Edward J. Watts, Hypatia: The Life and Legend of an Ancient Philosopher. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017.
If “Google search data” be trusted, Edward J. Watts’s latest book treats “the world’s best-known Neoplatonic philosopher and the fifth most popular Greek philosopher ever—trailing only Plato, Socrates, Aristotle, and Pythagoras.” (4). Strange, then, that it’s the first monograph on Hypatia to appear in more than two decades. The problem, of course, are the sources—or, rather, their lack. Watts puts it bluntly: “Our evidence for Hypatia’s life is scanty, it is almost entirely written by men, and it is interested in telling only the stories that appealed most directly to male authors.” (5). Besides her student Synesius of Cyrene and the church historian Philostorgius, moreover, the male authors in question—Socrates Scholasticus, John Malalas, Damascius, Hesychius of Miletus, John of Nikiu—are late, the last postdating Hypatia by some two hundred years. When they did mention her, it was primarily for Hypatia’s death—much less her life, still less her thought. Whence her romantic legend, enshrined in early modern treatises, Victorian novels, and Hollywood blockbusters alike.
Watts ends the volume with a chapter on such modern representations of Hypatia, which move already suggests his aim: to bracket the legend long enough to catch sight of the life that inspired it. He does so by utilizing his expertise in late antique Alexandria (Hypatia’s hometown and topic of (Ch. 1), as well as his extensive knowledge of pagan-Christian relations in the period (of which Hypatia’s violent murder is often taken as emblematic). Attention to these wider fields and the texts they treat allows Watts to resituate Hypatia within her own historical, geographical, and intellectual contexts, even as it helps him augment the unfortunately meager sources. Extant accounts of elite education in the later empire, for instance, supplement Philostorgius and Damscius’s brief comments on her father Theon’s role in Hypatia’s early schooling (Ch. 2), just as Marinus’s reports about his teacher’s training in the Life of Proclus allow Watts to conjecture about the curriculum at Hypatia’s own school (Ch.3). With Watts’s arrangement, these adjacent texts outline Hypatia’s silhouette.
Even so, Watts doesn’t stray far from the evidence we do have. He takes Socrates Scholasticus seriously, for example, when he dubs Hypatia “heir to the Platonic interpretive tradition handed down from Plotinus” (Historia Ecclesiastica 7.15). For Watts, the comment confirms that she was indeed a “Plotinian Platonist” rather than, say, an “Iamblichan Platonist” or “Themistian Aristotelian” (45-46). Which is to say, Hypatia most likely endorsed a philosophical program of (re)union with the One by way of intellectual contemplation, not theurgy. Her well-attested genius in mathematics only lends additional credence to this characterization. Watts finds further evidence for Socrates’s claim in the letters of Synesius, one of Hypatia’s pupils and later Christian bishop of Cyrene. He treats us to a rich and resourceful reading of an epistolary exchange between master and disciple, despite the unfortunate fact only the latter’s letters remain (Ch. 5). All this provides Watts sufficient evidence to distinguish her from, on the one hand, the Alexandrian mathematicians by whom she was likely trained and, on the other, contemporary philosophers of a Neoplatonic stripe, even if these distinctions may have distanced her from the scholastic prestige those like Plutarch and Syranius were garnering in and for the city of Athens (Ch. 4).
The Plotinian heritage notwithstanding, nearly all of our sources mention Hypatia’s involvement in matters of state, on account of which “high-profile” role Watts labels her “public intellectual” (Ch. 6). Unlike some late antique literati who relished public office for the social benefits it conferred, however, Hypatia apparently exercised her influence with prudence. The impression Watts divines from the brief reports of her duties in this arena styles Hypatia an intellectual who didn’t have to compromise her philosophical integrity to wield political power. These accomplishments are all the more striking, of course, since the ruling class she had to navigate was then, as now, dominated by men. To accentuate Hypatia’s success, Watts compares her career with that of four other female philosophers in antiquity: Pandrosion, fourth-century mathematician in Alexandria; Sosipatra, fourth-century Neoplatonist in Ephesus; Asclepiginia, daughter of the famed Neoplatonist Plutarch who also taught philosophy in Athens during the mid-fifth-century; the unnamed wife of the fourth-century Neoplatonist Maximus of Ephesus, whose knowledge of philosophy reportedly rivaled her husband’s. “Hypatia’s sisters,” Watts calls these women (Ch. 7). By comparison, Hypatia’s distinction is the highly public profile she maintained alongside her professorial career.
It is precisely her prominence among imperial officials in Alexandria that serves as backdrop for Hypatia’s infamous death at the hands of a Christian mob (Ch. 8). On Watts’ telling, though, this bloody episode is more an unhappy happenstance than the emblem of antiquity’s demise it somehow became. Hypatia’s rise to fame occurred under the auspices of Theophilus, the wily bishop of Alexandria whose commitment to friendly relations among the city’s elites, whether pagan or Christian, insured the esteem of Hypatia and her students. Cyril, successor to the see of Alexandria, was not as open-minded. Due in part to a keen awareness that he did not enjoy the levels of popularity his uncle Theophilus had, Cyril antagonized perceived threats to power. Thus, when the governor Orestes called on Hypatia to help rebuild bridges among the civic elite that Cyril and his followers had begun to burn, she was caught in the crosshairs. Indeed, in the eyes of the Nitrian monks whom Cyril invited into the city to bolster his position, Hypatia became an easy scapegoat for tensions between empire and episcopate; some went as far to say she was actively corrupting Orestes with pagan magic. Still, says Watts, the group of Cyril’s supporters who eventually killed Hypatia in March 415 probably didn’t premeditate her murder. Ironically, had they not found her in public—either in her carriage or her classroom—this mob would have likely done little more than yell, albeit angrily, over the walls of her house.
As it happened, though, Hypatia’s death was just as high-profile as her life, which guaranteed that her memory was also a matter of intensely public record. Because of her upstanding reputation and the astonishing cruelty of her murder, news of Hypatia’s demise scandalized many throughout the empire, pagan and Christian alike. Soon, however, shock gave way to symbolism. Indeed, each of the ancient authors Watts considers in his penultimate chapter cast Hypatia’s death as a key moment in much broader stories of cultural conflict, occasionally conquest (Ch. 9). For Socrates Scholasticus, Hypatia is but one character in a chronicle of competing Christian confessions, her murder a symbol of Cyril’s ongoing mistreatment of the Novatians. Likewise, Damascius remembers her as pagan martyr in an increasingly hostile Christian age (this, of course, in spite of the close ties she kept with church-going intellectuals throughout her career). But, Watts says, “as Hypatia became a literary weather vane that gave first warning of whatever coming storm an author wanted to describe, her actual story began to get lost.” (134). This process of forgetting only increased in the modern period (Ch. 10), during which the “twin specters of religious extremism and social decline” continued to haunt histories of Hypatia’s world (147).
Nevertheless, Watts enjoins in the epilogue, “we must appreciate Hypatia for the person that she was, not the literary character that she became.” (155). Hypatia: The Life and Legend of an Ancient Philosopher, like the other volumes in Oxford’s Women in Antiquity series, offers us opportunity to do just that. And yet despite its undeniable achievements, this book leaves one with a certain melancholy. It is an effect, perhaps, of Hypatia’s displacement: so many words about her—ancient, modern, and in-between—and yet so few from her own hand. Amidst all these signifiers “the lady vanishes,” as Elizabeth A. Clark (and Alfred Hitchcock) once noted. Luckily, though, absence need not always be a denial of presence. Or so a Plotinian Platonist like Hypatia herself might say.
Taylor Ross is a PhD candidate in the Early Christianity track of the Graduate Program in Religion at Duke University. In addition to his work in Early Christianity and Late Antiquity, he is also earning the Philosophy, Arts, and Literature (PAL) Graduate Certificate.