Hypatia of Alexandria

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Greek, Ancient: Ὑπατία
Birthdate: (55)
Birthplace: Alexandria, Egypt
Death: 415 (51-59)
Immediate Family:

Daughter of Theon

Managed by: Malka Mysels
Last Updated:
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Immediate Family

About Hypatia of Alexandria

Hypatia ( /haɪˈpeɪʃə/; Greek: Ὑπατία, Hypatía; born between 350 CE and 370 CE; died March 415) was a Greek scholar from Alexandria, Egypt, considered the first notable woman in mathematics, who also taught philosophy and astronomy. She lived in Roman Egypt, and was killed by a Christian mob who accused her of causing religious turmoil. Belonging to a school of Neo-platonic thought, her doctrine was in opposition to the prevailing Christian dogma, a dogma which, unfortunately, had become compulsory in 390 C.E. Some suggest that her murder marked the end of what is traditionally known as Classical antiquity.

Hypatia was the single most brilliant mind of her time and none other would ascend to her level until the works of Descartes, Newton, and Leibniz many centuries later.

Hypatia, a story of a woman whose formidable genius was not entirely wiped from the pages of history. Hypatia was legendary for her talent, intellect, and yes, her beauty as well. Theon, her father, was a distinguished professor of mathematics at the University of Alexandria, later becoming director. Hypatia, his daughter, grew up immersed in an atmosphere of scholarship,questioning and investigation at the greatest seat of knowledge in the world, Alexandria. Her friends and teachers, later to be her colleagues, were the greatest intellectuals of perhaps the most highly academically charged environment in the history of humankind.

It was there that Hypatia became versed in science, math, philosophy, poetry, the arts, and religion. Theon was his daughter's teacher and friend. His love of logic and beauty were infectious and he had a rare talent for teaching. Hypatia not only accumulated knowledge, soaking it up like a sponge, but with creativity and imagination formulated new ideas and theorems.

Concerning religion her father is reported to have said, "All formal dogmatic religions are fallacious and must never be accepted by self-respecting persons as final. Reserve your right to think, for even to think and be wrong is better than not to think at all."

Hypatia's talent at teaching geometry, astronomy, philosophy, and math drew admiring students from all quarters of the Roman Empire, Pagan and Christian. Her physical prowess and physical health were not neglected. Her father developed a series of exercises and gentle calisthenics to train her body, forming it into the perfect vessel to carry her imposing, well-trained mind. Swimming, horseback riding, and mountain climbing were a regular part of her regimen. Hypatia was also given formal training in speech, rhetoric, and the power of words. Her tones and speech were gentle, as pleasing to the ear as her appearance was comely. The focus of her perfection was toward becoming a gifted, eloquent teacher, and this is never more evident than in her writings.

Hypatia wrote: "Fable should be taught as fable, myth as myth, and miracles as poetic fancies. To teach superstitions as truth is horrifying. The mind of a child accepts them and only through great pain, perhaps tragedy, can the child be relieved of them. Men will fight for superstition as quickly as for the living truth -- even more so, since a superstition is intangible, you can't get at it to refute it, but truth is a point of view, and so is changeable."

Part of Hypatia's education involved travelling abroad and, her reputation preceding her, she was treated as royalty wherever she went. Studying in Athens at a school founded by Plutarch, her skill as a mathematician became firmly established. On her return to Alexandria she was invited to teach mathematics and philosophy at the university. She was a popular teacher. Socrates (a later Socrates) wrote that her home and her lecture room were frequented by the most dedicated scholars of the time, and along with the library and the museum, were the most compelling intellectual centers in that city of great learning.

Young enthusiastic students from Europe, Asia, and Africa came to study and learn from her. She was considered an oracle, her lectures sparkling with her own mathematical ingenuity.

Mathematics was an exquisite delight to her inquisitive mind, and she loved it for its own sake. Hypatia authored several treatises on mathematics, but unfortunately they were not retained intact. A portion of her original writing On the Astronomical Canon of Diophantus, was found in the fifteenth century hidden in the Vatican library. Hypatia included some commentaries, alternative solutions to problems, and composed new problems concerning first degree and quadratic equations. On the Conics of Apollonius was another of her works, a discipline that, after Hypatia, would be largely neglected until the seventeenth century.

She invented the astrolabe and the planesphere, devices used for studying the stars and planets. She also invented a device to distill water, another to measure the level of water, and a third to determine specific gravity of liquids. The latter was called a hydroscope.

Hypatia was the single most brilliant mind of her time and none other would ascend to her level until the works of Descartes, Newton, and Leibniz many centuries later. Socrates (not the original Socrates), Nicephorus, and Philostorgius, church historians of a persuasion at odds with that of Hypatia, nevertheless praised her characteristics and scholarship.

Never having married, she is said to have had a number of love affairs. Various imaginary romances have been suggested. She affirmed that she had never married because she was wedded to the truth.

Distinguished as a mathematician, her fame as a philosopher was no less. Letters addressed simply to "TheMuse" or "The Philosopher" never failed to be delivered to her. Belonging to a school of Neo-platonic thought, her doctrine was in opposition to the prevailing Christian dogma, a dogma which, unfortunately, had become compulsory in 390 C.E.

She became head of the Platonist school at Alexandria in approximately 400. According to the 10th century Byzantine encyclopedia the Suda, she worked as a teacher of philosophy, teaching the works of Plato and Aristotle. It is believed that there were both Christians and foreigners among her students.

Although Hypatia might have been a pagan (no document refers to her religion), she was respected by a number of Christians, and later held up by Christian authors as a symbol of virtue. The Suda controversially declared her "the wife of Isidore the Philosopher" but agreed she had remained a virgin. Hypatia rebuffed a suitor by showing him her menstrual rags, claiming they demonstrated that there was "nothing beautiful" about carnal desires.

Hypatia maintained correspondence with her former pupil Synesius of Cyrene, who in AD 410 became bishop of Ptolemais. Together with the references by Damascius, these are the only surviving writings with descriptions or information from her pupils.

The contemporary Christian historiographer Socrates Scholasticus described her in his Ecclesiastical History:

There was a woman at Alexandria named Hypatia, daughter of the philosopher Theon, who made such attainments in literature and science, as to far surpass all the philosophers of her own time. Having succeeded to the school of Plato and Plotinus, she explained the principles of philosophy to her auditors, many of whom came from a distance to receive her instructions. On account of the self-possession and ease of manner, which she had acquired in consequence of the cultivation of her mind, she not unfrequently appeared in public in 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. ”

—Socrates Scholasticus, Ecclesiastical History

"And in those days there appeared in Alexandria a female philosopher, a pagan named Hypatia, and she was devoted at all times to magic, astrolabes and instruments of music, and she beguiled many people through Satanic wiles...A multitude of believers in God arose under the guidance of Peter the magistrate...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...they dragged her along till they brought her to the great church, named Caesareum. Now this was in the days of the fast. And they tore off her clothing and dragged 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."

John of Nikiû (7th-century)

Believed to have been the reason for the strained relationship between the Imperial Prefect Orestes and the Patriarch Cyril, Hypatia attracted the ire of a Christian population eager to see the two reconciled. One day in March AD 415, during the season of Lent, her chariot was waylaid on her route home by a Christian mob, possibly Nitrian monks led by a man identified only as Peter, who is thought to be Peter the Reader. The Christian monks stripped her naked and dragged her through the streets to the newly Christianised Caesareum church, where she was brutally killed. Some reports suggest she was flayed with ostraca (pot shards) and set ablaze while still alive, though other accounts suggest those actions happened after her death:

Socrates Scholasticus (5th-century) John of Nikiû (7th-century) "Yet even she fell a victim to the political jealousy which at that time prevailed. For as she had frequent interviews with Orestes, it was calumniously reported among the Christian populace, that it was she who prevented Orestes from being reconciled to the bishop. Some of them therefore, hurried away by a fierce and bigoted zeal, whose ringleader was a reader named Peter, waylaid her returning home, and dragging her from her carriage, they took her to the church called Caesareum, where they completely stripped her, and then murdered her by scraping her skin off with tiles and bits of shell. After tearing her body in pieces, they took her mangled limbs to a place called Cinaron, and there burnt them."


Her friendship with Orestes, a prefect of Egypt, was perhaps the strongest counterforce against Cyril, the Christian patriarch and Bishop of Alexandria in 412 C.E. The turbulent mood of Cyril and his followers, their zeal to stamp out pagan religions, to destroy their temples, and their monuments, in combination with Paul's command that women should be subservient to men and silent in public meetings, came together. In 415 C.E., his political avarice driving him, Cyril became convinced that Hypatia's death would serve his own best interest and he inflamed the passions of an unwashed, mindless, classless band of Egyptian monks, entreating with them to kill her.

At the height of her beauty, and the apex of her intellectual wisdom, having refused marriage in favor of educating her disciples, Hypatia was torn from her chariot by a hungry mob of screaming Christians. Stripping her naked, dragging her to their church, she was inhumanely butchered. Led by Peter the reader, the savage fanatics ripped her living flesh from her bones with pottery shards; the still quivering limbs then delivered to the flames.

The original library at Alexandria in Egypt was one of the wonders of the ancient world. Founded by Alexander the Great in the fourth century BC,built and enlarged by Ptolemy I,Alexander's successor.

The city's library comprised perhaps as many as 700,000 manuscripts - the whole corpus of knowledge accumulated by ancient philosophers,scientists and poets.And it was all contained in a building thought by the ancients to have been of surpassing beauty,not a trace of which survives .


  • Deakin, Michael. "Hypatia and Her Mathematics," The American Mathematical Monthly, 101, No. 3 (March 1994), 234-243. Available at the MAA web site http://www.maa.org/pubs/calc_articles.html or Jstor (subscription required).
  • Deakin, Michael. Hypatia of Alexandria, Mathematician and Martyr, Prometheus Books, Amherst, NY, 2007.
  • Hypatia of Alexandria, transcript of a talk by Michael Deakin, archived at http://www.abc.net.au/rn/science/ockham/or030897.htm
  • The Primary Sources for the Life and Work of Hypatia of Alexandria by Michael Deakin.
  • Knorr, Wilbur. "On Hypatia of Alexandria," in Textual Studies in Ancient and Medieval Geometry, Birkhauser, 1989.
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  • Neugebauer, Otto A., "The Early History of the Astrolabe", from "Astronomy and History: Selected Essays", Springer-Verlag (1983).
  • Cupillari, Antonella, A Biography of Maria Gaetana Agnesi, an Eighteenth-Century Woman Mathematician: With Translations of Some of Her Work from Italian into English, Mellen Press, 2008.
  • Longfellow, Ki. Flow Down Like Silver: Hypatia of Alexandria (a novel), Eio Books, 2009.
  • Dictionary of Scientific Biography
  • Biography, MacTutor History of Mathematics Archives
  • Howard Landman's collection of Hypatia WWW links at http://www.polyamory.org/~landman/Hypatia/
  • Hypatia of Alexandria, from Cosmopolis.com.
  • http://www.agnesscott.edu/lriddle/women/hypatia.htm
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Hypatia of Alexandria's Timeline

Age 55