Bygone Days

My Hunt for Hypatia, Lady Philosopher of Alexandria

(b. 355 AD, d. 415 AD)

by Faith L. Justice

    I first came across Hypatia's story in 1980 when I attended Judy Chicago's groundbreaking feminist art exhibit The Dinner Party. Chicago and her team selected thirty-nine subjects for an elaborate dinner party, where each "guest" was honored for contributions to womankind. In the accompanying book, Hypatia was described as a Roman scholar and philosopher who lived in Alexandria...a woman who stressed the importance of goddesses and the feminine aspects of culture. The article detailed the pagan philosopher's death in 415 AD at the hands of a Christian mob with the clear implication she was murdered because she was a woman as much as because she was a pagan.

    The Dinner Party came at a crucial point in my life. I had experienced discrimination at work and in the marketplace firsthand. I looked for role models--women who spoke out and lived their lives as they wanted, in spite of society's restrictions. The Dinner Party offered me a wealth of candidates--goddesses, queens, literary lights. But something about Hypatia's story tugged at me. She was a scientist and mathematician in a time when woman had very few choices. She excelled and was recognized for her accomplishments. Her name came down to us through the ages, when so many women of talent remained nameless. That last fact added to the mystery, romance, and inherent drama of Hypatia's life and death. I wanted to know more.

    I hit my local library. There I found a few sketchy references and a moldy novel by British author Charles Kingsley published in 1853. Disappointed in my researches, I put them aside in favor of the persistent need to make a living. However, Hypatia's life and death continued to haunt my imagination. When I traveled in Europe, I visited museums, studying their late Roman and Egyptian collections. I searched bookstores, research libraries, and the Net for works on the period. The literary tradition surrounding Hypatia's life began to emerge from a bewildering array of fact and fiction. A few fragmentary historical sources became the basis of a fantastic body of literature as each of the last three centuries laid its own political claim to Hypatia's story.

    In 1720, John Toland, a zealous Protestant, wrote a historical essay with the unlikely title of Hypatia, or the History of a Most Beautiful, Most Virtuous, Most Learned and in Every Way Accomplished Lady; Who was Torn to Pieces by the Clergy of Alexandria, to Gratify the Pride, Emulation and Cruelty of the Archbishop, Commonly but Undeservedly Titled St. Cyril. Voltaire, Fielding, and Gibbon also came to the defense of the "young lady of greatest beauty and merit," primarily as a way of castigating the Catholic Church. The Church fought back by publishing The History of Hypatia, a Most Impudent School-Mistress. In Defense of Saint Cyril and the Alexandrian Clergy from the Aspersions of Mr. Toland.

    The nineteenth century saw the emphasis shift to Hypatia's death as a symbol of the passing of an age. She inspired French poets, Italian writers, and English historians. They rhapsodized over her beauty, intelligence, and pureness of spirit. In their minds Hypatia's death marked the end of a "golden age" of Greek civility, culture, and learning to which the authors longed to return.

    As I had already discovered, twentieth century feminists next laid claim to Hypatia's story, seeing her murder as a misogynist act--Hypatia, who advised governors and taught future bishops, was silenced because she was a woman. A college philosophy journal was named after her. She's featured in books on women scientists and mathematicians and, just recently, in the light-hearted Uppity Women of Ancient Times.

    The urge to discover the "true" account of Hypatia's life became stronger as I sorted through the hyperbole of Protestants, Catholic apologists, and modern feminists. But I had more questions than answers. What role did Hypatia take in her community--reclusive scientist, revered teacher, active leader? Did she promote pagan goddesses disparaging Christianity as a superstitious sop to the masses or was she secretly a Christian? Was she a virgin, a "free spirit," or married? Did she die in her twenties, forties, or later? Who killed her--the ambitious Patriarch Cyril, rampaging monks, or a suspicious mob? Did she die because she was a pagan, because she was a woman, both or neither?

    I despaired of piecing together the puzzle until 1995 when Harvard University Press published a slim translation of Hypatia of Alexandria by Maria Dzielska, a Polish classical scholar. Dzielska did a masterful job of marshalling the scant primary sources, putting them in the context of the times, and producing a believable portrait of the woman behind the myths.

    One of the facts Dzielska argues vigorously for is an earlier birth date than many believed. She put Hypatia's birth at about 355 AD, which made her about sixty when she died in 415. Dzielska bases her analysis on records concerning Hypatia's father Theon and the common sense assumption that she was probably older than her students for whom there are some firm dates regarding birth and when they studied with Hypatia.

    Although known as a mathematician and astronomer, Hypatia's first love was philosophy--she sought to know God through a life of study, ascetic living, and the practice of rituals. When this state of revelation was achieved the philosopher entered another realm of existence and directly merged with the One. Hypatia lived the life of a philosopher, studying mathematics and astronomy because they better prepared her mind for knowing the original creator.

    The correspondence of her former student Bishop Synesius provides insight into Hypatia's passion. Students from wealthy and influential families in Egypt, Syria, Cyrene, and Constantinople came to Alexandria to study privately with her. Many of them later attained high posts in government and the Church. Obviously, Hypatia had many Christian students and they felt no conflict with her teaching and that of their Church.

    In the literary tradition, much was made of Hypatia's love life. Kingsley had Prefect Orestes seduce her, others had her married to a fellow philosopher (who lived two generations later). Philosophers of Hypatia's time believed the physical body needed to be free of earthly urges; only eternal beauty and perfection could be recognized as true beauty. Consequently, she probably remained a virgin, and dressed and lived modestly. One story in particular told by Damascius in the Suda reflects a likely picture of her attitude toward romantic love. When accosted by a young man who professed his love for her, Hypatia showed him her bloody menstrual rags and told him it was the body he loved and he did not "love beauty for its own sake." The young man fled. An "uppity woman" indeed - blunt and unapologetic in her passions.

    The last three years of her life were a highly charged time in her native city of Alexandria. The primary sources laud Hypatia for possessing great moral authority and being "a model of ethical courage, righteousness, truthfulness, civic devotion, and intellectual prowess." Because of these significant endowments, Hypatia participated in the activities of the city, advising both municipal and visiting imperial officials on current issues. From 412-415, Hypatia was in the thick of the political machinations of the most powerful men in the city. A new imperial Prefect named Orestes came to Alexandria. Shortly afterwards, the Patriarch Theophilus died leaving the Catholic Church in the hands of his young and inexperienced nephew Cyril.

    The new Patriarch wanted personal power and diligently pursued his own agenda to consolidate that power in the Church. To that end he employed a gang of toughs called parabolans--officially hospital workers, but actually Cyril's "enforcers." He also called upon fanatical monks located in the deserts outside the city to invade the urban space and riot on his behalf. One of Cyril's first acts was to consolidate the Christians of the city by force. The next year he expelled the Jews from the city after bloody riots between the two factions. Patriarch Cyril steadily persisted in ecclesiastical encroachment on secular prerogatives and Orestes resisted.

    Hypatia tried to mediate in this conflict between the new Patriarch and the new Prefect, but she came down on the side of traditional Greek values--discourse over violence, tolerance over bigotry, secular authority over religious authority. Cyril and his followers felt Hypatia favored Orestes in the conflict and feared a Prefect backed by a respected citizen with considerable authority, extensive influence, and the courage of her convictions. In addition, through her influential disciples, it was thought she might win support for Orestes among people close to the emperor.

    Cyril and his adherents skillfully spread rumors that Hypatia studied magic and had cast a satanic spell on the Prefect, "God's people," and the entire city. Tensions heightened and a churchman, leading a superstitious mob, grabbed Hypatia out of her chariot when she was on her way to a public lecture in March 415. They brutally murdered her, hacking her body apart inside a church and burning the pieces outside the city walls. This political assassination eliminated a powerful supporter of the imperial Prefect. Orestes gave up his struggle against the Patriarch and left Alexandria.

    After twenty years, the Hypatia I found was a remarkable woman. She was not a young, beautiful victim or a liberated woman or an icon for a golden age of civility and learning. She was a respected elder of her community who willingly engaged in the politics of the time in a milieu of very recognizable human emotions--raw power, political ambition and religious fanaticism. I like this active and fallible Hypatia much better--bloody menstrual rags and all.


  1. Deakin, Michael A. B. Primary Sources For The Life And Work Of Hypatia Of Alexandria paper for Monash University, Australia
  2. Dzielska, Maria. Hypatia of Alexandria (Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1995) Translated by F. Lyon.
  3. Haas, Christopher. Alexandria in Late Antiquity: Topography and Social Conflict (The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, Maryland, 1997)

My Hunt for Hypatia © 2002 by Faith L. Justice

Faith L. Justice is a freelance writer living in New York City with her husband, daughter, and cat. Her non-fiction has appeared in Writer's Digest, The Writer, In These Times and at among others. She's a founding member of CITH, an on-going writer's workshop and Features Editor for Space & Time Magazine. Read more about Hypatia and Faith's novel Selene of Alexandria at her website

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