HYPATIA: the Life and Legend of an Ancient Philosopher

Edward J. Watts

OUP (2017) h/b 205pp £22.99 (ISBN 9780190210038)

There are many Hypatias. She was not only the victim and martyr of Alexandrian factionalism, the role for which she is most commonly known (ch. 8). She was the female, celibate intellectual who moved Alexandrian thought in a new direction and created an intellectual community for both pagans and Christians (ch. 3); the teacher of Plotinian Platonism, determined to live her life in accordance with her philosophical values in a male dominated and potentially hostile society (ch. 6); the last pagan philosopher in an increasingly Christian world, whose death marked the end of an age of reason (ch. 8); and the highly-regarded public adviser who believed that philosophers should play an active part in public life in a time of unrest in Alexandria (ch. 6). Chapter 10 explores later interpretations of her literary character in both novel and film.

Every (mostly male) biographer has his own preconceptions and adopts Hypatia’s story to suit his own agenda or the time in which he is writing. W. discusses all of these Hypatias, and adds one more by seeing her as a contemporary American professor: she became her father’s colleague when she had completed ‘the late antique equivalent of a doctoral dissertation’, her edition of books 3-13 of Ptolemy’s Almagest (pp. 29-30); Theon (her father) ‘stepped back into a sort of emeritus professorship’ but was still ‘around campus’ (p. 38); rivalry between Athens and Alexandria was like that between Harvard and Berkeley (p. 53). This further illustrates the difficulty of seeing the real Hypatia.

In the absence of a definitive account of her life there is room for much speculation. Much of what W. tells us about Hypatia is the result of inference or analogy, for instance her education (ch. 2) and her relationship with her students, particularly Sinesius (ch. 5), or comes from a comparison with other contemporary female philosophers (ch. 7).

W.’s account of Hypatia’s life is a work of scholarship, the product of some very thorough research, which provides a detailed and plausible interpretation of the life of a fascinating woman. It includes comprehensive footnotes, though I would have liked W. to have quoted more of these in the original language. I would recommended this book for a university rather than school library, though it might have an appeal for a school pupil with an interest in studying prominent female figures in antiquity for their Extended Project Qualification. It is also a book for the thoughtful reader who wishes to examine their own beliefs about how to live the good life and its compatibility with public life.

Alison Henshaw—Nottingham Girls’ High School

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