Birth Date: 370 AD?
Date of Death: 415 AD?
Place of Birth: Alexandria
Place of Death: Alexandria
Nationality: Alexandrian
Occupation/Field of Study Alexandrian mathematician and philosopher


KEYWORDS: Alexandria, Mathematician, Philosopher, Mechanics, Practical Technologies, Astrolabe, Water Devices



Hypatia of Alexandria, an Alexandrian mathematician and philosopher, is considered to be the most famous of all women scientists until Marie Curie. She is also considered to be the last pagan scientist in the Western World and, hence, symbolises the end of the Ancient Sciences. She went down in history for her works in the fields of Algebra and Geometry, where she commented on the works of previous mathematicians, added new types of problems invented by her and prepared materials like textbooks for her students. Additionally, she invented several devices within the fields of mechanics and practical technologies such as the astrolabe, a device to distil water, another one to measure water levels, a graduated brass hydrometer and a hydroscope.



Hypatia of Alexandria lived and died in the city of Alexandria and is the earliest scientist whose life is well-documented1 (p.41); even though most of her writings have been lost to time, there are many references to her work2 (p.105). She was the daughter of Theon, a mathematician and astronomer at the Museum of Alexandria (founded by Claudius Ptolemy in AD 85-165) who played a decisive role in Hypatia’s education and life path2 (p.104). He supervised all of her studies, aiming at making his daughter “a ‘perfect human being’ at a time when women were thought to be less than human”1 (p. 42).

The fact that Theon worked at the Museum of Alexandria has led scholars to conclude that “Hypatia’s early education included mathematics and astronomy and probably occurred at the museum”2 (p.104). As part of her training, Hypatia attended classes on “rhetoric, the power of words, the power of hypnotic suggestion, the proper use of voice, and soft tones which were thought to be pleasant”3 (p.55, my translation). Theon also established a workout routine to make sure Hypatia’s physical health corresponded to her well-trained mind, so he taught her how to row, swim, ride horses and climb mountains3 (p.55).

From Little Journeys to the Homes of Great Teachers: Hypatia, by Elbert Hubbard, 1908

She travelled to places like Athens and Italy to expand her knowledge; such trips had an important impact on her future1 (p.45). In Athens she attended the school directed by Plutarch the Young and his daughter Asclepigenia and, upon her return to Alexandria, she was invited to teach at the Library by other scholars. There, she started giving lectures on mathematics, astronomy, philosophy and mechanics and was appointed municipal Chair of Philosophy. “Even though by this time in Alexandria there were separate schools for the different religions (Pagans, Jews and Christians) she taught without distinction”1 (p. 42). Although she never married, she had some love affairs and she has been credited with several imaginary romances3 (p. 56).

Hypatia of Alexandria has not only gone down in history because of her contributions to science, but also because of the cruel nature of her death. Considered a martyr of her time, “the murder of Hypatia stands as one of the best known acts of civic violence in Late Antiquity and, as such, has been the subject of a number of modern studies”4 (p.233).

Hypatia died at the hands of a mob, mainly composed of Christian monks, who had been deeply indoctrinated by Cyril2 (p.104), “an intriguing, devious and jealous patriarch of Alexandria who would later die due to his pious merits”5 (p.1, my translation). In March 415 AD, she was attacked in broad daylight, brutally beaten and dragged around the city to the inside of a church where she was stripped; once she was dead, the mob quartered her body with stones and burnt them in a bonfire so that her memory would be forever erased5 (p.4).

There are many theories around the reasons for Hypatia’s death. The Suidas defend the idea that Bishop Cyril’s jealousy of her popularity both inside and outside Alexandria highly contributed to her murder; others believe that such violent murder was the result of “political rivalry between the Roman prefect Prestes, great admirer of Hypatia, and Cyril, who wished to extend his authorities over secular as well as religious areas”2 (p. 105); others blame it on the nature of the Alexandrians, which was violent and caused them to revolt due to insignificant things”2 (p. 105). Gemma Baretta, an Italian scholar, added a new perspective to Hypatia’s death in her work Ipazia d’Alessandria, by turning the focus to her feminine nature: often referred as beautiful, virgin and martyr, the Italian author defends that she was murdered because of her condition as a woman with political authority5 (p.62). Whatever the reasons for her murder were, her death marked the onset of Alexandria’s decline as an important learning centre of Antiquity6 (p.106).



Soon after she finished her educational period, she became enmeshed in Alexandrian politics and publicly explained the writings of Plato, Aristotle, and other thinkers for anyone to hear; due to the increasingly Christianised society of Alexandria, that put her in a bad position whose ultimate dénouement would be a public and merciless murder1 (p. 45).

She worked all her life as a mathematics and philosophy teacher at the Platonic School of Alexandria, of which she became the director around 400 AD She taught under the Neoplatonic view3 (p.53): Plotino’s doctrine defines the One as the first being within logical order from which Logos or Intelligence emanates for the latter development of the Soul; hence, the One, the Logos, and the Soul all coexist eternally7 (p.18). She taught these philosophical ideas putting a greater emphasis on science than previous Neoplatonic followers3 (p.53).

Hypatia developed her most significant work in the field of Algebra. She wrote a commentary on the Arithmetica of Diophantus in 13 books, the so-called ‘Father of Algebra’ from the 3rd Century, whose work centred on Indeterminate Equations (those with multiple solutions) and quadratic equations. In this commentary, she included alternative solutions and many new problems of her own which would be later on included in Diophantus’ manuscripts3 (p.55).

Hypatia also wrote an 8-book treatise, On the Conics of Apollomius. Apollomius of Perga was an Alexandrian geometer whose work lead to great advancements in the field of geometry in the Islamic World during the Medieval Ages8. She wrote this treaty in order to make Apollomius’ work famous as she was fascinated by conic sections, which would be neglected until the beginning of the 17th Century to explain natural phenomena such as orbitals1 (p.44).

Most of her works were prepared as textbooks for her students, so that they would have a better understanding of what she taught. After Hypatia’s era, there were no substantial developments in the way mathematics were taught until the appearance of the works of Descartes, Newton and Leibniz3 (p.56).

Hypatia of Alexandria also carried out part of her work in the fields of mechanics and practical technologies. Her letters to Synesius of Cyrene — her disciple and pupil — contain designs for several scientific tools such as the plane astrolabe1 (p.44). The plane astrolabe is an “ancient astronomical computer for solving problems relating to time and the position of the Sun and the stars in the sky”9.

Within this field, she also created an apparatus to distil water, a device to level water, a graduated brass hydrometer to measure the specific density of a liquid, and a hydroscope, a tool that enable its user to see below the surface of water10.


Sanzio, Raphael (1509), The School of Athens, fresco, Stanza della Segnatura, Vatican City.


Was not Hypatia the greatest philosopher of Alexandria, and a true martyr to the old values of learning? She was torn to pieces by a mob of incensed Christians not because she was a woman, but because her learning was so profound, her skills at dialectic so extensive that she reduced all who queried her to embarrassed silence. They could not argue with her, so they murdered her.

Pears, Ian (2002), The Dream of Scipio, New York, Vintage Books, p. 45.

With and within Hypatia we find the beginning of the feminine world, the Great Goddess who was sacrificed.

Beretta, Gemma (1993), Ipazia d’Alessandria, Roma, Riuniti University Press, p. 230; (my translation)



Mid-1980s: Hypatia: A Journal of Feminist Philosophy (Pennsylvania, USA) [American journal named after Hypatia of Alexandria which publishes works related to the field of feminist philosphy]

1996: The Hypatia Trust (Exeter, United Kingdom) [Trust named after Hypatia of Alexandria which holds collections of books, artefacts and archives by and about women]

2011: Los ojos de Hipatia: Revista Sociocultural Valencia (Valencia, Spain) [Spanish sociocultural magazine named after Hypatia of Alexandria]

Streets named after Hypatia:

Hypatia Street, Bolton (United Kingdom)
Hypatia-Straße, Tornesch (Germany)
Hipatía, Santa Fe Province (Argentina)

Awards named after Hypatia:

International Hypatia Mathematics Contest (University of Waterloo, Canada)

Hypatia Awards (University of Sciences and Arts of Oklahoma, USA)

Hypatia Tenure Track Grants (Radboud University, Netherlands)

Hypatia Diversity Prize (Hypatia Editorial Office, Pennsylvania, USA)

Hartshone-Hypatia Prize Examination (Brown University, Rhode Island, USA)



Sanzio, Raphael (1509), “The School of Athens”, fresco, Stanza della Segnatura, Vatican City.

Mitchell, Charles W. (1885), “Hypatia”, oil on canvas, Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle.

Amenábar, Alejandro (dir.) (2009), Ágora, Focus Features, Newmarket Films, Telecinco Cinema.



Most of Hypatia’s work originated as materials for her students and, although none of them have survived intact, many of her accomplishments are reflected in other sources such as the correspondence with her disciple Synesius of Cyrene.



Knorr, Wilbur R. (1989), Textual Studies in Ancient and Medieval Geometry, Basel, Birkhäuser

Deakin, Michael (2007), Hypatia of Alexandria: Mathematician and Martyr, Amherst, Prometheus Books

Whitfield, Bryan J. (1995), The Beauty of Reasoning: A Reexamination of Hypatia and Alexandria, Athens, GA, Georgia University Press

Edwards, Catherine (1999), Roman Presences: Receptions of Rome in European Culture, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press

Kingsley, Charles (1853), Hypatia, or New Foes with Old Faces, Chicago, W.B Conkley

Molinaro, Ursule (1990), A Christian Martyr in Reverse: Hypatia, New York City, Dutton

Osen, Lynn M. (1990), Women in Mathematics, Cambridge, MA, MIT Press.

Schaefer, Francis (1902), “St. Cyril of Alexandria and the Murder of Hypatia”, The Catholic University Bulletin, nº 8, pp. 441-453

Love, Anne (2006), Of Numbers and Stars, New York City, New York: Holiday House

Sagan, Carl / Ann Druyan / Steven Soter / Adrian Malone / Tome Weidlinger / Geoffrey Haines-Stiles / David Kennard / David F. Oyster / Rob McCain / Richard Wells / James Latham / Chris O’Dell / Hilyard J. Brown / John Retsek / Joe Firmage /Kent Gibson, Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, Studio City, CA, Cosmos Studios, 2000



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