Hypatia of Alexandria: Biography, Facts & Quotes

Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson we explore the life, work, and death of Hypatia. Hypatia is one of the earliest female scholars of which we have a considerable amount of knowledge.

Hypatia of Alexandria

Women have spent the better part of the last two centuries fighting for rights and equality. From Susan B. Anthony and the suffragettes to landmark Supreme Court cases like Roe vs. Wade, change for women has been slow and incremental.

Considering the battles they have fought in modern America, one might not expect to find many women who would be allowed to flourish in the public sphere in the ancient world. However, one of the most important scholars and theologians of ancient Alexandria was, in fact, a woman: Hypatia of Alexandria.

Work & Beliefs

When Hypatia was born is not precisely known. Some historians place her birth around 370 C.E., while others place it further back, closer to 350. We know nothing about Hypatia's mother, but we know a great deal about her father: Theon. Theon was the last proper member of Alexandria's museum, which was a sort of hybrid library and university where Theon taught and likely helped maintain scrolls and other writings.

To Hypatia, Theon gifted his love for scholarship and writing. He taught her astronomy and mathematics, and it is likely that Hypatia helped him on various projects, including his commentary written on Ptolemy's Almagest, which laid out Ptolemy's vision for an Earth-centered universe.

Hypatia excelled as a scholar. Hypatia is often quoted, although it's likely many of her quotes were fabricated by a 19th-century scholar. Nonetheless, quotes often attributed to her, like 'Reserve your right to think, for even to think wrongly is better than to not think at all,' display the importance she placed on learning and critical thinking.

Artist rendering of Hypatia
artist rendering of Hypatia

In addition to working with her father, Hypatia wrote her own commentaries and taught widely. Much of what we know about her comes from surviving letters to and from her students. She established herself not simply as an astronomer and mathematician, but also as a philosopher. She distinguished herself in the varied field of Neoplatonism, and she likely held the core belief of many Neoplatonists that all of reality derived from a single principle, 'the One.'

As a philosopher, she followed the traditions of the Greeks of the past, traveling throughout public squares and preaching her philosophy in public places to all who would listen. She was an avowed pagan, adhering to the old gods at a time when Christianity was beginning to cement its hold on the Mediterranean and wider Roman worlds. But, more importantly, she prized learning and scholarship above all. Indeed, her famous quote (again, possible misattributed) that 'All formal dogmatic religions are fallacious and must never be accepted by self-respecting persons as final' displays her attitude.

Unfortunately, these beliefs likely played a role in Hypatia's untimely death.

Alexandria and Hypatia's Death

Hypatia lived and worked in Alexandra during a particularly tumultuous time for the city. The expansive but weakening Roman Empire had been split in two in the 3rd century by the emperor Diocletian. Though Alexandria technically paid homage to the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire in Constantinople, things were far more decentralized and city officials had more power than in earlier periods of the Roman Empire.

In Alexandria, there was a particularly vociferous battle occurring during Hypatia's life between the secular Roman administrator of the city, Orestes, and the Catholic Church. The Church had been behind the destruction of the library and museum in Alexandria due to its maintenance of pagan writings. The local archbishop, Cyril, wished to exert greater control over the city's administration.

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