In Her Philosopher’s Cloak

Barbara Graziosi

  • Hypatia: The Life and Legend of an Ancient Philosopher by Edward J. Watts
    Oxford, 205 pp, £19.99, April 2017, ISBN 978 0 19 021003 8

‘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.