A beautifully told story with colorful characters out of epic tradition, a tight and complex plot, and solid pacing. -- Booklist, starred review of On the Razor's Edge

Great writing, vivid scenarios, and thoughtful commentary ... the stories will linger after the last page is turned. -- Publisher's Weekly, on Captive Dreams

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

The Mean Streets of Old Alexandria - Redux

By sundry means was TOF made aware of this article on Hypatia of Alexandria posted on something called RationalWiki [sic]. As with all things internettingly wiki, the sourcing is rather scattergun with a marked preference for tertiary sources.  Back on The Auld Blogge there was a multi-part series on the life and context of Hypatia, beginning here.
[sic] rational ∩ wiki = Ø by the nature of wikish procedure.  The results of desultory serial committee overrulings is not prima facie "rational." At best, it may be group-think.  

But let us see what counts for reference among the rationals.

Hypatia of Alexandria (died A.D. 415) was a mathematician, inventor, and neo-Platonist philosopher of the late 4th and early 5th centuries. The first known female mathematician, she was skinned to death with tiles by a Christian mob in the midst of a dispute between the Roman governor Orestes and the Christian Patriarch Cyril (who was later known as a Church Father, St. Cyril of Alexandria). 
  1. ...inventor... Not that we know of, although she is credited by modern pop-historians with two; more later below. 
  2. the midst of a dispute...  Amazingly, the wiki ascribes the murder to a dispute between the prefect and the bishop rather than to science-hating mysogyny among the science-hating mysogynist Christians.  The writer does not distinguish between "a Christian mob" and "a mob of Christians."  Hence, by parallel, the many lynchings of black men in the American South by "Democratic mobs" rather than by "mobs of Democrats." TOF supposes that we are to draw conclusions about Christians or Democrats as such from such adjectivalizing. 
  3.  ...skinned to death...  The primary source (Socrates Scholasticus) states: "...stripped her, and then murdered her with tiles.  After tearing her body in pieces..."  It makes no mention of skinning.  The usual use of roofing tiles (known colloquially as "oyster shells") would have been to bludgeon her to death, a form of stoning.  Socrates does not say how her body was torn to pieces.  The usual practice in Alexandria was to be dragged behind a chariot, as was done to other victims of other mobs both before and after.  
At the time of her death she was a lonely remnant of a philosophical school that had been heavily persecuted for over 25 years; her death is listed among the events that ended antiquity and began the Dark Ages. 
  1. ...a lonely remnant...  No she wasn't.  Scholarship at Alexandria continued right up to the the muslim conquest.  There were a number of illustrious philosophers in town and in the Eastern Empire generally, including woman philosophers.  Aedesia, a pagan woman, taught in Alexandria in the generation after Hypatia, for example. And Hypatia's Neoplatonism, far from being a lonely remnant, flourished in Late Antiquity and Early Medieval times.  Augustine of Hippo, for example, was fluent in it. 
  2. ...heavily persecuted...  There had been no such persecutions of any philosophical school, certainly not of Neoplatonism, which bore so much resemblance to Christian philosophy - even including a Triune God!  However, some fifty years earlier, when Hypatia had been a little girl, the Emperor Julian had instituted a sharp persecution of Christians - Orthodox, Arian, and Novatian alike. There was some trouble at the street level with pagan culti, but superstitious cults hardly had anything to do with either rationality or Neoplatonism. 
  3. ...ended antiquity...  Rationalists need a better grasp of historical processes.  Antiquity does not end on a dime.  Peter Brown's The World of Late Antiquity is a good account of the gradual shading over of the ancient world-view into the medieval/byzantine/muslim world-views. 
  4. ...began the Dark Ages.  The rationalists do not explain how the murder of a math teacher in Alexandria led to the collapse of civil administration and town life in Gaul, Britain, Spain, and North Africa. 
  5. listed among...  Nice dodge.  Rationalists can always claim that this is a factual statement so long as it "is listed" somewhere by someone.  Of course, rationalism once meant "giving a reason" (ratio).  But that was before rationalists gave up on reasoning. 
She was best known as a teacher, eventually becoming the head of the Alexandrian neo-Platonic school.
  1. ...the Alexandrian neo-Platonic school.  There was no "the" Alexandrian neo-Platonic school.  Each philosopher held forth to his or her own school.  (Think "school of fish," i.e., following.)  
  2. ...eventually becoming...  This makes it sound like the school was an institution existing apart from Hypatia and she was eventually promoted to principal.  This is a projection of modern categories of thought onto fifth century realities. 
 She was known for being very eloquent, very virtuous, and very beautiful, easily able to hold her own among men; 
  1. ...very beautiful...  We don't know that.  Her "beauty" is mentioned only by Damascius, writing a century or more later, and even that only as preserved in the sometimes unreliable 10th century Suda Lexicon, half a millennium later.  (If these were gospels they would be dismissed out of court on that basis alone.)   
  2. ...very virtuous...  If we define virtue as holding fast to one's virginity like a Christian nun.  The Neoplatonists regarded the material world as unworthy and sex as dirty.  Damascius however praises her "civic virtue" and Socrates Scholasticus mentions her "balance" (σωφροσύνη).  That is, she was self-possessed and controlled.  We would say she "kept her cool."  This was virtue to the Greeks. 
  3. ...easily able to hold her own among men...  What we know is that Socrates Scholasticus wrote "Neither did she feel abashed in coming to an assembly of men."  This need not mean she debated with them and "held her own," as if they were somehow attacking or resisting her.  In the new post-pagan world women, pagan as well as Christian, were more prominent in the public square. 
the Turkish-American rationalist minister M. M. Mangasarian described her thusly: "It appears that her beauty, which would have made even a Cleopatra jealous, was as great as her modesty, and both were matched by her eloquence, and all three surpassed by her learning."
  1. ...would have made Cleopatra jealous...  You will notice how embellishment can add to the basic facts known through primary sources.  Would have made Cleopatra jealous?  Really?   We have no attestation whatever on her modesty, indeed Damascius would seem to assert the opposite and Socrates tells us that she appeared in public in the presence of the magistrates.
  2. Turkish-American...  He was actually Armenian.  But what makes him an appealed-to authority in this matter?  He was apparently the original Jesus-myther, which makes him kind of fringey.  
It is not known whether she was present when the Serapeum, Alexandria's center of learning at that time and the last known location of remnants of the Great Library of Alexandria, was destroyed as the result of a street battle between Christians and pagans about the time that pagan rites were outlawed through the Roman Empire in A.D. 391. 
  1. It is not known...  Then why bring it up?  Apparently non-facts can also be cited among rationalists.  What we do know is that despite being by all accounts a philosophical Bigfoot in Alexandria, her name is not mentioned among those philosophers, rhetors, and grammarians involved in the riot.   (Two of the leaders became tutors to Socrates Scholasticus, which means ol' SS would known had she been involved.)     
  2. ...the Serapeum, Alexandria's center of learning at that time...  It is unclear how the legend got started that the Serapeum was a "center of learning."  It was common enough for both temples and cathedrals to possess large book collections, but your town library is not ipso facto a "center of learning."  The legend probably owes to Ammianus Marcelinus, who confused the Serapeum with the Bruchion:
    There are besides in the city temples pompous with lofty roofs, conspicuous among them the Serapeum, which, though feeble words merely belittle it, yet is so adorned with extensive columned halls, with almost breathing statues, and a great number of other works of art, that next to the Capitolium, with which revered Rome elevates herself to eternity, the whole world beholds nothing more magnificent. In this were invaluable libraries, and the unanimous testimony of ancient records declares that 700,000 books, brought together by the unremitting energy of the Ptolemaïc kings, were burned in the Alexandrine war, when the city was sacked under the dictator Caesar. 

    Starting after "In this were...", Marcelinus is writing of the Bruchion, the Royal Library, which he believes perished in the time of J. Caesar.  Hence, he wrote
    "fuerunt," the pluperfect tense: not just "in this were" but "in this were once upon a time."  The 700,000 books [scrolls] would require an extraordinarily large building to hold them, one that Strabo apparently overlooked in his Geographica.
  3. ...was destroyed as the result of a street battle between Christians and pagans...  "As the result of..." is a clever rhetorical trick.  It makes it sound like a frenzied mob swarmed the Serapeum and wrecked it.  In fact, it was demolished by imperial decree as part of an amnesty deal for the pagan rioters who had holed up there and sacrificed their Christian prisoners on the altars.  The Serapeum on the acropolis was a traditional refuge for Alexandrian rioters of every stripe, difficult for even the military to attack.  So "as a result of" the rioting is technically correct, but misleading. 
  4. Aside: Modern archeology tells us that only the cultic center was demolished.  The colonnade, where any books would have been kept, was not touched.  However, the demolition of the Serapeum is one of the best attested events in Late Antiquity, and not a single account, Christian or pagan, mentions any books at the Serapeum.  
  5. ...about the time that pagan rites were outlawed through the Roman Empire in A.D. 391.  Pagan rites were not suspended until much later than these events.  However, paganism did not teach separation of church and state. Hence, all the temples were in the public domain and their priests were state employees.  At some point, when the empire became overwhelmingly Christian, the government re-purposed its temples and let the priests go.  

The most contemporary record of her death is the Historia Ecclesiastica, written by the church historian Socrates Scholasticus about 25 years after the fact.
  1. An actual true fact!  Socrates was either a Novatian or sympathetic to them, and hence somewhat hostile to Cyril and the Orthodox party.  There was a second contemporary account, now lost, by the Arian Philostorgius, the gist of which survives in an epitome written centuries later by the Patriarch Photius. All other accounts date from a century or more later. 

This chronicle relates that around the time of Hypatia's death, the patriarch Cyril drummed up a large mob, which then proceeded to run Alexandria's Jews out of the city. 
  1. ...around the time of...  Actually, shortly before and a direct lead-up to the lynching. 
  2. ...drummed up a large mob...  This makes it sound like Cyril called up the vigilantes for no particular reason other than to drive out the hated Jews.  But in this case, the Jews had the night before ambushed and killed Christians by drumming up a false alarm that the local church was on fire.  Perhaps Cyril should have turned the other cheek, but the RationalWiki account does not give the whole story. 
Referring to the murder of Hypatia, the article states:
Of this heinous act of torture and murder, the journal Free Inquiry commented: "Christian leaders... chopped up her body and burned her limbs, torso, and her very recently detached cranium, flowing with lush locks, plopping all onto their pious bonfire—all this to make sure, I suppose, that not only was she merely dead but really most sincerely dead."
  1. ...the journal Free Inquiry commented...  Why should we care what this "journal" commented?  What scholastic weight does it carry? In fact, the wiki carries links to only two genuine sources:
    • Socrates near-contemporary accout and 
    • John of Nikiu's version from two centuries later, after the muslim conquest.  
    Other reference are to 
    • the old Catholic Encyclopedia article on Cyril, 
    three tendentious amateur works: 
    • the speech by Mangasarian, 
    • the Free Inquiry piece, and 
    • a website misnamed Historical Hypatia which is, if possible, even more badly informed. 
    Finally, there are two books cited: 
    • one on Alexandria itself which is ambiguously referenced
    • and a book by a journalist about physics and the gender wars that provides an erroneous opening quote to the wiki article.   
    There are no references to any of the actual scholarship on the subject by like, you know, historians.  Not even to Gibbon!  TOF has noticed this before on such screeds. 
  2. ...recently detached cranium... lush locks...  Again, this is pious embellishment by a non-academic source, curiously akin to those embellishments added to hagiographies of the saints.  
  3. ...pious bonfire...  not only was she merely dead but really most sincerely dead.  What does "Free" Inquiry suppose was done with dead bodies in the sultry climate of Alexandria?  Here is the account of the pagan mob that killed the Arian bishop George shortly after hearing that Julian had become emperor: 
    The populace, transported by this unlooked-for joy, grinding their teeth and uttering fearful outcries, made for Georgius and seized him, maltreating him in divers ways and trampling upon him; then they dragged him about spread-eagle fashion, and killed him. ...[and two others]... Not content with this, the inhuman mob loaded the mutilated bodies of the slain men upon camels and carried them to the shore; there they burned them on a fire and threw the ashes into the sea, fearing (as they shouted) that their relics might be collected and a church built for them, as for others who, when urged to abandon their religion, endured terrible tortures, even going so far as to meet a glorious death with unsullied faith; whence they are now called martyrs.  
    Ammianus Marcelinus, who wrote that account no more approved of mob violence by his fellow-pagans than Socrates Scholasticus did of his fellow-Christians.  But that sort of overkill was typical of Alexandrian mobs, even back when it was pagan-on-pagan.   In either case, there was nothing 'pious' about the fire. 
Hypatia also engaged in astronomical work herself, producing charts of the stars and either independently re-inventing or vastly improving the astrolabe. 
  1. It would be interesting to learn where RationalWiki gets this "fact."  Like so many such facts, it seems to be floating in the air.  Astrolabes had been well-known for a long time, and needed no re-inventing.  Where is the evidence that she "vastly improved" it? Citations? 

She was also the inventor of the hydrometer, a device for measuring the density of fluids based on Archimedes' principle. One of her pupils, Synesius, the bishop of Ptolemais (in modern Libya), commissioned an hydrometer from her at some point in the early fifth century.  
  1. Synesius wrotes to Hypatia (Letter 15),I am in such evil fortune that I need a hydroscope. See that one is cast in brass for me and put together.”  He then instructs her on what a hydroscope is and how to build one.  Most peculiar, if she invented it.  Synesius needed one not to study buoyancy, but because he was "in evil fortune."  According to Hypatia of Alexandria (Maria Dzielska), hydroscopes were used for water divination (hydromancy) by Hephaestion of Thebes (who evidently decided not to wait for Hypatia to invent it.)  

soon enough figures within the Church were trying to whitewash the behavior of their own people.  John of Nikiu, a Coptic Orthodox bishop living two centuries later, wrote approvingly of the murder, stating that Hypatia was an evil witch, guilty of such satanic wiles as using astrolabes and playing music, and that the reader Peter was "a perfect believer in all respects in Jesus Christ."
  1. ...soon enough....  Two centuries later is 'soon'?  
  2. ...whitewash...  Socrates says  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.
  3. ...figures within the Church...  Figure.  John of Nikiu.  Any others?  Within which church?  John was a fierce anti-Chalcedonian and therefore, from an Orthodox and Roman perspective actually outside the church.  He repeatedly refers to Orthodox Christians as "unbelievers" and holds the muslim conquest as God's punishment for the Chalcedonian "heresy." 
  4. ...such satanic wiles as ...playing music...  Evidently meant to be sarcastic.  Hypatia and her followers used music to induce sacred trances in order to contact the Divine.  Interestingly, John is also the only source that overtly calls Hypatia a "pagan."  Is this simply what happens to a story after 200 years?  John was born in the generation after the muslim sack of Alexandria in 642 and might have been feeling a bit peckish about the families forced to sell their children into slavery to pay the dhimmi tax and therefore likely to take a dim view of anyone seen as opposing the Coptic Church.  

There is some speculation that another few centuries on, the story was ripped off to be used in the hagiography of St. Catherine of Alexandria...  This hagiography, in true psychologically projective form, relates the tale of a highly virtuous Christian female philosopher/scientist who is murdered by pagans when she objects to their practice of their rites. The Catholic Church now recognizes that this hagiography is dodgy and has removed St. Catherine of Alexandria from the general calendar. 
  1. ...some speculation...  Of course, this makes the statement [meta]factual.  It is a fact that "some speculation" exists, since the statement itself is such a speculation.  What is not established as fact is the speculation itself.  There is no similarity at all between the Catherine story and the Hypatia story save that both feature a learned woman disputing in public.  RationalWiki evidently has a hard time believing that there could have been more than one such woman, when history actually serves up several -- Gemina, Amphiclea, Marcella, Sosipatra of Pergamon, the renowned Aedesia, St. Theodora, St. Eugenia, and St. Maria the Egyptian are examples.  However, it is a common [ir]rational practice to pretend that superficial similarities amount to a substantive equivalence.
  2. ...a highly virtuous Christian female philosopher/scientist...  Except, Catherine is not presented as a scientist but simply as learned in Greek literature and foreign languages.  Here is the oldest vita, the 9th century Menologium Basilianum, compiled for Emperor Basil II:
    The martyr Aikaterina was the daughter of a rich and noble prince of Alexandria. She was very beautiful, and being at the same time highly talented, she devoted herself to Greek literature as well as to the study of the languages of all nations, and so she became wise and learned.  And it happened that the Greeks held a festival in honor of their idols; and seeing the slaughter of animals, she was so greatly moved that she went to the King Maximinus and expostulated with him in these words: 'Why hast thou left the living God to worship lifeless idols?' But the Emperor caused her to be thrown into prison, and to be punished severely.  He then ordered fifty orators to be brought, and bade them to reason with Aikaterina, and confute her, threatening to burn them all if they should fail to overpower her.  The orators, however, when they saw themselves vanquished, received baptism, and were burnt forthwith, while she was beheaded. 
    Notice that there is nothing mystical in this account.  The spiked wheel miracles were later accretions.    
  3. ...objects to their practice of their rites...  Specifically, she was saddened by the slaughter of animals.  We are sure there are secular moderns who would also find this also objectionable. 
  4. The Catholic Church now recognizes that this hagiography is dodgy and has removed St. Catherine of Alexandria from the general calendar.  As usual, fundamentalists fail to recognize the existence of the Orthodox Church, which did not.  Their bete noir is the Roman Catholic Church.  Of course, a great deal of what was known in the 9th century might be lost by the 20th.  It's not like lots of records survive from any of the polities of the time.  However, the RCC removed Catherine from the universal calendar, not from the martyrology.  She is still honored in local rites, just not universally.  The same is true of St. Patrick of Ireland and any number of others. 
More recently, there have been some distortions from the other side, also trying to portray her death as something other than a philosopher caught in the crossfire of political bickering.
  1. This is an interesting paragraph.  Someone on RationalWiki has noticed that the only near-contemporary account makes no mention of any motive other than the political quarrel, and that mysogyny, anti-science, and anti-classical attitudes are anachronistic projections of 20th, 19th, and 18th century concerns, resp., onto the 5th century.  Points to the wiki for this one.  
  2. The point was made by Maria Dzielkas in her Hypatia of Alexandria, a book not referenced by the wiki.  
Ironically, Hypatia, the sharp-minded rational philosopher and scientist, has become an object of veneration for certain New Age woo-peddlers. 
  1. Ironically, the woo-peddlers may be closer to the mark than the rationalists.  Neoplatonists -- and Hypatia is specifically mentioned as a follower of Plotinus' school -- regarded mathematics as a way of getting closer to the workings of the Divine Mind.  Music and astronomy were two specialized branches of mathematics.  Astronomy was not the study of the heavens as physical objects but simply the math that was used for casting horoscopes and (more pragmatically) preparing calendars.  Hypatia's teachings were occult, that is, secret.  Her students were not supposed to talk about them with outsiders.  This led Synesius to chastise one of his friends for blabbing (Letter 143). 
  2. Neoplatonism was rational inquiry in the sense that logic and reason were employed.   By the same token, so was the theology of Thomas Aquinas and others.  Plotinus, for example, had a rational proof that the Godhead consisted of three persons (hypostases).  As succeeding to the school of Plotinus, Hypatia would have taught the same, making her school attractive to Christians. 

The Sources (with notes)

0. Letters of Synesius can be found heree.g. #15 "On a hydrometer."
1. Socrates Scholasticus (380-???), Ecclesiastical History, Book VII, ch. 15
He was either a Novatian or sympathetic to them, and so somewhat hostile to Cyril.  This account was no later than than 20 or so years after the fact. 
There was a woman at Alexandria named 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. Having succeeded to the school of Plato and Plotinus, she explained the principles of philosophy to her auditors, many of whom came from a distance to receive her instructions. On account of the self-possession and ease of manner, which she had acquired in consequence of the cultivation of her mind, she not infrequently appeared in public in presence of the magistrates. Neither did she feel abashed in coming to an assembly of men. 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 Cæsareum, 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. This happened in the month of March during Lent, in the fourth year of Cyril's episcopate, under the tenth consulate of Honorius, and the sixth of Theodosius. 
  1. ...a reader named Peter...  Byzantine readers were not clerics.  
  2. ...the church called Cæsareum...  A former pagan temple to the Divine Julius.  It was near the harbor. 
  3. ...murdered her with tiles...  lit. "oyster shells."  The half-pipe roofing tiles were called oyster shells, presumably because the corrugated appearance of the roofs resembled that of oyster shells.  This bit of slang has led some to suppose she was killed by being flayed with actual oyster shells - a hazard of naive literalism. 
  4. ...a place called Cinaron, and there burnt them...  Location unknown, but presumably near the harbor, as in the case of Bishop George, whose ashes were scattered in the sea.  In George's case it was to forestall the use of his body for relics over which to build a church.  Our friend Fabio has suggested that Hypatia was likewise Christian, so this may have been for the same purpose.  However, the consensus scholarship is that she was a pagan and the burning was simply what one did to dead bodies in the Egyptian climate. 
  5. ...tenth consulate of Honorius, and the sixth of Theodosius.   Honorius was the Western Emperor and Theodosius the Younger was Eastern Emperor.  Honorius and Arcadius (Theodosius' father) were the sons of the last united Roman emperor.  

2. Philostorgius (368 – ca. 439) Ecclesiastical History of Philostorgius.  Philostorgius was an anomoean Arian, hostile to homoousian Trinitarians like Cyril.  He was contemporary with Socrates Scholasticus.  His book was lost but an epitome was made by Patriarch Photius of Constantinople in the 9th cent.  An epitome was a sort of chapter summary outline.  Photius was Orthodox and so hostile to Philostorgius.  
CHAP. 9.--Philostorgius says, that Hypatia, the daughter of Theon, was so well educated in mathematics by her father, that she far surpassed her teacher, and especially in astronomy, and taught many others the mathematical sciences. The impious writer asserts that, during the reign of Theodosius the younger, she was torn in pieces by the Homoousian party
The Homoousian party would be the Orthodox (i.e., non-Arian) party.  Photius evidently does not credit this.  

BTW, if we apply the same criterion to Philostorgius as was applied to Catherine of Alexandria, we would have to find him "dodgy" as well, since the surviving version of his account is, like the vita of Catherine, from the 9th century, well after the alleged time of composition.  

3. Damascius (458 - 538) Life of Isidore, copied into the 10th century Suda Lexicon Damascius was a pagan philosopher from Syria who had studied in Alexandria some two generations after Hypatia.  

Regarding Hypatia the Philosopher and the Sedition of the Alexandrians
Hypatia was born, reared, and educated in Alexandria. Since she had greater genius than her father, she was not satisfied with his instruction in mathematical subjects; she also devoted herself diligently to all of philosophy.

The woman used to put on her philosopher's cloak and walk through the middle of town and publicly interpret Plato, Aristotle, or the works of any other philosopher to those who wished to hear her. In addition to her expertise in teaching she rose to the pinnacle of civic virtue. She was both just and chaste and remained always a virgin. She was so beautiful and shapely that one of her students fell in love with her and was unable to control himself and openly showed her a sign of his infatuation. Uninformed reports had Hypatia curing him of his affliction with the help of music. The truth is that the story about music is corrupt. Actually, she gathered rags that had been stained during her period and showed them to him as a sign of her unclean descent and said, "This is what you love, young man, and it isn't beautiful!" He was so affected by shame and amazement at the ugly sight that he experienced a change of heart and went away a better man.

Such was Hypatia, as articulate and eloquent in speaking as she was prudent and civil in her deeds. The whole city rightly loved her and worshipped her in a remarkable way, but the rulers of the city from the first envied her, something that often happened at Athens too. For even if philosophy itself had perished, nevertheless, its name still seems magnificent and venerable to the men who exercise leadership in the state. Thus it happened one day that Cyril, bishop of the opposition sect was passing by Hypatia's house, and he saw a great crowd of people and horses in front of her door. Some were arriving, some departing, and others standing around. When he asked why there was a crowd there and what all the fuss was about, he was told by her followers that it was the house of Hypatia the philosopher and she was about to greet them. When Cyril learned this he was so struck with envy that he immediately began plotting her murder and the most heinous form of murder at that. For when Hypatia emerged from her house, in her accustomed manner, a throng of merciless and ferocious men who feared neither divine punishment nor human revenge attacked and cut her down, thus committing an outrageous and disgraceful deed against their fatherland. The Emperor was angry, and he would have avenged her had not Aedesius been bribed. Thus the Emperor remitted the punishment onto his own head and family for his descendant paid the price. The memory of these events is still vivid among the Alexandrians.
  1. ...walk through the middle of town etc.  Damascius seems to portray Hypatia as a Cynic philosopher, something like a Hyde Park Soapbox speechifier, yacking philosophy in the marketplace.  More charitably, it may be a mash-up of two different sentences.  Socrates said that she held public seminars, a different kettle of fish. Damascius followed the Neoplatonism of Iamblychus, a rival schooling to that of Plotinus. 
  2. a sign of her unclean descent...  Damascius the pagan apparently thought women were dirty. 
  3. ...the rulers of the city from the first envied her...  As against the contemporary account in which "all men on account of her extraordinary dignity and virtue admired her the more."  But Damascius is determined to bad-mouth Cyril
  4. ...something that often happened at Athens too...  An editorial comment by Damascius.  He had taught at Athens, which Hypatia's pupil had characterized as being famous now only for her beekeepers.  The emperor had closed Damascius' school, which is to say, he cut off imperial funding.  Damascius went to Persia with his friends and found the shah's court even more dreary.  Returning to Athens, he set up another school (which indicates that the emperor had no objection to such schools on principle.) 
  5. ...the opposition sect...  There were two Christian parties in conflict.  One was led by the prefect Orestes while the opposition was led by Cyril.  Think of them as Republicans [Orestes, high-class, Upper City, powerful] and Democrats [Cyril, demos, Lower City, powerless].  But since Hypatia had been a Bigfoot even before Cyril's election, Cyril could not have been unfamiliar with her as the account portrays him.  
  6. struck with envy that he immediately began plotting her murder...  Envy because she had a lot of clients at her morning meeting?  This seems a small matter over which to predicate murder.  (Damascius is the only source that points the bony finger at Cyril.  Socrates blamed him for not keeping better control of the situation and letting things get out of hand.)  More likely, in the power struggle with Orestes, Cyril saw himself losing because Hypatia had a lot of high-placed friends among her circle and former pupils.  So we might easily suppose that he started the rumor that she was the one who stood in the way of reconciliation between the prefect and himself.
  7. Note that the account of the death differs.  Socrates said she was returning home and was pulled from her chariot; Damascius says she was at home and about to leave.  If these were gospels, they would be hopelessly compromised by this contradiction and we would question the existence of the historical Hypatia. 
4. John Malalas (c. 491 – 578) Chronographia
Except for the history of Justinian and his immediate predecessors, the Chronographica, a pop history for the masses, is "a curious farrago of fact and fancy" and "possesses little historical value."  John was a Syriac Monophysite relying on Nestorian sources.  The work was reconstructed from multiple successor translations into Slavonic and then in to Georgian and a single surviving epitome. 
At that time the Alexandrians, given free rein by their bishop, seized and burnt on a pyre of brushwood Hypatia the famous philosopher, who had a great reputation and who was an old woman. 
The stoning with roofing tiles and dismemberment [by dragging?] has been collapsed into the cremation of her body, making it sound as if she had been burned to death.  The interesting tidbit is that Hypatia was an old woman, which accords with Synesius, his letters, and the life of Theon her father.  Otherwise, all information on Hypatia has vanished from the account.  On the preceding section, John told us confidently that Atilla was a Gepid and was defeated by the Romans and Goths in a battle on the Danube, in which Atilla was killed.  So we see he was not strong on details. 

5. TOF will pass over the account of John of Nikiu, which calls Hypatia a pagan and a witch and treats her murder as a positive accomplishment.  It is 200 years after the fact and relies on John Malalas Chronographia (6th cent.) and a second, now lost work.   

This 10th cent. entry in the Suda may be a mash-up of the 6th century Onomatologus of Hesychius of Miletus with Damascius.    
HYPATIA, daughter of Theon the geometer and philosopher of Alexandria, was herself a well-known philosopher. She was the wife of the philosopher Isidorus [sic], and she flourished under the Emperor Arcadius [sic]. Author of a commentary on Diophantus, she also wrote a work called The Astronomical Canon  and a commentary on The Conics of Apollonius. She was torn apart by the Alexandrians and her body was mocked and scattered through the whole city. This happened because of envy and her outstanding wisdom especially regarding astronomy. Some say Cyril was responsible for this outrage; others blame the Alexandrians' innate ferocity and violent tendencies for they dealt with many of their bishops in the same manner, for example George and Proterius.
  1. ...wife of Isidore...  This is wrong.  Isidore was Damascius' teacher and was born long after Hypatia's murder.
  2. ...flourished under Arcadius...  This was the emperor before Theodosius the Younger.  If true, it means Hypatia was really old when she was murdered.  
  3. ...because of envy...  The Suda is relying on Damascius here.  
  4. ...because of...her wisdom regarding astronomy...  This is half a millennium after the fact and is the first such suggestion.  But keep in mind that astronomy was the math used for casting horoscopes and this occult superstition may have informed the resentment.TOF does not know the original Greek word that has been translated here as "astronomy." 


  1. For some reason, I thought I had posted about Hypatia of Alexandria, but I can't find it. I will probably have to write a post, if I can find the time, for while I agree with you on a number of things, I disagree with others; and I think Hypatia was Christian.

    1. That Hypatia was a Christian is transgressive and subversive. Therefore TOF finds it attractive. However, a thing is not true because TOF would find it amusing.

      Yet, John of Nikiu, a monophysite writing 200 years after the fact, is the only source to call her a pagan. Even Damascius, himself a pagan, is silent on this and calls Cyril the leader of "the other party." Many interpret this 'other party' to be 'the Christians,' but the two parties roiling Alexandria at the time were the parties of Orestes and of Cyril, both Christian. (That Hypatia taught Neoplatonism does not signify, since Bishop Augustine of Hippo thought highly of it and he is rumored to be a staunch Catholic. And, again, those students of Hypatia of whom we know anything are mostly Christian.)

  2. Your final point is exactly it. You only have to read Damascius or Marinus of Samaria to realize that the distinction between Christian and pagan in late antiquity was vigorous and clear. A pagan philosopher most of whose known disciples were Christian might have struck people as somewhat ineffective - and that was the last thing Hypatia was. There is also the fact that her prize student, who addressed her as "The Philosopher", was the Christian Synesius. Incidentally, it is interesting that she was the one person he did not write to - even though he not only admired her but knew her to be influential - when he was trying to avoid the unwelcome distinction of being made Bishop. I suspect that is because he knew she would have told him to knock off the excuse and go do his duty.

  3. One minor annoyance - minor beside seeing the truth treated so shabbily - is that the true story of Hypatia as it is known is so much more interesting than the fantasy, and understanding it at all is so enlightening.

    Chewing over the reality of ancient politics - I believe you once said something like that by modern standards the ancients would be considered psychopaths for their ready resort to murder - gives one healthy pause. Some things have changed for the better - our representatives rarely murder each other in the Senate these days, for example - but others have stayed very much the same. Perhaps history is out of favor these days because, other than the story of technology, it doesn't really conform to the Progressive ideal.

  4. "Some things have changed for the better - our representatives rarely murder each other in the Senate these days, for example..."

    U mad? I would love to see those dregs killing each other in front of the cameras.

  5. The folks who call themselves "rationalists" have infested the cryptid areas, too.

    I thought it would be pretty cool-- I enjoy cryptozoology but some of the stuff is questionable biology-- until I found out that it just meant they yell about "creationists" a lot and that was the extent of their debunking....

  6. Thanks for this one. I've often been curious about Hypatia. I love the suggestion that she was a Christian, although it, alas, seems implausible. Also glad to learn about the oyster shells. I had wondered how they'd cut her up with them. The bit I liked best was the quote from Marcelinus about the burning of the Royal Library. Sprague de Camp has Theophilus finish off the books in the Serapeum, and then says a story has 'Amr burning the rest of the library at the order of the Caliph. Often wondered who actually destroyed the Library of Alexandria. Perhaps it was simply that the funding for the library was cut off, as you point out happened in Athens, and the resources weren't available to maintain copies of the books.

  7. The ancients credited Julius Caesar with the destruction, as he result of a fire that broke out during the Greco-Egyptian siege of the Romans during a intra-Ptolemaic civil war. But there is no unambiguous present tense mention of the Royal Library after the reign of Ptolemy Physkon. "The Sausage" had instigated a progrom against the Greek scholars, who had supported his rival is another dreary intra-Ptolemaic civil war, and it is possible that most of the books scattered with them. Plutarch mentions that Antony supposedly gifted Cleopatra with the confiscated contents of the Library of Pergamon, but goes on to dismiss this as a rumor circulated by Antony's enemies.

    Subsequently, there was a fire that consumed the entire palace district during Aurelian's unification war against Zenobia, and an earthquake-triggered tsunami that swept across the district. The Royal Library, located in the palace district, is hardly likely to have survived either or both of these events.

    Beside which, there were other well-endowed libraries. The Claudian, founded by Claudius imp., and another founded by a later emperor (Hadrian or Trajan, I think); not to mention the libraries in temples and (later) bishops' palaces.

    Gibbons exonerated the Caliph based on the passage in Ammianus Marcelinus using the perfect tense (without apparently noticing that it also exonerated Theophilus).


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