Sunday, April 26, 2015

Hypatia of Alexandria

Two events are sign posts along the 1000-year history of ancient Rome: the death of Cato the Younger, and the death of Hypatia of Alexandria.  They point to the collapse of the republic and the waning of the empire.

Marcus Porcius Cato the Younger took his own life at Utica rather than surrender to Gaius Julius Caesar.  That act of defiance was rediscovered when Britons relearned classic literature in the Renaissance.  Cato became a symbol for British republicans John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon in the early 18th century.  The name was rejuvenated by the Charles G. Koch Foundation at the suggestion of Murray N. Rothbard to create the Cato Institute.

Two actresses, one old, the other young.
Helen Mirren and Rachel Weisz: Hypatia Re-imaged
We have no Hypatia Institute.  Hypatia is a journal of feminist philosophy.  A type font from Adobe also carries the name.  Nonetheless, the roots of Hypatia’s life story ran long and deep before her flower blossomed in the 19th century.  Like Aspasia of Miletus, she was rediscovered and then reinvented.  Artists painted her in dramatic vignettes.  Most recently, a 2009 cinematic account of her final year was created by director Alejandro AmenĂ¡bar working with writer and director Mateo Gila and a team of producers headed by Fernando Bovaira.  Justin Pollard was the historical advisor. In that film, Rachel Weisz played Hypatia. However, the most reliable floruit suggests Helen Mirren as a better choice.  We agree that Hypatia died in 415. Depending on the clues you accept, she was born between 350 and 370.

Book cover shows profile of stately middle-aged Greek woman from ancient times
"Although this outrageous crime has made Hypatia a powerful symbol of intellectual freedom and feminist aspiration to this day, Deakin makes clear that the important intellectual contributions of her life’s work should not be overshadowed by her tragic death." – Hypatia of Alexandria: Mathematician and Martyr by Michael A. B. Deakin. (From the publisher’s website.) 

The facts of her life come mostly from three sources: The Ecclesiastical History by Socrates Scholasticus, a fifth-century writer in Constantinople; the Chronicle of John of Nikiu, a Coptic bishop of about 696; and the surviving letters of Synesius of Cyrene, a wealthy intellectual of the fifth century.  Synesius was a pupil of Hypatia. 

Deakin asserts – and it seems accepted – that the version we have today of Ptolemy’s Almagest is the work that Hypatia edited.  Developing his story only from English translations, Deakin also attributes commentaries on the works of Diophantus, Apollonius, and Euclid to her. The commentary on Euclid was perhaps a continuation of the edition begun by her father, Theon.

Roman, Greek, and Russian alphabets with numerals in elegant, tall type face
Hypatia type font created
by Thomas Phinney of Adobe
In addition, Hypatia probably constructed or had built for her several complex mechanisms.  Whether they were for computing time (water clock) or some other purpose (hydrometer for specific gravity) is not clear.  She apparently did create an improved astrolabe. 

In the recent movie, we witness Hypatia edging toward the heliocentric model of the solar system and even speculating that the orbits may be elliptical.  It is tempting to build sand castles on bedrock.  The blog Armarium Magnum, which is dedicated to books about ancient Western cultures, took the movie apart. We also had a brief discussion on Rebirth of Reason.  Unfortunately, the official movie company website was taken down. Of course, you can find trailers and more on YouTube.


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