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Hypatia of Alexandria: Mathematician and Martyr

Author(s): 
Eugene Boman, reviewer

Hypatia of Alexandria: Mathematician and Martyr, by Michael A. B. Deakin, 2007, 231 pp., hardcover, ISBN 978-1-59102-520-7, $28. Prometheus Books, 59 John Glenn Drive, Amherst, New York, 14228-2197, http://www.prometheusbooks.com/

 

A popular biography of Hypatia would be either uncommonly short or a work of fiction for, like so many of the ancients, the uncontested facts of her life are not sufficient to support much of a tale. There is a great deal of speculation and conjecture about her but remarkably few undisputed facts. Fortunately, this book is a work of scholarship, not a popular biography, so Deakin takes great care to to place Hypatia in historical context, describe her intellectual and religious background and the historical sources he uses before moving on to the details, known and  speculative, of Hypatia's life. The book seems to be an expansion of his article ''Hypatia and her Mathematics'' published in the March, 1994 issue of the American Mathematical Monthly (Vol. 101, No. 3, pp. 234-243).

The established facts of Hypatia's life are essentially these:
(1) She was the daughter of Theon of Alexandria.
(2) She was trained as a mathematician by her father and eventually replaced him as the leading mathematician of Alexandria and, indeed as the pre-eminent mathematician of her time.
(3) She was the last major mathematician of the Alexandrian tradition.
(4) She studied and taught neo-Platonist philosophy, and astronomy, and was generally regarded as an excellent teacher.
(5) She died a particularly grisly death, probably in 415 CE, at the hands of a Christian mob. Some say her slaughter was instigated by Saint Cyril, Archbishop of Alexandria.

The number of speculative details is not much larger but possibly more interesting. I won't spoil the book for you by listing those as well. If you are interested only in what is certain you can stop here.

However, if you would like to know more about the intellectual traditions of Western civilization then I highly recommend this book. For Hypatia lived and died on the cusp of the transition from the Graeco-Roman to the Christian tradition and to tell her story is, in large measure, to tell the story of her times.

This Deakin does very thoroughly, indicating clearly what is known, what is speculative and, where appropriate, which side he believes the weight of the evidence favors. An appendix containing English translations of all of his major sources is provided as well a list of the works that are generally attributed to Hypatia and a thorough analysis and exposition of the evidence that these are in fact the works of Hypatia.

As I said, this is work of scholarship not a popular biography. Anyone interested in learning about Hypatia and, what is possibly more important, the times she lived in will find what he is looking for in Deakin's book.


Eugene Boman, Associate Professor of Mathematics, The Pennsylvania State University, Capital College, Middletown, PA.

 

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