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Suhrawardi and Ishraq

By Hallaj, Ibn Sina, Ishraqi Philosophy, Neoplatonism, Philosophy of Illumination

Qajar era portrait of a murdered Nimatullahi dervish

Shihab al-Din Yahya Suhrawardi (d.1191) was an Iranian who became known posthumously as Shaikh al-Ishraq, meaning “teacher of illumination.” He was educated at Maragha and Isfahan; his early training was apparently in the Peripatetic or Aristotelian philosophy associated with Ibn Sina (980-1037).
Suhrawardi afterwards travelled to Anatolia, where he resided for some years, studying with Fakhr al-Din al-Mardini (d.1198), a Peripatetic and apparently also a Sufi. The rare “Aristotelian Sufi” vocation appears to be important in the instance of Suhrawardi, a role which is not easy to elucidate because of the barriers generally assumed to exist between the different categories involved. Aristotelians were not usually Sufis. Many orthodox Sufis were averse to Greek philosophy. The relevant milieu is largely forgotten.
Suhrawardi also became a Sufi. Shahrazuri tells of his extreme austerities and his spiritual powers, yet he is not recognised by most Sufi writers and biographers as one of them…. Perhaps the explanation is simply that he learned from the Sufis but never fully joined them, as Shahrazuri seems to imply. (Walbridge 2000:13-14) 
Various biographies give details. According to the early biographer Shahrazuri (died after 1288), Suhrawardi was “much in the company of Sufis, from whom he benefited.” This fraternity seems to have occurred during a period of wandering, of uncertain duration, in Iran and Anatolia. Although he sometimes adopted the garb of Sufis, Suhrawardi also wore the attire of commoners, once being mistaken for a donkey-driver. He reputedly donned headgear associated with the Turkish and Kurdish peoples. Shahrazuri says that the subject tended to maintain silence, keeping aloof from interruptions. An apparent contradiction is that Suhrawardi was reputedly welcomed at the Saljuq court in Rum, gaining a degree of aristocratic patronage, though not permanently. 
From Anatolia he moved on to Syria. In 1183, Suhrawardi arrived at Aleppo, wearing the attire of a dervish (Sufi mendicant). That same year, the Ayyubid ruler Saladin captured Aleppo, giving his son al-Malik al-Zahir the role of governor. Suhrawardi gained favour with this governor, while arousing the hostility of local jurists and ulama (scholars of the Quran and hadith). Becoming a tutor to the governor, Suhrawardi was formidable in debates with the jurists. He defended the views of philosophers against the biases of ulama canonists. 
“Sometimes he wore the woollen garb of the Sufis, sometimes the silk dress of the courtiers” (Nasr 1996:126). His orthodox opponents accused Suhrawardi of claiming prophecy and practising magic. Shahrazuri says that these were slanders. The earlier heretic Hallaj (d.922) had been the recipient of similar accusations. Suhrawardi’s “short and tragic life contains many similarities to the life of Hallaj, whom he quoted so often” (ibid). However, Hallaj was not a philosopher but a mystic. There are differences discernible in the extant teachings of these entities. 
The opponents of Suhrawardi affirmed that he would corrupt the faith of the prince whom he tutored. Qadi al-Fadil, a jurist of Aleppo, sent a letter to Sultan Saladin at Damascus, urging that Suhrawardi should be executed for heresy. Saladin ordered his son to comply with the prescribed penalty of the jurists and ulama. The prince of Aleppo was reluctant to do so; however, he capitulated at the prospect of his enforced abdication.
Suhrawardi was executed, becoming known as al-maqtul (the murdered). The circumstances are obscure. Different versions of his death were described, including strangulation and crucifixion. The uncertainties extend to his age at the time of decease. Suhrawardi is often thought to have been in his late thirties when he died; however, the attributions of age vary from 36 to 50. Contrasting interpretations of his demise add to the confusion. Some analysts think that his teaching would have been mistaken for Ismailism by the orthodox Sunni camp associated with Saladin, the ruler of Egypt who burned the Fatimid libraries in Cairo and persecuted the Egyptian Ismailis. 
Suhrawardi’s major work was Hiqmat al-Ishraq (Philosophy of Illumination). His corpus as a whole is the subject of different interpretations. He affirmed a theme sometimes described in terms of “wisdom of the ancients.” This is not a Peripatetic teaching and nor a Sufi doctrine, instead being traced to Neoplatonist precedents. 
Suhrawardi appears to have rejected his early affiliation to the Peripatetic philosophy of Ibn Sina, preferring an eclectic approach deferring to the “ancients.” When he learned Greek philosophy via Arabic channels, he not only became familiar with concepts of Aristotle, but also themes of Plato and Neoplatonism. The Neoplatonist writers include Porphyry, Iamblichus, and Proclus. Their works “contain a great deal that seems familiar to a reader of Suhrawardi and the other Illuminationists” (Walbridge 2000:65). Plotinus was known to Suhrawardi via the so-called Theology of Aristotle, a “translation” of Enneads amounting to an interpretation of Plotinian thought  in Arabic guise. 

Suhrawardi believed that his ishraqi or illuminationist approach had commenced long ago with ancient sages, culminating with Plato in the West and pre-Islamic Persian sages in the East. To this schema was added legendary extensions associated with Egypt, India, and China. The “Khusrawanid leaven” of pre-Islamic Iran was here claimed to link with the early Sufis Abu Yazid al-Bistami,  Hallaj, and Abu’l Hasan al-Kharaqani. Whereas the “Pythagorean leaven,” identified with Greece, was claimed by Suhrawardi to achieve renewed transmission via Dhu’l Nun al-Misri, the Sufi mystic (and Hermeticist) of Akhmim. 
Suhrawardi claimed that hikmat (wisdom or philosophy) originated from Hermes, whom he viewed as a prophet. He employs a distinctive terminology, separating his ishraqi outlook from the Peripatetic. He introduced the term al-ishraqiyyun (the illuminationists) to describe partisans of a different philosophical standpoint to the Peripatetics (al-mashshaiyun) or followers of Aristotle, whose chief expositor in the Islamic world was Ibn Sina, known in Christian lands as Avicenna. 
A recent interpretation avers that, although related to the Ibn Sinan corpus, the ishraqi philosophy comprises an attempt to “avoid the logical, epistemological and metaphysical inconsistencies” of the rival corpus (Ziai 1996:438). 
A lengthy work is Suhrawardi’s Arabic treatise Paths and Havens, in which he claims that “his own principles of Oriental philosophy (al-asl al-mashriqi) reflect the earlier ‘wisdom’ of Persian Khusrawani sages and many other figures” (Ziai 1996:440). The complex issue of “Oriental philosophy” has not registered any unanimous modern conclusion; however, this subject is generally associated with Suhrawardi’s denial of an earlier claim of Ibn Sina in this idiom. No geographical location is necessarily implied. The Oriental/Eastern theme entailed an “emphasis on intuition, inspirational and immediate modes of cognition” (ibid:439-40). 
Suhrawardi clearly departed from reliance upon the Aristotelian syllogism and accompanying method of demonstration. One of his emphases, found in Paths and Havens, reads: “The starting point of philosophy is in abandoning the world, its midpoint is the vision of the Divine Lights (al-anwar al-ilahiyya), and its end has no limit” (Ziai 1990:25). 
Such contentions did not converge with Peripatetic doctrine. Renunciation was not the standard practice in the Ibn Sinan camp, being instead associated with the Sufi lifestyle. “In contemporary Western philosophy, the concept of a renunciation is largely or completely incomprehensible within the academic sector.” 
Suhrawardi did not necessarily envisage a permanent abandonment of the world, to judge from his own career. However, unless a basic renunciation lodged sufficiently in the psyche, a confusion could easily result, as with the well known indulgences of Ibn Sina that impaired the latter’s health. Shahrazuri refers to this drawback, while Suhrawardi indicates other problems: 
They [the Peripatetics] devoted excessive attention to secondary aspects of logic, science, and philosophy. Thus, for example, they devised elaborate rules for handling various composite forms of the syllogism when researchers actually need only simple, very general rules for avoiding error. (Walbridge 2000:138)
Nasr, Seyyed Hossein, The Islamic Intellectual Tradition in Persia (Richmond: Curzon Press, 1996).
Razavi, Mehdi Amin, Suhrawardi and the School of Illumination (Richmond: Curzon Press, 1997).
Walbridge, John,  The Leaven of the Ancients: Suhrawardi and the Heritage of the Greeks (State University of New York Press, 2000).
Walbridge, John,  and Hossein Ziai, ed. and trans., The Philosophy of Illumination (Brigham Young University Press, 1999).
Ziai, Hossein, Knowledge and Illumination: A Study of Suhrawardi’s Hiqmat al-Ishraq (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1990).
Ziai, Hossein,  “Shihab al-Din Suhrawardi: founder of the Illuminationist school” (434-464) in S. H. Nasr and O. Leaman, eds., History of Islamic Philosophy Part 1 (London: Routledge, 1996). 

Kevin R. D. Shepherd 

ENTRY no. 62 

Copyright © 2014 Kevin R. D. Shepherd. All Rights Reserved.


By Damascius, Neoplatonism, Theurgy

Proclus (412-485) was head of the Athenian school of Neoplatonism, shortly before paganism was suppressed by the Byzantine emperor Justinian. His prodigious output reflects the full-blown phase of Neoplatonist exegesis, which had departed from the Plotinian version.

Born in Constantinople, his Greek parents came from the upper class; his father was a law official in the courts. Proclus was educated in Alexandria, still renowned for a classical study curriculum. That syllabus included philosophy, in general part of the career vocation available to the Greek-speaking upper class. Like many others, Proclus was training for a professional role. Upon his return to Constantinople, he became a lawyer, as his father had intended.

He afterwards decided that philosophy was the most important subject, and returned to Alexandria. There he studied the corpus of Aristotle. Under a separate tutor, he became proficient in mathematics. Proclus moved to Athens, a city still enjoying a reputation as the hub of philosophical activity. From 431 CE he studied at a (Neo)Platonist school led by his tutors Plutarch and Syrianus. When Syrianus died in 437, Proclus became the head teacher or scholarch, a position he maintained for the rest of his life.

The curriculum of his school did not represent a pristine Platonism, having absorbed the agenda of Iamblichean Neoplatonism, which displaced the Plotinian version. This development meant that theurgy was a primary interest, reflected in various ritualistic activities. Proclus himself is reported to have practised theurgic rituals in his otherwise studious routine. He never married, and was a vegetarian.

The major source is the Life of Proclus, composed by his successor Marinus of Neapolis, and in part hagiographical. This account refers to his vigils and fasts. During his temporary exile in Lydia, Proclus gained initiation into diverse mystery cults. This activity demonstrated a theurgic outlook, in which the ritual Mysteries were venerated and pagan ceremony glorified in the face of encroaching Christianity.

Recent scholarship has revealed that Proclus acquired a lavish annual income of 1,000 gold solidi, equivalent in contemporary terms to over half a million dollars. The patrons of theurgy did not neglect to support his activities. His surroundings were basically opulent. Proclus is associated with the Athenian cult of Asclepius,  the focus of a temple near his residence (located in the vicinity of the Acropolis).

His substantial learning is evident from his books. However, much of his corpus is lost. His religious beliefs, quite strongly accentuated, are absent from his commentary on Euclid’s Elements of Geometry, in which he demonstrates “a thorough grasp of mathematical method.” In quite another direction, only fragments exist of his partisan commentary on the Chaldean Oracles, a theurgic text which became so influential amongst Neoplatonists. Different again is his Elements of Theology, containing propositions and proofs in the geometric mode associated with Euclid. Unique in antiquity, the Elements is often regarded as his most important work.

Proclus is also noted for his commentaries on Plato, not all of which have survived. His extensive commentary on the Timaeus has been considered the most important available on that text. Proclus regarded Plato as a divine prophet, an attitude symptomatic of the rivalry with Christianity.

Critics say that Proclus made Platonism into a theology supported by theurgy. His lengthy Platonic Theology has more generously been described as “a magisterial summa of pagan Hellenic theology.” In this text,  Proclus was “eager to demonstrate the harmony of the ancient religious revelations (the mythologies of Homer and Hesiod, the Orphic theogonies and the Chaldean Oracles) and to integrate them in the philosophical tradition of Pythagoras and Plato” (Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy).

The subject of theurgy is controversial. Proclus advocated theurgy in his treatise On Hieratic Art, only partially extant. The Neoplatonist version should be distinguished from magic, despite certain resemblances in ritual practices, including invocations. Critics regard the ritualism as a retrogression from Plotinus. Proclus converged with Iamblichus in the belief that theurgy was a means of salvation compatible with Platonism, which referred to the gods.

Three types of theurgy have been discerned in Proclus. The first category is ritualistic, concerned with the evocation of oracles and divine visions, also involving the “animation of statues,” a distasteful subject to some analysts. The second category is associated with the Hymns of Proclus, representing a more aspirational use of prayers and invocations. The third category relates to unity with the One, celebrating such matters as silence, “negative theology,” and “faith” (pistis). Complexities are still debated.

Some years after the death of Proclus, Damascius (c.460-c.540) became leader of the Athenian school by 515; he  is credited with producing a revival of philosophy. Damascius cultivated a critical attitude to the adoption of theurgy. His Philosophical History furnishes relevant information on various events. Revealingly, he criticised the followers of Proclus, including even the revered Marinus. Damascius accused these theurgists of lacking insight.

Damascius was especially critical of Hegias, a wealthy patron who became head of the Athenian school during the 490s. The factor of wealth is significant; affluence had ousted the “moderate asceticism” of Plotinus, instead permitting the influx of ritual preoccupations, to the extent that intellectual study was in jeopardy.

Damascius clearly wanted to change the situation, being in favour of restoring the contemplative angle as distinct from ritual distractions. Systematic study of Aristotle and Plato was a primary feature of his “revival.” He composed the treatise known as Problems and Solutions Concerning First Principles, providing a critique of the Proclean metaphysical system.

However, Damascius employed an Iamblichean mode of interpretation rather than anything Plotinian. He still tried to integrate the “Chaldean” theurgic doctrines into a Neoplatonist framework, nevertheless expressing a different standpoint to Proclus, with some critical attention to the arguments of Iamblichus.

Time was running out. In 529, paganism was prohibited by the oppressive Christian emperor Justinian the Great. Exile was threatened if the pagans did not convert to Christianity. Some victims lost their lives. In this grim situation, Damascius and six other learned Neoplatonists decided to flee from Athens, emigrating to Mesopotamia in an endeavour to gain a hearing at the Sassanian court in Ctesiphon. The details are not clear.

A recent theory posits that a Neoplatonist school was soon established at Harran (Hellenopolis) under Sassanian protection. Harran certainly became a subsequent centre for philosophical and scientific studies, in Greek and Syriac, during the early Islamic era.


Ahbel-Rappe, Sara, trans., Damascius’ Problems and Solutions Concerning First Principles (Oxford University Press, 2010).

Baltzly, Dirk, and Harold  Tarrant, ed. and trans., Proclus: Commentary on Plato’s Timaeus (multi-volume, Cambridge University Press, 2006——). 

Clarke, Emma C., et al, trans., Iamblichus: On the Mysteries (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2003).

Dodds, E. R., ed. and trans., The Elements of Theology (second edn, Oxford University Press, 1963).

Morrow, Glenn R., trans., Proclus: A Commentary on the First Book of Euclid’s Elements (Princeton University Press, 1970).

Siorvanes, Lucas, Proclus: Neoplatonic Philosophy and Science (Edinburgh University Press, 1996).


Kevin R. D. Shepherd

November 8th, 2011

ENTRY no. 44

Copyright © 2011 Kevin R. D. Shepherd. All Rights Reserved.



By Enneads, Iamblichus, Letter to Anebo, Neoplatonism, Theurgy

Depiction of Plato and Aristotle by Raphael

The most well known disciple of Plotinus was Porphyry (c.232-c.305 CE), a Phoenician from Tyre, whose parents are often described as Syrians. Before meeting Plotinus, he originally studied at Athens under the Platonist Longinus. Possessing the disposition to study different languages and religions, he developed a polymathic ability.

When Porphyry moved to Rome in 263, he became a pupil of Plotinus. He was at first disconcerted by differences with the “official” Athenian format. The method of Plotinus contrasted with that of Longinus. Plotinus was far more informal and unorthodox. Longinus had composed two works of note; however, Plotinus classified him as a scholar or literary man, not as a philosopher.

Plotinus did not write commentaries on Plato; his exposition, preserved in the Enneads, was in the Platonist spirit but altogether more free-ranging. Both he and Longinus had been students of the deceased Ammonius Saccas in Alexandria. They were nevertheless in disagreement. Porphyry at first expected technical perfectionism from Plotinus. He found instead that Plotinus was not concerned about grammatical niceties in his usage of Greek. Like Ammonius, Plotinus was outside the official Platonist curriculum, whereas Longinus had become part of this convention.

Porphyry inherited the private manuscripts of Plotinus, which he considered defective in terms of format, though not in respect of ideational and experiential content. Porphyry eventually edited those manuscripts, publishing the result some thirty years after the death of his teacher. The Plotinus texts became known as the Enneads.

The output of Porphyry is different to that of Plotinus. He was an industrious writer, evidently believing in a reconcilement of the teachings of Plato and Aristotle. Porphyry wrote commentaries on Aristotle that Plotinus might have deemed too academic. These included the famous Isagoge, a preparation for the study of Aristotelian logic, well received by the Christian Schoolmen centuries later.

About sixty works are attributed to Porphyry. Most of these are lost or extant in a fragmented form. The subjects covered include history, mathematics, Homeric literary criticism, and metaphysics. There are scholarly uncertainties in confirming a number of the attributions.

The uncertainties have contributed to a mixed assessment of Porphyry’s role. He may have deliberately composed for different readerships, given the diverse nature of attributions. Modern scholars have credited Porphyry with a basically rational orientation. However, he diverged into what some commentators have deemed an idiosyncratic preoccupation with religious matters (and even astrology).

One view is that he validated the Chaldean Oracles for the common worshipper, while himself remaining aloof from theurgy. Augustine of Hippo presented Porphyry in terms of an anomaly; Pierre Hadot concluded that Porphyry tried to find a universal denominator in varied religious phenomena, including the Indian “gymnosophists.”

His lengthy work Against the Christians survives only in fragments; this critique was denounced by Christianity, being burned in 448 by Byzantine decree. Porphyry was a defender of paganism, more specifically the philosophical tradition of Plato and Aristotle. During his lifetime, the spread of Christianity was slow by comparison with fourth century developments after the reign of Constantine.

One aspect of his mentation was a “Pythagorean” disposition associated with vegetarianism, which he advocated in the treatise On Abstinence from Killing Animals. Like Plotinus, Porphyry believed in a contemplative and ascetic lifestyle. Nevertheless, at about the age of sixty, he married Marcella, whose interest in philosophy was commemorated in his Letter to Marcella.

Perhaps the most evocative writing of Porphyry is the Letter to Anebo, extant in fragments. This work has been assessed in terms of critical reference to the ritualist version of Mysteries, as a device to turn the attention of distracted readers to philosophy. The anonymous epistle is addressed to an Egyptian priest. The author was evidently averse to divination and theurgy.

The Letter to Anebo complains about Egyptian religion, and the priests who acted as astrologers, teaching an inflexible astrological fatalism. The document has been interpreted as an attack on Iamblichus, apparently a former pupil of Porphyry, who became an influential advocate of theurgy.

Iamblichus (c.245-325) is a disputed subject. “Hailed by some as the most sublime and dazzling metaphysician who changed the course of Platonism, he is deprecated by others as the most obscure though prolific author, who imported into his texts all sorts of superstition, oriental beliefs and magic, and eclectically fitted all this into his own bewildering metaphysical schema with a heavy reliance on triadic subdivisions” (Afonasin et al 2012:1).

A Syrian from a wealthy family of aristocratic association, Iamblichus taught a version of Neoplatonism at the Syrian town of Apamea. He was an enthusiast of Pythagoras, whom he revived in a theurgic context that is controversial. In his De Vita Pythagorica, Iamblichus attempted a new programme for philosophy via his interpretation of the Pythagorean way of life. The De Vita “can be seen as a kind of protreptic summation of the whole ethical tradition of Greek philosophy, a tradition in which all the schools agreed that philosophy was not simply a set of doctrines, but a whole way of life” (Dillon and Hershbell 1991:29).

Iamblichus is credited with authorship of On the Mysteries (De Mysteriis); the attribution has not been universally accepted. That treatise was composed under the pseudonym of Abammon, signifying a putative Egyptian priest. De Mysteriis  was evidently intended as a response to Porphyry’s anti-theurgy composition. Iamblichus here “concentrates on highlighting the signs by which Porphyry would be able to recognise true theurgy when he sees it, and argues that the only way Porphyry will gain the understanding which he seeks is by participating in the divine rites” (Clarke et al 2003:xlix-l).

There is no doubt that the issue of theurgy was attended by a strong disagreement. Porphyry was furthering the outlook of Plotinus on this point, while Iamblichus and his school were in support of ritual sacrifices, divination, trance, invocations, ritual mysteries, talismans, and other trappings.

This issue remains an important significator of orientation, both in respect of the Neoplatonist exemplars and the contemporary responses.


Afonasin, Eugene, John Dillon, and John F. Finamore, eds., Iamblichus and the Foundations of Late Platonism (Leiden: Brill, 2012).

Barnes, Jonathan, trans., Porphyry: Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2003).

Clark, Gillian, trans., Porphyry: On Abstinence from Killing Animals (Cornell University Press, 2000). 

Clarke, Emma C., John M. Dillon, Jackson P. Hershbell, trans., Iamblichus: De Mysteriis (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2003).

Dillon, John,  and Jackson Hershbell, ed. and trans., Iamblichus: On the Pythagorean Way of Life (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 1991).

Finamore, John F., and John M. Dillon, Iamblichus, De Anima: Text, Translation, and Commentary (Leiden: Brill, 2002).

Hoffman, R. Joseph, Porphyry’s Against the Christians: The Literary Remains (New York: Prometheus, 1994).

Smith, Andrew,  Porphyry’s Place in the Neoplatonic Tradition (The Hague: Nijhoff, 1974).

Wallis, R. T., Neoplatonism (London: Duckworth, 1972).

Wicker, Kathleen O’Brien, Porphyry the Philosopher: To Marcella (Atlanta: Scholar’s Press, 1987).


Kevin R. D. Shepherd

October 10th 2011, modified October 2021 

ENTRY no. 43

Copyright © 2021 Kevin R. D. Shepherd. All Rights Reserved.


By Against the Gnostics, Enneads, Neoplatonism, Plotinus

Representation of Plotinus

Plotinus (circa 204-70) is conventionally described as a Neoplatonist. However, his teaching exhibits differences to later exponents of “Neoplatonism.” There is no theurgy in his Enneads. This factor alone comprises a gulf between Plotinus and Proclus, a well endowed exponent of the Athenian school.

A biography of Plotinus was composed by his disciple Porphyry many years after his death. The famous Vita Plotini (Life of Plotinus) is regarded as a basically reliable report; some hagiology may have infiltrated. Porphyry was also the redactor of the Enneads, representing the formerly secretive writings of Plotinus.

His date of birth is uncertain, and likewise his racial origin. Plotinus would not refer to his early years, nor allow his birthday to be celebrated. As a consequence, the date and place of his birth passed into obscurity. His world-renouncing outlook was basically a mystery to commentators like Bertrand Russell. The “moderate ascetic” orientation of Plotinus decodes to a gulf between him and most modern commentators, including even Pierre Hadot.

An early hagiographer, Eunapius of Sardis, informs that the birthplace was Lyco(polis) in Upper Egypt. Plotinus might easily have been a Hellenised Egyptian; the scholarly opinions have differed. His social class may or may not have been elevated.
As a young man, Plotinus searched for a teacher amongst the Greek-educated philosophers of Alexandria. These tutors gave formal lectures, and were divided into different schools. Plotinus was disappointed with the example and teaching of these more or less official pedagogues. He eventually became a disciple of Ammonius, an obscure Platonist who was apparently self-taught and relatively distanced from the conventional professorial scene. Later authors applied the nickname of Saccas to Ammonius; the meaning is uncertain.

When Ammonius died circa 242 CE, Plotinus had been his pupil for a decade. The latter departed from Alexandria in 243, joining an ill-fated expedition (possibly as a court philosopher) of the Roman emperor Gordian III against the Persians. Gordian was murdered in Mesopotamia by rebellious soldiers; this situation was part of the political problem afflicting Rome. Plotinus fled to Antioch, subsequently moving on to Rome by 245.  There he settled, gaining followers in senatorial ranks. Plotinus eventually became well known. He maintained a cautious tactic of guarding his unpublished manuscripts, which were available only to committed students like Amelius and Porphyry. His circle were cosmopolitan, including Syrians, Alexandrians, and at least one Arab.  Also, three women are fleetingly mentioned, two of them apparently Romans.

Plotinus disliked the rhetoric favoured by orators. He also detoured the set speeches maintained by Platonist convention, preferring an informal procedure involving the discussion of texts. He did not claim originality in his version of Plato. However, the Enneads are clearly innovative in a number of respects.

He endorsed study of the sciences, in a Platonist manner. He was evidently familiar with geometry, mechanics, optics, and music (then regarded as a science). Plotinus would not himself practise those pursuits, which he viewed as a secondary support for training the mind. In the Neoplatonist view, too much attention given to scientific activity is a distraction from the philosophical quest. There are differences with Aristotle, an authority whom Plotinus frequently contested. Some elements of convergence are also evident. In another direction, “the writings of Plotinus apparently contain strong repudiation of Stoic doctrines, as well as tacit acceptance of some of them” (Graeser 1972:xiii).

He is noted for opposing astrology, regarding horoscopy as deceptive. Plotinus taught freewill as distinct from determinism. His objective was to live in accordance with the standards of “virtue,” a complex theme associated with his elevation of the “Divine Mind” or Intellect. The strongly mystical element in his teaching emphasised a purification and illumination far removed from the convenient routines of orators and pedants. Plotinus contested the persuasions of Diophanes, an orator in Rome who favoured pederasty.

“We must break away towards the High,” was a Plotinian theme. Then as now, such emphases were unwelcome in many directions. A wealthy Roman pupil of Plotinus was Rogatianus, who declined the office of praetor pressed upon him by the Senate. The pupil renounced all his property and set free all his slaves. Under the influence of Plotinus, Rogatianus chose a simple lifestyle forsaking all social status and elitism.

Plotinus was opposed to the excessive wealth and slavery in the Roman environment, trappings which accompanied military prowess. One may conclude that he scored over Aristotle, who had endorsed slavery in a  conciliatory gesture to the ruling class. Science might do little to remove social problems, whereas diligent mysticism may move a lot further.

Plotinus gained a reputation for austerity. Amongst his admirers were the Roman Emperor Gallienus and his wife Salonina. Gallienus was an intellectual type, with a taste for Greek culture; he was not popular with military commanders, despite his victories in battle. Plotinus advised that Gallienus should rebuild a ruined city in Campania, one that should be renamed Platonopolis, and accordingly governed according to the laws of Plato. This proposal was opposed at court, probably by the military. The details are vestigial.

The treatise entitled Against the Gnostics (Ennead II.9) is a well known feature of the Enneads. The protest was made on grounds of Platonist tradition, reason, and morality. The Gnostics were present in Rome; there are implications of flawed doctrines and behaviour. Gnostics were claiming a secret knowledge facilitating a short and easy path to the Divine. Plotinus contrasted this with the long, difficult, and necessary route involved in the Platonist practice of virtue and the due exercise of philosophic intelligence. He repudiated a resort to magic and ritual in the popular Gnostic sector, usages amounting to theurgy (theourgia).

Gnosticism, like Platonism, was a variegated phenomenon, one causing extensive confusions in the modern day. Popular Gnosticism rivalled both Platonism and orthodox Christianity. Gnostic adherents were spread throughout different countries, with diverse figureheads in the vista of “ascetics and libertines” discussed by scholars. Plotinus himself has some similarities to the ascetic wing; he claimed a “mystical union” in his version of philosophic rationalism. These subtleties are difficult to convey in the current climate of misconception caused by “new age” thinking, which includes the disputed integralism.

At the end of his life, Plotinus suffered a severe illness in the onset of an epidemic created by war and social unrest. The distinctive Emperor Gallienus was assassinated by military schemers. A mood of anarchy was prevalent, Rome was beset by troubles. Plotinus retired from Rome to the countryside, possibly afflicted with leprosy, stoically awaiting his end. The man who had rejected his birthday could also transcend death.


Armstrong, A. H. ed. and trans., Plotinus (7 vols, Harvard University Press, 1966-88).

——–“Plotinus” (195-268), in The Cambridge History of Later Greek and Early Medieval Philosophy (Cambridge University Press, 1967).

Gerson, Lloyd P., ed., The Cambridge Companion to Plotinus (Cambridge University Press, 1996). 

Graeser, Andreas, Plotinus and the Stoics: A Preliminary Study (Leiden: Brill, 1972).

Hadot, Pierre, Plotinus or the Simplicity of Vision, trans. M. Chase (University of Chicago Press, 1993). 

MacKenna, Stephen, trans., The Enneads, ed. John Dillon (London: Penguin, 1991).

Narbonne, Jean-Marc, Plotinus in Dialogue with the Gnostics (Leiden: Brill, 2011).

Rist, J. M., Plotinus: The Road to Reality (Cambridge University Press, 1967).


Kevin R. D. Shepherd 

ENTRY no. 42

Copyright © 2011 Kevin R. D. Shepherd. All Rights Reserved. 


Hypatia of Alexandria

By Alexandrian Patriarch Cyril, Neoplatonism

Hypatia (d.415 CE) was a Greek reared at Alexandria. She is reported to have been proficient in mathematics and astronomy. She is also associated with Neoplatonism, generally credited as commencing in the third century CE. Over a century before her, Ammonius Saccas had taught in Alexandria; this entity is viewed as the effective founder of Neoplatonism. Ammonius was an obscure philosopher, apparently self-taught, who functioned outside the conventional Platonist curriculum. His pupil Plotinus (c.204-270 CE) appears to have shared the same independent orientation. Plotinus moved from Alexandria to Rome, where he lived for the remainder of his life.

According to the early report of Socrates Scholasticus: “Having succeeded to the school of Plato and Plotinus, she [Hypatia] explained the principles of philosophy” (Ecclesiastical History, VII.15). Hypatia apparently rejected Iamblichus, a theurgist who became very influential at that period. According to Damascius (d.540), Hypatia was not satisfied with her father’s knowledge of mathematics. She committed herself to philosophy, publicly interpreting Plato, Aristotle, and others. However, “the precise content of Hypatia’s philosophy can only be surmised” (Hagith Sivan, review of Dzielska 1995).

Hypatia is now one of the most evocative figures in the history of philosophy. Unfortunately, very little historical information about her survives, in contrast to the surfeit of invention created by modern novelists. Her date of birth is a vexed subject, calculations varying from 355 to 370 CE (and later). The early date of circa 355 means that she was of senior age at her death in 415 CE (Dzielska 1995), a more realistic angle than the fictions widely known. Hypatia was violently murdered by street thugs in Alexandria. Questions of context apply to this event. Hypatia is associated (via a parent) with the Great Library of Alexandria, likewise subject to destruction.

The god Sarapis was earlier eliminated in the wave of Christian violence. The Sarapis cult was apparently established as a patron deity for the Ptolemaic Greeks of Egypt, particularly at Alexandria. The Ptolemaic dynasty (prior to the Roman era) subsequently lost enthusiasm for that god. Other cults and religious fashions became prominent (Fraser 1972:278). Ptolemy welcomed large numbers of Jews to Egypt, appointing many of them to high office. The Jewish population of Alexandria increased substantially (ibid:281ff).

The Great Library of Alexandria

Depiction of the Great Library

The famous Great Library of Alexandria vanished, leaving no trace. Even the architectural style of this edifice is unknown. Built during the reign of Ptolemy II (284-246 BC), the project apparently gained less funding during the Roman era. Diverse interpretation of data relating to the Great Library is “highly controversial.” Very little is reliably known about this institution. There is no direct evidence as to how many libraries existed in Alexandria. Nevertheless, in many fields of science, that city surpassed the achievement of the classical Greek world, and also Rome (Fraser 1972:320ff,336).

In the precinct of the library were two institutions, the Museum and the Library itself, with overlapping purposes but separate jurisdiction – a biblion (or place of books) for scholars and a Mouseion dedicated to the Muses. The precise location remains uncertain. (MacLeod 2004:3)

At Alexandria, Hypatia’s father Theon worked as a mathematician; he produced a new edition of Euclid’s Elements. Theon is associated with the Great Library, being described by some commentators as the last famous member of that institution.  A daughter library was located at the nearby temple of Sarapis (Library in the Serapeum). At maximum, the Great Library stored an estimated 500,000 scrolls from different countries. Fraser assessed the holdings at about 490,000 papyrus scrolls; the more traditional figure was 700,000 (Thiem 1979:508). The scrolls represented Greek, Hebrew, Babylonian, and Egyptian heritages.

The Museion is described by Fraser as a cult centre intended for worship of the Muses. Greek cities often included a Museion. These shrines were primarily extensions of a literary society, which assembled to hold literary competitions in the shrine. A priest of the Muses presided. During the Roman era, those shrines developed into secular centres of learning, the ancient equivalent of a university. The Museion at Alexandria gained high prestige, deriving from an earlier association of the Muses with philosophy. This association perhaps commenced with Pythagoras, being greatly developed during the fourth century BC. The Academy was apparently organised by Plato as a body of persons associated for a religious purpose, the service of the Muses (this auspice being necessary to gain conventional approval). Evidence that the Lyceum was similarly organised is substantial, although in the Peripatetic tradition, the natural sciences gained predominance over literary activities (Fraser 1972:312ff).

The early research standard of the Library, during the Ptolemaic era, apparently declined in subsequent centuries. A lack of data about the personnel is lamented. Some modern commentators infer a lack of patronage; others suggest that library residents were wealthy men with political influence. According to Fraser, the mere fact that the Great Library was much frequented does not prove that the learning was of a high standard (ibid). At an early date, Timon of Phlius (d.230 BC) is well known for his depreciatory assertion:  “In the populous land of Egypt many are they who get fed, cloistered bookworms, endlessly arguing in the bird-coop of the Muses” (ibid). Timon was a Pyrrhonist philosopher and a composer of satirical poetry. He was influenced by a Cynic mode lampooning vanity and dogma. 

The factor of two libraries at Alexandria might assist to explain various traditions of three major conflagrations. First, Julius Caesar may have inadvertently burned all or part of the Museion library in 47 BC. Second, the Emperor Theodosius may have provoked the burning of the Serapeum library at circa 390 AC. Third, the Caliph Omar may have ordered the burning of a residual library at circa 642. Specialist scholars have disputed each of these burnings. The posited Arab event has been doubted by most scholars (Thiem 1979:508).

A Neoplatonist Situation

“Teaching in the Plotinian tradition of Platonism, Hypatia attracted elite students of diverse religious affiliations” (Brakke 2018). A sceptical view suggests that Hypatia was basically a Ptolemist rather than a Platonist (Bernard 2010:417). The letters of her famous student, Synesius of Cyrene, “do not contain a single explicit mention of Hypatia’s philosophical allegiance” (ibid:418). The extent to which she was taught by her father Theon is not clear (ibid:419). 

None of her writings on philosophy survive. Her mathematics has been reconstructed. According to some commentators, Hypatia viewed geometry as a route to the One (a Neoplatonist objective). This outlook was compatible with celibacy. Astronomy was still a sacred science in her time, often admixed with astrology (which Plotinus rejected). Hypatia was apparently proficient in astronomy, even teaching how to design an astrolabe, a portable brass calculator about six inches in diameter, also helping to determine the hour of day.

Modern scholarship has concluded that Hypatia did not teach theurgy lore, pervading so much of the later Neoplatonism associated with Iamblichus and Proclus. She is instead viewed as a Neoplatonist in the Plotinian sense; an early annalist refers to her in a context of the tradition of Plato and Plotinus. Like Plotinus, her lifestyle was frugal and disciplined; she never married, remaining a virgin. Female philosophers were a rarity. There were a few women amongst the pupils of Plotinus, but they reaped obscurity.

The fifth century annalist Socrates Scholasticus (c.379-450) was a contemporary Greek Christian of Constantinople. His Ecclesiastical History profiles Hypatia as a major philosopher of the time, referring to her as following the Platonist way of thought via Plotinus. Professor J. M. Rist suggested that Hypatia revived interest in Plotinus at Alexandria. 

The Platonist curricula relied on students from wealthy families. Hypatia was no exception. Her pupils came from various towns in Egypt, also from further afield in Syria, and even distant Constantinople. There were Christians in her circle; two of these became bishops, including Synesius of Cyrene (d.413), a Greek Platonising Christian who was at first reluctant to become Bishop of Ptolemais (however, he did so in 410).

This was a difficult time for the surviving paganism, now increasingly the minority in lands ruled by Christianity. Persons from wealthy Christian families still learned Greek philosophy. However, theological dominance meant that Platonism and Neoplatonism were on the defensive, both at Alexandria and Athens. In the early fourth century CE, nearly 2,400 temples existed in Alexandria. That means roughly one temple for every twenty houses (Watts 2017:9). Nevertheless, Christians rapidly gained the upper hand. The divide was pronounced, in social terms, between many of the townspeople and the Graeco-Roman upper class.

Hypatia lived largely in an Alexandria dominated by wealthy, well-educated, Greek-speaking city councillors who owned luxurious townhouses and enjoyed urban gardens. She died at the hands of people who lived in a different Alexandria. Theirs was a dirty, dangerous, and often disgusting city that offered none of the space or security that Hypatia enjoyed. (Watts 2017:7)

Hypatia was murdered by a low class mob. There are different versions of her death in the antique reports. “Each author has his own version of these events, most often related to a moral apologue” (Bernard 2010:418). With regard to more recent Hypatia literature, scholarship has to be distinguished from novelism. Eighteenth century writers like Voltaire and Gibbon stand accused of creating a literary legend. Nineteenth century embellishments followed. The twentieth century added a further round of Hypatia lore influenced by contemporary preference. “Many resurrections of Hypatia are often idealised and romanticised” (Birkman, n.d.). 

An early sixth century report was supplied by Damascius, a Neoplatonist who studied in Alexandria two generations after the death of Hypatia. This source affirms that Hypatia gave public lectures on Plato and Aristotle. More ominously, the Alexandrian Patriarch Cyril (in office 412-44) became envious of Hypatia, plotting her  murder.

Cyril was a Christian Archbishop (or Patriarch) who later gained repute as the persecutor of pagans. He also opposed Jews and heretics. Hypatia was on cordial terms with the governing secular prefect Orestes, a rival of Cyril in the political power stakes, an official who resisted clerical attempts to gain secular control. Orestes was a Christian; thus the issue was not paganism versus Christianity, but civic versus ecclesiastical interests. Hypatia might have expressed some degree of opposition to the church hierarchy. However, she was not anti-Christian and cared for her Christian students, who perhaps included Orestes. 

Violence at Alexandria

From the late third century CE, recurrent violence was a major problem at Alexandria. “Repeated violence created a volatile atmosphere in which mob action could easily be incited, whatever the cause, real or imaginary” (Whitfield 1995:16).

Christianity became the official religion of Alexandria, agitating against the pagan and Jewish inhabitants. Street fights were frequent by 364 CE. In this ongoing struggle, much of the content in the Great Library was destroyed. The damage apparently culminated in 391, when Archbishop Theophilus destroyed all pagan temples, under orders from the Roman Emperor. Theophilus eliminated the temple of Serapis, which may have accommodated the last library scrolls. In 412, Theophilus was succeeded as Patriarch by his nephew Cyril (376-444), whose political rival was Orestes, Roman prefect of the city (meaning leader of the civil government).

The struggle for urban power climaxed in a massacre of Christians by Jewish extremists. In retaliation, Cyril led a mob against the synagogues, inviting his followers to loot these religious centres. Many Jews were expelled from Alexandria, their homes being pillaged. The indignant Orestes protested to the Roman government at Constantinople. Cyril then summoned hundreds of orthodox Coptic monks from Nitria, persuading them to take action. Supporters of Cyril then tried to assassinate Orestes, who protested that he was a baptised Christian. The agitators confronted Orestes in the street, while he was riding his chariot. A man named Ammonius hit the prefect with a stone he threw. The attacker was captured by Orestes and tortured to death in a public spectacle.

Roman tortures were notorious, the victims generally being low class people and slaves. Many Coptic Christians had suffered those tortures, imposed by the upper class Graeco-Roman colonialists. Many Coptic monks were low class men (some of the earlier ones were apparently ex-Egyptian priests). Crucifixion, being thrown to lions, and immersion in boiling oil were only three of the elitist afflictions in the Roman Empire. Wheel breaking and the rack were horrific additions to the ancient ordeals of agony favoured by Rome.

The Coptic population resented Roman colonialism. The Diocletian persecution exercised a harsh repression in Egypt. Over 600 Christians were reputedly killed at Alexandria during the period 303-311. Subsequently, during the fourth century CE, Christian virgins (parthenoi) in Egypt are known to have been publicly scourged and imprisoned by the high class Greeks and Romans, whose “contempt for inferiors and slaves is not attractive; many Copts must have loathed the sight of them” (Christian Virgins). In 359/60, the Alexandrian virgin Eudemonis was “cruelly tortured” by imperial officials, including Duke Artemius (Brakke 1995:130). This was a sequel to earlier afflictions. Numerous parthenoi lived at Alexandria, of diverse social background. “Some were wealthy, owning property and slaves, while some of the less elevated were themselves slaves” (article last linked  above). Hypatia may likewise have owned slaves, a common acquisition of the colonial upper class.

The identity of the tortured victim Ammonius is confused. He may have been one of the Parabalani, not a Nitrian monk as is sometimes claimed. The former were low class assistants of Cyril in the city. Some fifteen years earlier, Archbishop Theophilus persecuted about 300 liberal monks of Nitria as heretical Origenists. Theophilus actually marched against these monks with his soldiers. The attackers burned the huts of the monks, who were taken prisoner and ill-treated. The dispossessed party fled to Palestine. Their teachings included allegorical explanation of the Resurrection and pre-existence of the soul (an Origenist theme associated with reincarnation). Church officials were resistant to Origenists, whose teaching ran counter to such orthodox doctrines as creation of the world ex nihilo. The bishops increasingly encouraged literal exegesis amongst the monks, creating an insular mood of dogmatism that was easy to manipulate by ecclesiastics. 

Hypatia became part of the political struggle, when rumours of a pact with Orestes incited hostility against her. She was killed by a Christian mob, apparently while lecturing in a public place. She may have been a random victim of the violence (Donovan 2008:13). The earliest and most reliable account is that of Socrates Scholasticus (d.450), who was writing about 25 years after her death. His Ecclesiastical History relates that Hypatia had frequent meetings with the imperial prefect Orestes. As a consequence, Christians believed that she prevented Orestes from being obedient to Cyril. A mob, under the leadership of Peter the Lector, dragged Hypatia to the church called Caesareum, where she was brutally murdered, her corpse being burnt.

Some commentators have attributed the murder of Hypatia to Christian monks. That is a theory, not proven fact. A more pressing interpretation is that Christian laymen were the murderers. Some scholars emphasise that Cyril utilised a private cadre known as the parabalani (parabolans). This grouping comprised about 800 young men employed by the Alexandrian Patriarch in the service of the church. The parabalani were recruited from the lower classes, sometimes serving as bodyguards. They have been compared to a brigade of ambulance personnel, removing lepers and other helpless persons from city streets for treatment in Christian hostels. The parabalani are described in terms of tough, low class Christian social workers. They may have included minor clerics or dependents of monasteries. They had to be “poor and representative of the entire city’s indigenous population” (Bowersock 2010). 

It looks as if the miscreants who destroyed Hypatia all came from the ranks of [the] city’s poor, and all owed their services under the patriarch to enrollment in a charitable organisation dedicated to helping the needy and the sick. (Bowersock 2010:45)

The parabalani are described, by some scholars, as soldiers in the private army of Cyril. They were the most likely tool of the former Patriarch Theophilus in the earlier destruction of the Serapeum and other pagan temples. This cadre were almost certainly involved in the fanatical attack on the Jewish quarters at Alexandria in 414, a molestation inseparably associated with Cyril.

Professor Maria Dzielska concluded that these young men were incited to spread adverse rumours about Hypatia, subsequently causing an Alexandrian mob to kill her in 415 (Dzielska 1995). She was depicted as a witch; the unreasoning attitude is evident in a seventh century version of events by Bishop John of Nikiu, who describes Hypatia as a witch deserving to be killed.

Writing over a century after Hypatia’s death, the pagan philosopher Damascius (d.540) says that Cyril plotted her murder. Violent men killed her; no identity for these men is supplied. The source is Philosophical History, a work of Damascius surviving only in reconstruction from fragments. Content relates to the contemporary Neoplatonists of Alexandria and Athens (Athanassiadi 1999). A brief report of Hypatia was here included, later reproduced in the Byzantine Suda, a compilation which erroneously describes her as the wife of Isidore of Alexandria (c.450-c.520). This philosopher was born after her death; hindsight can too easily blur details. More reliably, Isidore reluctantly accepted the Athenian succession (diadoche). The Athenian school was closed down in 529 by the hostile Emperor Justinian.

While some commentators conclude that Cyril was responsible for the death of Hypatia, others blame the violent  tendencies of Alexandrians on a more general basis. Christian rioters afflicted some of their own bishops in the same callous manner.  


A late seventh century source is John, Bishop of Nikiu, whose Chronicle reflects a theological bias against Hypatia. Many centuries later, the sceptic Voltaire employed the figure of Hypatia as a means to attack the Christian church. History can be elusive in ideological programmes.

“Her mutilation in the streets of Alexandria has generated a continuing violence at the hands of numerous historians” (Whitfield 1995:14). Villains are here identified as Charles Kingsley, Edward Gibbon, and Carl Sagan. These writers gave the impression that philosophy was snuffed out by Christian bias. They ignored a significant continuation of the Alexandrian philosophical tradition over the generations prior to Islam.

The typical discussions of Hypatia’s death are characterised in terms of (a) overstating the role of Cyril (b) ignoring the continuation of Alexandrian Neoplatonism after 415 CE (c) misrepresenting Hypatia as an opponent of Christianity (Whitfield 1995). A preference to depict Cyril as the agent of murder is now popular. However, the Suda relays that some parties attributed the murder to a seditious tendency amongst Alexandrians.

Damascius has been accused of depicting Hypatia as a martyr of Hellenism. Edward Gibbon (1737-94) was eager to vilify Cyril in his defence of paganism against Christianity. His Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire gained both partisans and critics. Gibbon’s principal source for Hypatia was the Suda, a tenth or eleventh century Byzantine lexicon of orthodox complexion. In other instances, Protestant writers employed Hypatia as a literary weapon in their polemic against Catholicism. Charles Kingsley continued the anti-Catholic stance in his novel Hypatia, or New Foes with an Old Face (1853).

Professor Rist drew attention to the problem created by Gibbon, whose account of Hypatia was designed to arouse “emotional hostility” to Christianity (Rist 1965). Bertrand Russell approvingly quoted from Gibbon’s narrative, adding in his own words: “After this, Alexandria was no longer troubled by philosophers” (Russell 2000:365). The British analytical philosopher has been strongly criticised for his failure to register the ongoing tradition of Neoplatonism at Alexandria after the death of Hypatia. The complement was substantial (Watts 2006).

Professor Dzielska speculates on the subject of why Hypatia stopped writing to her Christian associate Synesius of Cyrene. This theme suggests that the philosopher had changed her earlier non-political stance via her liaison with Orestes. The indications are that Hypatia was accepted in some liberal Christian circles, not being an agitator against religion. She wore the tibon, a cloak associated with Cynic philosophers, a category to some extent tolerated by Christians. The cloak is awarded another interpretation:

The tibon was something like a distinguished professorial toga, as distinct from the earlier short, rough-woven, threadbare Doric cloak of peasants or such philosophers as Socrates or the Cynics. (Dzielska 2013:70)

Soon after the death of Hypatia, the alarmed city council of Alexandria made repeated petitions to the court at distant Constantinople. They wanted imperial intervention in the scenario of violence. Moreover, a widespread reaction emerges:

Christians throughout the [Roman] empire erupted in condemnation of Cyril and the Alexandrian church for the ways in which their leadership had enabled such uncontrolled violence. Because this violence happened on his watch, the murder of Hypatia apparently ended the public career of Orestes. (Watts 2017:3)

As a consequence, the following year (416) Cyril was divested of his authority over the parabalani, whose numbers were reduced to 500 by an imperial ordinance. The gesture to public order is deemed superficial in some accounts. Only two years later, Cyril regained his leadership of the parabalani. However, the imperial ordinance restricted the movements of this grouping, who were prohibited from public places like theatres and courts. Their terrorist potential was now effectively disabled. Nevertheless, Cyril gained ascendancy in the political climate.


The death of Hypatia did not mean the termination of classical education at Alexandria. Philosophical instruction continued in this city until the Arab invasion (Brakke 2018). The ongoing Alexandrian tradition included Ammonius (d.526) and Olympiodorus (d.c.570). Ammonius, a commentator on Aristotle, was skilled in geometry and astronomy. He may have been coerced to pay lip service to Christianity via an arrangement with the Bishop. His strategy ensured survival. Olympiodorus taught both Aristotelian and Platonist doctrines during a period when the number of Christian students in this school greatly increased. Classes in rhetoric and philosophy were a means for young Christian students to enter the clergy or serve in the Byzantine court. The Neoplatonist school at Athens was closed in 529 by Justinian; the Alexandrian counterpart fared much better. Despite strictures, a classical education was considered essential for Christian theology. 

A leading scholar emphasised that Hypatia continues to be a subject for novelists and playwrights. The annual spate of literary fiction is regarded by some as a distraction with tendentious content. In new age fantasy lore, Hypatia has been contacted by a spiritualist medium. The many inaccuracies in the film Agora are no reason to applaud commercial misrepresentation (Dzielska 2013).


Athanassiadi, Polymnia, Damascius: The Philosophical History (Athens: Apamea Cultural Association, 1999).

Bernard, Alain, “The Alexandrian School: Theon of Alexandria and Hypatia” (417-436) in Lloyd P. Gerson, ed.,  The Cambridge History of Philosophy in Late Antiquity Vol. One (Cambridge University Press, 2010).

Birkman, Gabrielle, Hypatia: The First Female Mathematician, Scientist, and Philosopher (n.d.,, online).

Booth, Charlotte, Hypatia: Mathematician, Philosopher, Myth (Stroud: Fonthill Media, 2017).

Bowersock, Glen W., “Parabalani: A Terrorist Charity in Late Antiquity,” Anabases (2010) 12:45-54. 

Brakke, David, Athanasius and the Politics of Asceticism (Oxford University Press, 1995).

——–“Hypatia,” Claremont Coptic Encyclopedia, 2018 (online).

Deakin, Michael A. B., Hypatia of Alexandria: Mathematician and Martyr (New York: Prometheus, 2007).

Donovan, Sandy,  Hypatia: Mathematician, Inventor, and Philosopher  (Minneapolis: Compass Point, 2008).

Dzielska, Maria, Hypatia of Alexandria, trans. F. Lyra (Harvard University Press, 1995).

——–“Once More on Hypatia’s Death” (65-74) in Dzielska and K. Twardowska, eds., Divine Men and Women in the History and Society of Late Hellenism (Cracow: Jagiellonian University Press, 2013).

Fraser, P. M., Ptolemaic Alexandria (3 vols, Oxford University Press, 1972). 

MacLeod, Roy, ed., The Library of Alexandria: Centre of Learning in the Ancient World (London: I. B. Tauris, 1999; new edn 2004).

Rist, J. M., “Hypatia,” Phoenix (1965) 19(3):214-225.

Russell, Bertrand, History of Western Philosophy (1946, second edn, 1961; London: Routledge, 2000).

Thiem, J., “The Great Library of Alexandria Burnt: Towards the History of a Symbol,” Journal of the History of Ideas (1979) 40:507-526.

Watts, Edward J., City and School in Late Antique Athens and Alexandria (University of California Press, 2006).

———Hypatia: The Life and Legend of an Ancient Philosopher (Oxford University Press, 2017).

Whitfield, Bryan J., “The Beauty of Reasoning: A Reexamination of Hypatia of Alexandria,” The Mathematics Educator (1995) 6(1):14-21.


Kevin R. D. Shepherd

ENTRY no 41

July 2011 (modified 2021)

Copyright © 2021 Kevin R. D. Shepherd. All Rights Reserved.