is tempting to imagine that Hypatia lectured in one of the auditoriums recently discovered at Kom el-Dikka in the center of Alexandria. Part of a civic complex with both a public bath and theater, they are characterized by the arrangement of stone benches along the walls and an elevated chair situated on a dais at one end of the room. The complex seems to have been constructed in the late fifth century AD, although some lecture halls may have been completed as early as the mid-fourth century, and so may have been a potential venue for Hypatia, who well may have sat, as did the teacher mentioned by Libanius, "established in an imposing chair, like judges are," Chriae, III.7).
Hypatia had learned mathematics and astronomy from her father, Theon, the last member of the Museum at Alexandria. Indeed, says Philostorgius, she "was so well educated in mathematics by her father, that she far surpassed her teacher, and especially in astronomy, and taught many others the mathematical sciences" (VIII.9). Not satisfied only with mathematics, the Suda, a tenth-century Byzantine encyclopedia that preserves the Life of Isidore (a lost account by his pupil Damascius, the last scholarch of the Academy in Athens), relates that she also "embraced the rest of philosophy with diligence. Putting on the philosopher’s cloak although a woman and advancing through the middle of the city, she explained publicly to those who wished to hear either Plato or Aristotle or any other of the philosophers." (In this account, Hypatia, "beautiful and shapely," is the wife of the philosopher Isidore of Alexandria, which is an anachronism, given that he was not born until long after Hypatia's death.)
She is thought to have assisted Theon on both the Almagest of Ptolemy and the Elements of Euclid, which became the standard edition of that text, and to have written commentaries, herself, on the Arithmetica of Diophantus and the Conics of Apollonius, as well as The Astronomical Canon (possibly a revision of her father's commentary on Book III of the Almagest). Editing works on geometry, algebra, and astronomy, the abstract nature of numbers and their properties no doubt appealed to her as a neoplatonist. One can understand that such a woman would have occasion to meet with the magistrates of the city, and that such familiarity would be offensive to her enemies.
Her most adoring pupil was Synesius of Cyrene, a bishop consecrated by Theophilus himself. He addresses seven letters (one a fragment) to Hypatia and refers to her in several more. He laments not hearing from her (Ep.10), accounting her "as the only good thing that remains inviolate, along with virtue. You always have power, and long may you have it and make a good use of that power" (Ep.81). Indeed, about the time of his death (a year or two before her own), he dictated a letter to her as "mother, sister, teacher, and withal benefactress, and whatsoever is honoured in name and deed" (Ep.16). She is the one "who legitimately presides over the mysteries of philosophy" (Ep.137) and "my most revered teacher," who had contributed to the design of a silver astrolabe that Synesius was to present as a gift (Letter to Paeonius). He also requested from her a brass hydroscope (hydrometer) to measure the specific gravity of liquids, describing the device to her in detail (Ep.15). A philosopher, which is how Synesius repeatedly addresses her, Hypatia may have studied with Antoninus, who had prophesied the destruction of the Serapeum.
The Suda (Y166) describes her as just, chaste, beautiful, and
"as articulate and eloquent in speaking as she was prudent and civil in her deeds. The whole city rightly loved her and worshiped her in a remarkable way, but the rulers of the city from the first envied her....Thus it happened one day that Cyril, bishop of the opposition sect was passing by Hypatia's house, and he saw a great crowd of people and horses in front of her door. Some were arriving, some departing, and others standing around. When he asked why there was a crowd there and what all the fuss was about, he was told by her followers that it was the house of Hypatia the philosopher and she was about to greet them. When Cyril learned this he was so struck with envy that he immediately began plotting her murder and the most heinous form of murder at that. For when Hypatia emerged from her house, in her accustomed manner, a throng of merciless and ferocious men who feared neither divine punishment nor human revenge attacked and cut her down, thus committing an outrageous and disgraceful deed against their fatherland....The memory of these events is still vivid among the Alexandrians."
Twenty-five years earlier, Theophilus had forbidden pagan cults and destroyed the Serapeum at Alexander. Having only recently taken his uncle's place, Cyril needed his own triumph over paganism. Envious of Hypatia (according to Damascius), he plotted to have her killed. John of Nikiu relates (LXXXIV.101-103) that the philosopher was stripped and dragged through the streets until she died; then her body was burned. "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."
For Gibbon, however, "the murder of Hypatia has imprinted an indelible stain on the character and religion of Cyril of Alexandria" (Decline and Fall, XLVII).
The poignant figure above, her mournful eyes gazing directly at the viewer, is not Hypatia, of course, for whom there is no contemporary representation, but a Greco-Roman "Fayum portrait" from Hawara in Egypt. The elegant but melancholy woman, whose portrait may have been painted because she was sick and dying, wears a necklace of emerald crystals, which complements the purple of her dress, and pearl earrings. The hair styles of imperial Rome were imitated by the fashionable aristocracy in the provinces, especially the women, and provide a means of dating the portrait, which is from the time of Antoninus Pius (AD 138-161), when the use of highlighting was most masterful. In this case, the hair characteristically is parted in the middle and pulled back in a bun worn high on the head. Costume and jewelry, which can be compared to similar pieces with a known chronology, also indicate the date.
References: A Select Library of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Series II (Vol II: Socrates Scholasticus) (1890) edited by by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace; "The Life of Hypatia from the Suda" translated by Jeremiah Reedy, in Alexander 2: A Journal of Cosmology, Philosophy, Myth, and Culture (1993) edited by David Fideler; The Chronicle of John, Bishop of Nikiu (1916) translated by R. H. Charles; The Letters of Synesius of Cyrene (1926) translated by Augustine FitzGerald; Epitome of the Ecclesiastical History of Philostorgius, Compiled by Photius, Patriarch of Constantinople (1855) translated by Edward Walford; Edward Gibbon: The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1995) edited by David Womersley (Penguin Classics); The Greek Anthology (1917) translated by W. R. Paton (Loeb Classical Library); Damascius. The Philosophical History (1999) translated by Polymnia Athanassiadi.
"Hypatia and Her Mathematics" (1994) by Michael A. B. Deakin, The American Mathematical Monthly, 101(3), 234-243; "Hypatia of Alexandria" (1940) by A. W. Richeson, National Mathematics Magazine, 15, 74-82; Hypatia of Alexandria (1995) by Maria Dzielska; "Learned Women in the Alexandrian Scholarship and Society of Late Hellenism" by Maria Dzielska, in What Happened to the Ancient Library of Alexandria? (2008) edited by Mostafa El-Abbadi and Omnia Mounir Fathallah; Barbarians and Politics at the Court of Arcadius (1993) by Alan Cameron and Jacqueline Long; The Mysterious Fayum Portraits: Faces from Ancient Egypt (1995) by Euphrosyne Doxiadis; Ancient Faces: Mummy Portraits from Roman Egypt (1997) by Susan Walker and Morris Bierbrier; "The Auditoria on Kom el-Dikka: A Glimpse of Late Antique Education in Alexandria" (2010) by Grzegorz Majcherek, Proceedings of the Twenty-Fifth International Congress of Papyrology, American Studies in Papyrology, 471-484; "Scholars and Students in the Roman East" by Samuel N. C. Lieu, in The Library of Alexandria (200) edited by Roy MacLeod. It is Lieu who provides the translation of Labinius.
See also The Daughter Library.
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