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Review - Hypatia of Alexandria, by Maria Dzielska

Maria Dzielska's research on Hypatia of Alexandria dispels romantic illusions about the philosopher.
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hypatia

Hypatia of Alexandria
by Maria Dzielska
Translated by F. Lyra
Harvard University Press
1995; 157 pages.

"Well, she [Hypatia] was speaking in the square to many people,
speaking about the present God and they were listening to her in silence,
in a stupor, both followers and adversaries.
But a fanatic horde interrupted,
hands and hands came down upon her,
they tore her clothes and her flesh,
they pushed her into the church of Christ,
and there they finished her. There she died on the floor of the temple."
p. 14

Like many figures from antiquity, biographical details about Hypatia are tainted by partisan legend and speculation. In Hypatia of Alexandria, Maria Dzielska attempts to unravel layers of propaganda to reveal a core of verified or plausible truths.

Described as "the spirit of Plato and the body of Aphrodite," Hypatia was turned into a martyr immortalized when local monks stripped her alluring body and tore it to shreds. She was the last significant mathematician until the late Middle Ages. Her death marked the end of the freedom of inquiry. Hypatia stood as the leader of pagans against an oppressive Christian tyranny. She was a mathematical, astronomical, and philosophical scholar because she trained in Athens. These are some of the myths perpetrated by the likes of heavyweights, Edward Gibbon and Voltaire, who looked at events through anti-Christian prisms, and whose accounts Dzielska counters.

Biographical evidence about Hypatia of Alexandria is sparse. Most important is her contemporary, Socrates Scholasticus (c. 379-450) who devoted a chapter to her biography. Less reliable are a few sentences by another contempoary, the Arian Philostorgius of Cappadocia (born c. 368). Later, John Malatas (491-578) wrote two important sentences; Hesychius of Miletus (6th C.) wrote a biography, and chronicler John of Nikiu wrote unfavorably in the seventh century. The next major source is the tenth century Byzantine Suda.

These sources alone are inadequate for a thorough account of Hypatia's life. Fortunately, she had literate disciples, one of whom, Synesius of Cyrene, maintained correspondence with Hypatia throughout his life. Maria Dzielska was studying Bishop Synesius' writing when she became interested in Hypatia.

Among the more significant corrections Dzielska makes to the Hypatia legend is the idea that Hypatia was not "a body of Aphrodite" when she was killed. She was no longer a tantalyzing beauty when the Parabolans (not monks, but a sort of military arm of the Alexandrian patriarch whom Dzielsjka says spread lies about the philosopher's sorcery) slew her. Instead, Hypatia was about sixty years old.

A second imporant point Dzielska makes is that Hypatia did not so much stand for paganism at odds with a new Christian tyranny, but as a supporter of one Christian political faction against another. The local prefect, Orestes, whom Hypatia supported, resisted incursions into his civil sphere by the new (religious) patriarch, Cyril. Dzielska goes further to say that Hypatia barely stood up for the pagan religion. Instead, unconcerned with the religious aspect, she offered her support to various Christian students.

Hypatia of Alexandria contains four chapters and an appendix. Dzielska reviews the relatively familiar literary tradition first. In the second chapter, she describes Hypatia's circle of followers, the mysteries she taught, and the limited public nature of her teaching. The third chapter pinpoints what can be reasonably ascertained about Hypatia's birth and murder. The conclusion summarizes the differences between Dzielska's research and the common myth. An appendix provides her sources.

Hypatia of Alexandria

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