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Hypatia of Alexandria

By Laurel A. Rockefeller

Cover art by Rachel Bostwick

This book is based on events in the life of Hypatia of Alexandria and constructed using primary and secondary historical sources, commentary, and research. Consulted sources appear at the end of this book. Interpretation of source material is at the author’s discretion and utilized within the scope of the author’s imagination, including names, events, and historical details.

©2017 by Laurel A. Rockefeller

All Rights Reserved.

Table of Contents


Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven


Latitude and Longitude Coordinates for Select Cities in the Roman Empire



About This Series


“Magistra, the books you wished to borrow have arrived!” knelt the young novice as her prioress tended a patient at Disibodenberg in Naheland in west-central Germany.

Prioress Hildegarde rose and wiped her hands on a towel, “Excellent. Did the brother specify how long I may borrow them?”

“No, Magistra.”

Hildegarde headed towards the priory library, “Well then I will have to ask him myself before he departs.”

“May I ask—what is so important about these particular books?”

“They are the writings of ancient Greek mathematicians and astronomers. Wisdom of the ancient world, a world that was very different from the one we live in today,” answered Hildegarde.

“But such knowledge is forbidden!”

“Yes, it is.”

“Then why risk it?”

“God speaks to many people—not only to Christians. If there is something of value to be learned then I wish to learn it, no matter who God teaches it to.” Arriving at the library, Hildegarde smiled at the table covered with over a dozen heavy volumes, “Thank you for bringing these, Brother. How long will your master permit me to review them?”

The brother picked up one volume, “Two months, though he said he would consider longer if the need should arise. He said you would be particularly interested in this one.”

“’Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers’ by Socrates of Constantinople?’”

The monk flipped to the first page of chapter fifteen, “Yes. Take a look here!”

Hildegarde read aloud, “’Of Hypatia the Female Philosopher. There was a woman at Alexandria named Hypatia, daughter of the philosopher Theon, who made such attainments in literature and science, as to far surpass all the philosophers of her own time.’ Intriguing! Do many know of this Hypatia?”

“No, Magistra.”

“Because she was a woman?”

“I think perhaps the answer will become clear with further reading.”

“Agreed!” smiled Hildegarde as she sat down and began to read.

Chapter One

Alexander the Great’s masterpiece metropolis, the great city of Alexandria glittered like a jewel against the sparkling Nile River. Ships laden with exotic goods glided into its many docks as merchants readied for trading. Shop keepers watched anxiously for deliveries in the early morning light. The sound of heavy carts merged with the din of a thousand conversations in Greek, Latin, and Hebrew slowly grew louder. The rosy-fingered dawn yielded to a golden-blue day. In the main library Theon of Alexandria busied himself with returning books to their proper places. A middle-aged man approached him. Theon bowed to him respectfully, “Kaleemera keerie katheegeeta.”

Kaleemera, Theon. You are here early,” observed the librarian.

My wife is due to give birth anytime now.”

Then you should be at home, not here shelving books like a first-year novice.”

I am anxious for the birth and for her safety.”

All the more reason to be home.”

But what can I do? Would Eileithyia hear my prayers if I offered them? Surely not—that’s if she exists at all.”

We can only do what we can do, Theon. Right now, your wife needs you more than I do. Go home. I promise the library will still be here when you are ready to return,” smiled the librarian.

Theon nodded, “Efcharistó, katheegeeta.”

Twenty minutes later Theon arrived home. A baby cried softly. Theon opened the door to his bed chamber to find his wife tired but safe, her new-born resting against her breast. The midwife turned to Theon, “Congratulations, Sir. It’s girl.”

Theon sighed with relief and thanksgiving, “Efcharistó, Eileithyia. Praise be to Eileithyia; praise be to Hera!”

Theon’s wife smiled, “What shall we call her, Theon?”

“Hypatia for she shall be the greatest of all women.”

“It’s hopeless!” cried Hypatia as she threw her drop spindle across the room, her wildly uneven yarn unwinding clumsily from the spindle’s shaft. Her nanny, a slave named Iola, picked up the spindle from the floor. Hypatia fell into her arms. “I can’t do it!”

Iola soothed her, “My lady you are only five years old! Do you really expect yourself to spin as if you were a woman grown with children of her own?”

“Every time I try to draw the wool out it falls apart. When I try to mend the two ends together, it falls apart more.”

Iola picked up the spindle and the wool and then sat in a nearby chair, “You can do it, I know you can. Here, watch, see how I overlap the two ends and hold both together between my fingers? Now hold that tight while winding the spindle tight and slipping it here into the notch and there into the small hook. Do you see?”

Hypatia sat down beside her, “Yes.”

“Okay now watch as I twirl the shaft. The wool between my fingers is now tight and bound together. What I do next is slowing move my hand towards the part that is not twisted at all, not very far, just an inch at first, very slowly. See? Now here I’m going to wind the spindle so that the part we just put together is between the hook and the shaft. As long as this is tight, the yarn will not come apart and I can slowly start to draw it out again. See? It’s not hopeless. You can do it if you practice,” smiled Iola as she handed the spindle back to Hypatia.

Hypatia twirled the spindle. Out of control it landed on the floor with a soft thud, “I told you! I’m hopeless!”

“Hopeless at what?” asked Theon as he entered the room.

“Spinning! Patéras, I can’t do it! I’m no good at women’s work. I can’t spin. I can’t embroider. I can’t sew. I can’t cook! No one will ever want to marry me, at least not for my own sake!”

Theon sat down beside her, “With a good match you won’t have to. Slaves will do it for you and you can spend your days doing whatever you wish to do.”

“But what am I suited for, Patéras? How can I ever be a respectable lady like mother is?”

Theon smiled reassuringly, “Perhaps there is more than one way to become a respectable lady.”


“You could always help me with my work,” offered Theon.

“A female philosopher? People will laugh at me—or worse! Zeus made Pandora, mother of all women, to punish mankind for the trick Prometheus played on him. There is no honour in being a girl and no place among the educated for girls or women to learn let alone teach as you do,” protested Hypatia.

“The law commands that you, my daughter, obey me. Do you agree?”

“Yes. What do you wish me to do?”

“I command that you spend your days in study and when you are old enough, you will come with me to the temple where I teach my students.”

“They will stone me if I come!” objected Hypatia.

“No, they won’t, Hypatia, because I command it and under the law, you are my legal property. I have the right to take you to my classes if I wish and ask of you anything I desire. Not one man will act against it, no matter how he feels about your presence there.”

“Very well then, Patéras. I shall obey. When do you want me to start?”

“Tonight. We will go up together to the roof to look at the stars and I will show you the geometry of the heavens.”

Hypatia hugged him, “Efcharistó, Patéras!”

“You are very welcome, Hypatia!”

Chapter Two

One year later Hypatia sat at a small wooden table. Carefully copying letters from a baked clay tablet, she etched practice lines of each letter into the wax sheet in front of her. Theon bent over her shoulder, “Excellent, except your lower case xi ξ and zêta ζ need work. Here, let me show you.” Picking up a second tablet and stylus from the table, Theon slowly transcribed the two characters in front of her. Hypatia copied her father. Theon smiled with approval, “Much better. Practice those until it fills up your tablet. After dinner, I will bring you up to the roof for more lessons.”

Hypatia followed her father up the stairs to the roof, grateful for her heavy woollen palla which warmed her against the autumn night chill. Above them the stars wheeled majestically. Hypatia smiled at the beauty of the sky. Theon stepped to a small table and picked up his cross staff. Turning to the north he put the cross staff up to his cheek and measured the angular distance between Polaris in Ursa Minor and Alpha Ursae Majoris in Ursa Major.

Hypatia walked up to him, “What are you doing?”

“Measuring the distance between the pole star and that bright star near it.”

“May I try?”

Theon lowered his cross staff and handed it to Hypatia, “That star is called Alpha Ursae Majoris. It’s part of a constellation called Ursa Major –the big bear. Callisto was a beautiful nymph sworn to Artemis. One day, Zeus fell in love with her and she conceived a son. Hera of course was very angry that her husband had cheated on her again and turned her into a bear. One day her son, a young man named Arcas, met her in the forest. Naturally he was afraid that she would kill him—as bears often do when humans get too close. So, Zeus intervened and put them both in the sky. The mother is the great bear Ursa Major and the son is the little bear Ursa Minor. Callisto’s body is formed by many stars, Alpha Ursae Majoris being the closest to Arcas’ tail. If you will look here, the tip of that tail is the current pole star, Polaris.”

Hypatia smiled, “It’s beautiful! Why do you say ‘current’ pole star?”

“Because Polaris is not always the pole star. Sometimes it is Alpha Lyrae. About six hundred years ago, Hipparchus of Nicaea discovered, almost by accident, that the spin of the Earth is imperfect. Like a top, it wobbles so that the pole star alternates between Polaris and Alpha Lyrae. It takes a very long time, of course. The wobble is very slight – about one degree every seventy-two years. So as far as we need to be concerned Polaris is the pole star—and will continue to be for a very long time.”

“So, if I want to find north, all I need to do is look for Alpha Ursae Majoris and I will quickly find Polaris?”

“Yes. It is as easy as that—at least at night it is.”

“This is amazing, Father! I had no idea there was so much to learn about the stars!”

“The discoveries have only begun, Hypatia. Perhaps you will make discoveries that will change the world.”

“I would like that very much! To learn all about the stars, all the secrets of the heavens and the earth. Will the gods reward me or punish me if I make this my life’s work?”

“That is a question you must answer for yourself. But I think this is the path for you, Hypatia, if you want it badly enough.”

“What must I do?”

“Right now, you must go to bed. I have kept you up far too long. When you are older we can spend more time studying the sky. Go to sleep. In the morning, we will work on your reading and I will teach you some basic mathematics that you will need to understand before you can study the stars.”

Springtime came to Alexandria. Leo and Cancer wheeled high into the night sky. In the northwest corner of the city Jews prepared for Passover by cleaning out every grain of chametz from their homes and businesses. Rabbis watched over the preparation and baking of matzo; early flowers began to bloom in public gardens. Memories of the cold winter’s chill faded away; the entire city blossomed.

Humans too blossomed. Now ten years old Hypatia was quickly growing into a beautiful and confident girl on the edge of womanhood. Strolling through the gardens Hypatia noticed a Jewish girl sitting alone. “Salve mi amica mea, quomodo es!” smiled Hypatia.

The girl stood up, “Salve!”

“It’s a beautiful morning,” remarked Hypatia.

“It would be more beautiful if Passover were over,” replied the girl. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t complain. My father is a cantor at our synagogue and my parents are very religious. My name is Rachel bat Levi.”

“Pleased to meet you Rachel. I am Hypatia, daughter of Theon.”

“The mathematician and librarian, that Theon?”

“You’ve heard of him?”

“Yes, of course. In my culture books are very important, the Torah most of all.”

“I cannot say I know much about Jewish culture or religion. My father has me busy reading all the great Greek and Roman writers, particularly the philosophers.”

“I would love to study the Torah, but is it proper for a girl? There are no women rabbis.”

“But surely learning for its own sake is valuable!”

“Learning for men, certainly! My brothers often are found studying the Torah. But the propriety for women and the Torah is hotly debated. Some of our leaders feel Torah study helps women overcome our natural moral deficits. Others feel that our natural inferiority makes Torah study inappropriate. For how can a woman ever understand the words of G-d as taught in the scriptures?” asked Rachel humbly.

“Aristotle said,’… the male is by nature superior and the female inferior, the male ruler and the female subject. And the same must also necessarily apply in the case of mankind as a whole; therefore, all men that differ as widely as the soul does from the body and the human being from the lower animal these are by nature slaves, for whom to be governed by this kind of authority is advantageous, inasmuch as it is advantageous to the subject things already mentioned,’” quoted Hypatia.

“Are you Greek or do you simple know Aristotle because your father instructed you to read him?”

“My family is originally from Greece, yes. I was born here in Alexandria though. What about you? How long has your family lived in Alexandria?”

“A long time. Since before the Romans destroyed the temple in Jerusalem, I think. There were already large Jewish communities in the Persian empire before Alexander the Great conquered them. From what I heard my family chose not to return to Judea after the conquest. In hindsight, that was probably a good thing.”

“Sadly, I do not know much of the history or religion of your people—except of course that Passover is a rather large event,” confessed Hypatia.

“It takes a lot of work for a home to get ready for it! Nearly all of the preparations are done by mothers and their daughters. Men may get the glory, but without us they would be helpless!” smirked Rachel.

“’ And Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took a tambourine in her hand; and all the women went out after her with tambourines and with dances.’” quoted Hypatia. “Isn’t that part of your Torah?”

“Yes … it’s from Exodus. How do you know that story?”

Hypatia laughed, “My father is a librarian in the main library. There are Torah scrolls there, you know.”

“And so, there are!”

“And so, there are what?” asked a middle aged Jewish man.

Rachel turned and hugged him, “Father! Hypatia and I were just talking about Passover.”

The man turned towards Hypatia, “Hypatia, daughter of Theon?”


“I am Levi ben David.”

“A pleasure to meet you, Levi. Your daughter does you great credit. You should be very proud.”

“I am,” affirmed Levi before turning to Rachel, “So, are you ready to head home? Your mother needs your help, I imagine.”

Rachel nodded obediently, “Of course, Father. A pleasure meeting you, Hypatia!”

Hypatia saluted them as they turned and walked away. “Salve, Rachel! May we meet again someday.”

Spring yielded to summer and summer to autumn. The starry sky wheeled around Alexandria and Hypatia grew into womanhood. Listening to her father lecture his students on Hipparchus of Nicaea, Hypatia sat quietly at a table within the Serapeum, her pen scraping against the blank papyrus as she carefully copied Aristarchus’ “On the Sizes and Distances of the Sun and Moon.” Pulling out a small measuring device she copied Aristarchus’ diagrams precisely, delighting in the beauty of his geometry, her mind half listening to her father’s class as she worked.

Aristarchus taught a heliocentric explanation for the motions of the planets and stars using elliptical orbits for the Earth and the celestial wanderers. Yet Hipparchus, writing only a few decades later, found the logic behind Aristarchus’ calculations lacking. After all, Nature only allowed for perfectly circular orbits; the idea of an elliptical orbit was utterly absurd! Everyone thought so too. And so, Hipparchus resolved the conflicts created by Earth centrism with a simple tool thought of by Apollonius of Perga: the epicycle. With epicycles the sun, moon, stars, and wanderers travelled in a small circle as they each travelled in a larger circle around the Earth. And besides, under Aristarchus’ heliocentric model, the universe became a vast, almost infinitely large space, something Hipparchus absolutely could not accept. For what could man mean to the gods if the universe was vast and expansive? Would not humanity become too insignificant for the gods to care about?

Though her father’s lecture spoke only of Hipparchus and his innovative use of triangles in astronomy, Hypatia found herself wondering: what if the problem with Aristarchus was not in his observations, but in the fear by Hipparchus and other devotees of Aristotle’s earth centric philosophy that perhaps the gods cared less about humans than the priests taught—if they existed at all? And if the gods did not exist, what then? Was the human reasoning so cherished by the gods sufficient to prosper and thrive without religious belief? Could humans control their own destinies instead of fearing the world around them and yielding authority over their lives to gods and the priests who claimed to speak for them? Was it even safe to contemplate any realm of life where the gods did not rule over every thought, feeling, or decision to be made? Or were her contemplations of an Earth moving around the sun and a world ruled by logic and reason simply begging the gods to strike her down?

As the sun set beneath the horizon, Hypatia could only wonder.

Chapter Three

The city of Athens glittered like a jewel on the Aegean Sea. Now sixteen Hypatia climbed the many Athenian hills until she reached the top Acropolis Hill with its many mighty temples. Soberly she stepped into the Parthenon and gazed at its massive statue of Athena. Skirting the beautiful pool reflecting Athena in her gold and ivory glory, Hypatia sat down next to the sacred water. In the quiet of the temple her mind raced through the many books she’d read, the many contradictory opinions of the great teachers she grew up honouring and respecting. Proofs and equations unfolded through her subconscious like fast moving streams. Songs and stories in all the languages of Alexandria’s agora entwined with the mathematics flowing through her. Did Athena speak to her in the language of science? Only one thing was certain: this learning, this knowledge must be protected and preserved for all generations. It was not enough to learn. For the light of knowledge to survive, she must also teach, no matter the cost.

Sunset glowed orange bright. After a day of reflection and a bit of shopping and tourism Hypatia arrived at last at the home of her father’s friend and colleague Alexandros. A slave greeted her and ushered her into the well-tended courtyard garden. Alexandros greeted her warming, “Salve! Kaló apógevma! How was your journey?”

“Peaceful. I am staying at the large inn near Acropolis Hill. I hope you do not mind I did not come directly to your beautiful home. The Parthenon beckoned like a siren,” smiled Hypatia.

“The goddess has that effect on people, particularly those whose hearts and minds seek wisdom and learning. How is your father?” asked Alexandros.

“Eager to see you again.”

“As I am him. Have no fear. I shall make it back to Alexandria, though perhaps not for a year or two.” Alexandros studied Hypatia, “You have grown. The last time I visited Theon you were a little girl trying and failing to master the aulos. Please tell me you have improved!”

“Oh, that I could make you such a positive report. But the muses speak not to me in such a fashion. Rather it is the music of the heavens that I hear, the geometry of the sky that speaks to and through me.”

“Your father says you have a true gift. Not only for astronomy and geometry, but for understanding the nuances of the written word as well, not to mention for philosophy.”

“I am no Homer, no Socrates,” blushed Hypatia humbly.

“Homer did not understand trigonometry as you do nor did Socrates appreciate the beauty of many cultures. I heard stories that from time to time you quietly attend worship services at a synagogue. Is it true? Are you converted to the religion of the Jews?”

“I have a friend, Rachel bat Levi. Her father Levi ben David is a cantor. I come to see her and to listen to the beautiful music. Her father has a true gift for singing, as do all in her family. Maybe I cannot play the aulos, but I can appreciate beauty where I find it. Alexandria offers many opportunities to find beauty if one will only open one’s heart and mind to see past what is practical or familiar,” explained Hypatia.

“So, for you learning is a means unto itself?”

“Absolutely. Knowledge enriches us. What one studies matters less than the pursuit of knowledge. The gods gave us the power to think, to feel, to reason as perhaps their greatest of gifts. It would be disgraceful to not use these gifts to the fullest of one’s abilities.”

“If only all saw it as you do.”

“You are referring to the writings of the Christian Saint Paul? In his letter to the Colossians he wrote, ‘See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than on Christ. For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form, and in Christ you have been brought to fullness. He is the head over every power and authority.’”

“You are well-informed! I admit I am surprised by the depth of your study. I know very few people who read and study quite so broadly.”

“You honour me.”

“Perhaps. Or perhaps I simply recognize greatness when I see it. Come! I would have you share your knowledge with others who pursue learning as you do. We meet every tenth day, gathering together at the Arch of Hadrian. We talk, we debate, sometimes we even compete with one another in physical contests. There are no forbidden topics, no rules we must follow beyond basic decency and civility. I think you would enjoy being part of our community,” invited Alexandros.

Efcharistó, I would be delighted to attend.”

“I shall come to your lodging three days hence—unless you would consider staying with me and my family.”

“What a kind and generous offer. Tonight, I will sleep at the inn, but in the morning, I shall return and stay with you for the remainder of my time in Athens—or until you bid me depart should you find me insufferable,” teased Hypatia.

“Until tomorrow then!”

Hypatia thrived in Alexandros’ group of young Neoplatonists. As he promised, no subject was forbidden, no writer banished from discussion. As Hypatia learned and grew she found her reputation rising, not only among her Neoplatonist friends, but across scholarly circles across Athens and beyond. Night fell on her seventeenth year and her eighteenth birthday approached Hypatia boarded a ship for home optimistic that her time in Greece was well-spent.

“Fire! Fire!” cried the night watchman as flames shot up through the roof of the Great Library. Though many small fires had destroyed parts of the Library over the centuries, this fire burnt with historic fierceness, lighting up the Great Harbour and blocking the stars as if it were noon and not approaching midnight. Hypatia watched dozens of men, including her father, plunged themselves into the burning building in attempt to save what precious few manuscripts they could. Not all who entered the inferno came back again. Hypatia handed cups of water to the firefighters, doing what she could to support them.

By morning, not a single stone remaining upon another. This time there could be no rebuilding, no rededication to Zeus, Athena, or Serapis. The light of knowledge was going out. Now only the branch libraries in the Caesareum and in the Temple of Serapis remained of what was once the greatest collection of manuscripts and books the western world had ever known. Hypatia walked among the ruins; a great wave of emotion filled her. Shaking, she fell to the ground, a soulful scream bursting from the depths of her being as an ocean of tears poured out from her eyes. Was this what the Jews felt when the Romans pulled down their temple in Jerusalem? Was this the reason why Rachel wept at Passover each time someone proclaimed, “Next year in Jerusalem?”

“I thought you might be here,” soothed a familiar voice behind her.

Hypatia looked up and took the hand offered to her, “You came!”

Rachel pulled Hypatia to her feet, “Where else would my favourite gentile be but among the ashes of the books she loves so deeply?”

“You know me well!”

“Shall I ask my rabbi to say a prayer for you?”

“Not for me, but for all learning, all wisdom. The light must not go out, Rachel! I don’t want to live in a world where learning is forbidden and scholars are mocked as madmen.”

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