Hypatia of Alexandria
(ca. 370 - 416 CE.)


RAFFAELLO SANZIO (1483-1520), Scuola di Atene (1509-1510)
Detail:  Hypatia (likeness of Francesco Maria della Rovere)


Francesco Maria della Rovere (1490-1538), succeeded one of his uncles, Guidobaldo da Montefeltre, as Duke of Urbino. At first he was protected by another uncle, Pope Julius II (Giuliano della Rovere), but he later lost power under the Medici Pope Leo X, and he was unable to regain his territories until after Leo's death. Francesco was one of Italy's most important military leaders and frequently served the Republic of Venice.

When Raphael began work on Scuola di Atene, Francesco was still a teenager, living under the close protection of his uncle, Pope Julius II, who had commissioned the fresco for his private library, the Stanza della Segnatura. Two years earlier, in 1507, in a miniature celebrating his triumphal entry into Rome after his military victory over the Bolognese, the Pope had had his young nephew depicted as a boy wearing golden armor. As an older man, circa 1536, he was again depicted in military garb, in a portrait by Titian (Tiziano Vecellio). Circa 1504, Raphael himself had painted a portrait of Francesco dressed in garb befitting an adolescent boy of fourteen.

Upon Raphael's submission of a draft of the fresco to the church fathers, the Bishop is alleged to have inquired as to the identity of a woman depicted at the bottom (front) and center of the sketch, between the figures of Heraclitus and Diogenes, “Who is this woman in the middle?” “Hypatia, the most famous student of the School of Athens,” replied the artist. “Remove her. Knowledge of her runs counter to the belief of the faithful! Otherwise, the work is acceptable,” cautioned the Vatican's high priest. Yielding to the power of the purse strings, Raphael's only option was to remove the figure, but he then could proceed instead to disguise his original intention as an intimate gesture to his holy patron.

Thus, the effeminate, white-robed figure in Scuola di Atene serves here to represent the first significant female philosopher, and the last philosopher, of the ancient age. The pale complexion and juvenile visage of Pope Julius II's beloved nephew was apparently sufficient distraction to have prevented the Pope's recognition of a possible representation of Hypatia of Alexandria, an official enemy of the Church, whose martyrdom at the hands of Nitrian monks had signaled the death of the classical world.


Hypatia of Alexandria, born circa 370 CE., is the first woman documented to have made a substantial contribution to the development of mathematics, astronomy, and philosophy and to have done so openly, in her own name, as a woman. According to the Byzantine encyclopedia, The Suda, her father was Theon, the last head of the Museum at Alexandria. Together, they strove to preserve the spirit of Greek mathematics and philosophic inquiry, during a time when mathematics and science were considered heresy by zealous Christians who enforced the Christian Doctrines of the Roman Empire.

As a young woman, she traveled to Athens and Italy. Upon her return to Alexandria, around 400 CE., Hypatia achieved prominence as the recognized head of the Neoplatonist school in Alexandria, where letters addressed simply to “the philosopher” were routinely delivered to her. There she expounded upon the doctrines of Plato and Aristotle and lectured on mathematics, astronomy, mechanics, and philosophy, in particular teaching a variant of Neoplatonism which was distinguished from the mysticism of her predecessors by its greater scientific emphasis. In addition to her mathematical works, Hypatia also developed an apparatus for distilling water, an instrument for measuring the level of water, a plane astrolabe (for measuring the positions of the stars, planets, and sun) and a graduated brass hydrometer for determining the specific gravity of a liquid. Hypatia came to symbolize learning and science, which the early Christians identified with paganism, making her the focal point of riots between Christians and non-Christians.

Hypatia's philosophical beliefs were in conflict with the views of the Christian rulers of the city of Alexandria. When Cyril, a fanatical Christian, became Patriarch of Alexandria in 412 CE., he began a persecution of scholars in the city. Hypatia's prominence was accentuated by the fact that she was both a female and a non-believer in an increasingly Christian environment. In the spring of 416 (or 415) CE., the situation reached a tragic conclusion when a band of Christian monks seized Hypatia, beat her, and dragged her to a church where they mutilated her flesh with sharp tiles or oyster shells and burned her remains. In the words of John, Bishop of Nikiu, “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 when they learnt the place where she was, they proceeded to her and found her seated on a (lofty) chair; and having made her descend they dragged her along till they brought her to the great church, named Caesarion. Now this was in the days of the fast. 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.”

(Pope Leo XIII proclaimed Saint Cyril a Doctor of the Church, in 1882, in recognition of the zeal with which he had championed orthodoxy. More recently, in Orientalis Ecclesiæ, an Encyclical of Pope Pius XII promulgated on 9 April 1944, St. Cyril was extolled as a “valiant hero of the apostolate” for his campaigns against “blasphemous heresy”.)

That Hypatia met such a horrible death at the hands of Christians, was ironic in that her philosophy, more scholarly and scientific in its interest and less intransigently pagan and mystical than the Neoplatonism taught in other schools, was actually more consistent with that of Plato's independent student, Aristotle, than with that of the Neoplatonists who predominated the Athenian school at that time. However, at a time when it was unusual for women to receive formal education, Hypatia was firmly convinced of the importance of education. In direct contradiction of the the Roman Empire's official Christian Doctrines, she advocated the education of all children, girls as well as boys, and admonished that, “Fables should be taught as fables, myths as myths, and miracles as poetic fancies. To teach superstitions as truth is a most terrible thing. The mind of a child accepts them, and only through great pain, perhaps even tragedy, can the child be relieved of them.” Furthermore, she was reputed to be an unusually beautiful woman who dressed as as a teacher and engaged openly in philosophic discourse and debate in places normally not frequented by women. She urged others to think freely and to speak openly on matters which were supposed to be restricted to the realm of blind faith: “Reserve your right to think, for even to think wrongly is better than not to think at all.” “To rule by fettering the mind through fear of punishment in another world is just as base as to use force.” “Men will fight for superstition as quickly as for the living truth – even more so, since superstition is intangible, you can't get at it to refute it, but truth is a point of view, and so is changeable.” Such admonitions must have angered the priests and politicians who incensed the angry mob to bring both the woman and her written works (except for a few titles and some references to them) to similar fates. Her works are said to have included:



J. J. O'Connor and E. F. Robertson: Hypatia of Alexandria (html, at University of St Andrews, Scotland)

Hypatia (html, at Encyclopædia Britannica)

John, Bishop of Nikiu: The Life of Hypatia, from Chronicle 84.87-103 (html, at Alexendria 2)

Socrates Scholasticus: The Life of Hypatia, from Ecclesiastical History (html, at Alexendria 2)

Damascius: The Life of Hypatia, from The Suda (html, at at Alexendria 2), tr. Jeremiah Reedy

Michael A. B. Deakin: The Primary Sources for the Life and Work of Hypatia of Alexandria (html)

Mangasar Magurditch Mangasarian: The Martyrdom of Hypatia (Death of the Classical World) (html)

Books on Hypatia of Alexandria, a bibliography (html, at Howard A. Landman's site)

Hypatia of Alexandria (html, at Ockham's Razor, Radio National, Australian Broadcasting Corporation)

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