For other uses see Hypatia (disambiguation)

Hypatia (b. ca. AD 350–370, d. 415) (English pronunciation: /haɪˈpeɪʃə/ hy-PAY-shə; Ancient Greek: Ὑπατία; Hypatía) was an Alexandrine Neoplatonist philosopher in Egypt who was the first well-documented woman in mathematics. As head of the Platonist school at Alexandria, she also taught philosophy and astronomy.

As a Neoplatonist philosopher, she belonged to the mathematic tradition of the Academy of Athens, as represented by Eudoxus of Cnidus; she was of the intellectual school of the 3rd century thinker Plotinus, which encouraged logic and mathematical study in place of empirical enquiry and strongly encouraged law in place of nature.

According to the only contemporary source, Hypatia was murdered by a Christian mob after being accused of exacerbating a conflict between two prominent figures in Alexandria: the governor Orestes and the Bishop of Alexandria. Kathleen Wider proposes that the murder of Hypatia marked the end of Classical antiquity, and Stephen Greenblatt observes that her murder "effectively marked the downfall of Alexandrian intellectual life". On the other hand, Maria Dzielska and Christian Wildberg note that Hellenistic philosophy continued to flourish in the 5th and 6th centuries, and perhaps until the age of Justinian.


The mathematician and philosopher Hypatia of Alexandria was the daughter of the mathematician Theon Alexandricus (ca. 335–405). She was educated at Athens. Around AD 400, she became head of the Platonist school at Alexandria, where she imparted the knowledge of Plato and Aristotle to any student; the pupils included pagans, Christians, and foreigners.

The contemporary 5th-century sources do identify Hypatia of Alexandria as a practitioner and teacher of the philosophy of Plato and Plotinus, but, two hundred years later, the 7th-century Egyptian Coptic bishop John of Nikiû identified her as a Hellenistic pagan and that "she was devoted at all times to magic, astrolabes and instruments of music, and she beguiled many people through her Satanic wiles". Not all Christians were as hostile towards her as John of Nikiu or the monks who killed her: some Christians even used Hypatia as symbolic of Virtue.

The Byzantine Suda encyclopaedia reported that Hypatia was "the wife of Isidore the Philosopher" (apparently Isidore of Alexandria); however, Isidore of Alexandria was not born until long after Hypatia's death, and no other philosopher of that name contemporary with Hypatia is known. The Suda also stated that "she remained a virgin" and that she rejected a suitor with her menstrual rags, saying that they demonstrated "nothing beautiful" about carnal desire, an example of a Christian source using Hypatia as a symbol of Virtue.

Hypatia corresponded with former pupil Synesius of Cyrene, who was tutored by her in the philosophical school of Platonism and later became bishop of Ptolemais in AD 410, an exponent of the Christian Holy Trinity doctrine. Together with the references by the pagan philosopher Damascius, these are the extant records left by Hypatia's pupils at the Platonist school of Alexandria. The contemporary Christian historiographer Socrates Scholasticus described her in 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 infrequently appeared in public in the 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. ”

—Socrates Scholasticus, Ecclesiastical History


Events leading to her murder

Two widely cited, but divergent texts describe the feud between Orestes, the prefect (or Governor) of Alexandria and Cyril, the Bishop of Alexandria. The feud and the city-wide anger it provoked ultimately brought about the death of Hypatia.

One source, the Historia Ecclesiastica (or "Ecclesiastical History") was written by Socrates Scholasticus (who was himself a Christian), some time shortly after Hypatia's death in AD 415. Scholasticus gives a more complete, less biased account of the feud between Orestes and Cyril, and the role Hypatia played in the feud that resulted in her death.

The other source, The Chronicle, written by John of Nikiu in Egypt, around 650 AD, demonizes Hypatia and Orestes directly, while validating all Christians involved in the events Nikiu describes. The Chronicle, in being more biased on the matter of the historical feud, omits several points of the narrative that are detailed in Scholasticus’s account.

Ecclesiastical History, Socrates Scholasticus

Orestes, the governor of Alexandria, and Cyril, the Bishop of Alexandria, found themselves in a bitter feud in which Hypatia would come to be one of the main points of contention. The feud, which took place in 415 AD, began over the matter of Jewish dancing exhibitions in Alexandria. Since these exhibitions attracted large crowds and were commonly prone to civil disorder of varying degrees, Orestes published an edict which outlined new regulations for such gatherings and posted it in the city's theater. Soon after, crowds gathered to read the edict, angry over the new regulations that had been imposed upon them. At one such gathering, Hierax, a Christian and devout follower of Cyril, read the edict and applauded the new regulations, which many people felt was an attempt to incite the crowd into sedition. In what Scholasticus suspected as Orestes' "…jealousy the growing power of the bishops… encroached on the jurisdiction of the authorities…", Orestes immediately ordered Hierax to be seized and publicly tortured in the theater.

Upon hearing of this, Cyril threatened the Jews of Alexandria with "the utmost severities" if harassment of Christians was not ceased at once. In response, the Jews of Alexandria grew only more furious over Cyril's threat, and in their anger they eventually resorted to violence against the Christians. They plotted to flush the Christians out at night by running through the streets, claiming that the Church of Alexander was on fire. When the Christians responded to what they were led to believe was the burning down of their church, "the Jews immediately fell upon and slew them", using rings to recognize one another in the dark, while killing everyone else in sight. When the morning came, the Jews of Alexandria could not hide their guilt, and Cyril, along with many of his followers, took to the city’s synagogues in search of the perpetrators of the night's massacre.

After Cyril found all of the Jews in Alexandria, he ordered them to be stripped of all their possessions, banished them from Alexandria, and allowed the remaining citizens to pillage the goods they left behind. With Cyril's banishment of the Jews, "Orestes was filled with great indignation at these transactions, and was excessively grieved that a city of such magnitude should have been suddenly bereft of so large a portion of its population…". Because of this, the feud between Cyril and Orestes only grew stronger, and both men wrote to the emperor regarding the situation. Eventually, Cyril attempted to reach out to Orestes through several peace overtures, including attempted mediation and, when that failed, showed him the Gospels. Nevertheless, Orestes remained unmoved by such gestures.

Meanwhile, approximately 500 monks, who resided in the mountains of Nitria, and were "of a very fiery disposition", heard of the ongoing feud between the Governor and Bishop, and shortly thereafter descended into Alexandria, armed and prepared to fight alongside Cyril. Upon their arrival in Alexandria, the monks quickly intercepted Orestes' chariot in town and proceeded to bombard and harass him, calling him a pagan idolater. In response to such allegations, Orestes countered that he was actually a Christian, and had even been baptized by Atticus, the Bishop of Constantinople. The monks paid little attention to Orestes’ claims of Christianity, and one of the monks, by the name of Ammonius, struck Orestes in the head with a rock, which caused him to bleed profusely. At this point, Orestes’ guards fled for fear of their lives, but a nearby crowd of Alexandrians came to his aid, and Ammonius was subsequently secured and ordered to be tortured for his actions. Upon excessive torture, Ammonius died. Following the death of Ammonius, Cyril ordered that he henceforth be remembered as a martyr. Such a proclamation did not sit well with "sober-minded" Christians, as Scholasticus pointed out, seeing that he "suffered the punishment due to his rashness… he would not deny Christ", and this fact, according to Scholasticus, became more apparent to Cyril through general lack of enthusiasm for Ammonius's case for martyrdom.

Scholasticus then introduces Hypatia, the female philosopher of Alexandria and woman who would become a target of the Christian anger that grew over the feud. Daughter of Theon, and a teacher trained in the philosophical schools of Plato and Plotinus, she was admired by most men for her dignity and virtue. Of the anger she provoked among Christians, Scholasticus writes, Hypatia ultimately fell "victim to the political jealousy which at the time prevailed" - Orestes was known to seek her counsel, and a rumor spread among the Christian community of Alexandria in which she was blamed for his unwillingness to reconcile with Cyril. Therefore, a mob of Christians gathered, led by a reader (i.e. a minor cleric) named Peter whom Scholasticus calls a fanatic. They kidnapped Hypatia on her way home and took her to the "Church called Caesareum. They then completely stripped her, and then murdered her with tiles". Socrates Scholasticus was hence interpreted as saying that, while she was still alive, Hypatia's flesh was torn off using oyster shells (tiles; the Greek word is ostrakois, which literally means "oystershells" but the word was also used for brick tiles on the roofs of houses and for pottery sherds). Afterward, the men proceeded to mutilate her, and finally burn her limbs. When news broke of Hypatia's murder, it provoked great public denouncement, not only against Cyril, but against the whole Alexandrian Christian community. Scholasticus closes with a lament: "Surely nothing can be farther from the spirit of Christianity than the allowance of massacres, fights, and transactions of that sort".

Chronicle, John of Nikiu

Bishop John of Nikiu, who lived several hundred years after the events he describes, writes bitterly of Hypatia, claiming that "she beguiled many people through (her) Satanic wiles". Orestes, who Nikiu writes, was himself a victim of Hypatia's demonic charm, regularly honored her, and took to abandoning the Christian Church in order to follow her teachings more closely. Moreover, Orestes himself persuaded others to leave the Church in favor of Hypatia's philosophical teachings, and went as far as to host such "unbelievers" at his house.

One day, Orestes published an edict "regarding public exhibitions in the city of Alexandria", and all citizens gathered to read Orestes's edict. Cyril, curious to see why the edict caused such an uproar, sent Hierax, a "Christian possessing understanding and intelligence", who although opposed to paganism, did as Cyril asked and went to learn the nature of Orestes's edict. Meanwhile, the Jews who gathered in anger over the edict, believed that Hierax had only come for the sake of provocation (which, according to Scholasticus's text, was Hierax's intent). Upon this assumption, Orestes had Hierax punished for a crime for which "he was wholly guiltless".

For the punishment and torture of Hierax, as well as the death of several monks, including Ammonius, Cyril grew increasingly furious with Orestes. (Here, Nikiu blatantly ignores the assault on Orestes by the 500 monks, of which Ammonius played an active role in bringing about his torture and death.) Cyril then warned the Jews against any further harm upon the Christians. However, with the support of Orestes (which was in no way implied by Scholasticus), the Jews felt confident in defying Cyril's authority, and so one night ran through the streets proclaiming: "The church of the apostolic Athanasius (Alexander) is on fire: come to its succour, all ye Christians". The Christians responded to the claims only to be slaughtered by the Jews in a coordinated ambush.

The next morning, all remaining Christians of the town came to Cyril with news of the massacre, after which Cyril marched with them to purge the Jews from Alexandria. In so doing, Cyril allowed the pillaging of their possessions, and soon after purified all the synagogues in the city and made them into Churches (Scholasticus makes no mention of "purifying" the Synagogues). In the expulsion of the Jews, Orestes was unable to offer them any assistance.

Shortly thereafter, a group of Christians, under Peter the magistrate, went looking for Hypatia, the "pagan woman who had beguiled the people of the city and the prefect through her enchantments". They found her sitting in a chair, at which point they seized and brought her to "the great church, named Caesarion", where they proceeded to rip the clothes off of her body. Following this, they took to dragging her through the streets of Alexandria until she died. Once she had died, they burned her remains. Nikiu's description of Hypatia's death also differs from Scholasticus's interpretation. Following the death of Hypatia, Bishop Cyril was named "the new Theophilus". With the death of Hypatia, Nikiu writes, the Christians had expelled the last remnant of pagan idolatry.


No written work, widely recognized by scholars as Hypatia's own, has survived to the present time. Many of the works commonly attributed to her are believed to have been collaborative works with her father, Theon Alexandricus, this kind of authorial uncertainty being typical for female philosophers in Antiquity.

A partial list of Hypatia's works as mentioned by other antique and medieval authors or as posited by modern authors:

  • 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". (Either a new edition of Ptolemy's Handy Tables or the aforementioned Almagest.)

Her contributions to science are reputed to include the charting of celestial bodies and the invention of the hydrometer, used to determine the relative density (or specific gravity) of liquids. However, the hydrometer was invented before Hypatia, and already known in her time.

Her student Synesius, bishop of Cyrene, wrote a letter describing his construction of an astrolabe. Earlier astrolabes predate that of Synesius by at least a century, and Hypatia's father had gained fame for his treatise on the subject. However, Synesius claimed that his was an improved model. Synesius also sent Hypatia a letter describing a hydrometer, and requesting her to have one constructed for him.


Late Antiquity to the Age of Reason

Shortly after her murder, there appeared under Hypatia's name a forged anti-Christian letter. The Neoplatonist historian Damascius (ca. AD 458–538) was "anxious to exploit the scandal of Hypatia's death", and attributed responsibility for her murder to Bishop Cyril and his Christian followers; that historical account is contained in the Suda. Damascius's account of the Christian murder of Hypatia is the sole historical source attributing direct responsibility to Bishop Cyril. Maria Dzielska proposes that the bishop's body guards might have murdered Hypatia.

The intellectual Eudokia Makrembolitissa (1021–1096), the second wife of Byzantine Emperor Constantine X Doukas, was described by the historian Nicephorus Gregoras as a "second Hypatia".

Centuries later, the early 18th-century deist scholar John Toland used the murder of Hypatia as the basis for the anti-Catholic tract 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.

In turn, the Christians defended themselves from Toland with The History of Hypatia, a most Impudent School-Mistress of Alexandria: Murder'd and torn to Pieces by the Populace, in Defence of Saint Cyril and the Alexandrian Clergy from the Aspersions of Mr. Toland, by Thomas Lewis, in 1721.

19th century

In the 19th century, interest in the "literary legend of Hypatia" began to rise.Diodata Saluzzo Roero's 1827 Ipazia ovvero delle Filosofie suggested that Cyril had actually converted Hypatia to Christianity, and that she had been killed by a "treacherous" priest.

In 1843, German authors Soldan and Heppe argued in their highly influential History of the Witchcraft Trials that Hypatia may have been, in effect, the first famous "witch" punished under Christian authority (see Witch-hunt).

In his 1847 Hypatie and 1857 Hypatie et Cyrille, French poet Charles-Marie-René Leconte de Lisle portrayed Hypatia as the epitome of "vulnerable truth and beauty".

Charles Kingsley's 1853 novel Hypatia – or New Foes with an Old Face, which portrayed the scholar as a "helpless, pretentious, and erotic heroine", recounted her conversion by a Jewish-Christian named Raphael Aben-Ezra after supposedly becoming disillusioned with Orestes.

In 1867, the early photographer Julia Margaret Cameron created a portrait of the scholar as a young woman.

On 2 January 1893, a stage play "Hypatia", written by G. Stuart Ogilvie, opened at the Haymarket Theatre in London. It was based on the novel by Charles Kingsley, and was produced by Herbert Beerbohm Tree. The title role was initially played by Julia Neilson, and it featured an elaborate musical score written by the composer Hubert Parry.

20th century

Some authors mention her in passing, such as Marcel Proust, who dropped her name in the last sentence of "Madame Swann at Home," the first section of Within a Budding Grove.

Some characters are named after her, such as Hypatia Cade, a precocious child and main character in the science fiction novel The Ship Who Searched by Mercedes Lackey and Anne McCaffrey.

Rinne Groff's 2000 play The Five Hysterical Girls Theorem features a character named Hypatia who lives silently, in fear that she will suffer the fate of her namesake.

Hypatia is the name of a 'shipmind' (ship computer) in The Boy Who Would Live Forever, a novel in Frederik Pohl's Heechee series.

Umberto Eco's novel Baudolino sees the protagonist meet a secluded society of satyr-like creatures who all take their name and philosophy from Hypatia.

A fictional version of the historic character appears in several works and indeed series, such as

  • The Heirs of Alexandria series written by Mercedes Lackey, Eric Flint and Dave Freer, is an alternate history in which Hypatia was converted to Christianity by John Chrysostom, which saved her life and enabled her to stop the mob from destroying the Library of Alexandria, eventually resulting in her elevation to Sainthood. The books, taking place in the world of 1530 resulting from the above, include copies from the alternate Hypatia's influential correspondence with Chrysostom and St. Augustine, as well as a monastic order, the Hypatian Siblings.
  • The Corto Maltese adventure Fable of Venice, by characteristic superposition of anachronistic elements, sees Hypatia preside over an intellectual salon in pre-Fascist Italy;
  • As a recurring character in Mark London Williams' juvenile fiction Danger Boy.

She also appears, briefly, as one of the kidnapped scientists and philosophers in the Doctor Who episode Time and the Rani.

American astronomer Carl Sagan, in Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, gave a detailed speculative description of Hypatia's death, linking it with the destruction of the Library of Alexandria.

A more scholarly historical study of her, Hypatia of Alexandria by Maria Dzielska (translated into English by F. Lyra, published by Harvard University Press), was named by Choice Magazine as an "Outstanding Academic Book of 1995, Philosophy Category".

She has been claimed by second wave feminism, most prominently as Hypatia: A Journal of Feminist Philosophy, published since 1986 by Indiana University Press.

Judy Chicago's large-scale The Dinner Party awards her a place-setting, and other artistic works draw on or are based on Hypatia.

A central character in Iain Pears' The Dream of Scipio is a woman philosopher clearly modeled on (though not identical with) Hypatia.

The last two centuries have seen Hypatia's name honored in the sciences, especially astronomy. 238 Hypatia, a main belt asteroid discovered in 1884, was named for her. The lunar crater Hypatia was named for her, in addition to craters named for her father Theon and for Cyril. The 180 km Rimae Hypatia is located north of the crater, one degree south of the equator, along the Mare Tranquillitatis.

By the end of the 20th century Hypatia's name was applied to projects ranging in scope from an Adobe typeface (Hypatia Sans Pro), to a cooperative community house in Madison, Wisconsin. A genus of moth also bears her name.

21st century

Her life continues to be fictionalized by authors in many countries and languages. Two recent examples are Ipazia, scienziata alessandrina by Adriano Petta (translated from the Italian in 2004 as Hypatia: Scientist of Alexandria), and Hypatia y la eternidad (Hypatia and Eternity) by Ramon Galí, a fanciful alternate history, in Spanish (2009).

Azazil, by Egyptian Muslim author Dr. Youssef Ziedan, tells the story of the religious conflict of that time through the eyes of a monk, including a substantial section on Hypatia; Zaydan's book has been criticized by Christians in Egypt.

Her life is portrayed in the Malayalam novel Francis Itty Cora (2009) by T. D Ramakrishnan.

Examples in English include

  • Remembering Hypatia: A Novel of Ancient Egypt by Brian Trent,;
  • Flow Down Like Silver, Hypatia of Alexandria (2009) by Ki Longfellow, the second in a trilogy of the divine feminine, the first being The Secret Magdalene;
  • The Plot to Save Socrates (2006) by Paul Levinson and his sequel novelette "Unburning Alexandria" (2008) - where Hypatia turns out to have been a time-traveler from 21st century America.
  • Heresy: the Life of Pelagius (2012) by David Lovejoy, which includes Hypatia's death as well as a portrait of Synesius

More factually, Hypatia of Alexandria: Mathematician and Martyr (2007) is a brief (113 page) biography by Michael Deakin, with a focus on her mathematical research. Hypatia has been considered a universal genius.

The 2009 movie Agora, directed by Alejandro Amenábar, focuses on Hypatia's final years. Hypatia, portrayed by actress Rachel Weisz, is seen investigating the heliocentric model of the solar system proposed by Aristarchus of Samos, and even anticipating the elliptical orbits discovered by Johannes Kepler 1200 years later.

In the 2013 play False Assumptions by Lawrence Aronovitch, Hypatia is portrayed as one of three ghosts observing the life of Marie Curie.

  • Dzielska, Maria (1996) . Hypatia of Alexandria. trans. F. Lyra. Harvard University Press. ISBN 0-674-43776-4. 
  • edited by David Fideler. (1994) . Fideler, David, ed. Alexandria 2: The Journal of Western Cosmological Traditions II. Phanes Press. ISBN 0-933999-97-6. 
  • Whitfield, Bryan J. (Summer, 1995). "The Beauty of Reasoning: A Reexamination of Hypatia and Alexandria". The Mathematics Educator (University of Georgia) 6 (1): 14–21. Retrieved 2009-05-16. 

 This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Smith, William, ed. (1867). "article name needed". Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology

Further reading

  • Alic, Margaret (1986). Hypatia's heritage : a history of women in science from antiquity through the nineteenth century. Boston: Beacon Press. ISBN 0-8070-6731-8. 
  • Cameron, Alan; Long, Jacqueline (1993). Barbarians and politics at the Court of Arcadius. Berkeley: University of California Press. ISBN 0-585-13966-0. 
  • Deakin, Michael A. B. (Mar., 1994). "Hypatia and Her Mathematics". American Mathematical Monthly (Mathematical Association of America) 101 (3): 234–243. doi:10.2307/2975600. Retrieved 2009-05-16. 
  • Kingsley, Charles (1853). Hypatia, or New Foes with Old Faces. Chicago: W.B. Conkley. 
  • Knorr, Richard (1989). Textual Studies in Ancient and Medieval Geometry. Birkhäuser. ISBN 0-8176-3387-1. 
  • Molinaro, Ursule (1990). "A Christian Martyr in Reverse: Hypatia". A full moon of women. New York: Dutton. ISBN 0-525-24848-X. 
  • Osen, Lynn M. (1990). Women in mathematics. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. ISBN 0-262-15014-X. 
  • Parsons, Reuben. “St. Cyril of Alexandria and the Murder of Hypatia,” in Some Lies and Errors of History, Chap. IV, Office of the “Ave Maria,” 1892.
  • Richeson, A. W. “Hypatia of Alexandria,” National Mathematics Magazine, Vol. XV, N°. 2, November 1940.
  • Teruel, Pedro Jesús (2011). Filosofía y ciencia en Hipatia. Madrid: Gredos. ISBN 978-84-249-1939-9. 
Wikimedia Commons has media related to: HypatiaWikisource has original text related to this article:
  • Resources on Hypatia: booklist, classroom activities
  • Hypatia on ABC Radio Transcript of an interview with Dr Michael Deakin about his research on Hypatia, broadcast on Australia's ABC Radio National. Sunday, 3 August 1997
  • International Society for Neoplatonic Studies
  • Hypatia, Alexandria's Great Female Scholar: from Smithsonian magazine
Persondata Name Hypatia Alternative names Hypatía; Ὑπατία (Greek) Short description Ancient Greek philosopher and mathematician Date of birth c. 351–370 Place of birth Alexandria Date of death 415 Place of death Alexandria

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