September 17, 2013


Neoplatonist philosopher who was the first notable woman in mathematics.

The daughter of Theon, also a mathematician and philosopher, she became the recognized head of the Neoplatonist school of philosophy at Alexandria and her eloquence, rare modesty, and beauty, combined with her remarkable intellectual gifts, attracted a large number of pupils. Among them was Synesius of Cyrene, afterward bishop of Ptolemais (c. 410), several of whose letters to her are still extant.

Hypatia symbolized learning and science, which at that time in Western history was largely identified by the early Christians with paganism. As such, she was a focal point in the tension and riots between Christians and non-Christians that more than once racked Alexandria.

Shortly after the accession of Cyril to the patriarchate of Alexandria in 412, Hypatia was barbarously murdered by the Nitrian monks and a fanatical mob of Cyril´s Christian followers, supposedly because of her intimacy with Orestes, the city´s pagan prefect. Whatever the precise motivation for the murder, the departure soon afterward of many scholars marked the beginning of the decline of Alexandria as a major centre of ancient learning.

According to the Suda lexicon, Hypatia wrote commentaries on the Arithmetica of Diophantus of Alexandria, on the Conics of Apollonius of Perga and on the astronomical canon of Ptolemy. These works are lost but their titles combined with the letters of Synesius who consulted her about the construction of an astrolabe and a hydroscope, indicate that she devoted herself particularly to astronomy and mathematics. The existence of any strictly philosophical works in unknown. Her philosophy was more scholarly and scientific in its interest and less mystical and intransigently pagan than the Athenian school and was the embodiment of Alexandrian Neoplatonism.

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