Hypatia. Mathematician, Philosopher, Myth

 Hypatia was a female mathematician and philosopher who lived in Alexandria from around 350 to 415 CE. Alexandria had become a centre of Hellenistic culture with its famous Great Library which suffered several fires and became iconic for the loss of knowledge collected over centuries. Egypt was at that time part of the Byzantine Empire, and in this period there coexisted Christian communities with competing interpretations of the concept of the Trinity while there were still other religious groups like Jews and Greek polytheists, who were indicated as Pagans. Religious intolerance by Christians and a struggle for power between the local Roman prefect Orestes and the bishop Cyril resulted in violent rioting during which Hypatia, being Pagan, was brutally murdered.

Hypatia's father was a mathematician and philosopher too. It was however unusual for women to be educated beyond the basics and to become teachers themselves. Standing out as a female influential teacher in an otherwise exclusively male profession and being brutally murdered, made her a mythical figure. She became that fair, intelligent, strong, independent, woman senselessly killed by a male fanatic gang. This is an ideal entry point to be fictionalized in numerous novels, paintings, sculptures, stage plays, and films. Among the best known today are Charles Kingsley's 1853 novel Hypatia, Or, New Foes with an Old Face, her iconic portrait sketched by Gasparo which appeared in Hubbard's Little journeys to the homes of the great teachers (1908) and more recently the film Agora (2009) by Alejandro Amenábar.

All these evocations of Hypatia were based on many historical secondary sources to which the authors added their own fantasy to improve the dramatic elements of a story well told. But what did happen in reality and who was the historical Hypatia really? Charlotte Rooth who is currently working towards a PhD in Egyptology took up the challenge to check all the sources and make well thought conclusions about the historical truth. Not an easy task because there are only five written texts left relating to Hypatia's life and none of them contemporary. The oldest is a collection of Christian records written 25 years after her death. It contains her biography written by Socrates Scholasticus (who might have known the living Hypatia) and some letters from Synesius (who was one of Hypatia's followers) addressed to her and some others that mention her. The Suda Lexicon is an encyclopedia written in the tenth century, but it reproduces The Life of Isidorus which was written some 50 years after Hypatia's death (which is not only about Isidorus but it describes many other lives too among which Hypatia's) and it also quotes from another account in the Onomatologion, an earlier encyclopedia from the sixth century (which had an entry on Hypatia too).

So it was not an easy task, especially with all the juicy stories that had been spread in recent times. These stories and their inconsistencies and impossibilities is what Rooth goes through in the first chapter. In the second chapter she sketches the city of Alexandria and the political and religious climate of Hypatia's time. There were Pagan temples such as the Serapium (dedicated to Serapis, the Greek version of Osiris), which was later destroyed as commanded by the bishop Thelonius. It may be that in this Pagan temple accommodated part of the Great Library, so that after previous disastrous fires, this is sometimes considered to be the definitive end of the Library. On page 47, Rooth includes a plan of the temple, copied from a paper by McKenzie et al., but for some strange reason the wrong mirrored image is inserted.
This bishop Thelonius was a friend of Synesius who was an admirer of Hypatia. This might explain why Hypatia was spared at the time the temple was destructed. However with Cyril, the successor of Thelonius, the tide turned against her. Cyril, representing the ecclesiastic power in Alexandria struggled for supremacy against the prefect Orestes. Most scholars, as does Rooth, claim that this conflict directly or indirectly caused the dramatic consequences for Hypatia.

The date of Hypatia's birth can only be guessed by deduction, and nothing is known about her mother. Her father, Theon, was a known mathematician who studied Euclid's Elements and the Almagest a book of astronomical data by Ptolemy and he wrote comments about them. We do not know how, where, and how much education Hypatia got. Perhaps she has helped editing her father's texts. We know that later she wrote some comments of her own. Her teaching was Neoplatonist, but we do not know how and where she was teaching. Her father was member of the Mauseon, an established institution (we would probably call it a university) but it might be that she was teaching elsewhere, perhaps at the Separium, or at the Kol el Dikka, a religiously neutral educational institute, or she may have been a wandering teacher.

Not so much is known with certainty about her mathematical legacy. There are the books with comments on the Almagest but it is not clear how much of it is original and how much is her contribution, and how much is her father's work. Some difference in style may point to her work. Other work that is attributed to her are comments on Diophantus. When the originals were copied, some comments were added by the copyist, so that it is was not always clear what the original was and what the comments. Moreover in later copies, the added comments may have been deleted again or replaced by others. It is also believed that she wrote a comment on Apollonius's Conics but no copy has survived. Thus there is a strong belief that some mathematical work is indeed by Hypatia, but irrevocable proof is actually missing. From a letter by Synesius we know he asked her how to construct a silver astrolabe which he later claims to have built himself with her helping. In another letter he asks her to construct an hydrometer but it is not sure that she knew how to construct it. Rooth concludes that "The modern day reputation held by Hypatia as a philosopher, mathematician, astronomer, and mechanical inventor, is disproportional to the amount of surviving evidence of her life's work."

In another chapter, Hypatia's marriage and friendship is discussed. Again, there is no evidence that she was or was not married. Some of Synesius's letters to her were rather devotional, but that could be because in those days philosophy, mathematics, astronomy and education all had some religious flavour and teachers had some semi-divine status. Knowledge and abstraction was for the Neoplatonists a way to come closer to "the One". So Synesius may just have expressed his deep respect for Hypatia. Later historians and novelists have attributed Hypatia whatever status they thought was most suitable for their story. Of course the dramatic event that has boosted Hypatia's reputation is how she was killed. So many contradictory versions of that event exist, which are often tendentious because she became the victim of a religious conflict. She was obviously not Christian, but there is no evidence of an explicit religion, except the spiritualism of her Neoplatonist philosophy and her pursuit of intellect (she is considered to have been the head of the Neoplatonist school in Aexandria). Rooth suggests that the murder was indirectly a consequence of a conflict between Orestes and Cyril. The latter was fiercely against Jews and Pagans. Orestes, who wasn't always keen on following his suggestions, at some point had one of Cyril's men arrested. The Parabolani, a group of violent aggressive monks from a nearby monastery were summoned by Cyril and they assaulted Orestes. One of the monks was captured and tortured to death whereupon Cyril declared him a martyr. Hypatia must have taken the side of Orestes in this conflict, which made her an easier target than Orestes. So it is generally believed that Hypatia's murder was indirectly caused by Cyril who controlled the rioting Parabolani.

The caution taken by Rooth to interpret all the contradictory sources of this "cold case" give you confidence in what she concludes, which unfortunately is that not much is certain. She may break down the mythical hype that has grown around Hypatia as a role model for feminism and a case against religious fanaticism, but it doesn't diminish the fact that Hypatia has played an important role for philosophy, mathematics, and astronomy. The whole text is very well documented and all the prolific versions are scrutinised carefully. Yet the story she tells remains lively and is never dull or boring. It may well be that some of her colleagues do not agree with her conclusions, or they may have preferred to have the many citations in the original language (i.e. not translated in English) but I think it remains an interesting read for everybody. 

Adhemar Bultheel
Book details

In this book Rooth is analysing the historical sources which are often contradictory and which have feeded the hype created in the many fictional stories about Hypatia, a female Greek mathematician and philosopher in Alexandria around 400 CE. Rooth comes to the conclusion that Hypatia's modern reputation is not in correspondence with what is known with certainty about the historical Hypatia.



978-1-781-55546-0 (hbk)
£ 18.00 (hbk)

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