Hypatia of Alexandria
(ca. 370 - 416 CE)


RAPHAEL, The School of Athens (detail): Hypatia (likeness of Francesco Maria della Rovere).


“The Philosopher”

Hypatia of Alexandria, born circa 370 CE, is the first woman documented to have made a substantial contribution to the development of mathematics, astronomy, and philosophy, and to have done so openly, in her own name, as a woman.  According to the Byzantine encyclopedia, The Suda, her father was Theon, the last head of the Museum at Alexandria.  Together, they strove to preserve the spirit of Greek mathematics and philosophic inquiry, as she promoted observation and measurement in natural philosophy during a time when mathematics and science were considered heresy by zealous Christians who enforced the Christian Doctrines of the Roman Empire. 

As a young woman, she traveled to Athens and Italy. Upon her return to Alexandria, around 400 CE, Hypatia achieved prominence as the recognized head of the Neoplatonist school in Alexandria, where letters addressed simply to “the philosopher” were routinely delivered to her.  There she expounded upon the philosophical teachings of Plato and Aristotle and lectured on mathematics, astronomy, and mechanics.  Her mathematical and scientific endeavors were integral with her teachings in philosophy, a variant of Neoplatonism closer to that of Ammonius of Saccas, a third-century holder of her chair, than to that of his pupil, Plotinus, whose tetradic ontology found favor with those who later attempted to rationalize a “reconciliation” of the rational skepticism of natural philosophy with the dogmatic mysticism of Christianity and Islam.  For Hypatia, such compromise was incompatible with her determination to question her beliefs. 

Although her first love was philosophy, Hypatia is now better known for her works in mathematics and astronomy, which, contrary to popular misconception, were not mere expositions of her father's works.  Indeed, she was regarded by her colleagues as “much superior to her father and master Theon.”  In addition to her mathematical works, Hypatia also developed an apparatus for distilling water, an instrument for measuring the level of water, and a plane astrolabe for measuring the positions of the stars, planets, and sun. She also constructed a graduated brass hydrometer for determining the specific gravity of a liquid. 

Hypatia came to symbolize learning and science, which the early Christians identified with paganism, making her the focal point of riots between Christians and non-Christians.  Furthermore, Hypatia's philosophical beliefs were in conflict with the views of the Christian rulers of the city of Alexandria.  When Cyril, a fanatical Christian, became Patriarch of Alexandria in 412 CE, he began a persecution of all “heretical” scholars in the city.  Hypatia's prominence was accentuated by the fact that she was a female who publicly refused to submit to male cultural or intellectual dominance in addition to being a scholar who openly professed non-belief in an increasingly Christian environment. 

Hypatia's political alliances were also seen as hostile to the church.  Cyril and Orestes, the civil governor, were political rivals as ecclesiastical and secular authorities fought for political dominance.  Orestes had become a student of Hypatia, and their friendship made Hypatia politically suspect.  It was widely rumored that Hypatia and her teachings were the personal and intellectual driving forces behind Orestes's political opposition to ecclesiastical authority.  Consequently, it was her eloquence and intellectual prominence in political circles that were regarded by Cyril as the seeds of opposition to the church's bid for political authority in Alexandria. 

In the spring of 416 (or 415) CE, the situation reached a tragic conclusion when a band of Christian monks seized Hypatia, beat her, and dragged her to a church where they mutilated her flesh with sharp tiles or oyster shells and burned her remains.  In the words of John, Bishop of Nikiu, “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 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.” 

(In 1882, Pope Leo XIII proclaimed Saint Cyril a Doctor of the Church, in recognition of the zeal with which he had championed orthodoxy.  More recently, in Orientalis Ecclesiæ, an Encyclical of Pope Pius XII promulgated on 9 April 1944, St. Cyril was extolled as a “valiant hero of the apostolate” for his campaigns against “blasphemous heresy”.) 

That Hypatia met such a horrible death at the hands of Christians might seem somewhat ironic in that her philosophy, more practically naturalistic and scientific and less intransigently pagan and mystical in focus and methodology than the Neoplatonism taught and practiced by others, was actually more consistent with that of Plato's independent student, Aristotle, than with that of the Neoplatonists who were predominant in the Athenian school at that time.  However, at a time when it was unusual for women to receive formal education, Hypatia was firmly convinced of the importance of universal education.  In direct contradiction of the the Roman Empire's official Christian Doctrines, she advocated the education of all children, girls as well as boys, and she admonished that unquestioning acceptance of dogma was worse than no eduction at all. 

“Fables should be taught as fables, myths as myths, and miracles as poetic fancies.  To teach superstitions as truth is a most terrible thing.  The mind of a child accepts them, and only through great pain, perhaps even tragedy, can the child be relieved of them.” 

Furthermore, she was reputed to be an unusually beautiful woman, who dressed as a teacher, in androgynous attire deemed inappropriate for a “righteous” woman, and who engaged openly in philosophic discourse and political debate, in places normally not frequented by “dutiful” wives or mothers.  She urged others to think freely, to question, and to speak openly on matters which were supposed to be restricted to the realm of blind, unquestioning faith: 

“Reserve your right to think, for even to think wrongly is better than not to think at all.”  “To rule by fettering the mind through fear of punishment in another world is just as base as to use force.”  “All formal dogmatic religions are delusive and must never be accepted by self-respecting persons as final.”  “Men will fight for superstition as quickly as for the living truth – even more so, since superstition is intangible, you can't get at it to refute it, but truth is a point of view, and so is changeable.” 

Such admonitions must have angered the priests and politicians who incensed the angry mob to bring both the woman's lifeless remains and the philosopher's written works (except for a few titles and some references to them) to similar fates.  Indeed, the unusual thoroughness of the destruction of those documents suggests that the angry mob had had the determined assistance of Cyril's calm confederates. 

However, despite the Church's canonization of him in recognition of the zeal with which he had championed religious orthodoxy, and despite the Pope's official recognition of him as a “valiant hero of the apostolate” for his campaigns against “blasphemous heresy,” it is doubtful that Cyril was sufficiently motivated to condone Hypatia's heinous murder solely because of her philosophical endeavors or her feminist lifestyle.  Hypatia was no anti-Christian proselytizer who might have given the Patriarch any reason to regard her as a threat to orthodox Christian theology.  Neither did her feminism pose any imminent threat to patriarchal ecclesiastical authority.  However, Hypatia was a political insider, one whose alliance with and influence over the new secular Prefect, who relied heavily upon her counsel, in conjunction with the widespread distribution of her disciples, many of whom were influential with the emperor, did give the new ambitious Patriarch reason to regard her as a significant obstacle to Christian theocracy. 

While Hypatia is popularly regarded, by modern feminists and rationalists, as the beautiful, lady philosopher of Alexandria, whose martyrdom marked the end of the classical era and ushered in the dark ages that followed, to her executioner, she was probably little more than an unfortunate obstacle to the practical realization of his personal theocratic political aspirations. 

Hypatia's works are said to have included: 


The Likeness

Francesco Maria della Rovere (1490-1538) succeeded one of his uncles, Guidobaldo da Montefeltre, as Duke of Urbino.  At first he was protected by another uncle, Pope Julius II (Giuliano della Rovere), but he later lost power under the Medici Pope Leo X, and he was unable to regain his territories until after Leo's death.  Francesco was one of Italy's most important military leaders and frequently served the Republic of Venice. 

When Raphael began work on Scuola di Atene, Francesco was still a teenager, living under the close protection of his uncle, Pope Julius II, who had commissioned the fresco for his private library, the Stanza della Segnatura.  Two years earlier, in 1507, in a miniature celebrating his triumphal entry into Rome after his military victory over the Bolognese, the Pope had had his young nephew and constant companion depicted as a boy wearing golden armor.  As an older man, circa 1536, he was again depicted in military garb, in a portrait by Titian (Tiziano Vecellio).  Circa 1504, Raphael himself had painted a portrait of Francesco dressed in garb befitting an adolescent boy of fourteen. 


The Mystery Surrounding the Fresco

Upon Raphael's submission of his preliminary compositional sketches of the fresco to the church fathers, the Bishop is alleged to have inquired as to the identity of a woman depicted standing at the bottom (front) and center of a sketch, in the foreground, between the figures of Parmenides and Diogenes, “Who is this woman in the middle?” 

“Hypatia of Alexandria, the most famous student of the School of Athens,” replied the artist.  “She was a professor of philosophy, mathematics and astronomy at the University of Alexandria and certainly one of the greatest thinkers ever.” 

“Remove her.  Knowledge of her runs counter to the belief of the faithful!  Otherwise, the work is acceptable,” cautioned the Vatican's high priest. 

The Bishop's words struck at the heart of Raphael's original artistic conception.  It had been the artist's intention to depict Hypatia standing alone in the center foreground, located, spatially, between the viewers of the fresco and the central figures of Plato and Aristotle, as homage to her unique role, temporally, as guardian and transmitter of their ancient wisdom and inquiring spirit to their intellectual heirs in future eras. 

Yielding to the power of the purse strings, Raphael's initial reaction was simply to omit the figure from his final working drawing, but he then proceeded instead to disguise his original intention as an intimate gesture to his holy patron.  In an area which had been vacant in the preliminary compositional sketch, directly behind and between the images of Pythagoras and Parmenides, the artist's final working drawing, the “cartoon” (detail), bears the image of Hypatia, her dark skin recast to a very pale white and her facial features altered to resemble those of the “beloved” nephew of the Pope.  Raphael thereby restored Hypatia to a rightful place in his masterpiece among her intellectual peers. 

While the figure of Hypatia was displaced and disguised, her posture and demeanor were preserved.  Unlike almost all of the other characters in the fresco, Hypatia is depicted, not engaged in philosophic inquiry with her peers, but instead directing her gaze out of the painting, towards the viewer standing in front of the fresco.  The only other figures so depicted are those of the historian, Diogenes of Laertius, and the artist himself.  Raphael thereby symbolizes the roles of the chronicler, the curator, and the artist in projecting, into the future, the intellectual and spiritual thrust of the School of Athens. 

(Also, whereas the figure of Hypatia was displaced, the figure of Heraclitus is the only major figure in the entire work that was totally absent from Raphael's final working drawing, the “cartoon”, of all the figures in the fresco.  In fact, subsequent examination of the fresco confirms that the figure of Heraclitus was painted in on an area of fresh plaster put on after the adjacent figures were completed.  This block-like figure plugged up the visual hole, the expanse of marble steps and flooring in front of Plato and Aristotle, left unoccupied by Hypatia's displacement.) 

Thus, the effeminate, white-robed figure in Scuola di Atene serves here to represent the first significant female philosopher, and the last philosopher, of the ancient age.  The pale complexion and juvenile visage of Pope Julius II's beloved nephew was apparently sufficient distraction to have prevented the Pope's recognition of Raphael's representation of Hypatia of Alexandria, an official enemy of the Church, whose martyrdom at the hands of Nitrian monks had signaled the death of the classical world. 



Adair, Ginny: Hypatia, from Biographies of Women Mathematicians (html, at Agnes Scott College)

Damascius: The Life of Hypatia, from The Suda (html, at at Alexandria 2), tr. Jeremiah Reedy

Deakin, Michael: Hypatia of Alexandria (html, at Ockham's Razor, Radio National, Australian Broadcasting Corporation)

Deakin, Michael: The Primary Sources for the Life and Work of Hypatia of Alexandria (html, at Howard A. Landman's site)

Hubbard, Elbert: Hypatia, from Little Journeys to the Homes of the Great, Vol. X, Great Teachers (html, at Howard A. Landman's site)

John, Bishop of Nikiu: The Life of Hypatia, from Chronicle 84.87-103 (html, at Alexandria 2)

Justice, Faith L.: Agora: the “Reel” vs. the “Real” Hypatia, Part I, Part II, Part III (html, at Historian's Notebook)

Justice, Faith L.: The Lady Philosopher of Alexandria (html)

Justice, Faith L.: My Hunt for Hypatia, Lady Philosopher of Alexandria (html, at Bygone Days)

Kingsley, Charles: Hypatia, or, New Foes With An Old Face (html, at Howard A. Landman's site)

Lewis, Thomas: The History of Hypatia of Alexandria, In Defence of Saint Cyril (html, at Howard A. Landman's site)

Mangasarian, Mangasar Magurditch: The Martyrdom of Hypatia (Death of the Classical World) (html, at Howard A. Landman's site)

O'Connor, J. J. and Robertson, E. F.: Hypatia of Alexandria, from MacTutor History of Mathematics (html, at University of St. Andrews, Scotland)

Scholasticus, Socrates: The Life of Hypatia, from Ecclesiastical History (html, at Alexandria 2)

Toland, John: Hypatia, from Universal Brotherhood Path (html, at Theosophical University Press Online)

Hypatia (html, at Encyclopædia Britannica)

Hypatia (html, at Garth Kemerling's Philosophy Pages)

Hypatia (html, at UCSD's Lindenberg Group)

Hypatia (html, at University of Chicago's Encyclopædia Romana)

Hypatia, daughter of Theron, Librarian of Alexandria (html, at StHypatia, Church Of Virus)

Hypatia of Alexandria (html, at New World Encyclopedia)

Books on Hypatia of Alexandria, a bibliography (html, at Howard A. Landman's site)

Remembering Hypatia, a novel by Brian Trent (html, homepage at rememberinghypatia.com)

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