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The Revered Life of Hypatia

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by Emily Lnenicka -- September 26, 2011

Introduction Edit

One chief way of understanding an individual’s life is by reading the text of a reliable biographer. While different biographers utilize different styles to present accounts of individuals, biographers who are contemporaries of the individuals they’re writing on may have more access to information that adds to the richness and accuracy of their writings. Unfortunately, the lives of ancient Roman women were not attended to in this way, since the social climate of the time did not place a high value on women’s lives. Therefore, the ancient biographers did not prioritize the documentation of such lives. Luckily, historians, like Silvia Ronchey, have been able to compile different sources of information to reconstruct an account of one Roman woman’s life, in particular: the life of Hypatia the Intellectual. Ronchey produces a well researched and informative compendium of what various sources had to say about who Hypatia was, what she did, and what sort of impression she left on her community. However, it is reasonable to assume that Hypatia’s life would have read much differently had it been articulated by one of the ancient biographers, rather than a contemporary scholar. Specifically, if Hypatia’s life had been recorded by the biographer responsible for recording “The Life of Aristophanes,” the biography would be fundamentally different, emphasizing Hypatia’s life accomplishments rather than the manner of her death.

Existing Reconstruction Edit

In Roman Women, Ronchey reconstructs Hypatia’s life by drawing on a variety of sources, each one containing a snippet of information that may or may not be biased due to the different interests and positions of the authors. For instance, Ronchey found many different accounts of Hypatia’s death. Two main accounts of her death come from sources with two divergent points of view: one pagan, and the other Christian. Damascius, who provided a pagan account of Hypatia’s murder, was “pagan, and therefore hostile to the bishop” (Ronchey 175). Consequently, his account of Hypatia’s death places the blame on the bishop, Cyril, for murdering her. On the other hand, the Christian account of Hypatia’s death paints her demise as an example of a woman who died for Christianity. The account tells the story of Hypatia, the martyr, who died a virgin for the Christian cause (Ronchey 186). While both accounts cannot be completely truthful, Ronchey decides to incorporate all existing accounts into her reconstruction of Hypatia’s life, seemingly in an attempt to provide the reader with all the available information.

Another one of the many examples of this approach is in Ronchey’s description of Hypatia’s clothing. In the beginning of her account, Ronchey quotes Suidas, who describes Hypatia’s clothing and claims “she would wear the tribon [the cape of Cynic philosophers], and would go about the city publicly, explaining to whoever felt like listening, Plato, Aristotle, or any other philosopher” (Ronchey161). However, later on in the text Ronchey reanalyzes this claim, noting that this portrayal of Hypatia may have been idealized, and that she likely did not wear a tribon throughout the city (Ronchey179). Although this approach to constructing a biography is certainly valid, it construes the meaning of Hypatia’s life in a way that, I would imagine, is very different than the meaning that would result from how an ancient biographer might present the same life.

Reformulating the Reconstruction Edit

The biographer responsible for “The Life of Aristophanes” approached his project in a different manner than that of Silvia Ronchey. Unlike Ronchey, this biographer did not burden himself with the task of representing different pieces of conflicting evidence. Instead, throughout “The Life of Aristophanes” the biographer commits to one version of the story. It is possible that the biographer did so because he did not have access to multiple “versions” of Aristophanes’ life, yet this explanation seems unlikely in that he would have undoubtedly uncovered different opinions, at the very least, on Aristophanes during his research. Further, it is worth noting that this biographer was pursuing a very different project than Ronchey’s scholarly endeavor. In fact, it is more than likely that Ronchey’s reconstruction of Hypatia’s life is a more factually accurate representation than the ancient biographer’s portrayal would have been. Yet, the ancient biographer’s portrayal does have the promise to be able to give a more accurate “feeling” of how Hypatia’s life should be remembered.

If this biographer were to record Hypatia’s life, he would likely start with the same basic information that he began with in “The Life of Aristophanes”: where the individual was from, some brief information about the family, and what the individual was largely credited for having accomplished (“The Life of Aristophanes” 169). So, he would explain that Hypatia was from Alexandria, that her father was the philosopher Theon, and that she taught philosophy of the Platonic tradition (Ronchey 161). The biographer should then launch into a more detailed account of Hypatia’s accomplishments, as he did for Aristophanes, to give a sense of what an amazingly accomplished woman she was (“The Life of Aristophanes” 170). For example, he might tell of Hypatia’s advanced skill in geometry, for which she has been called, by Damascius, a “master of geometry” (Ronchey180). The biographer would set all this up before delving into information about Hypatia’s personal or political life, since using this technique in “The Life of Aristophanes” allowed the reader the opportunity to, first and foremost, appreciate Aristophanes’ many achievements as the central focus of his life. Focusing on Hypatia’s achievements would likely be the chief difference between this biography and the existing account in Roman Women, as the latter spent much time focusing on the manner of Hypatia’s death rather than on her life’s work.

Next, the biographer ought to discuss Hypatia’s life with a greater focus on who she was as a person, as well as her relationships and interactions with others. This follows the biographer’s structure of “The Life of Aristophanes,” as he explains Aristophanes’ relationship with Cleon, followed by how the public responded to Aristophanes and his poetry (“The Life of Aristophanes” 170-171). So, in the case of Hypatia, this would be an opportune time to discuss, perhaps, her relationship with her student Synesius (Ronchey 182). Synesius is an example of an individual in Hypatia’s life who appears to have been very close to Hypatia, and still worshipped her. We have many examples of him singing Hypatia’s praises, as in the quote where he describes Hypatia as the “most venerated philosopher, cherished by God” (Ronchey 182). The biography of Hypatia should include several quotes from Synesius, as a means of exemplifying on specific relationship of Hypatia’s, and also a way of shedding light on how others may have perceived Hypatia. The biographer might also consider including an anecdote about Hypatia, such as that she “ ‘had become such an experienced teacher, was so just and wise, but also so beautiful and attractive’ that he students would fall in love with her” (Ronchey 161). Such inclusions will give a rich account of what sort of person Hypatia was, as well as the impact she had on the community, both personally and professionally.

Finally, the biography should end very similarly to the way in which “The Life of Aristophanes” ends: with a description of the individual’s legacy, and no mention of the manner of the individual’s death (“The Life of Aristophanes” 169). Instead of even alluding to the manner of Aristophanes’ death, the biographer ends with a list of accolades: “He wrote a total of ninety-two dramas…also eight satyr plays…He won five victories” (“The Life of Aristophanes” 169). So, following in the tradition of “The Life of Aristophanes,” the biographer might end the biography by listing some of Hypatia’s known works, such as the essay “Astronomical Cannon” and her commentaries on classics, as well as including a mention of Hypatia’s many works that remain unaccounted for (Ronchey 180). The biographer should omit any mention of disputes over Hypatia’s murder, or for that matter, any mention of her death at all.


This treatment of Hypatia’s biography might come as a bit of a shock, as Silvia Ronchey’s account placed such an emphasis on analyzing the various accounts of Hypatia’s death. Ronchey does recognize that the Christian interpretation of Hypatia’s death “robbed [Hypatia] of her leading role” as a philosopher (Ronchey 186). However, Ronchey does not seem to recognize that what further robbed Hypatia of this role was the time spent dwelling on the specifics of her death. This choice to focus on these details really altered the meaning of the entire biography. By the time one finishes reading Ronchey’s account, Hypatia’s life as a philosopher has been all but forgotten. And what a shame this is; shouldn’t a biography, by definition, be most concerned with the events occurring during the majority of the profiled individual’s lifetime, rather than the manner in which the life came to an end? By responding to these concerns and omitting Hypatia's death from the biography, the biographer can ensure that story of Hypatia’s life will be honored as the true focal point of the biography, and will not be overshadowed by the manner of Hypatia’s death. Thus, Hypatia's accomplished life will receive the revered treatment it deserves.

Works Cited Edit

Ronchey, Silvia. “Hypatia the Intellectual.” Roman Women. Ed. Augusto Fraschetti. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2001. 160-189. Print.

“The Life of Aristophanes.” The Lives of the Greek Poets. 169-172.

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