“I, Hipparchia chose not the tasks of rich-robed woman, but the manly life of the Cynic.
Brooch-clasped tunics, well-clad shoes, and perfumed headscarves pleased me not;
But with wallet and fellow staff, together with coarse cloak and bed of hard ground,
My name shall be greater than Atalanta: for wisdom is better than mountain running”
When it comes to the ancient Greek philosophers, women appear few and far between. Where they are present, there is so little information on them that – as in the cases of Theano and Aesara – their existence is doubted altogether. Not so in the case of Hipparchia of Maroneia, whose story remains vivid today.
Born in Maroneia, Thrace, Hipparchia’s wealthy family moved to Athens when she must have been in her teens. The city was the centre of the philosophical world at the time, and her brother Metrocles soon befriended Crates of Thebes, a Cynic philosopher.
When Hipparchia met Crates she fell head over heels. She begged her parents to let her marry him, and threatened to kill herself if they did not give their blessing.
Hipparchia’s parents were less than thrilled. As a Cynic, Crates did not lead an ordinary life. To demonstrate this, he removed his clothes before Hipparchia, declaring ‘here is the bridegroom, and this is his property.’
The young woman was not to be dissuaded and eagerly took up the clothes and lifestyle of a Cynic to be with him.
Engraving depicting Hipparchia and Crates from the book Proefsteen van de Trou-ringh (Touchstone of the Wedding Ring) written by Jacob Cats. Hipparchia and Crates are depicted wearing 17th-century clothing. In the scene depicted, Crates is trying to dissuade Hipparchia from her affections for him by pointing to his head to show how ugly he is.
The Cynics believed that a virtuous life was to be attained by living in harmony with nature, as animals did. They rejected material wealth and power, opting instead to live simply with a cloak and staff as their only possessions. They lived in the stoas and porticoes (porches) of Athens, sometimes sleeping outdoors as they did not have homes.
Hipparchia embraced this life. She dressed as her husband did and lived on equal terms with him – shocking to their contemporaries. They went everywhere together and according to some writings, had sex in public like animals.
Though none of her philosophical work survives, there are a number of anecdotes about Hipparchia. Once she attended a symposium and challenged Theodorus the Atheist. Later when Theodorus questioned her by saying : ‘Who is the woman who has left behind the shuttles of the loom?’ she responded:
“I, Theodorus, am that person, but do I appear to you to have come to a wrong decision, if I devote that time to philosophy, which I otherwise should have wasted at the loom?”
Hipparchia’s true legacy is the way she lived her life – making her own choices and using her own voice. Though her lifestyle was unacceptable for women during her lifetime and for many hundreds of years afterwards, today Hipparchia seems thoroughly modern.
Although there were other women who chose to live as Cynics, Hipparchia is the only one who is named to us. She is also the only woman to have her own entry among the 82 philosophers in Diogenes Laërtius’ Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers.
The story of Hipparchia’s attraction to Crates, and her rejection of conventional values, became a popular theme for later writers:
- 1568 – Hore di ricreatione by Lodovico Guicciardini – Features the story of Hipparchia’s marriage to Crates.
- 1637 – Touchstone of the Wedding Ring (Proefsteen van de Trou-ringh) by Jacob Cats
- 1668 – No Cross, No Crown by William Penn
- 1676 – Cynogamia, sive de Cratetis et Hipparches amoribus by Pierre Petit
- 1600s – Sposalizio d’Iparchia filosofa (The marriage of Hipparchia the philosopher) by Clemenza Ninci, a nun. This play deals with Hipparchia’s desire to marry Crates, and the obstacles which are placed in her way until she achieves her desire.
- 1804 – Krates und Hipparchia by Christoph Martin Wieland
- 1896 – Vies Imaginaires (Imaginary Lives) by Marcel Schwob
- 1921 – Hipparchia by H.D. – a highly fictionalised account of Hipparchia’s daughter, (whom H.D. imagines is also called Hipparchia)
- 1989 – L’Étude et le rouet (Hipparchia’s Choice) by Michèle Le Dœuff – a reflection on women’s relation to philosophy.
A genus of butterflies, Hipparchia (genus), bears her name.
Encyclopedia of Women in the Ancient World – Joyce Salisbury
Hipparchia’s Choice: An Essay Concerning Women, Philosophy, Etc – Michèle Le Dœuff, Trista Selous