Cross-Post: A New Life of Hypatia
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Categories: Ancient

Cross-Post: A New Life of Hypatia

There is a new life of Hypatia of Alexandria out for a modest price ($30). Hypatia is a figure who has a significant role in modern pop culture (there is even a good film about her!) and polemics about religion, but comes from a place and time which is not as accessible as Socrates’ Athens or Marcus Aurelius’ imperium. But Alexandria in the fourth century CE was a colorful place, full of faction-fights and nations, sects, and languages all jumbled together. So if you want a look at that world by someone who is more interested in the ancient world than scoring points in modern debates, you might want to check it out (you can find a new or used copy on bookfinder).

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 (

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.

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.

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.

From Bryn Mawr Classical Review

The book already has an entry on bookfinder.

Edit 2022-01-17: fixed formatting broken when WP introduced the block editor

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0 thoughts on “Cross-Post: A New Life of Hypatia

  1. Pen Name says:

    The movie Agora spawned a lot of discussion. Someone took me to task, assuming that I relied on it as my only source. I pointed out that I had been aware of Hypatia for decades, from authors such as L Sprague de Camp, Isaac Asimov and even the original Cosmos TV series. For some reason many Christians take exception to the depiction of early Christians in the movie, even though that was one of the things that was historically accurate, for the most part.

    1. Sean Manning says:

      It will be interesting to see if anyone else who focuses on that period comments on the book. My understanding is that some people think she died because there was a power struggle between the patriarch and the governor, and some of the patriarch’s supporters decided it was safer to throw stones at a middle-aged philosopher than the governor and his armed bodyguards. So depending on Watts’ exact take on her death, he might have a bit of a hill to climb …

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