Wednesday, October 4, 2017


Edward J. Watts, Hypatia: The Life and Legend of an Ancient Philosopher. Women in antiquity. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017.. Pp. xii, 205. ISBN 9780190210038. $29.95.

Reviewed by Aistė Čelkytė, Underwood International College, Yonsei University (

Version at BMCR home site


This monograph, dedicated to reconstructing the life and career of the Alexandrian mathematician and philosopher Hypatia, is part of the Women in Antiquity series. The study has a strong historical focus, so that little is said about Hypatia's philosophical views, apart from identifying Hypatia as a Plotinian Platonist, that is, one who did not engage in theurgical practices popular among contemporary Platonists. The choice of a historical focus might seem surprising as the evidence for her life is very sparse, but Watts presents a detailed picture of Hypatia's career by means of innovative use of a large variety of texts. The book is comprised of introduction, ten chapters and concluding remarks.

The introductory chapter, "A Lenten Murder", starts with the most notorious event in Hypatia's life, her murder at the hands of the Alexandrian mob. The murder made Hypatia a symbol, but what her life symbolised, as Watts shows, has varied from century to century (p. 4). The starting point for a historically accurate picture, therefore, must be the study of Hypatia's immediate surroundings. By discussing the historical, social and political circumstances of the city of Alexandria, Watts introduces one of the main themes of the book, that Hypatia's life and career cannot be separated from the context in which she lived and worked.

A discussion of Alexandria's history in late antiquity can be found in the first chapter, entitled "Alexandria". The topics most pertinent to Hypatia's life are the Serapeum library (which was central to cultural and philosophical life in Alexandria), the Alexandrian population (its labour market, density and class divisions) and the religious dynamics of fourth-century Alexandria. In regard to the last, Watts argues that religious divisions were much less prominent than often portrayed in the scholarship (pp. 17- 19). The societal structure and divisions imposed by collegia (associations of individuals working on the same crafts) and by class were significantly more palpable to an Alexandrian.

The topic of the second chapter is Hypatia's childhood and education, although the discussion involves a much wider array of subjects. While Hypatia's father, Theon, was a noted mathematician, Watts argues that her mother probably came from an intellectual family. The argument is based on quite an extensive discussion of the education of women in Alexandria and the Roman Empire. Watts' study of the education of elites more generally reveals a significant point about women and philosophy in late antiquity. The education of the male youth was geared towards gaining prestigious posts in imperial administration (p. 24). As these posts were not open to women, women from wealthy families were able to study whatever they wanted (sometimes to a very high level, see p. 25), including less prestigious subjects such as philosophy.

Hypatia's own education was fairly standard for a philosopher. She studied with her father Theon, and her studies culminated in a large work, comparable to a doctoral dissertation (p. 29), which was written in collaboration with Theon. This early work might have been an edition of Ptolemy's Handy Tables or, more likely, an edition of Ptolemy's Almagest books 3-13 (pp. 30-1). This chapter also contains a discussion of the relationship between mathematics and philosophy in Alexandria. Watts argues that, as far as the contemporaries of Hypatia were concerned, the issue at stake was not whether one ought to choose mathematics over philosophy, but which subject ought to be privileged. In Alexandria, where mathematicians held the stage for a long time, Hypatia's choice to privilege philosophy represented a new intellectual trend.

The following chapter, "The School of Hypatia", discusses the curriculum that Hypatia introduced in the school she inherited from her father. The curriculum that Proclus followed in Alexandria about a decade after Hypatia's death serves as a basis for Watts' suggestion that the studies most likely started with mathematics and ascended to philosophy. This chapter also contains the most explicit discussion of Hypatia's philosophical views. Hypatia was a Plotinian Platonist, which is best understood when contrasted with another branch of Platonism that emerged during Hypatia's lifetime, namely Iamblichean Platonism, notable for the practice of theurgy (pp. 43-5). Theurgy was much more cutting-edge philosophy than Hypatia's Plotinian Platonism, but Hypatia' teachings suited the needs of her native city. This is partly due to the fact that most of Hypatia's students were Christians, including a Libyan aristocrat Synesius, who is an important source for this book. While theurgy would have been problematic for Christian students, Hypatia's approach was not only non-problematic but also not inconsistent with their theology, as the analysis of Synesius' hymns shows (pp. 47-9).

Most of the chapter "Middle Age" is dedicated to locating Hypatia's school within broader philosophical trends in approximately the 390s. The most significant development in philosophy during this period was the emergence of theurgy, which revitalized the Athenian philosophical scene. Synesius' letter shows that the Alexandrian school, led by Hypatia, and the Athenian school, led by Plutarch, were thought of as rivals. Iamblichean Platonism showed up in Alexandria too, although it was not long-lived since the head of this school, Olympus, and his followers were involved in the infamous standoff in the Serapeum. The chapter provides a detailed explanation of how Theophilus' anti-pagan agenda, which involved not only restrictions in religious practices but also public mockery, led to the riot and the standoff. The conflict ended with the emperor Theodosius' granting amnesty to the Serapeum fighters, but they subsequently fled Alexandria, thus ending the theurgist school in Alexandria. Watts argues that Hypatia's teaching, meanwhile, proved to be especially fitting for her time and place, serving as a guide for her students in how to organise their lives and the city better (p. 62).

The fifth chapter, "A Philosophical Mother and her Children", starts with the question of whether there is enough evidence to suggests that Hypatia drew a public salary, i.e. was a public teacher. Watts argues that it is unlikely and that Hypatia probably simply made herself more accessible than most other teachers of her time. Apart from publicly accessible lectures, Hypatia, like most philosophers, had a close-knit inner circle to which access was restricted. The relationship between Hypatia and her close disciples is the main topic of the chapter. Synesius' letters serve as the main evidence here as well (pp. 67-72). His letters also discuss the notion of philosophical love, which might have been the way in which the members of the inner circle conceptualised their relationships. The chapter also includes the discussion of the anecdotes about Hypatia's celibacy.

Following the discussion of Hypatia's school, the chapter The Public Intellectual deals with the social status of Hypatia and the role she had in Alexandrian society. As in the previous chapters, the topic is extensively contextualised by discussing not only the role of philosophers as state advisors but also evidence of 'false' philosophers, that is, people who used their advisory role for personal gain in late antiquity. Synesius' letters again prove to be an invaluable source for Hypatia's role in the public sphere. The letters in which Synesius asks for favours on behalf of his acquaintances show that she had some significant influence in Alexandrian social circles and that the members of her inner circle expected certain kinds of assistance from their teacher in the public sphere. The letters also provide some insight into how the members of Hypatia's inner circle approached the seeming conflict between their philosophical pursuits and social duties.

"Hypatia's Sisters" is dedicated to the discussion of four other contemporary women whose careers are comparable to Hypatia's, namely Pandrosion (a mathematician), Sosipatra (a philosopher), Asclepigenia (a philosopher) and the wife of Maximus of Ephesus (a philosopher). This is an especially interesting chapter because these women's careers shed some light on the professional life of Hypatia, despite the fact that, overall, less is known of these philosophers. The comparisons with this evidence help to clarify the challenges that Hypatia faced as a woman philosopher and show to what extent Hypatia's circumstances were unusual (pp. 103-6).

Chapter eight, "Murder in the Street", contains a historical exposition of the early career of Cyril, the bishop who succeeded Theophilus. Cyril's rise to power and his subsequent conflict with Orestes, the prefect, formed the background for the murder of Hypatia. The chapter also includes the discussion of the murder, its aftermath and the effect it had on Alexandria (pp. 117-20). Watts notably argues that it is unlikely that the mob set out to kill Hypatia, and that the murder was a circumstantial, rather than premeditated, event. The murder of Hypatia had an impact reaching far beyond Alexandria. The following chapter, "The Memory of Hypatia", discusses the reception of Hypatia in ecclesiastical histories and chronicles, Damascius' Life of Isidore, Suda and the Egyptian historical tradition. Watts discusses why, in antiquity, Hypatia's life was often seen as a turning point in history and shows how various authors' commitments determined whether the turn was seen as a positive or a negative change.

The final chapter, "A Modern Symbol", discusses the reception of Hypatia in the modern period. The texts include John Toland's essay dedicated to Hypatia in Tetradymus, a response to Toland by Thomas Lewis with his The History of Hypatia, a Most Impudent School-Mistress of Alexandria, Voltaire's Dictionnaire Philosophique, Diodata Saluzzo Roero's poem Ipazia Ovvero Delle Filosofie, and others. There is also discussion of the reception of Hypatia in late-twentieth-works, from Ursule Molinaro's (1989) composition in poetic prose to Alejandro Amenábar's film Agora. Although the murder of Hypatia is often treated as signifying the end of an enlightened period, Watts argues that such treatments fail to take into account the history of the centuries following Hypatia's life and thus mistreat Hypatia's legacy.

The main arguments of the book are summarised in the epilogue, "Reconsidering A Legend". The first half of this section recaps the historical circumstances of Alexandria during Hypatia's lifetime, and it shows how substantially the life of the city shaped the life of the philosopher. The rest of the chapter addresses the extent to which Hypatia's death marked a cultural turning point.

Arguably, the central claim of this book is that Hypatia was a product of late-antique Alexandria and that the study of her life cannot be separated from the study of the social, political and, to a certain extent, religious circumstances of Alexandria. The monograph is a study not only of Hypatia but also of her world. It is, therefore, somewhat surprising that Watts emphasises Hypatia's personal qualities as the reasons for her achievements (pp. 104, 155). One might argue that this detailed and contextualised study shows that, apart from being talented, Hypatia was extremely fortunate in her circumstances. No matter how talented women philosophers were, the cultural and economic circumstances were working against them, and thus one cannot underestimate the advantage that Hypatia had in being Theon's daughter and inheriting her own school.

This monograph is undoubtedly an important addition to the scholarship on Hypatia, not least because there has been no monograph-length study for more than two decades. Arguably one of the most significant contributions of this study is the argument that the murder of Hypatia was not, as is often argued in the existing scholarship, a pre-meditated attack but rather a circumstantial event. Apart from Hypatia's life, this book is also notable for painting a detailed picture of late-antique Alexandria and for showing how much information about an ancient figure can be teased out of indirect evidence about historical circumstances, parallel cases and similar. The writing style is extremely accessible. Quite a few comparisons to modern history and popular culture—although almost exclusively American—make the book very approachable to a wide range of audiences, not only the specialists.

Although the book contains a few small typographical errors (e.g. p. 38), overall it is very well produced. It also includes a number of illustrations of coins, maps, paintings and photos.

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