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Hypatia of Alexandria

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Hypatia was a Greek scientist, philosopher, and mathematician who taught at the Mouseion in Alexandria. She was born in 370 AD, and was the daughter of Theon, the last curator of the Mouseion at Alexandria. Her father gave her a classical education; she studied the works of Plato and Diophantine equations. Hypatia was reputedly a beauty and had many suitors, although according to the most reliable sources she never married.

The Mouseion where Hypatia taught was a library originally built to rival the library system of Athens. The institution grew, however, and became more of a university than a library. Archimedes invented the 'Archimedes Screw'1 there in the 3rd Century BC.

Hypatia also wrote commentaries on the Arithmetica of Diophantus, the Conics of Apollonious and edited part of her father's Commentary on the Almagest by Ptolemy.

The Death of Hypatia

Hypatia was a pagan in a time when Alexandria was becoming increasingly Christian. She was a friend of Orestes, civil governor of Alexandria, who was an enemy of Cyril, the Christian leader. Rumour had it that she may have either caused the conflict between the two men or possibly prevented their reconciliation. Many Christians of the time also interpreted her interests in astronomy, mathematics, and music as signs of witchcraft and Satanism.

In the year 415 AD, Hypatia was walking home one day when she was attacked by a band of monks, beaten, and killed with sharp tiles and pieces of pottery. The monks then burnt her remains.

A Limited History

We know about Hypatia from a few historical sources.

  • In some ways the Suda Lexicon was the 10th Century version of the Encyclopedia Britannica. It has an unusually long entry on Hypatia, which is self-contradictory and muddled, and derives from earlier sources.

  • The Ecclesiastical History of Socrates Scholasticus, a church historian in the fifth century, focuses mostly on her death.

  • The Chronicles of John, Coptic Bishop of Nikiu came to light quite recently, and were also written by a Christian scholar. While written during the same time period as those of Socrates Scholasticus, John of Nikiu's view of the murder is considerably different.

  • Letters of Synesius of Cyrene are the letters from Hypatia's most famous pupil. He is today studied in his own right for his stance on pagan and Christian issues of his day. He was either converted to Christianity or was a Christian from the beginning, but in any case he respected her greatly.

Morbid Opinions

The aforementioned sources on Hypatia's life have varying views on her murder:

  • The Suda says that the killing occurred because the Christians were jealous of her.

  • John of Nikiu completely approved of her killing, and considered it a step towards 'cleansing' the Alexandrian community of pagan influences.

  • Socrates Scholasticus, while a Christian, considered her killing as wrong. He apparently admired her academic achievements, and saw her murder as an unchristian act of political zealots.

After her death, her works were destroyed and her name almost forgotten. Cyril, however, was eventually made a saint. The Mouseion at Alexandria disappeared within the next two centuries, and the dark ages began.

Hypatia's Impact

Hypatia is the only woman to have made an impact on the world of classical mathematics. Her work was expanded on by legendaries such as Newton, Leibniz and Descartes. Although it may not seem all that much - she only published a couple of commentaries - her influence was considerable. She was also remembered as an excellent teacher.

Her death was tragic, but her life wasn't lived in vain.

Suggested Reading

Hypatia: Old Foes with a New Face is an excellent book on Hypatia's life and death was written in 1852 by Charles Kingsley.

1A device for raising water.

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