Hypatia of Alexandria

[370 - 415 A.D]

Barrie Blake-Coleman

Hypatia cannot with certainty be credited with being the first woman inventor or scientist, but she is the first to be cited as having contributed to science, mathematics and technology in antiquity.  In the absence of any alternative evidence therefore, she is the first woman inventor we are aware of.


Though Hypatia was strongly mathematical (the author of commentaries and critiques on works of arithmetic, geometry and astronomy) she is credited with helping in the invention of the astrolabe (Planisphere) for astronomical measurements, and for inventing the Hydrometer or Hydroscope.  She also appears to have developed instruments for air measurement.


Born sometime in the year 370 AD, Hypatia, daughter of Theon of Alexandria, was from an early age steeped in an intellectual atmosphere which pervaded the daily life of her father and his


circle of scholars and mathematicians. Alexandria, in the 4th century, A.D was a turmoil of religious, philosophical and political factions made all the more dangerous by the fierce internecine battles within groups and sects of like or similar ideology.  Overriding the strife caused by arguments on doctrine and creed within the schools of philosophy was the perpetual religious conflicts between Christian and pagan.  In this respect, Christian was as cruel as pagan and open warfare broke out periodically.  Hypatia's father, Theon, had embraced the Neoplatonic philosophy of the two Alexandrians Ammonius Saccas and his pupil Plotinus, who propounded a mystical doctrine which was extended by their followers Amelius and Porphyry to become a creed and culture.  Mixing realism, rationalism and the moral with heavy doses of popular myth and deism, the Neoplatonists sought to uproot what they perceived as false teachings.  They stood not against Christ or his teachings, but specifically against the Alexandrian Christians and their sacred books which Porphyry taught were the work of deceivers.

The Neoplatonists maintained that rationalism could simultaneously explain the material and mystical, and from this mathematics had a place in their philosophy.  In time, mathematics and mathematical analysis came to represent a way of revealing truth, and number symbolism became a focus for the mathematical fraternity within the Neoplatonic school.  Theon and Hypatia were suffused with the convoluted mentality of their school, yet for all this there remained a fundamental adherence to pragmatism, rationalism and reality in all that they did.  Hypatia appears to have taken to the intellectual rather than the mystical side of her fathers leanings, and for her eloquence in lecturing, her beauty, modesty and outstanding intellectual abilities she attracted many gifted students to her classroom.  One of note was Synesius [373 - 414 AD], a Christian, and later to become Bishop of Ptolemais.  She also won over Orestes, the pagan prefect of Alexandria, with whom, it is thought, she became sexually intimate.


When only twenty Hypatia witnessed the destruction of the great library at Alexandria.  The emperor Theodosius the first [346 - 395 AD] had openly embraced Christianity, a legacy from his parents beliefs, and had been baptised in 380.  The conversion of the emperor gave massive confidence to the Christians in the empire, and they took the offensive against heathen, Jew and Christian unorthodoxy in general.

An edict from the emperor, for the destruction of the great image of Serapis at Alexandria and for the overthrow of heathen temples and unorthodoxy throughout the empire was seized by Theophilis, Archbishop of Alexandria.  He saw the edict as imperial approval to wreak destruction on the heretics and unbelievers of the city.  Theophilus was said by Gibbon to be the "perpetual enemy of peace and virtue, a bold bad man whose hands were alternately polluted with gold and blood".  He launched a vendetta against pagan culture and was no less cruel to his fellow Christians.  "Do not examine, just believe" was the doctrine.


 Learning not sanctioned by his church was heretical, and science was of no account.  The street mob was incited to riot by Theophilus' agents.  Not only were pagan and unorthodox Christian shrines and temples attacked but so too the libraries and repositories containing what was supposed, 'literature of heretical reasoning'.


The massive library of Alexandria was ordered destroyed by Theophilus in 390, an act which partially wiped out the work of decades.  Started by the Egyptian ruler Ptolemy Solar, the library was extended, stocked and organised by Ptolemy Philadelphus.  By Hypatia's time the library comprised two main sites, the Serapeum [wherein stood the statue of Serapis] and the Brucheum, which according to Tzetzes [after the librarians Collimachus and Eratosthanes] contained 42,800 scrolls and 490,000 tablets.  However Aulus Gellius gives 700,000 total and Seneca quotes 400,000.

A claim that some of this material was destroyed when Caesar burnt his ships in the harbour at Alexandria appears apocryphal.  In any case, what Caesar failed to do Theophilus accomplished with great effect - wiping out for posterity the most valuable collection of mans intellectual achievements in the ancient world.


Whether this event had any greater an effect on Hypatia than any of the other events of the time we are not to know.  Certainly it was not so profound or devastating as to cause her and her family to escape from Alexandria [though many fled sometime later] and within ten years [circa 400] Hypatia has become the recognised head of the Neoplatonic school.  By 411 however, the climate of intolerance in Alexandria was to change.


In 411 Synesius was consecrated Bishop of Ptolemais by Theophilus. Within the year then, Hypatia's friend had been anointed by her enemy, and very soon thereafter her enemy died.  However, Theophilus was succeeded by his nephew Cyril [St. Cyril].  As patriarch Cyril quickly became known for his violent detestment of the heretic and the heathen.  He ordered the closing of churches and drove many unbelievers from the city, destroying synagogues and pillaging sect (and adherents) properties alike in the process.  EvenOrestes, now prefect of Egypt, found it virtually impossible to hold his ground against Cyril.  Orestes was denounced by Cyril who in his detestment of the infidel and outraged by the need to remain subordinate to an unbeliever, initiated a campaign of verbal and physical assaults against Orestes' followers.  Cyril's abomination for Orestes was the more venomous because without any acknowledgement of the Christian God, Orestes yet remained unimpeachable and of incorruptible character - combining high office with high principles.  The hostility between the two overflowed to their friends, followers and supporters.  


Faced with the power of Orestes as a high official, and Hypatia as the focus for a belief which had no sympathy with Cyril's Christianity, Cyril looked for a way to rid himself of the one and frighten the other.  Of the two, Hypatia was the most accessible and in March of 415 "officers of his Church" [Nitrian monks and a fanatical 'Christian' mob] murdered her.  According to Socrates she was torn from her chariot, dragged to a church known as the Caesarium, and after being stripped naked and raped had her flesh stripped and ripped to pieces with oyster shells.  Finally, what was left was burnt 'piecemeal'.  Most prominent amongst those that perpetrated the appalling crime was one Peter, described as a 'reader', which may indicate that he was one who read prayers at service and would undoubtedly have had some reputation for fervour and zealousness.

 Hypatia's writings are fragmentary.  We are able to get only a glimpse of her science and how it ultimately cost her life, for we are reminded that it was her science that threatened Cyril and not strictly her philosophy.  Though head of the Neoplatonic school we have noted that what is understood and extant in her work is for the greater part the thinking of a pragmatist.  She leans toward the rational and it was a profound knowledge of the rational science of her time that unsettled Cyril, for she appealed not to dogma but to reason, and this severely undermined Cyril's strategy.


Hypatia is credited by Synesius with independently inventing the Hydrometer or Hydroscope and letters are extant dealing with other aspects of areometry.  Hypatia also corresponded with Synesius on alchemy in the form of a commentary on pseudo - Democritus.  According to Suidas, she was also the author of a commentary and critique on the Arithmetica of Diophantus and she supposedly wrote on the Conics of Appollonius of Perga and on the astronomical canon of Ptolemy.  When Theon authored scholia on Euclid and a commentary on Ptolemy's Almagest, it is suggested in the third book that Hypatia assisted her father in interpreting some of the proofs.  Synesius also records that he consulted her on the design of the astrolabe.


We can only guess at the full extent of Hypatia's work in science and mathematics.  Undoubtedly, it was the influence of the Neoplatonist fraternity on her father, his friends and herself which came to mould her thinking and perception of the world.  Her intellectual pursuits were the inevitable result of being the daughter of an educated man in a society which, in its Neoplatonism, fostered and valued deliberation in thought and consideration in life.  That she came to lead the Neoplatonists and gain the respect and admiration of her followers and the lay-fraternity alike, and yet reached the highest regard for her astronomy and mathematics, would say much of any man let alone a woman.  This is particularly so in terms of the society of the time.  She remains the outstanding example of female scientific and mathematical ability for this era and since we have nothing from history to tell us otherwise her achievements are without parallel for close to 1300 years.

Hypatia's Murder

The burning of the library at Alexandria

Alexandria Library Ruins

Planisphere and (inset) Hydrometer

Hypatia Teaching

Hypatia (Charles William Mitchell, 1885)