Tuesday, July 20, 2004

Hypatia of Alexandria

by Maria Dzielska

Hypatia of Alexandria: "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.

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.

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. "
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