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The True Story

Silvia Ronchey

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The True Story

Silvia Ronchey

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About This Book

This study reconstructs Hypatia's existential and intellectual life and her modern Nachleben through a reception-oriented and interdisciplinary approach. Unlike previous publications on the subject, Hypatia explores all available ancient and medieval sources as well as the history of the reception of the figure of Hypatia in later history, literature, and arts in order to illuminate the ideological transformations/deformations of her story throughout the centuries and recover "the true story". The intentionally provocative title relates to the contemporary historiographical notion of "false" or "fake history", as does the overall conceptual and methodological treatment. Through this reception-oriented approach, this study suggests a new reading of the ancient sources that demonstrates the intrinsically political nature of the murder of Hypatia, caused by the phtonos (violent envy) of the Christian bishop Cyril of Alexandria. This is the first comprehensive treatment of the figure of Hypatia addressed to both academic readers – in Classics, Religious Studies, and Reception Studies – and a learned, non-specialist readership.

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De Gruyter

Part I: Setting out the Facts

No wild beasts are so deadly to humans
as most Christians are to each other.
Ammianus Marcellinus

1 Once there was a Woman

Fifteen centuries ago there was a woman in Alexandria, Egypt, whose name was Hypatia. In the Greek spoken at that time, this name evoked an idea of ‘eminence’, ‘acuity’, ‘supremeness’. It was given to her by her father, a renowned scholar, who planned an academic career for his daughter. No one could imagine that fate, or chance, which rules the world, would make Hypatia a martyr of reasoning. That this daughter of a peaceful professor in civilized Alexandria would meet a violent death. That she would be the victim of an atrocious slaying, one of the most deplored in cultural history.
There was a woman then in Alexandria, whose name was Hypatia. She was the daughter of Theon, philosopher of the school of Alexandria, and she had reached such a high level of knowledge that she surpassed by far all the philosophers of her circle2 […]
says a Christian historian, her contemporary, Socrates Scholasticus, a lawyer at the court of Constantinople.
From a young age, say the ancient historical sources, Hypatia was accustomed to studying. Theon taught her everything he could; yet, she was not satisfied enough with her father’s teachings; she wanted to learn more. Thus, she gained an even wider knowledge including even different disciplines than those to which Theon had introduced her. The fact was, say these historical sources, that the pupil was actually smarter than the teacher:
being by nature more gifted than her father, she did not stop at the technical-mathematical teachings he practised, but dedicated herself to pure philosophy, and with merit3 […]
reports Suidas, a 10th century Byzantine intellectual, in the lengthy entry Hypatia, or the factiousness of the Alexandrians of his encyclopaedia. His information comes from two accounts, now lost, from the century following those events; namely, that – real or such presumed – of Hesychius of Miletus, and The Life of Isidorus, the last priest of the temple of Serapis, which was composed by the Neoplatonist Damascius, the last scholarch of the School of Athens before it was closed down by Justinian. Both texts only remain in fragments. Suidas possibly drawns from the latter of these sources the statement above, which is also confirmed by the Church History by Philostorgius, an ancient testimony largely lost to us but written only a few years following Hypatia’s death. It is possible that Philostorgius attended her lessons:
Hypatia outshone her master, particularly in astronomy, and it came to pass that she was the teacher for many in mathematical sciences4 […]
An encyclopaedist writing eight centuries after Suidas, Denis Diderot, punctilious interpreter of his Byzantine predecessor, in the two columns of the Encyclopédie devoted to Hypatia, says: “Nature had never granted to anyone a superior soul or a more felicitous genius than that of Theon’s daughter. Education made her a prodigy” because “she drew on the fundamental principles of other sciences” learned from her father “in the conversations and the schools of the renowned philosophes then flourishing in Alexandria.” And he concludes: “What can be denied to such a penetrating intelligence and a true passion for study?”5
After years of study, Hypatia had acquired a reputation amongst the intellectuals of her time. A reputation for connoisseurs, which was not limited to her city, but had spread amongst the international community of scholars of Late Antiquity. Although the Western Roman empire was about to fall into the hands of the barbarians, another empire was flourishing in the East, the Byzantine empire, its glorious continuation. Although that century, the 5th after Christ, may seem an epoch of decadence, love of culture was everywhere greater than ever. In fact, it was more alive than the academic culture, which outside Alexandria was entrusted, we are told6, to sterile professors incapable of transmitting knowledge in a charismatic manner. Hypatia was, thus, seen by all as a luminous exception, and from all corners of the Greek and Roman world lovers of knowledge came to attend her academic lessons, in which the tradition of the ancient Platonic school was carried forward.
She inherited (diadoche, διαδοχή) the legacy of the teachings of the Platonic school derived from Plotinus and expounded to a free audience all the philosophical disciplines […]. From all parts, they came to hear her those who wanted to study philosophy […]7
says Socrates Scholasticus in his Ecclesiastical History.
Hypatia had a particularly efficacious way of teaching and a fluid eloquence:
She had reached an excellent level in the practice of teaching,
states Suidas, who here reports the words of Damascius, and
in speaking, she was fluent and dialectical.8
Moreover, according to Damascius, “although she was a woman, she wore the tribon (τρίβων)”, a term that at the time of Hypatia indicated the eminent garment of the philosopher more than the rough cloak of the Cynic street preachers,
[…] and she made her public appearances in the centre of the city to explain to anyone who wanted to listen to her, Plato, Aristotle or any other philosopher.9
And the 18th century encyclopaedist Diderot concludes:
All the knowledge available to the human spirit, gathered in this woman of enchanting eloquence, made her a surprising phenomenon, and I do not mean merely for the people, who will wonder at anything, but for the philosophers themselves, whom it is difficult to astound.10


Setting out the Facts

The quotation in exergo is taken from Ammianus Marcellinus, Res gestae, XXII 5, 4: “[…] nullas infestas hominibus bestias, ut sunt sibi ferales plerique Christianorum”.

Once there was a Woman

On the etymological meaning of the name Hypatia see below, part II, chapter “A Name, a Mantra”. For its rare occurrences in Late Antiquity see the bibliography in Dzielska 1993 = Dzielska 1995, pp. 137 – 138, n. 5; see also Hoche, p. 440 with n. 22; Meyer, p. 8.
The name of Hypatia’s father, according to recent studies, was not Theon, but Theoteknos, “son of God”. However, the theory advanced by Roques 1995 and Roques 1998 that in Synesius’ Eps. 4 and 16 (Synesius, tom. I Garzya – Roques) the names of Theoteknos – of which Theon could be considered the diminutive – and Athanasius respectively indicate the father and the brother of Hypatia, is mistaken: see the counter-deductions of Masson and of Schmitt, according to whom the “most blessed father” in question was a Christian priest; a hypothesis that is also contestable. See discussion in Dzielska 1995, p. 37, and Harich-Schwarzbauer 2011, pp. 79 – 80. Most probably the denominations “father” and “brother” that we find in the two epistles of Synesius are those in use in the Neoplatonic phratria (φρατρία): see the similar use in the phratry of George Gemistus Plethon, the last Platonic school of the Byzantine empire, with headquarters at the imperial court of Mystras in the Peloponnese, on which see below, part III, chapters “Synesius, Hypatia and Philosophia” and “The Eminence of Hypatia”, with Appendix ad loc. The mistaken theory of Roques was already tentatively advanced by Beretta 1993, p. 35; and the identification of Theoteknos with Theon was already to be found in Bigoni who, however, correctly considered Athanasius and Synesius to be brethren, that is, Athanasius to be a pupil of the school. Maria Dzielska identifies him as the homonymous sophist of Alexandria, pupil of Hypatia (Dzielska 1991).
A terminus post quem for the death of Theon (395, the end of the reign of Theodosius I) would seem to be supplied by the encyclopaedia written in the 10th century by Suidas: see Suida Θ 205, II, p. 702, 10 – 16 Adler, which calls him “scholar of geometry and philosophy, particularly dedicated to mathematics and astronomy”. Scholars are still debating on the life and death’s details of Theon and his intellectual personality. According to the testimony of Suidas, his scientific maturity is to be dated between 379 and 395 and, although some have considered, on the basis of fragile evidence, that his date of birth must be earlier than supposed, and should be placed around 335, it is likely, as argued by Neugebauer, p. 873, that Theon was still alive in the early years of the 5th century.
Considering the certain existence, in the mid-Byzantine period, of a family called Σουίδας, certified by documents and seals and therefore attributable to a family of dignitaries at the Constantinopolitan court, perhaps of Varangian origin, in this book, diverging from the opinion of the majority, but following that of Klaus Alpers, we take as certain that the name Suidas, under which the work in question has been transmitted (in this diction or in the lesser form Souda/Suda), is that of the author and not the title of the work. It would not be possible here to dive into the long and complex specifics of such a topic, nor is this the place to take into account the conundrum the name represents: we refer to Kazhdan – Ronchey, reserving the opportunity to give further information in a specific context.
Facts and background to the story of Hypatia are given in chapter 15 of the VII book of the Ecclesiastical History by Socrates, which can be read in Socrates Scholasticus, pp. 360 – 361 Hansen. Other quotations in this book attributed to the same author are taken from this volume.
Socrates, just a few years younger than Hypatia, was writing not many years after her death, and in any case finished his work between 439 and 443: see Urbainczyk, pp. 19 – 20. On his political per...

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