Alan Cameron- Are Hypatia’s Writings Really Lost?

This fictional portrait of Hypatia by Jules Maurice Gaspard, originally the illustration for Elbert Hubbard’s 1908 fictional biography, has now become, by far, the most iconic and widely reproduced image of her. Jules Maurice Gaspard – Elbert Hubbard, “Hypatia”, in Little Journeys to the Homes of Great Teachers, v.23 #4, East Aurora, New York : The Roycrofters, 1908 (375 p. 2 v. ports. 21 cm).


Today’s sharing from the Blue House of HYGEIA is an excerpt from Alan Cameron’s article “ Hypatia. life, death and works’, essay number 9 in his volume ‘Wandering poets and other essays on late Greek Literature and Philosophy’, Oxford University Press_2016. Page 193 to 195.


‘…As Theon’s pupil, at this stage evidently working as his collaborator, Hypatia presumably ‘edited’ Ptolemy the same way (her father did with Euclid’s works). The ‘large number of interpolations’ detected in the text of the ‘Almagest’ by Gerald Toomer may in part at least be Hypatia’s work.

So Hypatia did much more than just contribute one or two ideas to a single book in a revision of her father’s commentary. Knorr pointed out that book 3 employs a different method of long division from book 1, supposedly a contribution by Hypatia. Not only is that pure speculation. Such a detail could hardly be described as ‘revising’, in the sense one might apply to a commentary: that is to say, bring up to date or add new material. It means ‘check for exact accuracy’. It is used, for example, of actors checking the accuracy of their copies against the master text of the Greek tragedians in Athens. Obviously, a good word to describe editing a text. Hypatia edited the whole of book 3. And perhaps all remaining nine books of the ‘Almagest’.

Theon went on to compile the large and small commentaries on the ‘Handy Tables’, and during his labors no doubt came to feel the need for a new edition of this text too. If so, to whom is he more likely to have entrusted the task than Hypatia? She would already have covered much of the ground when editing the ‘Almagest’. So far from Hypatia’s work being entirely lost, we may have well over 1000 pages of Greek edited by her.

In fact, we can go further still. Of thirteen original books of Diophanus’s ‘Arithmetica’, only six survive in Greek. But we now know that at least another four survived to be translated into Arabic around 860. More interestingly still, the Arabic text seems to be an expanded version of Diophanus’s text. Incorporating verifications of his demonstrations and interpolated problems. Clearly the purpose was to make a difficult text easier to follow. Either the translator incorporated into his text material from an elementary exegetical commentary; or the text he translated had already been amplified in this way. The surviving Greek text already contains a number of what look like explanatory interpolations. The obvious candidate as source for his additional material is Hypatia. Diophanus’s only known ancient commentator, once again, following her father’s method.

Knorr objected that the interpolations in the Arabic Diophanus are ‘of such a low level as not to require any real mathematical insight’, concluding that so to identify the unknown commentator ‘would thus isolate an essentially trivial mind…in direct conflict with ancient testimonies of Hypatia’s high caliber as a philosopher and mathematician’. But Theon too enjoyed a high reputation, yet his surviving work has been judged ‘completely unoriginal’. Hypatia’s work on Diophanus was what we might today call a school edition, designed for the use of students rather than professional mathematicians.

It may be, then, that so far from having to lament the loss of Hypatia’s published writings, we are in fact in a position to form a rather accurate impression of them. The more extravagant expectations are dashed. Hypatia and Theon kept alive but did not advance study of the ancient mathematical classics. Nothing to inspire Copernicus or Kepler. Au contraire, they devoted the greater part of their scholarly activity to providing a solid grounding for the Ptolemaic system! To our surprise we discover that her forte seems to have been editing texts. There was nothing to be ashamed of it in producing elementary editions of the classics. But it is easy to see why Damascius was unimpressed. The followers of Plutarch (of Athens) and Proclus produced commentaries not editions. Yet, Hypatia did teach Philosophy too.

Hypatia’s father Theon of Alexandria is best known for having edited the existing text of Euclid’s Elements, shown here in a ninth-century manuscript. Euclid – MS Vatican, number 190, 4to, in 2 volumes. Prop. 47 of Book I of Euclid (Pythagoras’ theorem), which is found in vol. 1 of the manuscript, on folios 38 verse – 39 front.


An actress, possibly Mary Anderson, in the title role of the play Hypatia, c. 1900. Similarities between this image and the Gaspard portrait above indicate this one may have served as a model for the Gaspard. Hulton Archive/Getty Images.


More about Hypatia: 🌿 More about Alan Cameron:
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