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Encyclopedia of Women in the Ancient World

Encyclopedia of Women in the Ancient World


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Alexandrian Philosopher (ca. A.D.370–415)

Since its founding in the fourth century B.C.,
Alexandria in Egypt had grown to be a vibrant
cosmopolitan center of the Mediterranean
world. The great museum and library there that
had been founded by Ptolemy Philadephus and
his sister-wife Arsinoë II soon became the great-
est intellectual center of the ancient world. Seven
centuries later, the museum’s reputation had only
grown. The library contained thousands of vol-
umes of scholarly readings, including the works
of the great pagan philosophers, and the mu-
seum drew the greatest minds from all over the
western world. Scholars studied physics, mathe-
matics, philosophy, and science and came to lis-
ten to lectures by the greatest teachers in this cos-
mopolitan city. In the late fourth century A.D.,
the most charismatic and popular teacher was
the philosopher and scholar, Hypatia.
Hypatia’s father, Theon, was a mathematician
and philosopher at the Museum of Alexandria,
and it is fairly certain that Hypatia studied
under her father’s tutelage. According to the
sources, she quickly surpassed her father, “since
she had greater genius” than he had, and her
growing fame rested upon her mastery of phi-
losophy. According to one of her biographers,
“the woman used to put on her philosopher’s
cloak and walk through the middle of town and
publicly interpret Plato, Aristotle, or the works
of any other philosopher to those who wished to
hear her” (“Life of Hypatia”).
Students flocked to her from everywhere, and
letters reached her that were simply addressed to
“The Muse” or “The Philosopher.” We have
some letters that survive from the famous Neo-
platonic philosopher (and later Christian bishop)
Synesius of Cyrene, and in them he praises her
knowledge in many fields—Neoplatonism,as-



tronomy, mechanics, and mathematics. He even
asked her for practical advice on how to build an
astrolabe (a navigational tool) and a hydroscope
(a device used to determine the weights of dif-
ferent liquids). Synesius came to study with her
in Alexandria because, as he wrote, she was “a
person so renowned, her reputation seemed lit-
erally incredible. We have seen and heard for
ourselves she who honorably presides over the
mysteries of philosophy” (“Life of Hypatia”). At
this time, Hypatia was only about twenty-three
years old!

By about A.D. 400, she became the head of
the Neoplatonic school in Alexandria. While it
was not uncommon for the outstanding student
in the school to inherit the position of teacher,
one of the sources on her life suggests that Hy-
patia was paid by public funds, which meant
that she would have received an official ap-
pointment. This would have been a remarkable
honor for anyone and virtually unheard of for a

Sometimes the fact of being a woman caused
Hypatia some difficulty, for her position of
teacher led her to live a public life (which was
not common for a respectable woman). One of
her biographers wrote that she was at ease in
public: “On account of the self-possession and
ease of manner, which she had acquired in con-
sequence of the cultivation of her mind, she not
unfrequently appeared in public in the presence
of the magistrates. Neither did she feel abashed
in going to an assembly of men. For all men on
account of her extraordinary dignity and virtue
admired her the more.” However, another
source describes how one of her students fell in
love with her and was unable to control himself.
To cure him, Hypatia reputedly gathered cloths
that had been stained during her menstrual pe-
riod (the equivalence of ancient sanitary nap-
kins) and showed them to him, saying, “This is
what you love, young man, and it isn’t beauti-
ful!” The source explains that “he was so affected
by shame and amazement at the ugly sight that
he experienced a change of heart and went away
a better man” (“Life of Hypatia”).
Hypatia wrote mathematical tracts—a com-
mentary on Diophatus’s Arithmeticorum,a com-
mentary on Ptolemy’s Syntaxis Mathematica,

and another commentary on the Conic Sections
of Appolonius Pergaeus. One source reported
that all of Hypatia’s works had been lost, at-
tributing this to the burning of the great library
in Alexandria. Some scholars argue, however,
that parts of these works have survived intact.
Further, it appears that Copernicus—the fa-
mous sixteenth-century astronomer who
demonstrated that the sun was the center of the
universe—may have been influenced by Hypa-
tia’s writings.

None of Hypatia’s philosophical writings
have survived, but scholars assume that her po-
sition would have been similar to that expressed
by her enthusiastic student, Synesius of Cyrene.
He was a strong Neoplatonist, who believed that
the soul could approach God through contem-
plation. Synesius had sent Hypatia one of his
works—Dion—in which he reconciled Neopla-
tonism with the Christian views of the Trinity.
However, Hypatia was not a Christian, and this
caused her death.
As Alexandria was an intellectually vibrant
city, not surprisingly, it also was a center of
fourth-century Christianity. As we have seen,
her student Synesius would become a bishop,
and her Neoplatonic teachings deeply informed
his Christian ideas. Other Christians, however,
believed that the popular, charismatic teacher
drew people to paganism and away from Chris-
tianity. One negative biographer of the philoso-
pher wrote that “she was devoted at all times to
magic, astrolabes and instruments of music, and
she beguiled many people through her Satanic
wiles.” Furthermore, this biographer—John,
Bishop of Nikiu—wrote that she had also “be-
guiled” the governor of the city, and this proba-
bly referred to her paid appointment as head of
the school (“Life of Hypatia”). While to all ap-
pearances Hypatia was interested in philosophy,
not politics, she was nevertheless drawn into the
struggle between pagans and Christians in early
fifth-century Alexandria.
Probably as a result of a political struggle be-
tween the Roman governor, Orestes (who was
Hypatia’s patron), and the Christian bishop of
Alexandria, Cyril, Hypatia became the focal
point of riots between Christian and pagans. A
mob gathered near her—led by a man named



Peter—and dragged her from her carriage and
took her to a church called Caesareum. There
they stripped her and murdered her with tiles
(the Greek word is ostrakois,which literally
means “oyster shells,” but the word also referred
to the brick tiles used on the roofs of houses).
The crowd then tore her body into pieces and
burnt them.

However we might feel about the struggle be-
tween Christians and pagans, we must surely
share the outrage of the author who described
these events—Socrates Scholasticus—when he
wrote: “Surely nothing can be farther from the
spirit of Christianity than the allowance of mas-
sacres, fights, and transactions of that sort”
(“Life of Hypatia”). The emperor was angry, but
he was bribed not to take vengeance against her

attackers. The ancient world lost one of its
brightest women to bigotry and jealousy.

See alsoArsinoë II; Philosophers, Greek
Suggested Readings

Kersey, Ethel M. Women Philosophers: A Bio-
Critical Source Book.New York: Greenwood
Press, 1989.
Lefkowitz, Mary R., and Maureen B. Fant. Women’s
Life in Greece and Rome.Baltimore: Johns
Hopkins University Press, 1982.
“Life of Hypatia.” Versions by John, Bishop of
Nikiu, by Socrates Scholasticus, and by
Damascius. http://cosmopolis.com/people/
Waithe, Mary Ellen. A History of Women
Philosophers. Vol.1:Ancient Women Philosophers.
Boston: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 1987.



Mythological Greek Priestess

According to ancient Greek myths, Io was the
daughter of the river-god Inachus and a priestess
of the goddess Hera. Zeus fell in love with Io,
and a dream told Io to go and submit to Zeus’s
embraces. She told her father about the dream,
and her father consulted oracles to see what they
should do. The oracles told him to obey, so Io
was sent to Zeus. The god began an affair with
the girl, and Hera became suspicious. To save Io
from the goddess’s jealousy, Zeus turned her into
a cow. (Some analysts suggest that Io was an
early moon goddess; horned cows are associated
with the moon, since the horns resemble the
crescent moon.) In the myth, Hera demanded
that Zeus give her the cow, and she gave it to be
guarded by Argus, who had 100 eyes.
Zeus felt sorry for Io and sent Hermes to
fetch the beautiful cow for him. Hermes de-
stroyed Argus and released Io, but the cow-
woman’s troubles were not over. Hera sent a gad-
fly to sting Io and chase her all over the world.
The legend describes the travels of Io as she
went to Europe, Asia Minor, and Africa. She
purportedly traveled down the Nile to a place
where pygmies and cranes were in perpetual bat-
tle. Finally, she found rest in Egypt, where Zeus
restored her to human form. She married there,
but she gave birth to Epaphus, whose real father
was Zeus. Io was credited with founding the
worship of Isis—the Egyptian name she gave
Demeter. Some people suggest that the myth of
Io’s travels was to explain the spread of the pop-
ular cult of Isis.
The legend seems to incorporate an old wor-
ship of a moon goddess into the Greek mytho-
logical pantheon. In this version, Io is swept
into Zeus’s infidelities and Hera’s jealous rages.

Her grief was also incorporated into the worship
of the mysteries of Demeter in various locations.
It may also be that ancient women saw in this
myth a woman who came to despair because of
the lust of the powerful.

See alsoDemeter; Hera; Isis
Suggested Readings

Grimal, Pierre. The Dictionary of Classical Mythology.
Oxford: Blackwell, 1996.

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