Hypatia of Alexandria

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The great era of Greek mathematical science, which began with the birth of a man, finished with the death of a woman.
—Margaret Wertheim[1]

Hypatia of Alexandria (370-415 CE) was a scientist, inventor, and philosopher. She is also the first known female mathematician.[note 1] Her death definitively ended the great era of ancient Greek mathematics and science.[2] The Middle Ages came soon after.

At the time of her death she was a lonely remnant of a philosophical school that had been heavily persecuted for over 25 years.[citation needed]


Her father, Theon, was also a mathematician and philosopher, associated with the Musæum (a pagan temple-cum-philosophical school), and assisted her a good deal in getting her started in her work. He personally taught her in the arts, literature, mathematics, science and philosophy, pretty much everything he know. In addition, he gave her rigorous physical training.[2] She was best known as a teacher, eventually becoming the head of the Alexandrian neo-Platonic school.

She was known for being very eloquent, very virtuous, and very beautiful, easily able to hold her own among men; the rationalist minister M. M. Mangasarian described her thus:

It appears that her beauty, which would have made even a Cleopatra jealous, was as great as her modesty, and both were matched by her eloquence, and all three surpassed by her learning.[3]

She went to some trouble to remain unmarried. It happened at one point that one of her students got the idea that he was in love with her, and told her about it. Hypatia responded by handing him a menstrual rag, saying, "You love this, O youth, and there is nothing beautiful about it." This brought the youth promptly to his senses.[note 2][citation needed]

It is not known whether she was present when the Serapeum, Alexandria's center of learning at that time and the last known location of remnants of the Great Library of Alexandria, was destroyed as the result of a street battle between Christians and pagans about the time that pagan rites were outlawed through the Roman Empire in A.D. 391.


The most contemporary record of her death is the Historia Ecclesiastica, written by the church historian Socrates Scholasticus about 25 years after the fact. This chronicle relates that around the time of Hypatia's death, the patriarch Cyril drummed up a large mob, which then proceeded to run Alexandria's Jews out of the city. The Jewish population of Alexandria was quite sizeable, and had been there for a very long time; Orestes, dismayed that this large portion of the city's population had been expelled, wrote to the Roman emperor to complain.

Later, at church, Cyril tried to make peace with Orestes by extending a Bible toward him; but Orestes refused to be reconciled. Hypatia was seen by the Christian population as being the cause of the continuing dispute:

For as [Hypatia] 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 readerWikipedia's W.svg named Peter, waylaid her returning home, and dragging her from her carriage, they took her to the church called Cæsareum, where they completely stripped her, and then murdered her with tiles.[note 3] After tearing her body in pieces, they took her mangled limbs to a place called Cinaron, and there burnt them. This affair brought not the least opprobrium, not only upon Cyril, but also upon the whole Alexandrian church. And surely nothing can be farther from the spirit of Christianity than the allowance of massacres, fights, and transactions of that sort.[4]

Of this heinous act of torture and murder, the journal Free Inquiry commented:[5] "Christian leaders... chopped up her body and burned her limbs, torso, and her very recently detached cranium, flowing with lush locks, plopping all onto their pious bonfire—all this to make sure, I suppose, that not only was she merely dead but really most sincerely dead."

Academic work[edit]

She wrote a number of commentaries on what were then the great works of arithmetic, geometry, and astronomy. Her writing helped clarify these topics for new comers. Hypatia also made a number of original contributions. She designed the astrolabe and the planisphere for astronomical investigations.[2] She invented of the hydrometer, a device for measuring the density of fluids based on Archimedes' principle of buoyancy. She built one copy for one of her students, Synesius, the bishop of Ptolemais (in modern day Libya), at his request. She also recognized that distillation could be used to purify water, thereby allowing its properties to be studied.[2]

Urban legend about Raphael's School of Athens[edit]

Detail of the alleged "Hypatia" from Raphael's The School of Athens.

There is a widely circulated claim on the internet that Hypatia is depicted in the painting The School of Athens by the Italian Renaissance master Raphael. There is a figure in the painting that superficially appears to be a woman, but there are no serious scholarly sources that ever mention anything about this figure being possibly identified as Hypatia. In fact, H. J. Mozans (John Augustine Zahm) specifically regrets that Hypatia doesn't appear in the painting in his book Women in Science.[6] Ironically, the figure in the painting often claimed to be Hypatia is probably not even a woman at all, but rather an adolescent boy with long hair, which was the common fashion in Italy during the time period. It may be a depiction of the philosopher Giovanni Pico della Mirando. The seventeenth-century art critic Giovanni Pietro Bellori claimed that the figure represented the young Francesco Maria I della Rovero.[7][8] It is possible that the figure may have indeed been intended as a woman, but as the personification of the Greek philosophical concept of Ἀρετή, meaning "Virtue" or "Excellence," not as Hypatia of Alexandria.[9] It is unclear where exactly the urban legend about Hypatia being in the painting originates from, but it seems to have possibly originated on the internet. (What? And here all of us thought that everything on the internet was true!)

Historical distortions[edit]

The story of Hypatia has been continuously subjected to distortions in the retelling.

Christian distortions[edit]

Although Socrates Scholasticus acknowledged Hypatia's "dignity and virtue" and wrote with disapproval of her murder, soon enough figures within the Church were trying to whitewash the behavior of their own people. John of Nikiu, a Coptic Orthodox bishop living two centuries later, wrote approvingly of the murder, stating that Hypatia was an evil witch, guilty of such satanic wiles as using astrolabes and playing music, and that the reader Peter was "a perfect believer in all respects in Jesus Christ."[10]

There is some speculation that another few centuries on, the story was ripped off to be used in the hagiography of St. Catherine of Alexandria, after whom the famous monastery at Mount Sinai is named.[11] This hagiography, in true psychologically projective form, relates the tale of a highly virtuous Christian female philosopher/scientist who is murdered by pagans when she objects to their practice of their rites.[12] The Catholic Church now recognizes that this hagiography is dodgy and has removed St. Catherine of Alexandria from the general calendar.

Anti-Christian distortions[edit]

This really is meant to be Hypatia. Honest! And she's even got her clothes on.

More recently, there have been some distortions from the other side, also trying to portray her death as something other than a philosopher caught in the crossfire of political bickering. After the Protestant Reformation, some writers used her story as an example of Catholic intolerance, distorting facts so as to lay all the blame on Cyril or on the Church. Still later, in the Romantic era, it was reduced on several occasions to a parable of classical learning vis-à-vis Christian ignorance and anti-intellectualism.

Misplaced veneration[edit]

Ironically, Hypatia, the sharp-minded rational philosopher and scientist, has become an object of veneration for certain New Age woo-peddlers; for example, Pamela Longfellow, alias Ki, has written a book entitled Flow Down Like Silver, Hypatia of Alexandria, part of a trilogy dealing with gnosis of the "feminine divine." Ms. Longfellow, who somehow got the idea that virginity as a virtue was a Christian invention, pitched most of what is known about Hypatia out the window and imagined her as a New Age-style mystic working toward the "deeper truer purpose" of "the transmutation of the spirit." In support of this hypothesis, she provides the evidence that all the chroniclers writing about her were men.[13]


  1. If you are curious, the very first mathematician in recorded history is Thales of Miletus (c636-c546BC)
  2. an example of a Christian source using Hypatia as a symbol of Virtue
  3. It's the translation of "with tiles" ("ostrakois") which generates to uncertain translation, as it can refer to both oyster shells, pot shards and roof tiles. OstrakonWikipedia's W.svg is perhaps best known today as the root of ostracismWikipedia's W.svg, the Athenian democracy's way of exiling people by a secret ballot where the names of potential exiles were scratched on pot shards. Carl Sagan in Cosmos states she was murdered stripping the flesh of her bones with whatever was used.


  1. Wertheim, Margaret 'Pythagoras' Trousers, God, Physics, and the Gender Wars', Fourth Estate, London, 1997 p37
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 Reimer L, Reimer W. Mathematicians Are People, Too: Stories from the Lives of Great Mathematicians. Palo Alto, CA: Dale Seymour Publications; 1990.
  3. "The Martyrdom of Hypatia," address to the Independent Religious Society, 1915.
  4. Hist. eccles. VII.15
  5. Paulkovich, Michael (2012). "A Tale of Two Tomes". Free Inquiry 32 (5): 45. http://www.secularhumanism.org/index.php?section=library&page=index_32. Retrieved 2 Feb 2013. 
  6. p. 141
  7. http://bridgesmathart.org/2011/cdrom/proceedings/115/paper_115.pdf
  8. http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=8565
  9. Giovanni Reale, La scuola di Atene di Raffaello, Bompiani, Milano 2005, pagg. 65-68, ISBN 88-452-5559-X.
  10. Chronicle of John LXXXIV.87-103
  11. Davis, H.T. Alexandria: The Golden City. Illinois: Principia Press, 1957, p.441.
  12. Old Catholic Encyclopedia: St. Catherine of Alexandria
  13. "Historical Hypatia"
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