In the latest issue:

Real Men Go to Tehran

Adam Shatz

What Trump doesn’t know about Iran

Patrick Cockburn

Kaiser Karl V

Thomas Penn

The Hostile Environment

Catherine Hall

Social Mobilities

Adam Swift

Short Cuts: So much for England

Tariq Ali

What the jihadis left behind

Nelly Lahoud

Ray Strachey

Francesca Wade

C.J. Sansom

Malcolm Gaskill

At the British Museum: ‘Troy: Myth and Reality’

James Davidson

Poem: ‘The Lion Tree’

Jamie McKendrick


Jenny Turner

Boys in Motion

Nicholas Penny

Jia Tolentino

Lauren Oyler

Diary: What really happened in Yancheng?

Long Ling

In Her Philosopher’s CloakBarbara Graziosi

Terms and Conditions

These terms and conditions of use refer to the London Review of Books and the London Review Bookshop website ( — hereafter ‘LRB Website’). These terms and conditions apply to all users of the LRB Website ("you"), including individual subscribers to the print edition of the LRB who wish to take advantage of our free 'subscriber only' access to archived material ("individual users") and users who are authorised to access the LRB Website by subscribing institutions ("institutional users").

Each time you use the LRB Website you signify your acceptance of these terms and conditions. If you do not agree, or are not comfortable with any part of this document, your only remedy is not to use the LRB Website.

  1. By registering for access to the LRB Website and/or entering the LRB Website by whatever route of access, you agree to be bound by the terms and conditions currently prevailing.
  2. The London Review of Books ("LRB") reserves the right to change these terms and conditions at any time and you should check for any alterations regularly. Continued usage of the LRB Website subsequent to a change in the terms and conditions constitutes acceptance of the current terms and conditions.
  3. The terms and conditions of any subscription agreements which educational and other institutions have entered into with the LRB apply in addition to these terms and conditions.
  4. You undertake to indemnify the LRB fully for all losses damages and costs incurred as a result of your breaching these terms and conditions.
  5. The information you supply on registration to the LRB Website shall be accurate and complete. You will notify the LRB promptly of any changes of relevant details by emailing the registrar. You will not assist a non-registered person to gain access to the LRB Website by supplying them with your password. In the event that the LRB considers that you have breached the requirements governing registration, that you are in breach of these terms and conditions or that your or your institution's subscription to the LRB lapses, your registration to the LRB Website will be terminated.
  6. Each individual subscriber to the LRB (whether a person or organisation) is entitled to the registration of one person to use the 'subscriber only' content on the web site. This user is an 'individual user'.
  7. The London Review of Books operates a ‘no questions asked’ cancellation policy in accordance with UK legislation. Please contact us to cancel your subscription and receive a full refund for the cost of all unposted issues.
  8. Use of the 'subscriber only' content on the LRB Website is strictly for the personal use of each individual user who may read the content on the screen, download, store or print single copies for their own personal private non-commercial use only, and is not to be made available to or used by any other person for any purpose.
  9. Each institution which subscribes to the LRB is entitled to grant access to persons to register on and use the 'subscriber only' content on the web site under the terms and conditions of its subscription agreement with the LRB. These users are 'institutional users'.
  10. Each institutional user of the LRB may access and search the LRB database and view its entire contents, and may also reproduce insubstantial extracts from individual articles or other works in the database to which their institution's subscription provides access, including in academic assignments and theses, online and/or in print. All quotations must be credited to the author and the LRB. Institutional users are not permitted to reproduce any entire article or other work, or to make any commercial use of any LRB material (including sale, licensing or publication) without the LRB's prior written permission. Institutions may notify institutional users of any additional or different conditions of use which they have agreed with the LRB.
  11. Users may use any one computer to access the LRB web site 'subscriber only' content at any time, so long as that connection does not allow any other computer, networked or otherwise connected, to access 'subscriber only' content.
  12. The LRB Website and its contents are protected by copyright and other intellectual property rights. You acknowledge that all intellectual property rights including copyright in the LRB Website and its contents belong to or have been licensed to the LRB or are otherwise used by the LRB as permitted by applicable law.
  13. All intellectual property rights in articles, reviews and essays originally published in the print edition of the LRB and subsequently included on the LRB Website belong to or have been licensed to the LRB. This material is made available to you for use as set out in paragraph 8 (if you are an individual user) or paragraph 10 (if you are an institutional user) only. Save for such permitted use, you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, post, reproduce, translate or adapt such material in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the LRB. To obtain such permission and the terms and conditions applying, contact the Rights and Permissions department.
  14. All intellectual property rights in images on the LRB Website are owned by the LRB except where another copyright holder is specifically attributed or credited. Save for such material taken for permitted use set out above, you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, post, reproduce, translate or adapt LRB’s images in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the LRB. To obtain such permission and the terms and conditions applying, contact the Rights and Permissions department. Where another copyright holder is specifically attributed or credited you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, reproduce or translate such images in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the copyright holder. The LRB will not undertake to supply contact details of any attributed or credited copyright holder.
  15. The LRB Website is provided on an 'as is' basis and the LRB gives no warranty that the LRB Website will be accessible by any particular browser, operating system or device.
  16. The LRB makes no express or implied representation and gives no warranty of any kind in relation to any content available on the LRB Website including as to the accuracy or reliability of any information either in its articles, essays and reviews or in the letters printed in its letter page or material supplied by third parties. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability of any kind (including liability for any losses, damages or costs) arising from the publication of any materials on the LRB Website or incurred as a consequence of using or relying on such materials.
  17. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability of any kind (including liability for any losses, damages or costs) for any legal or other consequences (including infringement of third party rights) of any links made to the LRB Website.
  18. The LRB is not responsible for the content of any material you encounter after leaving the LRB Website site via a link in it or otherwise. The LRB gives no warranty as to the accuracy or reliability of any such material and to the fullest extent permitted by law excludes all liability that may arise in respect of or as a consequence of using or relying on such material.
  19. This site may be used only for lawful purposes and in a manner which does not infringe the rights of, or restrict the use and enjoyment of the site by, any third party. In the event of a chat room, message board, forum and/or news group being set up on the LRB Website, the LRB will not undertake to monitor any material supplied and will give no warranty as to its accuracy, reliability, originality or decency. By posting any material you agree that you are solely responsible for ensuring that it is accurate and not obscene, defamatory, plagiarised or in breach of copyright, confidentiality or any other right of any person, and you undertake to indemnify the LRB against all claims, losses, damages and costs incurred in consequence of your posting of such material. The LRB will reserve the right to remove any such material posted at any time and without notice or explanation. The LRB will reserve the right to disclose the provenance of such material, republish it in any form it deems fit or edit or censor it. The LRB will reserve the right to terminate the registration of any person it considers to abuse access to any chat room, message board, forum or news group provided by the LRB.
  20. Any e-mail services supplied via the LRB Website are subject to these terms and conditions.
  21. You will not knowingly transmit any virus, malware, trojan or other harmful matter to the LRB Website. The LRB gives no warranty that the LRB Website is free from contaminating matter, viruses or other malicious software and to the fullest extent permitted by law disclaims all liability of any kind including liability for any damages, losses or costs resulting from damage to your computer or other property arising from access to the LRB Website, use of it or downloading material from it.
  22. The LRB does not warrant that the use of the LRB Website will be uninterrupted, and disclaims all liability to the fullest extent permitted by law for any damages, losses or costs incurred as a result of access to the LRB Website being interrupted, modified or discontinued.
  23. The LRB Website contains advertisements and promotional links to websites and other resources operated by third parties. While we would never knowingly link to a site which we believed to be trading in bad faith, the LRB makes no express or implied representations or warranties of any kind in respect of any third party websites or resources or their contents, and we take no responsibility for the content, privacy practices, goods or services offered by these websites and resources. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability for any damages or losses arising from access to such websites and resources. Any transaction effected with such a third party contacted via the LRB Website are subject to the terms and conditions imposed by the third party involved and the LRB accepts no responsibility or liability resulting from such transactions.
  24. The LRB disclaims liability to the fullest extent permitted by law for any damages, losses or costs incurred for unauthorised access or alterations of transmissions or data by third parties as consequence of visit to the LRB Website.
  25. While 'subscriber only' content on the LRB Website is currently provided free to subscribers to the print edition of the LRB, the LRB reserves the right to impose a charge for access to some or all areas of the LRB Website without notice.
  26. These terms and conditions are governed by and will be interpreted in accordance with English law and any disputes relating to these terms and conditions will be subject to the non-exclusive jurisdiction of the courts of England and Wales.
  27. The various provisions of these terms and conditions are severable and if any provision is held to be invalid or unenforceable by any court of competent jurisdiction then such invalidity or unenforceability shall not affect the remaining provisions.
  28. If these terms and conditions are not accepted in full, use of the LRB Website must be terminated immediately.
Hypatia: The Life and Legend of an Ancient Philosopher 
by Edward J. Watts.
Oxford, 205 pp., £19.99, April 2017, 978 0 19 021003 8
Show More
Show More

‘On a​ fatal day, in the holy season of Lent, Hypatia was torn from her chariot, stripped naked, dragged to the church, and inhumanly butchered by the hands of Peter the reader, and a troop of savage and merciless fanatics: her flesh was scraped from her bones with sharp oyster shells, and her quivering limbs were delivered to the flames.’ This is Gibbon’s description of the murder of the mathematician and philosopher Hypatia in 415 ad. Some details stem from his imagination (‘her quivering limbs’); some from mistranslated Greek (his ‘oyster shells’ are probably roof tiles, the weapon of choice in ancient lynchings); but some match the ancient sources: Socrates Scholasticus, writing in the early fifth century, notes that she was killed by monks ‘in March, during Lent’.

From late antiquity to the present, the death of Hypatia has been used to depict Christianity at its most brutal and senseless. In the 2009 movie Agora, she is a scientist who discovers the heliocentric system (one millennium before Copernicus) and explains it to her students with the casual self-assurance of an Ivy League professor. Outside her elegant classroom, Christian monks with Taliban-like beards swarm the streets. She has also been enlisted in other ideological battles. A Google search reveals her as an early feminist, a black martyr (she was Egyptian), and a lesbian icon (despite the fact that ancient sources celebrate her virginity and depict her exclusively in the company of men).

Accounts of Hypatia often suppress one or two aspects of her biography, in order to avoid fighting on too many fronts. In 1827, Diodata Saluzzo Roero presented her as a Christian rather than a pagan martyr: she admitted the inaccuracy in her preface to Ipazia ovvero delle filosofie, but insisted that there were more important lessons to be learned from Hypatia’s example, such as the need for ancient Egyptians (and modern Italians) to free themselves from foreign rule and the importance of female education. A few decades later, in his bestselling novel Hypatia, or New Foes with an Old Face (1853), Charles Kingsley cast her as the victim of Catholic fanatics and turned her into a pale English rose: before dying, she stood ‘for one moment to her full height, naked, snow-white against the dusky mass around’. The painter Charles William Mitchell was so excited by this vision that he portrayed Hypatia leaning naked against an altar: her left arm stretches upwards – perhaps illustrating pagan astronomy, perhaps pointing to the Christian God, in any case lifting her lovely breast towards the viewer. When the monks lynched her, Hypatia was over sixty, a fact ignored in depictions of her murder.

Compared to the wealth and variety of modern accounts, the ancient record is thin. Historians rely on five sources: the letters of Synesius, a bishop who studied under Hypatia in his youth and remained in contact with her throughout his life; the Ecclesiastical History of Socrates Scholasticus; another church history by Philostorgius, also written shortly after her death; the Life of Isidore by the Neoplatonic philosopher Damascius, written in the sixth century; and a late seventh-century Chronicle by John, bishop of Nikiu, which survives in an Ethiopic translation of an Arabic translation of a Greek text based in part on Coptic oral tradition.

Damascius, the only pagan source, offers the most detailed portrait of Hypatia. His Life of Isidore, a biography of his teacher, includes descriptions of other philosophers, placing each at a particular point in a well-established scale of Neoplatonic virtues. Unsurprisingly, Damascius found that Isidore reached the highest level of philosophical perfection, contemplative union with God. Hypatia, we are told, elevated herself a little higher than her own father and teacher, the mathematician Theon:

She was born, brought up and educated in Alexandria and, being endowed with a nobler nature than her father, she was not content with the instruction in mathematics he gave her, but devoted herself, not without some talent, also to other branches of philosophy. The woman used to put on a philosopher’s cloak, walk in the streets right through the middle of town, and publicly interpret Plato, Aristotle, or the works of any other philosopher to those who wanted to listen to her. In addition to her expertise in teaching she rose to the pinnacle of civic virtue. She was both just and chaste and remained always a virgin; however, because she was remarkably beautiful and attractive, one of her students fell in love with her and, not being able to control his passion, betrayed it even to her. Uninformed reports claim that she cured him of his infatuation with the help of music. The truth is that the story about music is wrong. In fact, she gathered the rags stained during her period and showed them to him as a sign of her impure nature and said: ‘This is what you love, young man, and it is not beautiful!’ He was so affected by shame and shock at the ugly display that he had a change of heart and became a better man.

Damascius insists that ‘Isidore and Hypatia were very different, not only as man differs from woman, but as a true philosopher differs from a geometer.’ What we begin to glimpse here is not just the male assumption of superiority, but an intense competition between different philosophers and their pupils.

Internal conflicts between Christian leaders and their followers also affected the way Hypatia was portrayed. Socrates Scholasticus presented her as a fine philosopher and a pillar of the imperial establishment, who was brutally killed because the Alexandrian Church was at odds with itself. What happened to her, he insisted, and what happened to the Christian community in the city ‘was as far as could be from the spirit of Christianity’. Socrates was right that historians need to consider religious divisions in Alexandria in order to explain Hypatia’s death.

When she was born, in 355, the city was still predominantly pagan, although Christians probably became the majority at some point during her childhood. It’s likely that nobody noticed at first. Pagan temples still dominated the urban landscape. Political power was largely in pagan hands. In 361, the Emperor Julian publicly announced his devotion to the old gods and made sacrifices legal again. Hypatia grew up in a wealthy pagan household and devoted her youth to mastering the traditional (i.e. pagan) Greek curriculum. She learned her letters in the 360s, her mathematics in the 370s and, by the 380s, had established a reputation as a Neoplatonic philosopher. Her father was explicit in acknowledging her eminence. One of his works is headed: ‘Commentary by Theon of Alexandria on Book III of Ptolemy’s Almagest, edition revised by my daughter Hypatia, the philosopher’.

The emperors who succeeded Julian reversed his policies and Theophilus, the bishop of Alexandria, made a show of his faith by attacking pagans. In 392, Christian mobs besieged the main temple of Alexandria, the Serapeum: imperial orders allowed those inside to disperse, but then the Christians entered, dragged out the monumental statue of the Greco-Egyptian god Serapis, smashed it, and burned what remained of it outside the city walls. After that show of power, the bishop restored good relationships with the governing elites, based on a shared understanding of his dominance.

In the next two decades, from the 390s until her death, Hypatia established herself as one of the most important figures in Alexandria. She held no office, but the governor, Orestes, regularly consulted her, and imperial delegations went to see her when they visited the city. Her students were men of influence who publicly expressed their devotion to her and to one another. We know of some other female philosophers and mathematicians, but none seems to have had as much political influence as Hypatia. One reason for her success must have been that her teaching appealed to both Christians and pagans. Her school promoted close contact between Christian and pagan members of the elite, which must have suited both the bishop and the governor.

In 412, Theophilus died and the Christian community split into two camps over his succession: one side supported Cyril, Theophilus’ nephew, the other Timothy, an archdeacon in the Alexandrian Church. It took three days of street fighting, as well as the intervention of Egypt’s chief military officer, for Cyril to prevail. By then, trust had eroded. Cyril targeted the Novatian Christians, who had supported his rival, closing their churches and expelling them from Alexandria. Then one of his supporters, Hierax, interfered with a dance show attended by a largely Jewish crowd, claiming it was in breach of city regulations. Orestes, instead of backing Hierax, arrested and tortured him for disturbing the peace. Christian-Jewish riots broke out. Tensions between the governor and the bishop escalated. Cyril, determined to assert his power, brought some five hundred monks from the desert monasteries of Nitria into the city. One of them had the idea of aiming a stone at Orestes’ head. Ordinary citizens quickly intervened to rescue the governor, but the episode increased civic unrest – particularly after the monk was tortured and killed (by Orestes’ men) and then declared a martyr (by Cyril).

People began to whisper that the governor and the bishop would never reconcile as long as the governor kept running to the pagan philosopher Hypatia for advice. In fact, this so-called philosopher was probably a witch, ‘devoted at all times to magic, astrolabes and instruments of music’, as John of Nikiu put it, drawing on local oral traditions. It is possible that the monks at first just wanted to intimidate Hypatia by demonstrating outside her house; but when they found her in the street it was easy to pluck her out of her chariot, strip her, abuse and beat her, then burn what was left of her outside the city walls. It seems that they disposed of her exactly as others had dealt with the statue of Serapis. After she died, hefty bribes were paid to avoid court cases, and everyone calmed down.

The story of Hypatia has been told many times and it isn’t easy to cast new light on it. Edward Watts aims ‘to recognise the life she led as well as the death she suffered’. He tells her story following the conventions of modern biography, starting with her childhood, moving on to middle age, discussing her death, and concluding with two chapters on how she was remembered. One difficulty with this approach is the scarcity of sources. The liberal use of ‘likely’ does not solve the problem. Presenting the sources we do have in an appendix would have increased the value of the book, and reading them more closely might have led to a more nuanced account of the life of the mind, which was the life Hypatia chose for herself.

There is no evidence that Hypatia wrote philosophical treatises, but we do still have her editions of mathematical texts, as Alan Cameron has pointed out. When read carefully, they reveal the ways in which she understood, explained, illustrated and improved famous treatises. Watts devotes little attention to this aspect of her work, preferring to focus on her teaching of philosophy. He insists that she excluded theurgy from her teaching. This may be true – in fact, it must be true, if by theurgy we mean ritual practices that would have alienated her Christian students. Still, Hypatia would have used ‘astrolabes and instruments of music’ to gain a better understanding of divine harmony: we may choose to see these objects as secular, but they surely had religious and perhaps even ritual significance for her – as well as for the monks who killed her.

Contemplation of God was the highest aim of Neoplatonic philosophy. Civic virtue, which Damascius ascribed to Hypatia, ranked much lower in his scale of philosophical accomplishments. Watts claims repeatedly that philosophers were supposed to engage in politics, but this isn’t true of Neoplatonism and is, in any case, too general. ‘Philosophy’ meant different things to different people. The Life of Isidore, and other ancient Lives, seem to suggest that Hypatia had a specific problem in establishing her credentials as a philosopher: she had no proper teacher (Theon was primarily a mathematician) and no properly philosophical pupils. Schools and genealogies mattered in late antiquity: Porphyry’s biography of Plotinus, the most important Neoplatonic philosopher, was an elaborate exercise in establishing Porphyry’s own authority as his pupil.

Synesius, Hypatia’s most successful student, tried to establish his own credentials by praising his teacher and appealing to her authority, but his letters to her reveal a few difficulties. In one, he complains that the ‘gracefulness and harmony’ of his writing style, as well as his interest in poetry and rhetoric, prevent people from taking him seriously as a philosopher. He adds that the publication of his latest book, On the Breeding of Dogs, worsened the problem and asks Hypatia to evaluate two new, more philosophical books. In a different letter, he complains about his health, then asks her to send him a hydrometer, which he describes in detail. In another, he recommends to Hypatia two young men involved in a lawsuit: ‘Try and get support for them from all your friends, whether private citizens or magistrates.’ The letters match Hypatia’s own varied interests in public life and technology, as well as more contemplative philosophy. Finally, in a letter of 413, he tells Hypatia that all his family have died, that he writes from his own bed, and hopes his ‘mother, sister, teacher, and all-round benefactress fares well’. He died soon afterwards.

Watts’s portrait of Hypatia relies on both ancient and modern platitudes. ‘The philosopher did whatever it took to guide the city and its citizens along a more philosophical path … Undoubtedly,’ he claims, ‘Hypatia would rather have lived a simple life of teaching and philosophical contemplation.’ Perhaps, but given how few women played a role in public affairs, we can assume she wanted to have political influence. The more interesting question is how she managed to acquire it. Watts tells us that she ‘had to make significant sacrifices in exchange for her prominence’, such as not marrying and having children. He adds that compared to her ‘male colleagues … it is likely that she had to either speak more loudly or more frequently before men listened’ and that she would have had to withstand curious looks when wearing the traditional cloak of philosophers. Whether she found such experiences problematic would depend, in part, on whether she shared Watts’s understanding of gender equality. The anecdote about her menstrual rags suggests she may have considered the female body impure, and therefore accepted its deficiencies in the practice of philosophy. As for her virginity, it may not have been dictated only by a desire for personal independence, or by a decision to ‘sacrifice’ family to career. The Neoplatonists believed that assimilation to God involved flight from the body: celibacy was praised in male philosophers too, though not as insistently. In the fourth and fifth centuries, Neoplatonic ethics became less concerned with how to act in the world, and more interested in ways of identifying with incorporeal divinity. Hypatia’s choices could usefully be read against those developments, and in terms of a convergence between pagan and Christian attitudes to the body.

It is on the manner of Hypatia’s death rather than her life that Watts makes true progress. He offers a perspective that illuminates both the circumstances of her time and deep concerns of our own. Alexandria, he points out, was a large and densely populated city: different communities lived closely together but were mostly invisible to one another. The monks who killed Hypatia were probably surprised by how easy it was to get hold of her. ‘Historians writing about Hypatia have tended to focus on fourth and fifth-century Alexandrian religious dynamics, but spatial and socioeconomic divisions,’ he argues, ‘mattered far more than religious differences to Hypatia’s contemporaries.’

Socrates Scholasticus and Edward Gibbon emphasise that Hypatia was lynched during Lent. Watts sees the timing as significant in other ways:

March could be a difficult month for certain workers in Alexandria. The Mediterranean sailing season had not yet opened, and many of the men who worked the Mediterranean harbour had no steady work and no steady income. This seasonal slowing was predictable, but it is equally true that people often do not adequately prepare for the shortages of money and food that a lull in seasonal work can cause … they depended on the charity of the bishop.

In short, Hypatia was killed in March because that was the time when the poor were even poorer, hungrier and angrier than usual.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.