Hypatia – c.351/370 – 415 – Alexandria, Egypt

Ancient Egypt

Hypatia

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.

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“Death of the philosopher Hypatia, in Alexandria” (Source)

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.


In Fiction:

Literature and theatre:

  • Hypatie et Cyril is a French poem by Charles Marie Rene Leconte de Lisle

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    An actress, possibly Mary Anderson, in the title role of the play Hypatia, circa 1900. (Source)

  • 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.

Art:

  • Hypatia has a place setting at Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party.

Science:

  • 238 Hypatia is a main belt asteroid named after the philosopher.
  • Lunar crater Hypatia.
  • A genus of moth.

References:

Rejected Princesses: Hypatia

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

On Wikipedia:

 

Leontion – fl.300 BCE – Athens, Greece

Ancient Greece

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Like Themista of Lampsacus, Leontion was a follower of the philosopher Epicurus, and likely studied at the school he held in his garden in Athens.

(c) Gallery Oldham; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Hide and Seek in the Garden of Epicurus, Leontium and Ternissa by William Stott(c) Gallery Oldham; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Much like her fellow women philosophers, we are left with scant information of Leontion’s life and personal beliefs.

Later writing describes Leontion as a hetaera – an educated high class companion (see Aspasia). We cannot verify whether or not this is true – on the one hand, it was common for writers even until recently to brush off any woman who lived equally with men as a prostitute. On the other hand, it is entirely possible that it was the freedom of this social class enabled her to study philosophy in the first place.

What we know about Leontion comes to us in echoes, through the words of male writers.

Epicurus himself, who advocated the education of women, and even admitted slaves into his school, once praised an amusing letter Leontion wrote him:

 

‘By Apollo, my dear little Leontion, with what uproarious applause you filled us as we read your letter.’

She must have been a published writer, as Cicero later spoke of Leontion’s criticism of Theophrastus with disdain:

“Leontium, that little prostitute who dared to write a riposte to Theophrastus – mind you, she wrote elegantly in good Attic, but still, this was the license which prevailed in the Garden of Epicurus.”

Though Cicero clearly took issue with Leontion’s daring to learn and write philosophical treatise, he cannot help but praise her skill as a writer.

Similarly, 14th Century writer Boccaccio questioned whether Leontion dragged philosophy down to her level, or whether philosophy was already weak as she was enlightened despite her impure nature.


References:

Life of Epicurus Diogenes Laertius

The Woman and the Lyre: Women Writers in Classical Greece and Rome – Jane McIntosh Snyder

Leontion: The Lost Woman Philosopher George P. Simmons (Philosophynews.com)

On Wikipedia:

 

Hipparchia – c.350 BCE – Athens, Greece

Ancient Greece

“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”

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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.

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.


In Fiction:

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.

In Science:

A genus of butterflies, Hipparchia (genus), bears her name.


 

References:

Encyclopedia of Women in the Ancient WorldJoyce Salisbury

Hipparchia’s Choice: An Essay Concerning Women, Philosophy, Etc – Michèle Le Dœuff, Trista Selous

On Wikipedia:

 

Themista of Lampsacus – 3rd Century BCE

Ancient Greece

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Themista and her husband Leonteus were students of the philosopher Epicurus, whose school was held in a garden in Athens and allowed women to attend.

Epicureans believed that pleasure is the greatest good and that the way to attain pleasure is to live a modest life and gain knowledge of the world and oneself. The goal was to reach a tranquil state in which you would be free from fear and physical pain – which would be the highest form of happiness.

It is clear that Themista had a voice at Epicurus’ school and that her ideas were treated as equal to the men she studied alongside. Roman orator Cicero later criticised Epicurus for praising Themista in ‘countless volumes’ rather than ‘more worthy’ men.

Themista and Leonteus obviously held their teacher in equally high esteem, as they named their son Epicurus.


References:

Hypatia’s Heritage: A History of Women in Science from Antiquity through the Nineteenth Century – Margaret Alic

The Invention and Gendering of Epicurus Pamela Gordon

Philosophers of the Ancient World: An A to Z GuideTrevor Cunrow

On Wikipedia:

Aesara – 3rd Century BCE – Luciana, Greece

Ancient Greece

Aesara is almost unique among the classical women Greek philosophers in that some of her work survives today.

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Another Pythagorean* woman, Aesara was from the ancient district of Luciana, now part of the Italian coast. There she authored On Human Nature, an early treatise arguing that only by studying human nature can we understand natural law and morality.

‘Human nature seems to me to provide a standard of law and justice both for the home and for the city.’

Aesara’s theory divided the soul into three parts:

  • Mind: judgment and thought
  • Spirit: courage and strength
  • Desire: love and kindness

These three parts affected the three Pythagorean applications of morality; the individual, the family and social institutions.

There are some arguments that On Human Nature is actually a much later Roman forgery. There is no strong evidence to support this theory, but even if this was the case, it suggests that there was an Aesara of Luciana whose work was well known and worth imitating.

*Other Pythagorean women mentioned in this project so far are: Theano and Timycha.


References:

Women Writers of Ancient Greece and Rome: An AnthologyIan Michael Plant

On Wikipedia:

Yuenü (越女) – c.496 – 465 BCE – Yue, China

Ancient China, China

‘She may look like an elegant lady, but she fights like a fierce tiger…’

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This woman is also known as Aliao and the Maiden of the Southern Forest. She lived during the Spring and Autumn period in ancient China. Her father was a hunter in the southern state of Yue and likely passed on his skills in archery and swordsmanship to her.

She had a gift for martial arts and became extremely adept, particularly in the art of the sword. Her talents were famous throughout the province and came to the attention of King Goujian of Yue. She was summoned by him to give a demonstration before the King’s court.

The young woman impressed Goujian so much that he asked for her advice in training to his armies. Her response is the earliest known Chinese exposition of the art of the sword:

“The art of the sword is profound and hard to understand despite appearing insignificant and easy. It is similar to a door, in that it can be opened and closed; it can be divided into yin and yang. The way of fighting… is to strengthen one’s inner spirit while remaining outwardly calm and well mannered. She may look like an elegant lady, but she fights like a fierce tiger. With this imposing manner, you can pit a single fighter against one hundred, and pit one hundred against one thousand.”

"Sword of the Yue Maiden (越女劍)" by Source. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia

“Sword of the Yue Maiden (越女劍)” by Source. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia

This impressed Goujian even further and he gave her the title Yuenü (literally ‘the Yue Woman’ or ‘Lady of Yue’). Further to this, he decreed that Yuenü would train his officers, so that they could instruct his army in her method.

Yuenü‘s philosophy of swordsmanship went on to influence Chinese martial arts for generations.


Notes:

  • The Spring and Autumn Period is the name for a period in Chinese history covering approximately the years between 771 and 476 BCE. It corresponds roughly with the first half of the Eastern Zhou dynasty.

References:

The Biographical Dictionary of Chinese Women: Antiquity through Sui – Lily Xiao Hong Lee

On Wikipedia:


In Fiction:

Sword of the Yue Maiden is a 1970 short story by Jin Yong and bears similarities to the life of Yuenü. It was serialised as a television programme in 1984 starring Moon Lee as the maiden.

Arete – fl.5th or 4th Century BCE – Attica, Greece

Ancient Greece

“The splendour of Greece and possessed the beauty of Helen, the virtue of Thirma, the pen of Aristippus, the soul of Socrates, and the tongue of Homer.”

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Arete of Cyrene succeeded her father Aristippus as the head of the Cyrenaic school of philosophers. The sources report that she taught philosophy for thirty-five years to well over a hundred students and that she wrote forty books. Unfortunately, none has survived.

Aristippus had been taught by Socrates, and passed his knowledge on to his daughter. In turn, Arete taught her own son, Aristippus the Younger, who was known by the nickname ‘mother-taught’. The Cyrenaics believed in sensual hedonism. They taught that the only intrinsic good is physical pleasure and enjoyable sensations.

Arete was well known during her lifetime, and stands out in history as being one of the few women to teach publicly and to publish work.


References:

A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and MythologyWilliam Smith

Society for the Study of Women Philosophers: Arete of CyreneKate Lindemann

On Wikipedia:

Timycha – 4th Century BCE – Tarentum, Greece

Ancient Greece

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Timycha was a Pythagorean philosopher from the Spartan colony Tarentum. She and her husband joined a group of Pythagorean pilgrims who followed the teachings and ethics of that school.

One day they were journeying to Metapontum when they were invited to visit the court of Dionysius the Elder, who wished to discuss philosophy with them. The band of pilgrims knew that Dionysius was a tyrant and did not trust his intentions, so they refused the invitation and carried on their way.

The cruel king was hugely insulted, and sent his soldiers to capture the philosophers and bring them to him by force. Timycha’s group was attacked, and though they could have easily escaped by running through a field of beans, their religious beliefs forbade them from trampling upon the plants. They tried to get around the field, but were overtaken by Dionysius’ soldiers and slaughtered. Only Timycha, who was heavily pregnant, and her husband survived to be brought to the King.

Dionysius heard the story of the bean field and became curious about the taboo. He questioned the couple, who refused to speak. Pythagoreans did not share their beliefs or the teachings of Pythagoras with just anyone, and Timycha and her husband stood firm. Eventually Dionysius ordered that Timycha be tortured until she gave up the secret.

He had hoped that this would frighten the philosopher into giving up, but Timycha was made of sterner stuff. The story goes that she bit off her own tongue and spat it at the King’s feet as a show of defiance. Now he would never know.

History too, was deprived of this knowledge. There is no consensus on why the Pythagoreans avoided trampling the bean field. We do know that Pythagoras taught that all life is sacred, and his followers were vegetarians for this reason, though they were not permitted to eat beans. One theory for this is to do with the shape of the bean, and the belief that it served as a vessel to carry souls from the afterlife back to earth. Belief in reincarnation was fundamental to Pythagoreans, so the bean may have been a powerful symbol to them.

It’s not clear what happened to Timycha or her husband after this unusual incident, though they were likely put to death. Her story was told for many years by Pythagoreans and she was used as a model of courage and hailed as a martyr for the cause.


References:

The Philosophers of the Ancient World: An A-Z GuideTrevor Curnow

Explaining Pythagorean Abstinence from BeansJames Dye

On Wikipedia: