Monthly Archives: February 2016

Hypatia – Historical Astronomers in Context (repost)

<note to students: I went farther than you need to because no one can use Hypatia as their historical figure>

Hypatia – 350?? to 415 C.E. pic source Mathematician, astronomer, philosopher, teacher

Hypatia was the first woman KNOWN to contribute to mathematics and science.  Her father, Theon of Alexandria, was a well-known academic and taught his daughter to follow in his footsteps.  Remarkably, she was the head of the Platonist school of philosophy in Alexandria, Egypt.  She was advisor to rulers and sought out by scholars and those who wanted to learn for she was famed for her oratory skills, her sharp mind, and her virtue.  She worked on astronomical bodies and tools (astrolabes especially), on density, and abstract mathematics of the day.  Her greatest contribution to mathematics turned out not to be an original work but one that described the mathematics of conic sections (ellipses, parabolas, hyperbolas) in a manner more easily understood than the original author.  Unfortunately, she is perhaps most well-known for her manner of death: a mob of Christian fanatics kidnapped her, took her to a church, stripped her of clothing and then of her skin using roofing tiles, then burned her mutilated body.  Many historians say this event was really the end of rigorous scholarship in the once great city of Alexandria.

Other sources of interest about Hypatia:

  • Hypatia biography (from University of St. Andrews)
  • Biographies of Women Mathematicians: Hypatia (from Agnes Scott College)
  • Women in History: Hypatia (Humanist Network News Ezine)

Contemporary person:

Contemporary events:

  • Stained glass starts getting used in Roman churches
  • The Sack of Rome by the Visigoths (410 CE) – basically ended the Western Roman Empire (though the Byzantine (Eastern Roman) Empire lasted another 1000 years).  Generally said to be the end of “classical history” and the start of the “Middle Ages”
  • Hadrian’s Wall (separating “barbarian” Scotland and “civilized” (a.k.a. Romanized) Britain) is overrun for pretty much the final time and allowed to fall into ruin (406 CE)
  • In China – Jin Dynasty
  • In IndiaGupta Empire (“The Golden Age of India”)
  • In Africa – People start settling the area of the Great Zimbabwe (but don’t build stone structures yet)
  • In Mesoamerica – the Maya and Zapotec were the most well-developed cultures but were mostly city-states with Teotihuacan as the most powerful (too early for Aztec)
  • In America – Southwest: Late Basketmaker II Era ; In Midwest/East: Hopewell Culture
  • In South America – most significant cultures are Moche and Nazca (the ones with the lines) (too early for Inca)


I really enjoyed seeing what was going on in the world of Hypatia’s – the things that affected her spheres and what was going on throughout the globe.  Hypatia’s specific world was one where scholarship was valued but it could really be affected by the politics of the era, especially with fanatic Christians.  It seems once Christians of the day got a bit of power or really just stopped being murdered, they adopted some of the same intolerant tactics.  She just happened to be in the wrong city in the wrong time period but she did get to live a scholarly life and be appreciated by MANY in her rather long (for that period) lifetime.  However, she lived when the mighty Roman Empire was finally defeated – what a strange time!  The Western Empire (i.e., not Byzantine) was floundering anyway but that Visigoth sack of Rome was so disheartening to the people of the day.

Elsewhere in the world, I found that what was going on in the Americas particularly interesting – I always have trouble with putting the ancient American civilizations into context.  We hadn’t gotten anywhere near Incans or Aztecs or Iroquois, but the civilizations that were there were mighty themselves.  I always wonder at what we’ve lost over the years from American cultures (from idiotic conquerers), from Mediterranean cultures (from the fires that happened at the Library of Alexandria and from religious zealotry), from just the passage of time…