BMCR 1995.07.07

1995.07.07, Dzielska, Hypatia of Alexandria

, Hypatia of Alexandria. Revealing antiquity ; 8. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995. viii, 157 pages ; 22 cm.. ISBN 9780674437753. $29.95.

Harvard’s series Revealing Antiquity has presented the English-speaking reader with a number of translations from several European languages. A recent addition is Hypatia of Alexandria by Maria Dzielska of the Jagiellonian University in Cracow. Much of the research for this study was carried out at Dumbarton Oaks in 1990, and the work was “adapted and translated [presumably from Polish] from the unpublished manuscript” by F. Lyra. D. also is the author of Hypatia z Aleksandrii (Cracow: Nakl. Uniwersytetu Jagiellonskiego, 1993).

There are several attractive features as one takes up this book: the jacket illustration shows a work of Jim Dine (a curious but not altogether inappropriate illustration of the service which contemporary art may render to the classics); the general format and print are pleasing; and the translation, as far as I can judge, is well done.

The closest that D. comes to stating the purpose of this slim volume is a note in the preface: “I became filled with admiration for Hypatia’s soul and mind, I felt a need to learn more about this extraordinary Alexandrian woman, scholar, and philosopher whose life and spiritual individuality have sustained interest in her for many centuries” (p.vii). If D. intended to produce a biography based on a consideration of the meagre sources available, the book, within these limits, certainly achieves its purpose. It is, on the whole, a useful introduction to Hypatia, her work, her students, and her death. It also highlights the difficulties involved in composing a biography of a person about whom we are remarkably ill-informed.

The book begins with a brief survey of modern literary works, each with its own embroidery, which have taken their inspiration from the story of Hypatia. The list of sources, however, is far from complete: computerised services such as the OCLC, for example, offer a staggering number of works incorporating the title “Hypatia”. Among these one discovers “The Hypatia Club of Wichita” in my own state of Kansas, founded in 1886 as a women’s literary society.

D. shows that each author and every age has an Hypatia of its own—a fictitious creature made to serve the purposes of author and audience. And here, the author perhaps has underestimated the influence of Charles Kingsley’s famed book, Hypatia, or New Foes with an Old Face, first published in 1853 and reprinted many times since, which provides a rather shrewd assessment of Hypatia’s Alexandria. As for the historical Hypatia, she, according to D., is largely due to Synesius of Cyrene, who in fact threatens to supplant his teacher Hypatia as the main subject of this study.

The second of the three chapters, “Hypatia and Her Circle,” is devoted to a reconstructed list of her students. D.’s treatment, largely prosopographical, points to a handful of men about whom we know on the whole very little and whose links with Hypatia are often rather tenuous. We simply do not have the information to generate a reconstruction of a network as Paul Petit has done for Libanius of Antioch and his students.

This section of the book inspires many questions. Did contacts with Hypatia the teacher exert any influence over the students’ choice of career? How did her teaching relate to her position as a public figure in the city? To what extent did her students give her visibility which other, indeed most, women did not enjoy? How did a highly educated woman with a school and a scholarly following operate in an environment largely dominated by male “amicitia”? And here, Robert Kaster’s model discussion of the grammarian in the society of Late Antiquity could have served as a useful guide.

One responsibility of teachers was to furnish letters of reference to facilitate the admission of students to the right social circles and to the job market. They also used their influence in other ways. Synesius provides evidence indicating that Hypatia, too, provided such patronage on the basis of her connections (p. 41). One case involved both Hypatia and Theophilus, the bishop of Alexandria, as potential patrons of a man who had lost his estate. Here is a suggestive link between two outstanding public figures in late Roman Alexandria, and one which implies that when in need, an individual did not make distinctions of creed (or gender) if he had to enlist the help of either civic or religious community leaders.

What sort of circle, then, radiated from Hypatia? As a mentor she was regarded, by Synesius at least, as “sacred” and “divine”, epithets which reflect admiration if not downright adulation (cf. Julian on the “most divine” Iamblichus, Ep. 98, Bidez). She certainly became a model of unattainable intellectual and moral virtues for her disciples, even when the latter had to be acquired through somewhat unorthodox methods (nicely illustrated by her display of sanitary napkins, presumably drenched with blood, to cure a pupil of infatuation for her).

Can we reconstruct a “school” out of this group? The term requires elucidation, particularly because Hypatia did not hold an official chair (p. 57). It also would have been useful to explore other schools in Alexandria at that time and the careers of a few contemporary edukatoi, if only to highlight the unique place that Hypatia carved out for herself.

Hypatia’s teaching methods are again a matter of conjecture. She kept a “secret schedule” of teaching (p. 58), a puzzling expression (at least for an ordinary academic), which implies a special bond between teacher and some students. She clearly inspired them with a sense of exclusivity, as can be surmised from the tone in which Synesius addressed his school friends. Perhaps his intellectual snobbery can be traced to his Alexandrian days.

Furthermore, where, precisely, did Hypatia teach? The sources offer a few tantalising observations which, in spite of their obscurity, emphasise one aspect of Hypatia’s teaching style, namely its public character. Not unlike a Socrates, Hypatia was evidently willing to explain philosophy to whomever cared to listen. D. vehemently denies any such ready availability (p. 57), but this sort of public appearance must have made Hypatia into a highly visible and well-known public figure and could contribute to a better understanding of her end.

The precise content of Hypatia’s teaching can only be surmised. D. is good in her attempt to reconstruct the teaching areas (p. 46f.) and rightly supports Alan Cameron’s emphasis on the wide range of the texts examined, including local Egyptian myths which Synesius, of course, so effectively used in his orations at the imperial court. The impact of Hypatia’s thought on the intellectual formation of her students, or more precisely on that of Synesius, is equally difficult to assess in the absence of Hypatia’s writings and of a detailed analysis of Synesius’.

Synesius also provides a curious testimony to his family’s continuing educational affiliation with the school of Hypatia: apparently no less than three members (Synesius, his brother and his uncle) studied with her. What is even more significant is the Christian affiliation of nearly all her attested or hypothetical students. This would suggest that quality education was still valued above the specific religious affiliation of the educator.

Assuming that Hypatia drew students from affluent backgrounds and from well-connected families, can we further assume that she “occupied a strong political and social as well as cultural position in Alexandria”? (p. 38). Perhaps. The role of philosophers as highly visible conveyers of public opinion has been recently expounded by Peter Brown in his Power and Persuasion. Hypatia’s circle included key political figures in the city, a circumstance which contributed to her civic and social standing. Her public lectures, in this case, served as a means of communication with the widest possible audience. Did they also draw people away from church services and episcopal sermons?

In the third and last chapter the life and death of Hypatia are recounted. The first part of the chapter speculates about her date of birth (c. 355?) and that of her father (c. 335?), as well as about her intellectual formation in the house of Theon. Once more we see how ill informed we are about Hypatia’s “life”—we do not even know her mother’s name. Can we assume, for example, that her father wished to found an educational dynasty, based on the availability of a worthy heir? There were several such dynasties in the professorial world of Late Antiquity although, to the best of my knowledge, Hypatia is the only daughter to have inherited a father’s mantle. The absence of Hypatia from the philosophical biographies of Eunapius makes the reconstruction of a Hypatian biography even more difficult.

Inevitably, the emphasis of the chapter falls on Hypatia’s death, an event which all the sources commemorated with greater or lesser attention to details. Hypatia’s gruesome end, told with relish by the ecclesiastical historian Socrates, highlights the increasing role which the bishops of Alexandria assumed in the city. While the identity of her assailants cannot be established, the planning of the murder has been laid at the door of Cyril, elected bishop of Alexandria in 412.

From the very start of his episcopal career Cyril had flexed his muscles in a blatant campaign to establish his control over not only the ecclesiastical but also the civil affairs of the city. He led a Christian mob against the synagogues, drove the Jewish population away, and invited his followers to seize their property (K. Holum, Theodosian Empresses [Berkeley 1982], 98). This was a gamble, but under Pulcheria’s pious auspices Cyril exploited the anti-semiticism of the court at Constantinople and got away with a lame excuse. This hardening of the imperial policies vis-à-vis the Jewish communities is reflected in the legislation: CTh 16.8.9 of CE 393 tried to curb the looting and destruction of synagogues, but CTh 16.8.22, of 415, shows how this enlightened approach had been reversed.

The violent, unauthorised, and forced expulsion of the Alexandrian Jews also produced a clash of interests between the bishop and the highest civil authority in Egypt, the prefect Orestes. I doubt, however, whether Hypatia “shared with Orestes the conviction that the authority of bishops should not extend to areas meant for imperial and municipal administration” (p. 88). Other than her attested friendship with the prefect, we have no idea of her opinions regarding the roles of the church and state with regard to municipal policies.

Whoever was responsible for the public campaign that was launched against Hypatia shortly before her death attempted at first to undermine her position with accusations of magic and witchcraft. How many were convinced by such a banal stratagem is unclear, nor was Hypatia brought to trial. Perhaps the failure of this campaign brought the more extreme reaction of resorting to physical violence. More curious, and worthy of further exploration, is the supposed connection between Hypatia’s murder and the Jewish-Christian conflict in the city in 414.

After Cyril gained the first round in the “truceless war” which raged between his followers and the local authorities in Alexandria, Orestes continued to be a target of abuse and even of physical assaults (Holum, op. cit. 99). Cyril’s aim was apparently to dislodge the prefect and to secure the appointment of a more malleable candidate. Since Orestes survived the repeated attacks on his person, his office, and even his alleged paganism, Cyril had to devise different strategies. It may not be a coincidence that the fatal attack on Hypatia was launched and executed in public, with a degree of violence that can be interpreted as a deliberate campaign to terrorise Orestes. According to Socrates, the actual murder took place in a church which had once been a temple.

Evidently, once more Cyril’s dangerous game paid off. The murder of Hypatia galvanised the city council to send a delegation to the imperial court, apparently to demand a curb on Cyril’s more lawless subordinates. The reaction of the court did not differ from its stand in Jewish affairs. It granted partial and limited relief only, and withdrew even this concession to public order less than two years later ( CTh 16.2.42; 43; with Holum, Empresses, 99-100). Cyril was thus firmly entrenched in his position not only as the ecclesiastical leader of Egypt but also as a power in imperial politics. Here, an analysis of the Orestes-Cyril episode could have benefitted from the recent Ambrose of Milan of Neil McLynn, who highlights the intricacies of the relations between bishops and emperors against the background of Milanese politics.

The scene of Hypatia’s murder raises further questions about the nature of her “paganism” and of late ancient “paganism” in Alexandria. Just how “pagan” was Hypatia in a city where militant paganism found expressions in passionate defence of pagan monuments like the Serapeum and in bitter verbal attacks on Christianity? How does Hypatia fit into the “pagan” intellectual community which produced poets like Claudian and Palladas and possibly even historians like Ammianus Marcellinus? How did Hypatia’s death affect the relationships between the pagan and the Christian communities in the city, if at all? D. assumes that Hypatia’s absence from the Serapeum episode indicates her non-militant paganism. Perhaps. It is rather ironic in this case that she, and the Serapeum, came to so violent an end.

Hypatia lived during a turbulent period in the history of the late empire. We are therefore entitled to ask how a biography of a person whose life, in spite of impressive intellectual attainments, largely passed in the margins of major events and far from imperial centers of power, can enhance our understanding of her society and her era?

One approach would be to analyse Hypatia’s recorded activities against the information which we have regarding female literacy, the social role and involvement of women in major contemporary trends, and the issue of women in public. The violent reaction of Cyril’s dedicated henchmen to Hypatia in public is, to a degree, reminiscent of a similarly violent incident which befell another woman, Poemenia, (in the 380s or 390s) and a comparison of the two incidents is not without its uses.

Poemenia, an affluent and pious Christian lady embarked on a pilgrimage to Egypt in order to pay her respects to the holy men of the day, the famed monks of the Egyptian desert (Palladius, HL 35). On her way to Alexandria, and not far from the city, her considerable entourage (including a private priest) was attacked by a mob who may not have liked this sort of public display of female piety. In the brawl which ensued, Poemenia’s followers suffered injuries and even death.

Both Poemenia and Hypatia did not conform to the prevalent expectations of how women, Christian or intellectual, should behave. The display of conspicuous charity toward monks, like that of Melania the Elder in Egypt in the 370s, might be acceptable, but public appearances of the sort that Poemenia and Hypatia provided clearly were not. Here, then, are three contemporary women, each in the public eye, but each evoking a different type of reaction from male observers.

Another approach might be to examine the climate of violence in contemporary Alexandria where not only humans but also buildings were often under attack. Indeed, the aggression displayed towards Hypatia and Poemenia hardly seems an exception against a long record of aggressive violence emerging from all segments of society.

Furthermore, in Hypatia’s case one needs further to ask how female teachers practised their profession. In other words, how did advanced female literacy function in a society which put a premium on male education and literacy? Hypatia, of course, is not the only woman intellectual of whom we have some information, but her public teaching sets her apart from Christian female authors like Proba, whose biblical cento circulated primarily among younger members of her own family, the Anicii (Sivan, Vigiliae Christianae, 1993). Jerome’s complex intellectual exchange with his female correspondents and patrons shows his own struggle with the idea of a woman as a teacher in public. Hypatia’s success, therefore, may have created hostility in Alexandrian circles which preferred to restrict the woman educator to her own home or monastic establishment.

And what of Hypatia’s reputation for dedicated virginity in an age that put such a premium on sexual renunciation? Aside from a curious late story which marries her off to Isidore, a famed philosopher and teacher in the middle of the fifth century, all the sources agree on Hypatia’s moral stand and uncompromised celibacy. Why, then, was a virginal vocation in an intellectual public figure so unpalatable to the very same crowd which paid homage to the sanctified virgins of the desert?

Here, as elsewhere, the answer may lie in the prominence of Hypatia as a public figure rather than in her “paganism”. Did she invite martyrdom by maintaining her way of life in spite of mounting opposition? Her activities do not reflect an image of a militant “paganism” but her constant visibility, as well as her close association with the representatives of the imperial government, contributed to the formation of a mythical Hypatia, a woman formidable enough to undermine the bishop of Alexandria, and enchanting enough to capture the imagination of generations of artists and readers.