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:

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