The Primary Sources for the Life and Work of Hypatia of Alexandria

by Michael A. B. Deakin

History of Mathematics Paper 63
August 1995
Mathematics Department
Monash University
Clayton 3168, Australia

The author may be reached at


Historians need to say of the past events they recount not only what happened but also how we know it. This latter question is usually answered by references to sources, that is to say earlier accounts of the matter in hand. We distinguish between two types of source: primary and secondary. The former are those that cannot be traced back any further, the latter those that in their turn do depend on earlier accounts. Primary sources are not necessarily correct in all their detail (indeed those for Hypatia contradict one another in places), but secondary sources should not, without good reason, go beyond what the primary sources assert. Primary sources can however require interpretation and assessment; this is the role of a good secondary source. Indeed secondary sources are vital unless one has the necessary linguistic, historical and cultural background oneself to assess the primary sources. Finally it should be said that works of fiction (whether the fiction is intentional or not!) are not historical sources at all. Regrettably much of what is readily available on Hypatia derives from fictional, rather than historical, sources.

The life of Hypatia of Alexandria depends on a small amount of primary material, and anything going outside that is either fiction or speculation and in a good account should be flagged as such. The purpose of this note is to acquaint the reader with what the primary sources are and where they are to be found. They all come to us in languages other than English, and all started their life as documents written in patristic Greek. However, today all are available in English, although in some instances the translation may not be easy to come by. My own, so far unpublished, biography of Hypatia gives English translations of all of them and the total extent is just under 20 A4 typed pages.

These sources may be listed under 5 heads:

  • (a) The entry in the Suda Lexicon
  • (b) A passage in the Ecclesiastical History of Socrates Scholasticus
  • (c) An excerpt from The Chronicle of John, Coptic Bishop of Nikiu
  • (d) A number of letters by Hypatia's pupil, Synesius of Cyrene
  • (e) Four miscellaneous short extracts from other works.
  • These will now be addressed in turn.

    The Suda Extract

    The so-called Suda Lexicon is a tenth-century encyclopedia arranged alphabetically and including a (somewhat unusually long) entry on Hypatia. The name Suda is now seen as deriving from the Greek word for "fortress" and so the work advertised itself as a "stronghold of knowledge", so to speak. However, older scholarship (and still a few contemporary authors) employed the transliteration Suidae Lexicon, which translates from the Latin as "Suidas' Lexicon" and so the tradition became established of referring to its "author" as Suidas (much as some 30th-century author might come to refer to Britannicus and his wonderful encyclopedia).

    The Suda of course predates the invention of the printing press and thus began its life (as did all the other primary sources) in manuscript form. However there have now been several printings, of which the most authoritative is Ada Adler's edition: Suidae Lexicon (Stuttgart: Teubner, 1971 reprint of a 1935 original), in 5 volumes. The Hypatia entry occurs on pp. 644-646 of Volume 4 in this edition.

    That entry is somewhat garbled and indeed contradicts itself (it says that Hypatia was married and then later it says she wasn't!) and there are manifest spelling and grammatical errors in the Greek text that have led to a lot of scholarly debate as to what was originally meant. Many authorities believe that passages are missing, whereas the final two paragraphs have virtually nothing to do with Hypatia.

    The Suda article was not itself an original production, but in its turn relied on at least two earlier works. The best accessible discussions of the sources used in its compilation are:

  • (a) P. Tannery, "L'article de Suidas sur Hypatie", Annales de la faculté des lettres de Bordeaux 2 (1880), pp. 197-200.
  • (b)K. Praechter, Article on Hypatia in Paulys Realencyclopä die der Alterumwissenschaft (Stuttgart: Druckenmuller, 1914), in 49 volumes.
  • These divide the article into two parts. The first and smaller of the two is believed to derive from an earlier (sixth-century) encyclopedia, the Onomatologus of Hesychius the Illustrious. (Hesychius the Illustrious is also known as Hesychius of Milesius, but is a different person from other persons of the same name, e.g. Hesychius of Alexandria.) This work does not survive in its entirety, but an attempt has been made to reconstruct it from the parts that do survive and from quotations in other works like the Suda. This reconstruction was published last century (I. Flach, Hesychii Milesii Onomatologi que supersunt cum prolegomenis edidit; Leipzig: Teubner, 1882). The Hypatia entry is Entry 814 (pp. 219-220) and it derives directly from the Suda entry except that Flach regards the last three sentences, dealing with Hypatia's death, as a probable later addition. It should also be noted that Flach wrote in ignorance of a proposed amendment by Tannery to the sentence on Hypatia's publications.

    The second and longer of the two excerpts is believed to derive from a now lost work: The Life of Isidorus by the Neoplatonist philosopher Damascius. Again there have been attempts to "reconstruct" this work. The first was that of R. Asmus, Das Leben des Philosophen Isidoros von Damaskios aus Damaskos (Der Philosphischen Bibliothek, Bd. 125) (Leipzig: Meiner, 1911). This work takes the existing fragments from the Suda and from a summary known as the Abridgement of Photius, and seeks to concatenate them into an attempted coherent narrative in a (rather free) German translation.

    Photius incidentally was a ninth-century Christian scribe who produced summaries of various important works from antiquity, in many cases works that are otherwise lost. The compilation Patrologiae Graecae (edited and published by J.-P. Migne, Paris: 1857-1866) is a set of 165 volumes presenting the writings in Greek of figures important in the life of the Christian church. It will be referred to many times again below, and the abbreviation PG will be adopted. It is a bilingual edition presenting the Greek original and its Latin translation in parallel columns. Photius' abridgement of Damascius' Life is to be found in Volume 103, Columns 1249-1310, but only a minute part of this material concerns Hypatia.

    In Asmus' reconstruction, the Hypatia material is divided into two separate parts, the first on pp. 31-33, the second on p. 97.

    More recently a further attempt at reconstructing this work has appeared (C. Zintzen, Damascii Vitae Isidori Reliquiae; Hildesheim: Olms, 1967), which does not aim to present a coherent narrative, but rather to give all the fragments that can be found in what is thought to have been their order of original presentation. Zintzen believes that there were in fact two very different versions of Damascius' Life, and that the passages in the first (most of which found its way into the Suda) referring to Hypatia are only doubtfully by Damascius himself. This leaves only those passages from the second as attributed more definitely to Damascius. It is interesting to note that these give a far less favourable impression of Hypatia than do the others. Zintzen's versions of the original Greek differ in places from those presented by Adler (op. cit. supra).

    All of this material has been translated into English (see W. Frost, M. A. B. Deakin and M. Wilkinson, "The Suda Article on Hypatia", Monash University History of Mathematics Pamphlet No. 61, May 1995; Jeremiah Reedy, "The Life of Hypatia from the Suda", Alexandria 2, Grand Rapids, Michigan : Phanes Press, 1993). These would seem to be the only translation into a modern language, other than Asmus' German (op. cit. supra). A few Latin translations and abridgements also exist.

    Socrates Scholasticus

    Socrates Scholasticus was a fifth-century church historian (and a quite different person from his more famous namesake, the Athenian philosopher). His Ecclesiastical History is to be found in PG, Volume 67. Columns 767-770 refer directly to Hypatia, but the two preceding chapters are relevant because they give the background to the events chronicled there. The account of Hypatia's death is the main focus of the direct presentation and this is also to be found in PG, Volume 66, Columns 1047-1048.

    Socrates was a Christian author, while those dealt with above were pagan. For this reason, this work is much better preserved than that summarised earlier. (This is not really surprising; after all the Christians "won"!) It is also available in English translation; several separate translations in fact. The latest and best is A. C. Zenos' The Ecclesiastical Histories of Sozomen and Socrates Scholasticus (Volume 2 of A Select Library of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, 2nd Series) (Oxford: Parker, 1891). In this translation, the relevant material is in Book 7, Chapters XIII-XV, notably the last of these.

    Most authors follow Socrates in their account of Hypatia's death, although there is also material on this in the Suda and elsewhere. Socrates was a loyal Christian, but he nonetheless included material explicitly critical of the murder of Hypatia (at Christian hands). The Christian bishop at the time was Cyril (St. Cyril of Alexandria), the question of the extent of his complicity (if any) in this deed has generated much controversy.

    John of Nikiu's Chronicle

    Cyril waged mightily against not only pagans and Jews but also against various Christian sects that he deemed to be heretical (i.e. in doctrinal error). In his lifetime he confronted the Arians, the Nestorians and the Novatians. Shortly after his death, his diocese fell into the hands of a fourth such group, the Monophysites, who claimed that he was in fact one of their own. The Monophysites are alive and well as the Coptic Church and they count Cyril as one of their greatest saints; his relics still preserved among them are greatly venerated by their faithful.

    A Coptic bishop, John of Nikiu, wrote a chronicle of events, probably in Greek although possibly with Coptic insertions. It underwent translation into Arabic and from there into Ethiopic. Two late, imperfect and closely related manuscripts survive in this language. An English translation has been produced (R. H. Charles, The Chronicle of John (c.690A.D.) Coptic Bishop of Nikiu (Amsterdam: APA-Philo, n.d. [1981?]; reprint of a 1916 original).

    This contains a passage on Hypatia: Chapter LXXXIV, Pars. 87-103 (pp. 100-102). It is openly sympathetic to Cyril and indeed glories in the death of Hypatia, who is described in terms of great disapproval. (Although most of the surviving sources are Christian and Hypatia was a pagan, the picture given of her is otherwise most favourable. This source is the major exception; the only other one is a sentence in Damascius.)

    John of Nikiu clearly derives his account from Socrates; the internal evidence is overwhelming, but equally clearly there is at least one other (now lost) source as well. Besides which, the interpretation placed on the events is quite different.

    As this work came to light only recently (just over a hundred years ago) and because its relevance to the Hypatia story was realised much more recently than that, all of the older books omit reference to it and it is only now that it is being fully incorporated into the field.

    The Letters of Synesius

    Although little if any of Hypatia's own work survives, we do have a large volume of extant material from the hand of her best-known pupil, Synesius of Cyrene. Synesius is a figure much studied in his own right as an intermediary between the Christian and the pagan worlds of his day. On most accounts, he was a pagan who converted to Christianity, but there are those who see him as having always been Christian. In any case he was, in his Christianity, very much a neoplatonist at a time when this was seen as a rival philosophy. (However, it should be said that nowadays neoplatonist viewpoints have so permeated Christianity that it would be unrecognisable without them. In particular, today's formulations of the doctrine of the Trinity preserve elements of neoplatonism and could not be uttered without them! Although modern versions of trinitarian dogma follow Augustine rather than Synesius, the latter remains a key figure in this story.)

    Because Synesius was Hypatia's best-known pupil and because so much of his writing survives, this is the best place to begin if we wish to catch some echo of Hypatia's own thought. This is even more the case when we reflect that Hypatia is Synesius' only known teacher and he almost palpably worshipped the ground on which she trod. His writings are to be found in PG, Volume 66, and there are numerous other editions and translations.

    Especially relevant are letters from Synesius to Hypatia. Some 6 and a fragment survive. The most accessible source is the English translation by A. FitzGerald, The Letters of Synesius of Cyrene (London: Oxford University Press, 1926). This also includes the essay-letter De Dono Astrolabii not included with the letters in PG but published as a separate work. The best edition of the letters in the original Greek is that of A. Garyza, Epistolae Synesii Cyrenensis (Rome: Istituto Poligrafico, 1979).

    Numbering of the letters varies between editions. In FitzGerald's translation, the letters to Hypatia are Nos. 10, 15, 16, 33 (the fragment), 81, 124 and 154. Of these, No.154 is a major work, especially useful for the reconstruction of Hypatia's philosophical beliefs. It, in effect, asks Hypatia to "referee" two works of philosophy, his Dion and De Insomniis. The former is a philosophical exegesis and the latter (which incidentally had a great medieval vogue) an attempt at a scientific theory of dreams. As both works are with us today, the inference is that Hypatia "passed" them.

    No. 154 also makes reference to another work, De Dono Astrolabii, the covering letter written to accompany the gift of an astrolabe to an official with whom Synesius wished to curry favour. De Dono Astrolabii is thus a letter, although PG lists it as a separate work; it is however included in the FitzGerald translation, under the title "Letter to Paeonius". This letter claims that Synesius himself designed the instrument but with help from Hypatia; it is seen as an important document in the history of astronomy.

    Another letter that has generated a lot of interest is No. 15. This describes a "hydroscope" that Synesius asked Hypatia to have made for him for some medical purpose during his final illness. The "hydroscope" was positively identified by Fermat (yes, the Fermat, see his Oeuvres, Vol. 1, pp. 362-365) as a hydrometer. Quite why a sick man should require a hydrometer has invited much debate and speculation but the most plausible suggestions are that it was for use in the brewing or distillation of some alcohol-based medicine or else was intended as a urinometer. See M. A. B. Deakin and C. R. Hunter, "Synesios' 'Hydroscope'", Apeiron 27 (1994), 39-43.

    There are four other letters from Synesius to other correspondents but mentioning Hypatia. In FitzGerald's numbering, these are Nos. 4, 133, 136 and 137. No. 4 is a major work, most important in the area of Synesius studies, but its direct relevance to Hypatia is not very great.

    Other Sources

    There are four other, much briefer, primary sources on Hypatia. These are considered in turn below.

    (1)The inscription at the beginning of Book III of Theon's Commentary on Ptolemy's Almagest.

    Theon was Hypatia's father and he devoted much of his professional life to the production of student editions or "commentaries" on earlier mathematical classics, notably the works of Euclid and Ptolemy. The translation of the brief sentence at the start of Book III of his Commentary on Ptolemy's major work is the subject of much debate. It is seen by some (Rome, Heath, Knorr) as attributing authorship of the material to Hypatia and most likely indicating that a computational advance (an improved technique for long division) was devised by Hypatia. For details, see W. R. Knorr's Textual Studies in Ancient and Medieval Geometry (Boston: Birkhä user, 1989). Others (Cameron, Jones, Dzielska) interpret the sentence otherwise, and see Hypatia merely assisting Theon in some way in the preparation of his Commentary. For this side of the debate, see A. Cameron, "Isisdore of Miletus and Hypatia: On the editing of mathematical texts", Greek, Roman and Byzantine Studies 31 (1990), 103-127.

    (2)A brief reference in an ecclesiastical history by Philostorgius.

    Philostorgius was an ecclesiastical historian and almost a contemporary of Hypatia. However he was an Arian and so his work is essentially lost. All that survives is a summary by Photius (whom we met above). This is two sentences long and incorporates editorial opinion of Photius himself. What survives is to be found in PG, Volume 65, Columns 563-564. An English translation exists (E. Walford, The Ecclesiastical History of Sozomen and the Ecclesiastical History of Philostorgius, London: Bohm, 1855) but is hard to come by, and for the purposes of my book, I made my own.

    (3)Another brief reference in the Chronicle of John Malalas.

    This may be found in PG, Volume 97, Columns 535-536. For an English translation, see Byzantina Australiensa 4, a translation of The Chronicle of John Malalas, by E. Jeffries et al. (Melbourne: Australian Association of Byzantine Studies, 1989). Malalas was a sixth-century historian; his accuracy is suspect.

    (4)A further brief reference in the Chronographia of Theophanes.

    See PG, Volume 108, Columns 225-226. No English translation seems to have been published, although in the Hypatia literature there are renderings into both French and German. For the purposes of my book I made my own. It gives the date of Hypatia's death as 406 A.D., but Theophanes' dates are known to be in systematic error. (Hypatia is usually described as having been killed in 415, but the arguments for 416 are perhaps stronger.)

    Further Primary Sources?

    There have from time to time been suggestions that further material may be relevant. In particular the Suda lists Hypatia as the author of three works: Commentaries on Apollonius' Conics and Diophantus' Arithmetic as well as producing [a Commentary on?] an astronomical table. This last may be the portion of Theon's Commentary referred to above.

    The most ambitious attempt to recover what traces of Hypatia's influence still remain in extant mathematical writing is Knorr's (op. cit. supra); this endeavour has been criticised by Cameron (op. cit. supra). In particular, Knorr suggests that traces of Hypatia's hand may be found in other parts of Theon's Commentary on the Almagest, and also in the surviving text of Apollonius' Conics. He also suggests that a version of Archimedes' Dimension of the Circle shows some of her influence, and goes on to advance even more speculative suggestions.

    It was once thought that the surviving Greek text of Diophantus' Arithmetic held portions due to Hypatia, but this hypothesis is no longer tenable. Further portions of this work have recently been unearthed, in Arabic translation. Comparison of the Greek and the Arabic versions make it clear that if any of Hypatia's work survives it is in the Arabic rather than the Greek. The most likely Hypatian material is the detailed checking that the solutions are valid. Not particularly inspiring stuff, I'm afraid; rather the sort of thing one would prepare for rather dim students!

    For more discussion with translation of the original text, see J. Sesiano's Books IV to VII of Diophantus' Arithmetica (New York: Springer, 1982) and R. Rashed's Diophante: Les Arithmé tiques, Tome III, Livre IV; Tome IV, Livres V, VI, VII (Paris: Socié té d'é dition "Les belles lettres", 1984). Sesiano and Rashed are the two foremost authorities on this material, but they differ deeply and acrimoniously over many points. The question of Hypatia's involvement in this material is still very much under discussion.

    Not Primary Sources

    A number of further texts are sometimes referred to as primary sources, when strictly speaking they are not.

    The sixth-century historian Cassiodorus' work contains a passage that refers to Hypatia, but this is merely a Latin translation of Socrates Scholasticus' Greek. It is reprinted in PG as the Latin version and also in a companion series Patrologiae Latinae (Volume 69, Columns 1193-1195).

    Further (but late) mentions in PG also fail to qualify. The fourteenth-century historian Callistus (Volume 146, Columns 1105-1106) merely paraphrases and embroiders Socrates. The even later Nicophoras Gregoras has two brief mentions (PG Volume 148, Columns 469-470 and Volume 149, Columns 529-530).

    An alleged letter from Hypatia to Cyril expressing sympathy with the Nestorian heresy is a forgery (it was not only written after her death, but the views it expresses are not hers). It is to be found in PG twice (Volume 77, Columns 389-390 and Volume 84 Column 848). An English translation is given on pages 20-21 of M. Dzielska's Hypatia of Alexandria (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1995).

    Finally there is an ancient Greek epigram apostrophising Hypatia. It most probably refers to the Hypatia here under discussion, although this is not entirely certain. It is usually attributed to the poet Palladas, but this too is uncertain: others think it to be by the later Paulus Silentarius. If it is by Palladas and if it refers to "our" Hyaptia, it is a roughly contemporary tribute and testifies to the regard in which she was held, but nothing more. If not then it does even less. There are many English translations. The one that best preserves the sense while retaining the original patterns of rhyme and metre is that of Duckett (Medieval Portraits from East and West; London: Sidgwick and Jackson, 1972). A different translation, by the 18th century pamphleteer Toland sacrifices the original form to achieve rather better English verse.


    This paper is prepared in two forms. As a printed copy it is available in the Monash University History of Mathematics series. In electronic form it is being emailed to Howard Landman for inclusion in or near his internet database of works about or referring to Hypatia.

    The online web page (this document) incorporates a small number of additions and corrections which were discovered after publishing of the Monash paper.

    Howard A. Landman /
    Last updated 1998 May 28