Hypatia: The Life and Legend of an Ancient Philosopher

Oxford Univ. Mar. 2017. 224p. photos. maps. notes. bibliog. index. ISBN 9780190210038. $29.95. PHIL
In a Greco-Roman world dominated by men, Hypatia led a thriving philosophical school in late fourth-century Alexandria, offered counsel to Roman civic authorities, and even counted a future Christian bishop among her lifelong disciples. Unfortunately, her death at the hands of a Christian mob in 415 ("in the wrong place at the wrong time") led to her being remembered more as a symbolic victim of injustice than for her successes in life. Watts (history, Univ. California, San Diego; Riot in Alexandria) focuses on the gifted philosopher's achievements: her mastery of mathematics and Neoplatonic philosophy, her public service and scholastic skill, and her modelling of pagan-Christian détente in an increasingly factional religious environment. Watts is most compelling in the summations of his findings and narratives, less so when assembling his data, which sometimes feels like a hunt for missing jigsaw puzzle pieces. This biography is strong on the social and historical context of Alexandria, ancient education, and class dynamics. Watts could have given more attention to the overlap of and tensions between Neoplatonic and Christian contemplative practices.
VERDICT A careful historical portrait of one of antiquity's most accomplished women.
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