Born and killed in Egypt, the story of the first female mathematician, Hypatia

Nii Ntreh March 25, 2020
An artist's impression of 4th-century philosopher Hypatia

In modern liberal arts academia, one is discouraged from giving too much priority to race when dealing with ideas and concepts of ancient times. The intention of this prohibition is surprisingly good.

Think about the story of Hypatia, the 4th-century Hellenistic Egyptian. She was a woman who was a philosopher in times that women were barely considered autonomous.

Hypatia was born circa 360-370 AD in Alexandria, Egypt. Her place of birth was within the stretch of the Byzantine empire, the near eastern iteration of the Roman empire.

The Byzantine empire, which had its capital in Constantinople (today Istanbul, Turkey), included a large expanse of land that had been colonized by the fallen Macedonian empire under Alexander the Great and his predecessors.

The Macedonian empire had been culturally Greek in character. This means that Egypt, which was conquered by Alexander in 332 BC, was Hellenized – forced to adopt the Greek ways of life (Alexandria in Egypt is named after Alexander the Great).

Therefore, what we had with Byzantine was an empire founded by Romans (Latins) in a place that was, for the most part, culturally Greek. Egypt, itself a storied uniqueness of ancient history, then became a Roman-controlled Greek-esque province.

The complexity of histories like this, therefore, begs the question: If we insist on pinning ancients to modern understandings of race, what race was the venerable Hypatia?

We do not know much about Hypatia’s father Theon (a Greek name) but the belief is that he was also born in Alexandria. He would have referred to himself as a Greek even if his forbears were “ethnic” Egyptians.

It was usual of ancients in the Mediterranean and the Levant regions to identify with an overriding group identity even if they were not actual natives of the place the identity comes from.

In the Bible, Saul of Tarsus (who later became Paul) identified as Roman in Acts 22:25, as he was about to face a particular punishment. Saul called out to a centurion: “Is it lawful for you to scourge a man who is a Roman and uncondemned?”

Tarsus, where Saul is thought to have been born, was in Asia Minor, not anywhere near Rome. Today, Tarsus is in Mersin, Turkey.

Luckily for us, the politics of identity does not seem to have gotten in the way of Hypatia. Also, from what we know about her, she seemed to have lived her entire life in her hometown of Alexandria.

She was born into privilege for which reason Hypatia had the luxury to study unlike many other men and certainly unlike women of her time.

Hypatia was one of the Neoplatonists. This group was a set of thinkers of religion, proto-science and culture who adopted many of the original ideas of Plato and adjusted it to fit certain questions of their time starting from the 3rd century BC.

This means that Hypatia, just like the learned of her time, was interested in philosophy, mathematics and astronomy as one subject. The categorization of subjects as separate from each other is a late modern invention.

Hypatia is known to have been a teacher and therefore compulsorily, a librarian. Unfortunately, historians have not found works they can confidently attribute to Hypatia’s independent scholarship.

But a 2017 book by Charlotte Booth contends that Hypatia edited Book III of Almagest, a treatise by Ptolemy. The 2nd-century book, whose reproduction we still have in many universities across the world, focuses on the mathematics and astronomy of moving planetary bodies.

In addition to this, Alan Cameron in Hypatia: Life, Death, and Works, argues that Hypatia was responsible for more than 100 mathematical problems in a revised edition in Diophantus’ Arithmetica.

Her understanding of the mathematical knowledge of her time is thoroughly praised by other modern writers. Indeed, she is noted using unique algorithms in calculations which helps researchers easily identify which works were edited by her.

Hypatia’s alleged commentaries on many other works are still being ascertained.

She is also reputed to have been an inventor who made tools for astronomical and mathematical analyses. But this has been challenged by multiple contemporary authors.

We have to understand that Hypatia lived at the apogee of Alexandria’s glory. Even though the famous Library of Alexandria had been destroyed before Hypatia was born, Alexandria’s lure was present in the 3rd century AD.

Reputed to be the first known female mathematician by the Western world (ironic if you consider she was not born and did not live in the West), Hypatia lived the best life Alexandria and the ancient intellectual world offered. At least, until superstition from early Christians drove them to kill her.

She was murdered by a Christian mob in 415 AD who accused her of witchcraft. But in contemporary times, she is identified by feminists as a source of inspiration for women’s empowerment.

Last Edited by:Kent Mensah Updated: March 25, 2020


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