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Hypatia of Alexandria (Revealing Antiquity ,…
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Hypatia of Alexandria (Revealing Antiquity , No 8)

by Maria Dzielska

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In March AD 415, a Christian mob murdered Hypatia, the renowned Lady Philosopher of Alexandria. The vicious act shocked the city and shamed the early Church. Socrates Scholasticus tells the story in his Historia Ecclesiastica:

"...Hypatia, daughter of the philosopher Theon, who made such attainments in literature and science, as to far surpass all the philosophers of her own time...For all men on account of her extraordinary dignity and virtue admired her the more. Yet even she fell a victim to the political jealousy which at that time prevailed. For as she had frequent interviews with Orestes, it was calumniously reported among the Christian populace, that it was she who prevented Orestes from being reconciled to the bishop. Some of them therefore, hurried away by a fierce and bigoted zeal, whose ringleader was a reader named Peter, waylaid her returning home, and dragging her from her carriage, they took her to the church called Caesareum, where they completely stripped her, and then murdered her with tiles. After tearing her body in pieces, they took her mangled limbs to a place called Cinaron, and there burnt them. This affair brought not the least opprobrium, not only upon Cyril, but also upon the whole Alexandrian church. And surely nothing can be farther from the spirit of Christianity than the allowance of massacres, fights, and transactions of that sort. This happened in the month of March during Lent, in the fourth year of Cyril’s episcopate, under the tenth consulate of Honorius, and the sixth of Theodosius."

Since that time, only fragments about her life have come down to us; allowing poets, novelists, playwrights, scientists, feminists and religionists (both pro and anti) to appropriate her story for themselves. Hypatia’s story has resonated down through the years, touching many people. She’s a major character in my novel "Selene of Alexandria," the subject of the recent movie "Agora" directed by Alejandro Amenabar, and she rated a plate in Judy Chicago’s massive art piece "The Dinner Party." She’s the subject of plays, poetry, propaganda and new age pagan polemics. Her life is represented in art and music. But what do we really know about her? Not much.

In researching my book, I waded through a literary swamp, with no guide, trying to get at some coherent view of Hypatia and her story. She was young/middle aged/older when she died. She was single/married/promiscuous/virginal. She was a pagan/witch/Christian. She was a brilliant mathematician/scientist to some and, according to others, contributed nothing worthwhile in either discipline. I read the few primary sources, but didn’t have the academic background to evaluate their usefulness. Socrates was a contemporary, but a church historian. Damascius was a pagan who wrote a full generation later. John of Nikiu wrote 200 years later. Who had an agenda and what was it?

Two scholars have attempted to pull the pieces together in book form in the last two decades: Maria Dzielska, a Polish classics scholar, with "Hypatia of Alexandria"; and mathematics professor Michael A. B. Deakin with "Hypatia of Alexandria: Mathematician and Martyr." I’ve read both, several times, in my research and wanted to share my thoughts on the anniversary of Hypatia's death.

When I first got this book in 1995, it was a godsend. I finally had a book that cut through the literary myth and put Hypatia’s life in context. Dzielska divides her book into three main sections. The first deals with the literary legend of Hypatia; the second with Hypatia’s students; and the third covers her life and death. I felt she did a Herculean job of sorting through the myths and legends; and showing the political and artistic roots of some of the best known novels and plays. But it was in interpreting the primary sources, and critiquing their veracity and usefulness, that was most helpful to me. Dzielska carefully lays out her theses and backs them up. When she engages in speculation, she makes it clear.

Among the most controversial of her proposals is that Hypatia was older than generally believed. Dzielska puts Hypatia’s birth year at about 355, making her 60 at death. Artists have a stake in her being a young beautiful martyr, but most scholars had put her age at death at about 45 (making her birth year around 370.) Dzielska argues that Hypatia would have been older than 20 or 22 when she was already teaching some of the land’s most elite young men. In the early 390’s Hypatia was a well-established philosopher and mathematician with many students from rich and powerful families. She might have been a math prodigy, but it’s unlikely she had the time to personally study the arcane nature of various philosophies and establish herself as one of the foremost philosophy teachers, much before her late twenties, at the earliest. Put another way, would a rich powerful man in the late 4C send his adult son to study with a twenty-year-old female? Possibly, but unlikely. It made sense to me that she was born before 370. How much before? No one knows. All scholars can do is present their theories and sources. As a novelist, it suited me to have her older in my narrative, so I went with Dzielska’s premise.

Since I’ve been following this stuff for over fifteen years, I also occasionally came across a criticism of Dzielska as a “Christian apologist.” I assume, because she interprets Hypatia’s death as a political act rather than an act of religious persecution. Hypatia wasn't a "pagan" in the sense that she worshiped mulitple gods or engaged in cultic practices. She believed in one god, but wasn't a Christian. However, as the quote from Socrates Scholasticus above indicates, a possible motive for her murder, was her relationship with the governor of Egypt. Bishop Cyril fomented a whispering campaign against a political foe and his followers brutally killed her.

Some commenters fault Dzielska for her conclusion, but I can't help but feel it's for their own political reasons. I personally think the critics are picking nits. It’s hard to separate politics from religion in this time. Until recently, there was no such thing as the separation of Church and State. Rulers claimed divine right to rule and religions of all kinds backed them up. This time period fascinates me precisely because there are such massive sociological shifts. The Christian Church was consolidating and exerting its power over Christians and non-Christians alike. The early Church used violence to suppress "heretical" sects within its own family, depose rival religions, and bully Emperors and Governors into granting it “most favored” status under laws and tax codes. It also set up and maintained schools and hospitals, provided food and shelter for the homeless and poor, and mediated disputes in their own courts. In my book, that’s political power. And Dzielska doesn’t let Bishop Cyril or the Church off the hook for Hypatia’s death:

"Cyril must be held to account for a great deal, even if we assume that the murder was contrived and executed by the parabolans, without his knowledge. For there is no doubt that he was a chief instigator of the campaign of defamation against Hypatia, fomenting prejudice and animosity against the woman philosopher, rousing fear about the consequences of her alleged black-magic spells on the prefect, the faithful of the Christian community, and indeed the whole city.

However directly or indirectly he was involved, Cyril violated the principles of the Christian moral order, which he was bound to nurture and uphold…It is not surprising that the sources on Hypatia are so few and so sparing and generally oblique in their accounts…as early as the fourth century Christian historians had achieved predominance and most likely they were ashamed to write about her fate…A cover-up campaign was orchestrated to protect the perpetrators, affiliated with the church, who murdered a person well-disposed toward Christians."

For those who want to see Hypatia’s life in context, this is a great book. There are many myths about Hypatia. This book pulls back the curtain and lets us see (as clearly as possible with scant resources) the woman behind the legend, presented in lucid prose.

(This is the first part of two-book review posted on my blog as "Hypatia of Alexandria: Two Books." The second book "Hypatia of Alexandria: Mathematician and Martyr" by Michael A. B. Deakin is reviewed under its own name.) ( )
2 vote MarysGirl | Mar 14, 2011 |
This is the portuguese translation of the english version published by Harvard University Press of the polish original Hypatia z Aleksandrii. Debuking some widespread ideas about the death of the philosopher and mathematician Hypatia, this book starts by taking the reader through the construction of the literary legend that started in the eighteen century, then, in its second part, discusses the main sources about Hypatia and her philosophical circle and students, mainly the letters of Hypatia's most proeminent student Synesius of Cyrene. In the third and last part, Dzielska guides us through the tumultuous religious and political events in Alexandria in the beginning of the 5th Century C.E., in particular those connected with patriarch Cyril and his conflict with the civil authority of the city that ultimately led to the assassination of Hypatia in 415 C.E. at the hands of a murderous mob inspired (or even directed) by the bishop. A very interesting book indeed. ( )
  FPdC | May 25, 2010 |
Far from being an apologist for Christianity, the author is an expert on the history of the Roman Empire, and describes well the dangerous nature of Alexandrian politics during the Greek and Roman periods. The bishop Cyril does not come off as a hero of any kind in this book, rather as a powerhungry political figure who used religion for his own ends. There is evidence that Hypatia supported the prefect Orestes in opposition to him, and that Cyril mounted a slander campaign against her for this, and his attacks on her are the more likely reason why she was murdered. It is known that many Christians studied under Hypatia at her school, and there is no evidence that she was opposed to Christianity at all.

I own this book and find it to be an honest look at the scarce knowledge surrounding the enigmatic figure of Hypatia, and places her into the history and culture of the time. It is important to bear in mind that Hypatia was a Neoplatonist philosopher and the head of this school of philosophy in her day. She was not a traditional Hellenistic "pagan" worshipper, nor was she a Gnostic or a Manichaean (which is opposed to the concept of Plato's Demiurge in the Timaeus). It was a belief system entirely apart from both, with its own rituals (theurgy). Hypatia lived after Iamblichus, who purged Gnostic influences brought by Plotinus, and it is likely that she would have been more influenced by Iamblichus. Iamblichus had a much more positive view of matter than Plotinus, and innovated the practice of theurgy. Iamblichus' positive view of matter is firmly supported by Plato's Timaeus and is opposed to Manichaeanism and Gnosticism. These facts about Neoplatonism are probably not well understood to the previous reviewers, and are outside the scope of this book. ( )
2 vote hypatiaa | Oct 23, 2009 |
I totally agree with this book's first review. Biased from first to last, and mistakes galore. ( )
  Artful | Jan 11, 2009 |
There's not much really known about Hypatia and I do admit Dzielska knows that little. But to me she seems a Christian apologist and does Hypatia no favors with this work of making the more fanatical Christians of her day look good, especially the odious Cyril who was made a saint for, among other things, having a brilliant woman of pagan inclination slaughtered by at least fifty of his "monks" as she rode alone through the streets of Alexandria. If that's what it takes to become a saint, I'm amazed we don't have a Saint Stalin on the calender by now. Sorry, but this book angered me, I put it on my list just so I might say so. The star is for the effort that went into the writer's research. Oh, before I forget. The cover is bizarre and disturbing. ( )
2 vote Malicious | Apr 13, 2008 |
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Piis manibus Miroslai
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Long before the first scholarly attempts to reconstruct an accurate image of Hypatia, her life---marked by the dramatic circumstances of her death---had been imbued with legend.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0674437764, Paperback)

Hypatia—brilliant mathematician, eloquent Neoplatonist, and a woman renowned for her beauty—was brutally murdered by a mob of Christians in Alexandria in 415. She has been a legend ever since. In this engrossing book, Maria Dzielska searches behind the legend to bring us the real story of Hypatia's life and death, and new insight into her colorful world.

Historians and poets, Victorian novelists and contemporary feminists have seen Hypatia as a symbol—of the waning of classical culture and freedom of inquiry, of the rise of fanatical Christianity, or of sexual freedom. Dzielska shows us why versions of Hypatia's legend have served her champions' purposes, and how they have distorted the true story. She takes us back to the Alexandria of Hypatia's day, with its Library and Museion, pagan cults and the pontificate of Saint Cyril, thriving Jewish community and vibrant Greek culture, and circles of philosophers, mathematicians, astronomers, and militant Christians. Drawing on the letters of Hypatia's most prominent pupil, Synesius of Cyrene, Dzielska constructs a compelling picture of the young philosopher's disciples and her teaching. Finally she plumbs her sources for the facts surrounding Hypatia's cruel death, clarifying what the murder tells us about the tensions of this tumultuous era.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:42:15 -0400)

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