Hypatia

The philosopher, mathematician and great beauty, Hypatia, was murdered by fanatical Christian mobs in 4th century AD. She is remembered as an innovator by Prof PAUL CARTLEDGE.

The blogosphere hereabouts has been humming of late over the extraordinary public performances by a young doctoral research student in Classical Greek literature at Corpus Christi College, Oxford University.

Very rare indeed are the ancient Greek women who, like Queen Cleopatra most obviously, are on record as having an impact on what was a fundamentally male-oriented and male-dominated culture. One of those rarities was a certain Hypatia, born at Alexandria in the second half of the fourth century, the daughter of a mathematician called Theon.

Almost singlehandedly – or single-brainedly – it sometimes seemed, captain Gail Trimble steered her team of four to triumph in the latest round of the inter-varsity University Challenge quiz show.

Corpus is only one Oxford College and their opponents in the final were a very large metropolitan university, but when it comes down to such a head-to-head encounter, mere statistics mean little. But I mention this not only to celebrate, as a fellow-classicist, a minor intellectual triumph, but mainly because the ‘press’ Ms Trimble has been receiving has included an exceptionally unpleasant strain of anti-feminist ranting against ‘brainy’ women.

Now, had we still been living in the later 4th century BCE that would hardly have been surprising. Misogyny then ruled okay, and even – or especially – Aristotle, the Western world’s leading intellectual of the time, chose to believe and to ‘argue’ that all females were by their unalterable nature inferior to all males, not only physiologically but mentally, spiritually and intellectually too.

Since feminists of any kind or degree of fervour were thin on the ground in the ancient Greek (and Roman) world, it is by no means astonishing to find that, as regards typical male attitudes to women, little or nothing had changed by the fourth century CE (AD).

In case anyone thinks the advent of Christianity as the official religion of the Graeco-Roman world in that century might have made a significant difference, one has only to refer him (or her) to the doctrinally dominant teachings of Paul of Tarsus.

And it is within this precise context of Christianity that the tale I am about to tell unfolded – at Alexandria in Egypt in the early fifth century.

This great Greek city had been founded and named after himself by Alexander the Great (a former pupil of Aristotle) in 332.

In the succeeding ‘Hellenistic’ era (last three centuries BCE) it grew to be the intellectual capital of the ancient world, thanks to its famous Museum and Library and to the scholars such as Eratosthenes and Hipparchos who made it their home.

But by the fourth century AD Alexandria had acquired another, very different reputation and function, as a key ideological centre within a Christianised Roman Empire, a hotbed of both orthodoxy and heresy (not to mention Judaeophobia).

‘Pagans’ (as Christians slightingly called non-Christian polytheists) did nevertheless continue to live and work in Alexandria and it’s one of these, a female pagan, that my story is about.

Very rare indeed are the ancient Greek women who – like Queen Cleopatra most obviously – are on record as having an impact on what was a fundamentally male-oriented and male-dominated culture.

One of those rarities was a certain Hypatia, born at Alexandria in the second half of the fourth century, the daughter of a mathematician called Theon.

Like father, like daughter: Hypatia grew up to become an outstanding mathematician herself, and a sought-after teacher.

She was not in fact the very first distinguished female Alexandrian mathematician – that accolade has to go to the much more obscure Pandrosion, who perhaps invented a geometric construction to produce cube roots. Hypatia for her part wielded the astrolabe and the hydroscope with aplomb.

But she owes her commemoration not only, alas, to her scientific brains, nor to her superior looks, but chiefly to the fact that she was murdered – or rather martyred – as a pagan, by a Christian mob possibly acting under orders of Bishop Cyril in CE 415. Sic transit gloria classica (‘thus passes the glory of the Classical age’).

But we now hear that the film industry is to do its bit towards her commemoration and who knows glorification. A US $72 million film Agora by Spanish director Alejandro Amenabar is currently in post-production. Oscar-winner Rachel Weisz stars as Hypatia. The plot, astonishingly enough, does not revolve around mathematical equations or astronomical observations. Instead – rather sadly, as we sad intellectuals might see it- it revolves around the struggle of a (male) slave of Hypatia who is torn between his love for her and the promise of freedom offered by rioters who have trapped them in the Great Library. Watch this space!

Paul Cartledge is the AG Leventis Professor of Greek Culture at Cambridge University. Among his forthcoming books is Ancient Greece: A History in Eleven Cities (Oxford University Press) – one of those Eleven is Alexandria.