Hypatia of Alexandria: The Primary Sources

Scholar with textsIt’s Women’s History Month, so here’s another Hypatia of Alexandria article! I’ve posted several in the past two years and put this one off, because it’s such a tricky one. As anyone who has studied Hypatia knows, there is little out there in the way of primary sources. Only a few pages come down to us from those times and almost none can be attributed to Hypatia, except a couple of technical works on mathematics and astronomy. (See my earlier post “Hypatia: Great Mathematician or Geometry Teacher?”) We don’t have much to go on; no diaries, no letters from her, nothing to tell us in her own words what her life was like. We have to rely on the witness of others. So who are these people and what ax did they have to grind (if any) in writing about Hypatia? For all those Hypatia fans out there, I’ve reviewed the four most extensive, and most quoted, primary sources and summarized what historians have generally come to believe about the motives of the authors. For organization’s sake, I’ll go chronologically, starting with one of my favorite characters from Hypatia’s story: Synesius of Cyrene.

The Letters of Synesius, Bishop of Ptolemais

(c. 394 – 413)

Synesius (b. 370, d. 413) was the son of a wealthy family from the province of Cyrene (modern day Libya), who studied with Hypatia in the early 390’s. He remained devoted to her and corresponded regularly after he moved back to his family estate. In 409, the people of Ptolemais asked him to be their bishop. As a Neo-Platonist, he didn’t believe in the Christian dogma, including the resurrection, which he considered “nothing for me but a sacred and mysterious allegory, and I am far from sharing the views of the vulgar crowd thereon.” He dithered for over six months, before agreeing to take on the Bishopric, but only with several conditions, including keeping his beloved wife. Because he made that decision, his writing has come down to us through the voluminous Patrologiae Graecae (PG), a compendium of Greek writings important to the early Christian church. We have access to several of his speeches, essays, hymns, homilies, and 159 letters. Six of those letters and a fragment of a seventh are addressed to Hypatia, including the final one dictated from his deathbed. Another four letters mention her. In one she is described as “the most holy philosopher” and, in another, Synesius received “the fruitful wisdom of Hypatia.” (English translations can be found here.)

From Synesius’ material we get a picture of Hypatia as a beloved and revered teacher. He asks her opinion on whether to publish two books he sends to her. He recommends his friends (possibly relatives) and asks her to see to their well-being. He writes to her in despair over war and the death of his children. He asks her to build him a hydrometer to help with self-diagnosing an illness. About the time things get most violent in Alexandria, he writes:

“To the Philosopher,

 I salute you, and I beg of you to salute your most happy comrades for me, august Mistress. I have long been reproaching you that I am not deemed worthy of a letter, but now I know that I am despised by all of you for no wrongdoing on my part, but because I am unfortunate in many things, in as many as a man can be.

If I could only have had letters from you and learnt how you were all faring – I am sure you are happy and enjoying good fortune – I should have been relieved, in that case, of half of my own trouble, in rejoicing at your happiness. But now your silence has been added to the sum of my sorrows.

I have lost my children, my friends, and the goodwill of everyone. The greatest loss of all, however, is the absence of your divine spirit. I had hoped that this would always remain to me, to conquer both the caprices of fortune and the evil turns of fate.”

We will never know why Synesius received no more letters from Hypatia. Did her letters go astray? Did she want to shield her devoted student from her own troubles? Her silence obviously broke his heart, but his final letter to her still expressed love and admiration for his “mother, sister, teacher, and withal benefactress.” He died in 413, two years before his adored teacher.


Ecclesiastical History by Socrates Scholasticus

(c. 440, PG, Volumes 66 & 67)

Writing 25 or more years after Hypatia’s murder, Socrates of Constantinople (b. 380, d.?) wrote a history of the Church covering 305 – 439 in an effort to continue the work of Eusebius of Caesarea. Little is known about Socrates. He referred to himself as a member of the mainstream church (probably a lay member) and dealt evenhandedly with the “heresies” of the Novatians and Arians in his history, avoiding hyperbolic titles and language. He tells us, in his preface, that his teachers were the pagan grammarians Helladius and Ammonius who came to Constantinople, fleeing the 391 destruction of the Serapeum in Alexandria.

In his History, he tells of conflict between the Christians and Jews, a breach between Bishop Cyril and the Prefect Orestes, and the physical attack on Orestes by the Nitrian monks. He attributes Hypatia’s murder directly to her involvement in these disputes. Because he had access to Church records and eyewitness accounts, most historians feel Socrates Scholasticus provides a balanced and thorough view. He praises Hypatia for her accomplishments and dignity. Although a Christian, he criticizes the role played by the Church in her murder and castigates Bishop Cyril for his complicity in it:

“…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 Caesarion, 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.”


Life of Isidorus by Damascius

(c. 530’s, sections preserved in abridgments in Photius‘ ninth century Bibliotheca and the tenth century Byzantine encyclopedia the Suda.)

Damascius (b. 458, d. 540), also known as “the last of the Neoplatonists” was a pagan philosopher and the last head of the School of Athens, which Emperor Justinian closed in 529. He was born in Syria, but spent twelve years in his early youth in Alexandria studying and teaching rhetoric. Philosophy soon caught his attention and he studied under Hermias and his sons. He then travelled to Athens to study math, science and philosophy. There he met and became great friends with Isidore and later wrote his biography which contains a short piece on Hypatia.

Writing over a hundred years after her death, Damasius uses the appearance of two philosophers from Alexandria who “proclaim with great fan fanfare…the stories people tell of the past…a story, characteristic of life in Alexandria, both religious and secular….” After speaking of Hypatia’s education, Damascius describes her as “honest and chaste and throughout her life remained a virgin. And yet she was very beautiful and well-proportioned.” He continues with the (until then unknown) anecdote of Hypatia giving a bloody menstrual rag to a love-sick student and follows with:

“Hypatia’s style was like this: she was not only well-versed in rhetoric and in dialectic, but she was as well wise in practical affairs and motivated by civic-mindedness. Thus she came to be widely and deeply trusted throughout the city, accorded welcome and addressed with honor. Furthermore, when an archon was elected to office, his first call was to her, just as was also the practice in Athens…Now the following event took place. Cyril the bishop of the opposite sect was passing Hypatia’s house and noticed a hubbub at the door, “a confusion of horses and of men,” some coming, others going and yet others standing and waiting. He asked what was the meaning of the gathering and why there was a commotion at the house. Then he heard from his attendants that they were there to greet the philosopher Hypatia and that this house was hers. This information gave his heart such a prick that he at once plotted her murder….”

Damascius’ work provides historians with some minor problems. Given the time elapsed after Hypatia’s murder, he has no access to eye witnesses, although written accounts might have been available. (There are theories that the reason we have so few resources on Hypatia is that the Church leaders were embarrassed by their role and had them destroyed. There’s no evidence for or against this theory.) Damascius wrote his book on Isidore while living in Alexandria and had access to any generally known stories about Hypatia, which might have provided the new anecdote. As a pagan persecuted by a Christian emperor, Damascius could be forgiven for having a bias against Christians. In evaluating his contribution, we also have to take into account the garbled versions from Photius and the Suda. We don’t have access to the original, but several scholars over the years have tried to reconstruct Damascius’ narrative using those and other extant materials.

What comes down to us is similar to the story given by Socrates Scholasticus—Hypatia is a learned woman, esteemed for her knowledge and behavior—but Damascius leaves out the political overtones leading up to her death. In the version we have of Damascius’ work, Cyril is a jealous instigator of murder and the men who did the deed “laid upon the city the heaviest blood-guilt and the greatest disgrace.” What is unique about the work is the insight into Hypatia’s feelings via the menstrual rag anecdote.


The Chronicle of John, Bishop of Nikiu

(c. 690)

John, an Egyptian Coptic bishop, wrote an ambitious Chronicle ranging from Adam to the Muslim conquest of Egypt (a generation before his time) which includes a passage on Hypatia (Chapter LXXXIV, Pars. 87-103). The Chronicle comes to us by a convoluted route. It was most likely written in Greek with some Coptic Egyptian inclusions, but the original did not survive. An Ethiopic manuscript, translated from Arabic came to light and, in 1916, this was translated into English. (Full English translation can be found here.) Most historians agree it follows the Byzantine chronicles closely, but it is most important for some additional material particular to Egypt and the Muslim invasion in the seventh century.

Little is known about John. He was the Bishop of Nikiu and appointed general administrator of the monasteries of Upper Egypt in 696. He was removed from his offices after a monk he disciplined, for some moral offense, died ten days later. His passage on Hypatia closely follows Socrates’ story, including the political turmoil around the Jews, and Cyril’s conflict with Orestes. John’s account is the only source (pagan or Christian) that disparages Hypatia and openly approves of Cyril and the Church’s role in her murder:

“And in those days there appeared in Alexandria a female philosopher, a pagan named Hypatia, and she was devoted at all times to magic, astrolabes and instruments of music, and she beguiled many people through (her) Satanic wiles. And the governor of the city honored her exceedingly; for she had beguiled him through her magic. And he ceased attending church as had been his custom…. And thereafter a multitude of believers in God arose under the guidance of Peter the magistrate — now this Peter was a perfect believer in all respects in Jesus Christ — and they proceeded to seek for the pagan woman who had beguiled the people of the city and the prefect through her enchantments…and they dragged her along till they brought her to the great church, named Caesarion…And they tore off her clothing and dragged her [till they brought her] through the streets of the city till she died. And they carried her to a place named Cinaron, and they burned her body with fire. And all the people surrounded the patriarch Cyril and named him ‘the new Theophilus’; for he had destroyed the last remains of idolatry in the city.”

It’s obvious John is drawing on the Ecclesiastical History written over 250 years before, but he tells the story through his own special lens. After Cyril died his See fell into the hands of a Christian sect known as the Monophysites. They evolved into the Coptic Church. Cyril is revered among the Copts as one of their greatest saints and his relics greatly venerated. John, most likely, shared this view and adopted Cyril’s hostile attitude toward Hypatia.


There are other fragments historians consider primary sources on Hypatia’s life and death, but they are brief and sometimes suspect. Professor Michael A. B. Deakin reviews the complete canon here and provides English translations in his book Hypatia of Alexandria: Mathematician and Martyr (Prometheus Books, 2007). Of the four sources I’ve reviewed, the first three are the most useful and diverse. Synesius gives us a loving image of his revered teacher; Socrates provides a balanced account of the politics and times; and Damascius recounts a new anecdote about Hypatia, possibly handed down from eyewitness accounts. John of Nikiu stands alone in his condemnation of Hypatia’s actions and approval of her murder, but his basic narrative differs little from Socrates and Damascius.

Most people, who write about the distant past, whether in non-fiction or fiction, try to “get it right.” It’s hard when the sources are slender and the “facts” are disputed, but we try our best. I hope this essay contributes some additional knowledge to those who, like me, are fascinated by the life and death of this remarkable woman.


Hypatia: Her Life and Times

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Hypatia: Hher Life and Times coverLike most bloggers, I obsess over my “views” and track which articles are most popular. Hands down, anything about Hypatia draws the most readers and generates the most discussion. As a favor to my readers and Hypatia fans, I put all the material in one place. This article and many others from this blog and guest posts on other sites are now collected in eBook  and print versions (buy direct or order from any online or private bookstore). If you feel you can’t afford the $2.99 for the eBook, contact me through this website and I’ll send you a free PDF copy. Check it out and let me know what you think!

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