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HistorySTM March Madness

An Interview with Hypatia

As we run up to HistSTM Madness I’m delighted to post our first interview with a player. Today I welcome Hypatia into the office for a brief chat.[1]

Hypatia’s trading card. This year she’s playing in the Astronomia division.
Hypatia’s trading card. This year she’s playing in the Astronomia division.

Darin: Thanks for stopping by to talk.
Hypatia: I was happy to come over. I had nothing else to do.
D: Can we jump right in? So you were born in Alexandria, your father was the famous mathematician/astronomer Theon of Alexandria. I notice recent biographies of you no longer say you were educated in Athens.
H: That’s right. There was little reason for me to travel to Athens. My father was, as you say, Theon of Alexandria, one of the foremost mathematicians of the day…
D: It must have been wonderful, running around the museum at Alexandria as a kid. The foremost center of learning in the ancient world.
H: The pleasantly distorting lens of time makes it seem a lot better than it was. Even in my earliest memories, it was already neglected and shabby. Sure, it faltered along for another 20 or 30 years, but it’s heyday was long past. It was more like wandering around a dusty old attic.
D: But wait. You are commonly described as the last scientist to work in the “Library at Alexandria” and head of the Neoplatonic school in Alexandria. For many of us, Carl Sagan’s dramatic account is etched forever in our memories. Let’s listen:

Let me … tell you about … the end. It’s a story about the last scientist to work in the this place [the Library at Alexandria]. A mathematician, astronomer, physicist and head of the Neoplatonic school of philosophy—that’s an extraordinary range of accomplishments for any individual in any age. Her name was Hypatia. She was born in this city in the year 370 AD. This was a time when women had essentially no options, they were considered property. Nevertheless Hypatia was able to move freely, unselfconsciously through traditional male domains. By all accounts she was a great beauty. And although she had many suitors, she had no interest in marriage. The Alexandria of Hypatia’s time—by then long under Roman rule—was a city in grave strain. Slavery, the cancer of the ancient world, had sapped classical civilization of its vitality. The growing Christian Church was consolidating its power and attempting to eradicate pagan influence and culture. Hypatia stood at the focus, at the epicenter of mighty social forces. Cyril, the bishop of Alexandria, despised her in part because of her close friendship with the Roman governor, but also because she was a symbol of learning and science, which were largely identified by the early Church with paganism. In great personal danger, Hypatia continued to teach and publish, until, in the year 415, on her way to work she was set upon by a fanatical mob of Cyril’s followers. They dragged her from her chariot, tore off her clothes, and flayed her flesh from her bones with abalone shells. Her remains were burned. Her works obliterated. Her name forgotten. Cyril was made a saint.[2]

If this isn’t accurate, how would you describe it?
H: To begin, I wasn’t the “last scientist” to work at the Library of Alexandria. We wouldn’t have even recognized Sagan’s use the term Whewell coined.[3] The honor of being the last person to head the museum, if that’s an honor, belongs perhaps to my father. But as I’ve said, by the time he lectured there the museum and library had suffered for decades, perhaps centuries. Then, what was left of the library was largely destroyed in 391 with Theodosius’s edict that closed pagan temples. The Serapeum was destroyed at that time, but there wasn’t much of value remaining there. By the time I started teaching students, there was no recognizable “Library at Alexandria.” As for teaching at the Neoplatonic school of philosophy, that’s just a romantic fiction. Yes, I taught courses on mathematics and philosophy, yes some of my better students were Neoplatonist.[4] But I never headed any school. I taught a circle of students. Some of them were really good students, but most, as Borges’s narrator laments, passively accepted my doctrines and though these were worthy of love and affection, could not rise to the state of individuals.[5]
D: But you can see how Sagan would idolize you. To him, you were “a symbol of learning and science,” so dedicated that you remained single and rejected all suitors. You set everything aside for your pursuit of knowledge.
H: The modern fascination with my chastity and beauty has always amused me. On the one hand, how would you know? The vagaries of history have destroyed most contemporary records, except a few letters from Synesius that are filled with typical, hyperbolic Byzantine rhetoric. So you’re forced to rely on texts written by men who never saw me and written more than 50 years after I died. On the other hand, and more importantly, I think, what does it matter? How am I better or worse for having remained chaste? What does my reported beauty have to do with anything? Fantasies about my beauty and my sex life are irrelevant. I blame, in large part, Kingsley for popularizing an image of me as an erotic heroine. Although Toland had already cast me as a seductress teacher.[6] I don’t understand why so many scholars—historians and scientists—let their imaginations run wild.
D: You brought up Synesius. Can we talk about him for a minute? What did you think of him? Was he a good student, one of those that, how did you put it, rose to the state of an individual?
H: Synesius was a hard working student, quite interested in astronomical instruments. Although I have to confess, instruments were more my father’s interest than mine.[7]
D: Didn’t Synesius thank you for teaching him about astrolabes? In that letter he wrote to Paeonius he refers to a silver astrolabe.
H: I never saw the instrument Synesius sent to Paeonius, but reading the letter carefully indicates that it was not an astrolabe. I assume he misspoke. Or maybe he thought Paeonius wouldn’t know the difference and would be more impressed thinking he had been given an astrolabe than just a clock. The silver instrument Synesius describes does rely on a form of stereographic projection, but it doesn’t have a rete.[8] Instead, the stars are inscribed according to their magnitude on the body of the instrument itself. He also indicates that the celestial sphere is projected not onto a plane, but onto a curved surface. He seems to indicate that a system of equatorial coordinates are engraved on a moveable part. It’s not exactly clear what he’s talking about. In a way, what Synesius describes is the opposite of an astrolabe. I suspect he sent Paeonius a fancy clock.

Hypatia’s bio and stats.
Hypatia’s bio and stats.

D: Finally, before I say goodbye, can we talk briefly about your murder? I realize it’s a delicate subject, but I thought you could clear up some things for us, like the role of religion and whether or not it was, as Sagan asserts, abalone shells or, as others maintain, roofing tiles or even oyster shells.
H: It’s okay. I’ve had 1600 years to come to terms with it.[9] I’ll be honest, I wasn’t paying attention to the mob’s weapon of choice. And again, it doesn’t really matter does it? I don’t see how the gory details, whichever set you choose to believe, contribute anything to our understanding of what happened that day in the Caesareum.[10] (As a side note: Oyster shells? Really? That sounds like an colorful detail Socrates would add.[11]) The end result was the same. To my mind, the more interesting question is: To what extent did the mob murder me for my paganism (my supposed Neoplatonism)? Although I realize that my death at the hands of a anti-rationality Christian mob plays well for modern audiences, it seems far fetched to me. Yes, the mob was mostly Christian. And yes, I was a pagan. But it doesn’t follow that my paganism and their Christianity played any more than a coincidental role in the events. Previously I had in general enjoyed a good relationship with Christians—most of my students were Christians. I didn’t try to convert them. Nor did they try to convert me. I was a close friend of Orestes, the Christian, Roman governor of Alexandria. I didn’t sense any anti-pagan, anti-learning prejudices. I’ll be honest, it‘s not even clear that Cyril hated me, though he certainly became envious of my influence on Orestes and perhaps my popularity with the Christian populace more broadly. I think a more important factor might have been the fact that I was a woman. Despite Sagan’s Pollyanna claim that I moved “freely, unselfconsciously through traditional male domains,”—a comment that’s easier to make when you’ve never been a woman—I doubt the mob would have murdered me had I been a man, though I can’t be certain. In the end, I can’t know what events led to my murder. And there could be no justification for it—how could you ever justify mob violence. But let me be clear: I don’t think my paganism or my learning played any part in causing my death. I think it’s pretty clear that I ended up being a pawn in a larger political struggle between Orestes and Cyril. I wish modern scholars would stop trying to make me a pawn in yet another battle.
D: Well, I suppose we should wrap things up. I don’t want to take any more of your time. Thanks again for stopping by and answering a few questions. And best of luck in the HistSTM Madness that starts next week.


  1. For those interested in the technology behind these interviews, ouija. Here’s the device that enables  ↩

    All interviews facilitated by a trusty Ouija Board
    All interviews facilitated by a trusty Ouija Board
  2. Sagan offered this description of Hypatia and her death in the final episode of Cosmos. A Personal Voyage (1980). You can see this segment on YouTube: Carl Sagan on Hypatia (skip to 3:20).  ↩

  3. Hypatia here points out that our modern use of the term dates back only to the early 19th century. In 1834 William Whewell’s coined the term in his review of Mary Somerville’s On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences as an analog to the term artist. For a brief history of the term, see Sydney Ross, “Scientist: The story of a word,” Annals of Science 18 (1962): 65–85. Paywall.  ↩

  4. Here Hypatia is probably thinking of Synesius of Cyrene, whose writing seems embrace Neoplatonic doctrines.  ↩

  5. Hypatia’s reference here is to Jorge Luis Borges’s “The Circular Ruin.”  ↩

  6. Charles Kingsley’s Hypatia, or New Foes with an Old Face (1853) novel is a fun read, but entirely fictional. His Hypatia is racy and titillating. John Toland’s anti-Catholic pamphlet, Hypatia: Or the History of a most beautiful, most vertuous, most learned, and every way accomplish’d Lady; who was torn to pieces by the Clergy of Alexandria, to gratify the pride, emulation, and cruelty of their Archbishop, commonly, but undeservedly, stil’d St. Cyril (1753), was even more explicit, referring to Hypatia’s many trysts with students.  ↩

  7. Theon of Alexandria wrote the earliest text on astrolabes. The text is now lost, but we can be reasonably confident that Theon’s text described stereographic projection and outlined a number of uses.  ↩

  8. The rete is the network of stars on an astrolabe that rotates about the north celestial pole. It is a key feature of an astrolabe.  ↩

  9. In some accounts, Hypatia was murdered in March 415, making it almost exactly 1600 years ago.  ↩

  10. The Caesareum is reportedly where Hypatia was murdered.  ↩

  11. Socrates here is Socrates Scholasticus of Constantinople who wrote a church history in 450. It is possible that he spoke to people who had known Hypatia, but there’s no clear evidence that he did. His account is the closest to Hypatia, though not unproblematic.  ↩