Return to Hypatia

The Death of Hypatia

"On, up the nave, fresh shreds of her dress strewing the holy pavementup the chancel steps themselvesup to the altarright underneath the great still Christ: and there even those hell-hounds paused. She shook herself free from her tormentors, and springing back, rose for one moment to her full height, naked, snow-white against the dusky mass around—shame and indignation in those wide clear eyes, but not a stain of fear. With one hand she clasped her golden locks around her; the other long white arm was stretched upward toward the great still Christ appealingand who dare say in vain?—from man to God."

Charles Kingsley, Hypatia (XXIX)

John Malalas, a sixth-century Byzantine chronicler, records that Hypatia died during the reign of Theodosius II (AD 408-450). "At that time the Alexandrians, given free reign by their bishop [Cyril], seized and burnt on a pyre of brushwood Hypatia the famous philosopher, who had a great reputation and who was an old woman" (Chronicle, XIV.12). Philostorgius, whose work survives in a ninth-century epitome, also recounts that Hypatia died "during the reign of Theodosius the younger" (Ecclesiastical History, VIII.9). Socrates Scholasticus provides the date of her death: "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" (Ecclesiastical History, VII.15)March AD 415.

The age of Hypatia at her death is not known, although it can be surmised from a convention utilized by the Greek chronicler Apollodorus of Athens, who believed that the most important deeds of one's life occurred at its akmê ("bloom"), which he understood to be about age forty. The tenth-century Suda records that Hypatia "flourished in the reign of Arcadius" (AD 395-408). If Hypatia's floruit coincided with the beginning of Arcadius' reign, she would have been born about AD 355 and sixty years old in AD 415, an age consistent with the remark of Malalas that Hypatia was "an old woman" when she died. (She would be older still, age seventy-two, if her floruit were calculated from when Arcadius was proclaimed Augustus and co-ruler of the Eastern Empire in AD 383.)

As the acme of Hypatia's life shifts from the beginning of Arcadius' reign toward its end, her conjectured death occurs at an increasingly younger age until it begins to approach that of her student Synesius. A floruit in the last year of the emperor's rule requires that Hypatia be only a few years older than her devoted pupil, whose deference to "my most revered teacher" suggests that, in fact, she was some years older. She then would be only forty-seven when she died and born about AD 368. Although this approximates AD 370, the traditional date for Hypatia's birth, it seems too late.

Given that Hypatia may have been fifty or sixty years old when she died, the picture by Charles William Mitchell (above) is disquieting, as are the overwrought lines from Kingsley's novel (1853) that were quoted in the catalog of the exhibit. An Anglican priest, private tutor to the Prince of Wales, and chaplain to Queen Victoria, Kingsley also was an advocate for social reform, connubial felicity, liberal Protestantism, and physical health. In essays such as Nausicaa in London: Or, the Lower Education of Women (1873), he argued that English women should pattern themselves after Nausicaa, who, while playing ball, unabashedly confronted a naked Odysseus (Odyssey, Bk. VI). Educators should insist on the same strength of mind and body, and

"on that most natural and wholesome of all exercises, dancing, in order to develop the lower half of the body; on singing, to expand the lungs and regulate the breath; and on some games—ball or what not—which will ensure that raised chest, and upright carriage, and general strength of the upper torso, without which full oxygenation of the blood, and therefore general health, is impossible; if they will sternly forbid tight stays, high heels, and all which interferes with free growth and free motion...and accept the certain physical law that, in order to renovate the brain day by day, the growing creature must have plenty of fresh air and play, and that the child who learns for four hours and plays for four hours, will learn more, and learn it more easily, than the child who learns for the whole eight hours; if, in short, they will teach girls not merely to understand the Greek tongue, but to copy somewhat of the Greek physical training, of that 'music and gymnastic' which helped to make the cleverest race of the old world the ablest race likewise; then they will earn the gratitude of the patriot and the physiologists, by doing their best to stay the downward tendencies of the physique, and therefore ultimately of the morale, in the coming generation of English women."

Although painted over thirty years later, one imagines that Kingsley would have approved of Hypatia's taut muscularity and athletic physique, a defiant presence that Mitchell contrasts with the cold marble trappings of the church.

Two years after Hypatia, John Henry Newman published Callista, his own historical novel, in response to what he felt was Kingsley's attack on Catholicism. Newman was a prominent member of the Tractarian Movement at Oxford University, so called because of the tracts that were published criticizing the perceived doctrinal laxity of the Anglican Church and a failure to appreciate its Catholic heritage. Indeed, in one letter, Newman comments on the danger of churchmen becoming too liberal because "it makes them undervalue the guilt of schism." He himself would convert to Catholicism in 1845, be elevated to cardinal, and eventually beatified. Just as Newman sought to impress upon his parishioners and readers a high view of the church, its liturgical demands and sacramental nature, proponents of the Church of England such as Kingsley deplored this espousal of pre-Reformation ceremonial and sacerdotalism as "unmanly."

Both books are placed in a time when history was most propitious to the respective arguments of their authors. "For various historical reasons," as Kingsley notes in the preface to Hypatia, he set his novel in AD 413 (Cyril had become patriarch of Alexandria late the previous year). A century earlier, Constantine had promulgated the Edict of Milan, establishing religious tolerance in the empire but also emboldening the nascent church. As Newman states in the very first line, Callista takes place "in the middle of the third century," when the Edict of Decius (AD 250) required certification of public sacrifice to the emperor. (The edict, itself, has not survived but can be reconstructed from its mention by the church fathers, e.g., Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, VI.41.9ff; Cyprian, On the Lapsed, Epistles, e.g., LXX; Gregory of Nyssa, Life of Gregory Thaumaturgus, 944C).

The heroines die true to their creed of their authors, one with secular defiance, the other with spiritual submission. Whereas a naked Hypatia rises to her full height (one imagines the "raised chest, and upright carriage" of Kingsley's schoolgirl), Callista is modestly covered, her last words espousing her savior, "For Thee, my Lord and Love, for Thee!... Accept me, O my Love, upon this bed of pain! And come to me, O my Love, make haste and come!"


Two pamphlets were published in 1864—Newman's Mr. Kingsley and Dr. Newman: A Correspondence on the Question Whether Dr. Newman Teaches That Truth Is No Virtue? and Kingsley's ill-considered response What, Then, Does Dr. Newman Mean? A Reply to A Pamphlet Lately Published by Dr. Newman, which prompted, in turn, an opportunity for Newman to present his spiritual autobiographical Apologia Pro Vita Sua (in particular, Note C: Sermon on Wisdom and Innocence), a masterpiece of Victorian prose.

They continued a theological dispute that had been precipitated by a book review in Macmillan's Magazine at the beginning of the year, in which Kingsley felt compelled to remark that

"Truth, for its own sake had never been a virtue with the Roman clergy. Father Newman informs us that it need not, and on the whole ought not to be; that cunning is the weapon which Heaven has given to the saints wherewith to withstand the brute male force of the wicked world which marries and is given in marriage. Whether his notion be doctrinally correct or not, it is at least historically so."

The reference is to a sermon that the reclusive Newman had delivered twenty years earlier as an Anglican vicar entitled Wisdom and Innocence, in which he counseled Christians whose trials could not be avoided to "be ye wise as serpents," even if that wisdom was denounced as craft. As The Westminster Review observed at the time, "It is simply bewildering how Mr. Kingsley could have deduced from it the conclusions he did." Or, as Kingsley was characterized by The Saturday Review,

"He is the most sensational writer of history who ever disdained the labor of reading. We think that, substantially, what he really meant to say about the Roman Church was right, and that even what he meant to say about a certain aspect of Dr. Newman's teaching in a particular sermon had some justification; but then what he meant to say was what he did not say. What he did say about Dr. Newman is entirely unjustifiable, inaccurate, and indeed untrue; and he had much better have said so."

Kingsley's assertion of dishonesty sought to impugn Newman's Catholicism as well as his celibacy (a requirement of the priesthood), and to distinguish between what Kingsley thought was the feminine cunning of the celibate and the virile truthfulness of the married male. It was not the spiritual asceticism of Newman, which Kingsley considered to be both effeminate and perverse, but marriage that brought man closer to the ineffability of God. No doubt, Newman would have felt that this bond was attained in spite of such earthly ties.

Given Kingsley's Victorian anxiety over masculinity and marriage, it is telling that, as a young man, he once had been attracted to the same ideals of purity and celibacy. Indeed, he confesses that it was his reaction to Wisdom and Innocence that finally allowed him to shake off "the strong influence which your writings exerted on me." Kingsley also had formed similar male friendships—yearnings from which, he felt, the love of his wife Fanny and their marital bliss had delivered him. Fanny herself had been a follower of Newman and once contemplated becoming a nun, and Kingsley may have thought that he was saving her as well.


According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word "homo-sexual" first occurred in print in 1892 in Krafft-Ebing's Psychopathia Sexualis, the English translation of which was published in 1893. "The Love that dare not speak its name" apparently continued not to do so for several more years, as the phrase itself was not coined by Lord Alfred Douglas, the lover of Oscar Wilde, until 1894. Kingsley's attack on Newman's "dishonesty" was, in fact, a charge of his "perversion," both in terms of Newman's religious conversion as well as his sexual indeterminacy. But it is problematic to use "homosexual" to signify his sexual identity when, at the time, the word did not exist. This is especially true when Newman's sexuality seems to have been more a renunciation of sex, sublimated to a spiritual ideal of celibate brotherhood, than its actual practice. Indeed, the stigmatizing effect of the word and recognition that homosexuality was morally undesirable no doubt rendered the innocence of many early nineteenth-century male affections increasingly self-conscious and ambivalent.


  In 1908, Elbert Hubbard published, as part of his series Little Journeys to the Homes of Great Teachers, a fanciful essay on Hypatia. With a nod to Kingsley, who had "the composite of the great woman who lives and throbs through his book," Hubbard adds to the account of a woman he considered the "Ralph Waldo Emerson of her day," including even her height and weight (five feet nine inches, one hundred thirty-five pounds) as well as several ponderous quotes, more indicative of his philosophy than hers. They include such platitudes as "Life is an unfoldment, and the further we travel the more truth we can comprehend. To understand the things that are at our door is the best preparation for understanding those that lie beyond" (frontispiece) or "All formal dogmatic religions are fallacious and must never be accepted by self-respecting persons as final....Reserve your right to think, for even to think wrongly is better than not to think at all" (pp. 82-83, actually put into the mouth of Theon, her father) or "Fables should be taught as fables, myths as myths, and miracles as poetic fancies. To teach superstitions as truths is a most terrible thing" (pp. 84-85). (The booklet itself, which also was published separately, is only about twenty pages long but paginated as part of Volume X, Great Teachers.)

These attributions are as imaginary as the inserted portrait of Hypatia, a modest woman in profile with eyes demurely cast downward. Unfortunately, they were given wider credence by Lynn M. Osen in her book Women in Mathematics (1975), where she quotes Hubbard, the "historian" (p. 31) as if the words came from Hypatia herself. They now are repeated endlessly on the Web and in a disconcerting number of books.

In fact, the closest one can come to the actual words of Hypatia are contained in a letter by Synesius of Cyrene, written in AD 413, where he says that "You yourself called me the providence of others."


If Kingsley associated Hypatia with his opposition to Catholicism, Charles Bradlaugh, who was the first atheist to be elected to Parliament (in spite of refusing to take the oath of admission), equated her with a rejection of religion itself. Thrown out of his father's house at age sixteen, he was taken in by the widow of Richard Carlile, a freethinker who once had been jailed for publishing Thomas Paine's Common Sense. Bradlaugh fell in love with their young daughter Hypatia and later gave his own daughter the same name.


Hypatia (Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle upon Tyne) by Charles William Mitchell was shown in 1885, the same year that John William Waterhouse displayed St. Eulalia, a picture that has a similar voyeuristic quality.


References: The Chronicle of John Malalas (1986) translated by Elizabeth Jeffreys, Michael Jeffreys, and Roger Scott; "When Was Hypatia Born?" (1984) by Robert J. Penella, Historia: Zeitschrift für Alte Geschichte, 33(1), 126-128; The Letters of Synesius of Cyrene (1926) translated by Augustine FitzGerald; Imagining Rome: British Artists and Rome in the Nineteenth Century (1996) edited by Michael Liversidge and Catherine Edwards; Exposed: The Victorian Nude (2002) edited by Alison Smith; Hypatia: or, New Foes with an Old Face (1853) by Charles Kingsley; Callista; A Tale of the Third Century (1855) by John Henry Newman; "The Art of Looking Dangerously: Victorian Images of Martyrdom" (2004) by Maureen Moran, Victorian Literature and Culture, 32(2), 475-493; "Hypatia and Callista: The Initial Skirmish Between Kingsley and Newman" (1979) by Susann Dorman, Nineteenth-Century Fiction, 34(2), 173-193; "Love among the Ruins: The Catacombs, the Closet, and the Victorian 'Early Christian' Novel (2000) by Vincent A. Lankewish, Victorian Literature and Culture, 28(2), 239-273; "'An Unnatural State': Gender, 'Perversion,' and Newman's 'Apologia Pro Vita Sua'" (1992) by Oliver S. Buckton, Victorian Studies, 35(4), 359-383; "Unenglish and Unmanly: Anglo-Catholicism and Homosexuality" (1982) by David Hilliard, Victorian Studies, 25(2), 181-210; "Dr. Newman and Mr. Kingsley" (July 1864), The Westminster Review, 82, 62-68; "Dr. Newman and Mr. Kingsley" (February 27, 1864), The Saturday Review of Politics, Literature, Science, and Art, 17, 147-152; "Geometrical Proportion and the Chronological Method of Apollodorus" (1976) by Alden A. Mosshammer, Transactions of the American Philological Association, 106, 291-306; Victorian Culture and Classical Antiquity: Art, Opera, Fiction, and the Proclamation of Modernity (2011) by Simon Goldhill.

See also St. Eulalia.

Return to Top of Page

Email