- Henriette Harich-Schwarzbauer
The philosopher Hypatia (350/370–415 ce) is one of the outstanding figures in the intellectual life of Late Antiquity. She is considered a symbol of the transformation of science and philosophy under the Christian bishops in Alexandria at the end of the 4th century ce. Her life and her works are well documented in different literary genres and by famous authors, namely by Synesius of Cyrene in his letters. The extant testimonies on her work prove that she was the guiding light of astronomy in Alexandria, where she was held in high esteem. Unsurprisingly, she became the target of aggression, and she was murdered ferociously in 415. Hypatia has been commemorated in the Byzantine and the Western traditions. She has experienced an impressive revival since the Enlightenment; even in the 21st century she is depicted as a heroine in fiction and film.
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Origin and Date
Hypatia appears to have spent her entire life in her hometown of Alexandria. Visits to other philosophical centres are not attested. She was born the daughter of the distinguished astronomer Theon (4), who served as the head of the Serapeum, the successor institution to the famous Museum, until the Serapeum was destroyed in 391/392 ce. Her mother is never mentioned in the sources; that she was a Christian is mere speculation. While Hypatia’s birth has been dated to between 350 and 370 ce, now the earlier date is now widely accepted, regardless of the Suda entry which reports that she reached her acme under the emperor Arcadius (ἤκμασεν ἐπὶ τῆς βασιλείας Ἀρκαδίου: Suda 4.644.3 Adler). Hypatia was introduced to the foundations of Alexandrian science in arithmetic, geometry, and astronomy by her father Theon. Soon, however, she went beyond the limits of these disciplines and sought to engage in mathematical research and philosophical speculation. As Damascius notes, this marked a clear departure from her father’s work (Isid. fr. 43A, 1–4 Athanassiadi = fr. 102, p. 77, 2–4 Zintzen). Hypatia thus reinvigorated the philosophical tradition in Alexandria, which had not had any notable exponents since Ammonius Saccas (d. 242/243 ce).
The information transmitted in the Suda that Hypatia was married to Damascius’s master Isidorus is without foundation. She seems to have remained unmarried all her life; this does not necessarily imply, however, that she lived an ascetic life in the manner of some Christians of the time.1 Her attitude toward the Christian community is still a matter of dispute. The correspondence of her famous pupil Synesius of Cyrene gives impressive testimony to the presence of Christians among Hypatia’s students. This evidence, however, is no sufficient basis for the conclusion that Hypatia had established a neutralized form of Platonism that aimed to synthesize Christianity and Neoplatonism. Nevertheless, the letters of Synesius shed light on some aspects of Hypatia’s exclusive philosophical circle. Synesius, not yet the bishop of Ptolemaïs, calls her a leading “Hellene” (Ep. 154, p. 276, 23–24 Garzya). Her students came from different regions of the eastern Mediterranean, and some of them were figures of considerable political influence. Hypatia’s relationship to Orestes, the prefect of Alexandria who expressly identified as a Christian, is often adduced as one of the reasons for her assassination: the sources suggest that this alliance, which was based on an informal understanding rather than any institutional framework, was viewed with scepticism by Cyril, who succeeded his uncle Theophilus as bishop in 412 (Dam. Isid. fr. 43E, 9–17 Athanassiadi = fr. 104, p. 79, 18–25 Zintzen). During Lent of 415, Hypatia was apprehended on the streets of Alexandria and murdered in an act of extreme violence. Whether or not Cyril was directly involved in her murder is still a matter of scholarly debate. What seems clear, however, is that Cyril had contributed to the climate of fear and violence that precipitated the atrocity.
The tradition concerning Hypatia is highly fragmented, and attempts to reconstruct a coherent biographical narrative from the scattered source material have been largely unproductive.2 However, the sources do allow some insight into the way that she was perceived in her own day, and they give us a sense of her distinctive character.3 The available testimonies discuss Hypatia from the vantage point of different cultures; no less diverse are the literary genres of the sources, which focus on different aspects of Hypatia’s personality.
Seven letters by Synesius of Cyrene are addressed to Hypatia (Epist. 1, 15, 16, 46, 81, 124, 154 Garzya); another three letters (Epist. 5, 133, 136 Garzya), as well as Synesius’s treatise Ad Paionium, de dono astrolabii (311B Terzaghi), offer glimpses of Hypatia as a philosophical teacher, literary critic, and woman of considerable social standing and political influence. The Historia ecclesiastica of Socrates Scholasticus (7.15) offers an outline of her biography and her scientific achievements. Socrates’ account also highlights her political authority and pays special attention to the events leading up to her murder. A number of fragments from Damascius’s Vita Isidori (frr. 102, 104 Zintzen [frr. 103 and 105 are controversial]; Epit. Phot. 164 Zintzen) similarly discuss her family background, her role as a teacher and educator, and her murder. As a historian of philosophy, however, Damascius shows Hypatia from a comparative perspective which ultimately serves the purpose of aggrandizing the role of his own teacher Isidorus. Damascius characterizes Hypatia as an exponent of a Platonism that is uninformed by Iamblichus’s doctrine, and for this reason he dismisses her as inferior to Isidorus.
The entry on Hypatia in the Byzantine encyclopaedia Suda combines two independent sources: it draws on Hesychius of Miletus (Suda 4.644.1–11 Adler), who had access to some of Hypatia’s lost works and explains her gruesome murder on the grounds of jealousy of her superior knowledge of astronomy, but also on Damascius (Suda 4.644.12–645.19 Adler). The question of whether or not Anthologia Palatina 9.400 refers to Hypatia has not been resolved.4 The Arian Church historian Philostorgius (Hist. eccl. 8.9) acknowledges Hypatia’s achievements as an astronomer but discredits her as a woman. The account of Hypatia by Cassiodorus, which decisively shaped her reception in the Latin West, is largely derivative of Socrates of Constantinople (Hist. eccles. 11.12). John Malalas (Chron. 12.12.68–70 Thurn) incorporates Hypatia in his World History and notes that she was an old woman when she was murdered. John of Nikiu’s Coptic church history demonizes Hypatia and accuses her of witchcraft (Chron. 84, 87–103). Photius (Bibl. 242, 346.13–15), Theophanes (Chron. 1.82.16–17 de Boor), and Nicephorus Callistus Xanthopoulus (Hist. eccl. 14, 16) offer later Byzantine reworkings of Alexandrian accounts.
The Suda mentions three works by Hypatia (4.644.3–5, s.v. Ὑπατία):
The Ὑπόμνημα εἰς Διόφαντον (Commentary on Diophantus) was probably a commentary on the Ἀριθμητικά (Arithmetica) authored by the mathematician Diophantus who worked at Alexandria in the 3rd century ce. Some of the explanations of, and corrections to, this work that have been transmitted in Arabic may be traced back to Hypatia.
The title of the Ἀστρονομικὸς κανών (Astronomical Canon) can, in the context of the Suda’s enumeration of Hypatia’s works, plausibly be supplemented with εἰς (“on . . .”), in which case the work could be another commentary (On the Astronomical Canon), most plausibly on the so-called Handy Tables (Πρόχειροι κανόνες) by Ptolemy.
Εἰς τὰ Κωνικὰ Ἀπολλωνίου (On the Conic Sections of Apollonius) was a commentary on a text by the mathematician Apollonius of Perge (3rd/2nd century bce).
Hypatia may also have contributed to her father Theon’s commentary on Ptolemy’s Mathematical Syntaxis (Μαθηματικὴ σύνταξις), also known as the Almagest. The subtitle to the third book of this work names Hypatia as her father’s collaborator. While the phrasing is not entirely clear, it seems to suggest that Hypatia was responsible for editing the text of the third book, and possibly the following books, of the Mathematical Syntaxis.5
In his elaborate description of a planispherium (“planisphere”), Synesius of Cyrene attests that Hypatia offered both theoretical and practical instruction in astronomy (Synes. Ad Paion. 311A Terzaghi). In keeping with the Platonic tradition, Hypatia saw astronomy as deeply rooted in both arithmetic and geometry, disciplines which were seen to offer a path towards theological enlightenment (Synes. Ad Paion. 310D Terzaghi). Socrates Scholasticus positions Hypatia in the Plotinian tradition: “She continued the Platonic teachings in the tradition of Plotinus” (Hist. eccl. 7.15.1). At the same time, scholarly opinion is divided on whether Hypatia embraced the Platonism of Porphyry or that of Iamblichus.6 The anecdote that Hypatia once rejected the amorous advances of a student has been variously adduced in order to gauge the nature of Hypatia’s Neoplatonism. Damascius records two different versions: he rejects the first, according to which Hypatia used music to call her student to reason; the second account, which Damascius endorses, is, however, plagued by problems of textual transmission (Isid. fr. 102, p. 77, 13–17 Zintzen). Zintzen’s attempted reconstruction (1967), which is based on Rudolf Asmus (1909), suggests that Hypatia showed the young man a towel with her menstrual blood and thus deterred him from his advances. This conjecture, however, is not supported by the textual evidence.7
The Murder of Hypatia
The brutal murder of Hypatia still attracts much discussion. While the ancient sources focus on different aspects of the event and offer different explanations for her murder, they all agree in their emphasis on the sheer brutality of the crime. She was apprehended by a group of fanatical men close to Cyril, stripped naked, and executed. Her body was then mutilated, torn asunder with pottery fragments, and incinerated. In the 21st century, it has generally been accepted that Cyril’s followers killed Hypatia because they believed that she was challenging the bishop’s claim to (political) power in Alexandria. It is also argued that economic divisions and social tensions within the city had led to their radicalization.8 There is, however, also a plausible case for an explanation rooted more firmly in Hypatia’s engagement with astronomy. Hypatia’s accurate calculation of the spring equinox, which marked a significant improvement on Ptolemy’s Syntaxis, is likely to have weakened Cyril’s authority in his dispute with Rome over the determination of the Easter date.9 Significantly, Hypatia was killed in a manner that evokes the sparagmos (an act of tearing to pieces), a punishment that is strongly associated with those who sanction subversive thought.10
As a scholar, astronomer, and philosopher, Hypatia has maintained a position in cultural memory since Late Antiquity. Her reception, however, gained significant momentum in the Enlightenment, when she became associated with ideas of scientific progress. At the same time, her life and death were increasingly seen as symbolic of religious factionalism and strife: a case in point is Charles Kingsley’s novel Hypatia (1853). In contrast, Charles Leconte de Lisle (1847), an eminent figure among the French Parnassiens, portrayed her as a young woman detached from society and lost in her contemplation of the stars. Umberto Eco chose her as a central character in his novel Baudolino (2000), and her portrayal as an astronomer in the internationally acclaimed feature film Ágora (dir. A. Amenábar, 2009) is eloquent testimony to Hypatia’s continuing appeal and to the inexhaustible potential for productive engagement with her legend.11
Realencyclopädie der Classischen Altertumswissenschaft, s.v. “Hypatia.”
- Asmus, Rudolf. “Zur Rekonstruktion von Damascius’ Leben des Isidorus.” Byzantinische Zeitschrift 18 (1909): 424–480.
- Beretta, Gemma. Ipazia d’Alessandria. Rome: Editori Riuniti, 1993.
- Booth, Charlotte. Hypatia: Mathematician, Philosopher, Myth. Stroud, UK: Fonthill, 2017.
- Cameron, Alan. “Isidore of Miletus and Hypatia: On the Editing of Mathematical Texts.” Greek, Roman and Byzantine Studies 31 (1990): 103–127.
- Deakin, Michael. Hypatia of Alexandria: Mathematician and Martyr. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2007.
- Dzielska, Maria. Hypatia of Alexandria. Translated by F. Lyra. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1995.
- Eco, Umberto. Baudolino. Rome: Bompiani, 2000.
- Harich-Schwarzbauer, Henriette. Hypatia: Die spätantiken Quellen; eingeleitet, kommentiert und interpretiert. Bern, Switzerland: Peter Lang, 2011.
- Kingsley, Charles. Hypatia. Or New Foes with an Old Face. London: J. W. Parker, 1853.
- Leconte de Lisle, Charles. Poèmes Antiques, Hypatie. Paris: Alphonse Lemerre, 1886.
- Norman, Dawn LaValle, and Alex Petkas, eds. Hypatia of Alexandria: Her Context and Legacy. Tübingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck, 2019.
- Ronchey, Silvia. “Ipazia, l’intellettuale.” In Roma al femminile. Edited by Augusto Fraschetti, 213–258. Rome: Laterza, 1994.
- Watts, Edward J. Hypatia: The Life and Legend of an Ancient Philosopher. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017.
2. Henriette Harich-Schwarzbauer, Hypatia: Die spätantiken Quelle; eingeleitet, kommentiert und interpretiert (Bern, Switzerland: Peter Lang, 2011), 3–4 and passim. Charlotte Booth, Hypatia: Mathematician, Philosopher, Myth (Stroud, UK: Fonthill, 2017), 56–157, is even more radical: arguing as an archaeologist, she denies the possibility of attaining precise knowledge about Hypatia and reduces her to a purely legendary figure.
5. Alan Cameron, “Isidore of Miletus and Hypatia: On the Editing of Mathematical Texts,” Greek, Roman and Byzantine Studies 31 (1990): 103–127; Michael Deakin, Hypatia of Alexandria: Mathematician and Martyr (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2007), 91–94.
6. Edward J. Watts, City and School in Late Antiquity: Athens and Alexandria (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006), 195–196, argues against Iamblichus; Alan Cameron and Jaqueline Long, Barbarians and Politics at the Court of Arcadius (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993), 55–58, argue in favour of Iamblichus.
7. Rudolf Asmus, “Zur Rekonstruktion von Damascius’ Leben des Isidorus,” Byzantinische Zeitschrift 18 (1909): 454n4. The problematic transmission of this crux philologica is examined by Harich-Schwarzbauer, Hypatia: Die spätantiken Quellen, 268–273.
8. Watts, Hypatia: The Life and Legend, 106–120.
9. Ari Belenkiy, “The Novatian ‘Indifferent Canon’ and Pascha in Alexandria in 414: Hypatia’s Murder Case Reopened,” Vigiliae Christianae 70 (2016): 373–400.
10. Harich-Schwarzbauer, Hypatia: Die spätantiken Quellen, 215–216.
11. Cédric Scheidegger Lämmle, “Starring Hypatia: Amenábar’s Agora and the Tropology of Reception,” in Hypatia of Alexandria: Her Context and Legacy, ed. Dawn LaValle Norman and Alex Petkas (Tübingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck, 2019).