In the centuries since her death, Hypatia has become an icon for women in education and scientific thought. Her story has been told and retold, casting her as a pagan seductress, a prim school ma’am, an enlightened philosopher and a tragic heroine. Her brutal and untimely death is often told in gory detail without recounting the facts of her life.
This is largely because (as with so many women in this era) little is known about the life of Hypatia which can be confirmed. We know that she was a highly intelligent woman with a first class classical Greek education. She lived in Alexandria, Egypt, and headed the Neoplatonic School there, teaching philosophy and astronomy. Most remarkably of all, Hypatia was a woman in charge of her own life and who made her own choices.
A gifted mathematician, she inherited her passion for the subject from her father, Theon Alexandricus. Following her education in Athens, she relocated to Alexandria, at the time the home of the world’s largest and most comprehensive library. She taught Greek philosophy, including the works of Plato and Aristotle to students from all walks of life.
Hypatia occupied a respected position in Alexandrian society. Most sources report that she was well respected and admired for her wisdom and dignity. She refused to marry, though there are stories in which she turns down proposals from her enamoured students. Hypatia’s single status and dedication to her career enabled her to move more freely through male dominated environments than other women at the time.
Socrates Scholasticus, a contemporary of Hypatia’s, describes her self-assured nature and how her advice was well regarded and sought after by the leading minds of Alexandria:
“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.”
Though no surviving work is attributed to Hypatia, classical scholars make mentions of a number of texts and commentaries which she may have collaborated on with her father.
Hypatia’s murder took place in 415 in Alexandria. At the time there was an ongoing feud between the Roman Prefect of Alexandria, Orestes, and the Bishop of Alexandria, Cyril. Cyril had demanded that all of the Jewish citizens of Alexandria be banished. Alexandria was a city of multiple faiths at the time – Hypatia’s students included pagans, Jews and Christians – and Orestes was outraged by Cyril’s violent actions.
As previously mentioned, Hypatia was often asked for advice by prominent citizens of the city, and in this case Orestes asked for her input. Unfortunately, by this point the feud would not be solved with reason or debate, and Cyril’s followers felt that Hypatia was siding against them. A mob attacked her and dragged her through the streets to their church, where they brutally killed and mutilated her.
Literature and theatre:
- Hypatie et Cyril is a French poem by Charles Marie Rene Leconte de Lisle
- Hypatia – or New Foes with an Old Face – Charles Kingsley (novel)
- In the 1893 performance of the play Hypatia by Stuart Ogilvie (based on Kingsley’s book) Hypatia was played by Julia Neilson, then by Mary Anderson in 1900.
- The Heirs of Alexandria series by Mercedes Lackey, Eric Flint and Dave Freer portrays am alternate history in which Hypatia is converted to Christianity, saving her life.
- Fable of Venice by Corto Maltese has Hypatia as an intellectual in pre-fascist Italy.
- Ipazia, scienziata alessandrina(Hypatia: Scientist of Alexandria) by Adriano Petta
- Hypatia y la eternidad(Hypatia and Eternity) by Ramon Galí is also set in an alternate history.
- Azazil by Dr Youssel Ziedan
- Francis Itty Cora by D. Ramakrishnan
- Remembering Hypatia: A Novel of Ancient Egyptby Brian Trent
- Flow Down Like Silver, Hypatia of Alexandriaby Ki Longfellow
- In The Plot to Save Socratesby Paul Levinson and the sequel Unburning Alexandria, Hypatia turns out to have been a time-traveller from 21st century America.
- Heresy: the Life of Pelagiusby David Lovejoy includes Hypatia’s death.
Film and Television:
- 1987 Doctor Who serial Time and the Rani features a brief appearance from Hypatia.
- Cosmos: A Personal Voyage (1980 and 2014).
- Agora (2009) stars Rachel Weiss as Hypatia in a fictionalised version of her last years.
- Hypatia has a place setting at Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party.
- 238 Hypatia is a main belt asteroid named after the philosopher.
- Lunar crater Hypatia.
- A genus of moth.
Women Philosophers in the Ancient Greek World: Donning the Mantle – Kathleen Wider
Medieval Sourcebook: The Murder of Hypatia (late 4th Cent.) from Ecclesiastical History,Bk VI: Chap. 15 – Socrates Scholasticus