Hypatia Additional Biography


(Historic Lives: The Ancient World, Prehistory-476)

Article abstract: Egyptian scientist{$I[g]Alexandria;Hypatia} A mathematician, astronomer, inventor, and teacher, Hypatia is best known for the manner of her death, which made her a symbol of courage in the face of an oppressive Christian Church.

Early Life

Almost nothing is known about the early life of Hypatia (hi-PAY-shyuh). Ancient Rome did not have the elaborate systems of record keeping found in the modern world, and no one in Hypatia’s own time considered her worthy of biographical attention. Although she made significant contributions to at least three fields of study, Hypatia is more famous for the way she died than for what she accomplished in life. While many legends about her early life have sprung up over the centuries, none are considered reliable sources of information about Hypatia’s youth.

What is known is that she was the daughter of the pagan Theon, an important astronomer and mathematician in Alexandria. Alexandria, the third largest city in the Holy Roman Empire, had once been the intellectual center of Greece and was the home of the first university three hundred years before the time of Christ. Mathematics was taught then by Euclid, whose ideas about plane geometry are still at the foundation of basic geometry courses more than two thousand years later.

Seven hundred years after Euclid, Theon was teaching mathematics in Alexandria and writing books of commentary on ancient mathematics. He may also have written several books on the occult. At the time of Hypatia’s birth, the Roman Empire was suspicious of Greek mathematics and attempted to suppress it. The life of a pagan scholar was intellectually exciting but politically dangerous.

The traditional date for Hypatia’s birth is 370, although most scholars now believe that she must have been born earlier. Nothing is known of her mother. Some stories tell that Theon supervised her complete education, demanding that she discipline her mind and body. According to this version of her life, Theon developed a rigorous system of exercises Hypatia performed every day and oversaw her training in public speaking and rhetoric. Probably he taught her mathematics himself. According to legend, Hypatia was Theon’s most talented student, surpassing her teacher and eventually becoming his collaborator. She apparently never married but devoted herself to her studies.

Life’s Work

Eventually Hypatia became a university lecturer herself, teaching mathematics and astronomy. According to historical accounts left by Socrates Scholasticus (c. 379-450), a contemporary of Hypatia, she was a charismatic teacher who attracted the best students from Asia, Africa, and Europe. They were drawn to her intelligence, her legendary beauty, and her reputation as an oracle.

In Hypatia’s time, mathematics was a different type of inquiry than it is today. Although it dealt with the relationships between geometric shapes, such as spheres, ellipses, and cones, mathematics was used to discover the composition of the universe. A series of mathematical problems might seek to reveal such things as the locations of the planets or the location of the soul. The discipline was not far removed from astronomy, which was similar to what the modern world would consider to be astrology.

Although few of Hypatia’s writings survive, much is known about her research, because descriptions of her work do survive in the form of letters and histories written by her students and followers. Her most important work was a thirteen-volume commentary on the Arithmētika (c. 250 c.e.; “Arithmetica” in Diophantus of Alexandria: A Study in the History of Greek Algebra, 1885) by Diophantus, who is sometimes called the “father of algebra.” Diophantus, who lived in Alexandria in the second century c.e., was interested in equations that can be solved in more than one way, which are now known as “indeterminate” or “Diophantine” equations. He also studied quadratic equations. Hypatia proposed some new problems and new solutions to complement Diophantine’s work. A fragment of her Commentary on the Arithmetic of Diophantus was found in the Vatican in the fifteenth century.

Her second major work was the eight-volume Treatise on the Conics of Apollonius. Apollonius, who lived in Alexandria in the third century b.c.e., was most interested in the geometry of cones, especially because conic sections such as the ellipse and the parabola could explain planetary orbits. Hypatia’s commentary presents Apollonius’s difficult concepts in a more accessible form, suitable for her students, and supplements the earlier work. Hypatia’s text was the last important consideration of conic sections until the seventeenth century. Other writings thought to be Hypatia’s include a commentary on Ptolemy’s great second century compilation of all that was then known...

(The entire section is 2023 words.)