Hypatia of Alexandria
The Legendary Women of World History #8
by Laurel A. Rockefeller Genre: YA Historical Fiction
Teacher. Philosopher. Astronomer.
Born in 355 CE. In the aftermath of Constantine's reign Hypatia of Alexandria lived in a collapsing Rome Empire, a world where obedience to religious authorities trumped science, where reason and logic threatened the new world order. It was a world on the edge of the Dark Ages. As libraries burned, she dared defend the light of knowledge.
One year later Hypatia sat at a small wooden table. Carefully copying letters from a baked clay tablet, she etched practice lines of each letter into the wax sheet in front of her. Theon bent over her shoulder, “Excellent, except your lower case xi ξ and zêta ζ need work. Here, let me show you.” Picking up a second tablet and stylus from the table, Theon slowly transcribed the two characters in front of her. Hypatia copied her father. Theon smiled with approval, “Much better. Practice those until it fills up your tablet. After dinner, I will bring you up to the roof for more lessons.”
Three hours later Hypatia followed her father up the stairs to the roof, grateful for her heavy woollen palla which warmed her against the autumn night chill. Above them the stars wheeled majestically. Hypatia smiled at the beauty of the sky. Theon stepped to a small table and picked up his cross staff. Turning to the north he put the cross staff up to his cheek and measured the angular distance between Polaris in Ursa Minor and Alpha Ursae Majoris in Ursa Major.
Hypatia walked up to him, “What are you doing?”
“Measuring the distance between the pole star and that bright star near it.”
“May I try?”
Theon lowered his cross staff and handed it to Hypatia, “That star is called Alpha Ursae Majoris. It’s part of a constellation called Ursa Major –the big bear. Callisto was a beautiful nymph sworn to Artemis. One day Zeus fell in love with her and she conceived a son. Hera of course was very angry that her husband had cheated on her again and turned her into a bear. One day her son, a young man named Arcas, met her in the forest. Naturally he was afraid that she would kill him—as bears often do when humans get too close. So, Zeus intervened and put them both in the sky. The mother is the great bear Ursa Major and the son is the little bear Ursa Minor. Callisto’s body is formed by many stars, Alpha Ursae Majoris being the closest to Arcas’ tail. If you will look here, the tip of that tail is the current pole star, Polaris.”
Hypatia smiled, “It’s beautiful! Why do you say ‘current’ pole star?”
“Because Polaris is not always the pole star. Sometimes it is Alpha Lyrae. About six hundred years ago, Hipparchus of Nicaea discovered, almost by accident, that the spin of the Earth is imperfect. Like a top, it wobbles so that the pole star alternates between Polaris and Alpha Lyrae. It takes a very long time, of course. The wobble is very slight – about one degree every seventy-two years. So as far as we need to be concerned Polaris is the pole star—and will continue to be for a very long time.”
“So if I want to find north, all I need to do is look for Alpha Ursae Majoris and I will quickly find Polaris?”
“Yes. It is as easy as that—at least at night it is.”
“This is amazing, Father! I had no idea there was so much to learn about the stars!”
“The discoveries have only begun, Hypatia. Perhaps you will make discoveries that will change the world.”
“I would like that very much! To learn all about the stars, all the secrets of the heavens and the earth. Will the gods reward me or punish me if I make this my life’s work?”
“That is a question you must answer for yourself. But I think this is the path for you, Hypatia, if you want it badly enough.”
“What must I do?”
“Right now, you must go to bed. I have kept you up far too long. When you are older we can spend more time studying the sky. Go to sleep. In the morning, we will work on your reading and I will teach you some basic mathematics that you will need to understand before you can study the stars.”
Born, raised, and educated in Lincoln, Nebraska USA Laurel A. Rockefeller is author of over twenty books published and self-published since August, 2012 and in languages ranging from Welsh to Spanish to Chinese and everything in between. A dedicated scholar and biographical historian, Ms. Rockefeller is passionate about education and improving history literacy worldwide.
With her lyrical writing style, Laurel's books are as beautiful to read as they are informative.
In her spare time, Laurel enjoys spending time with her cockatiels, attending living history activities, travelling to historic places in both the United States and United Kingdom, and watching classic motion pictures and classic television series.
What is something unique/quirky about you?
People don’t realize this because my Peers of Beinan science fiction series is not popular yet, but I am STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) literate. I love science and growing up I seriously considered a career in physics and astronomy. In the fifth grade, I took on a paper route which I kept until my junior year of high school and with my earnings I joined “NASA for Kids” which provided me not only the magazine, but physics experiments I could play with. Growing up near Hyde Observatory in Lincoln, Nebraska USA meant I spent many Saturday nights watching the space shows and looking through the observatory’s telescopes. It was free family entertainment for my parents that really gave me the science bug at a very young age and led to considerable bullying at school which endured until I graduated university. Sadly, when I was in the 8thgrade I was struck by a car crossing the street on my way home from school. The resulting traumatic brain injury destroyed my mathematics ability (up until that point I was three years ahead of my classmates) and ended my starry professional dreams. Fortunately, in 2011 I was able to use my STEM background again when I started writing the Peers of Beinan Series. I’ve had my science challenged by professionals (for example, my choice of a class A/B star as the Beinarian sun) and I’ve passed their scrutiny. I am not certain many scifi authors can say the same, so it’s a point of pride for me and one reason I believe people should absolutely give those books a try.
Tell us something really interesting that's happened to you!
In 2011, I was taking the NYC subway humming and writing a song (not unusual for me at all) when someone came up to me and asked me what Broadway show I was in. That made my day. I would love to audition for “The Voice” except my style of music is not really what that show focuses on. Moreover, the attempt would require separation from my beloved cockatiels for an extended time which I would find intolerable. That said, you can hear me sing on myyoutube channelas I often record the music tracks for my videos. I also have a habit of breaking out in song when I am a guest of theCondensed History Gems podcastso please check that out as well.
Describe yourself in 5 words or less!
Concise. Precise. Educated. Animal-Lover. Liberal-Progressive.
What are some of your pet peeves?
Peeve #1: science fiction not getting basic science right. This is laziness. Authors expect readers to suspend their disbelief to an absurd degree. Case in point: in Star Trek Deep Space 9 I saw a ridiculous number of objects marked “class M” that clearly in real life would not have enough gravity for an atmosphere and were not close enough to a star (if there was a star present at all) to generate enough heat for Earth-human survival. Yes, you can visit these places – but not without a space suit! Peeve #2 is another science one: calling a bird a “breed” or parrots a “species.” This is especially offensive on government, veterinarian, and/or pet ID cards because it completely disregards basic science. Mammals are literally a different class (Mammalia) than birds (Aves). Parrots have their very own order that is further divided into families, each family containing numerous genera and species. The term “breed” properly refers to variations within a single species or subspecies. That’s why you can mate a corgi with a terrier; both are dogs (species Canis lupus familiaris). With birds, a breed is a color mutation or a color morph within that species. Our most popular pet bird species from the cockatoo family is the cockatiel. Breeds of cockatiel include whiteface, pearl, cinnamon, lutino, and pied. And yes, a single bird can be more than one at a time. My beloved cockatiel Mithril is considered a “whiteface lutino” which is the proper breed designation for an albino.
The solution to my peeves is quite easy. We can all avoid both of my biggest peeves with a little more STEM literacy. Sadly, politics keeps interfering in proper science education so people simply are not learning the basics, let alone advanced math and science. We can change this, but we really have to care and realize the facts do matter and science is important in our daily lives.
What are your top 10 favorite books/authors?
Authors: JRR Tolkien, Dorothy “DC” Fontana, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Frank Herbert, Gene Roddenberry, Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson. Books:The Letters of John and Abigail Adams, The Mists of Avalon, Dune, The Lord of the Rings,andGuide to a Well-Behaved Parrotby Mattie Sue Athan
What inspired you to write this book? Hypatia of Alexandria was the first person suggested to me for the Legendary Women of World History Series. Though of course I decided uponBoudiccafor that first book (an excellent decision as Boudicca remains my best seller in the series so far), Hypatia has always been on my list of people I wanted to write about. Like all of the ladies in this series, she is very inspiring, but also poorly understood; her legend and the real person I found in researching her are genuinely quite different. The film “Agora” does a wonderful job celebrating her life, but it is filled with inaccuracies. This book corrects the record and gives you a better sense of her remarkable and courageous life and times, times that are eerily similar to our own today.
What can we expect from you in the future?
More Legendary Women of World History narrative biographies! I love writing about history from the female point of view. Far too much of what we learn comes from the vantage points of men and focus on men—most of them white heterosexuals of noble birth from England or the United States. But history is so much more than that. Expect me to continue to show you the world and take you through time to explore the stories you never knew existed and exploring parts of these ladies’ lives that rarely get much attention. For example, most people think of the Tudors when they think of women having difficulties with miscarriage (Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn in particular). But Empress Matilda of England, the sole surviving legitimate daughter of King Henry I and mother to King Henry II of England, also suffered from a devastating and history changing miscarriage/early birth. Today we still treat miscarriage and infant death as a taboo subject, but I fully explore it in “Empress Matilda of England.” To learn from the past, we must be willing to truly discuss the past, even when the topic turns to something uncomfortable. I find it somewhat ironic that as a society we are more willing to talk about slavery or genocide than we are about women’s health topics like menstruation, pregnancy, and miscarriage. Therefore, expect me to take the occasional dip into the uncomfortable and the controversial and to treat these subjects honestly.
Do you have any “side stories” about the characters?
I think the great side stories of “Hypatia of Alexandria” are the questions it raises, both philosophical and religious. We today struggle with so many of the same questions that Hypatia faced personally and professionally. Questions about science and religion. Questions about the early church and how/why certain beliefs and ideas absent from the direct teachings of Jesus Christ as reported in the Gospels entered into Christianity. Questions about the role of religion in our lives and how we can and should express our religious beliefs. Ethical questions as well as we watch Alexandria literally fall into the Dark Ages.
This is a very philosophical biography. As Hypatia struggles as a philosopher to find the solutions to her dilemmas we find ourselves thinking about these same issues in our modern world and modern context. We are enriched by our sympathy and empathy for her in rich and truly compelling ways. As for something about Hypatia I think most people don’t know, she was really at the heart of Society in Alexandria. In a time where anti-Semitism was whipping up into a frenzy, she was friends with the leaders of Alexandria’s Jewish community and did not allow the increasing violence against Jews daunt her in pursuit of those relationships. Some of the best scenes in the book all happen in the Jewish quarter in the northeast part of the city. I have a couple of beautiful Hanukkah scenes in chapter 5. A warm “Chag Urim Sameach” to those of you celebrating this year!
Where were you born/grew up at?
Lincoln, Nebraska USA.
If you knew you'd die tomorrow, how would you spend your last day? A whole day of undivided attention given to my cockatiels. I love my birds and given that my friends are on both sides of the Atlantic, I think a dinner party with all of them together would simply not happen, no matter how much I would love that. But a day playing with my birds – that we can do!
What book do you think everyone should read? Besides mine??Seriously, I don’t think there is a book everyone should read. Rather I prefer to celebrate the beautiful diversity that is life and let everyone decide for herself or himself what makes a great book.
What kind of world ruler would you be?
What a fun question. I actually do want to pursue a political career once I have written all the LWWH biographies that I want to and call the series finished. I would love to be elected to Parliament and would be greatly honoured to be chosen leader of the Liberal Democrats. I would love to lead the LibDems into its first outright majority in the House of Commons and become prime minister of the United Kingdom.
What would I do if I become PM? I would love to guide Britain into a true Union where all four states are treated as genuine equals under the law and in daily life and where local councils are back in control of local issues, especially housing. Local councils and wards are the ones best able to provide the essentials of life to residents. I would foster Welsh as the heritage language of England, Scotland, and Wales, and support the north Irish in their cultural and linguistic priorities for Northern Ireland. I would work tirelessly to bring unity, fairness, and social justice to the UK, and I would absolutely foster world peace by strengthening our connections with continental Europe and the EU in particular.
Or, put another way, I would be the exact opposite of the current government led by the Right Honourable Theresa May of the Conservative Party.
Tell us about a favorite character from a book.
Tough one because I don’t read a lot of fiction and “character” implies fiction to me. Of the historical persons I’ve studied for the Legendary Women of World History I really like both Gwenllian ferch Gruffydd (book 6) and Catherine de Valois (book 2). Both women were so courageous and both were princesses whose realms were invaded by England, but both handled it completely differently. Catherine was forced to marry the king of England (Henry V) as a trophy of war. Given King Henry’s atrocities and often violent temper (he was a tyrant and a hero only because Shakespeare fictionalized him into one), Catherine displayed enormous intelligence, tact, and political shrewdness in how she handled the king.
After Henry died of dysentery on 31 August 1422, Catherine was brave enough to marry a descendent of Welsh princess Gwenllian ferch Gruffydd (Owain ap Maredudd ap Tudur, aka Owen Tudor) despite an act of Parliament forbidding her from remarrying without the consent of her son, King Henry VI who at the time was still a pre-schooler. She literally kept her head when someone else would have faltered and faced dire consequences.
Gwenllian ferch Gruffydd faced a very different war with England. Gwenllian was born in 1097 in Aberffraw in north Wales. Her kingdom, Gwynedd, was fighting for its survival against the full force of the Norman Conquest. Her father, King Gruffydd ap Cynan held, lost, and regained Gwynedd from Norman control many times over. She grew up learning how to defend her realm from the Anglo-Normans. In 1115, she married Prince Gruffydd ap Rhys of the southern kingdom of Deheubarth and became its co-sovereign princess. Gwenllian is often referred to as the “Welsh Maid Marion” and she might in fact be the historical basis for that character. Together she and Gruffydd waged a defensive guerrilla war against King Henry I’s Anglo-Norman armies for almost twenty years while at the same time pregnant, giving birth to, and raising her many children. No wonder she is the national heroine of Wales!
Describe your writing style.
Lyrical is probably the best word for it. I came into writing through my music. I was making up songs long before I could read. My songs helped me express myself and survive a very difficult and often very violent childhood. I was in my teens the first time my poems were published, including a sonnet, “Why Bilbo?” for the American Tolkien Society in the winter of 1991/2. So, it makes sense that my writing has a musical quality to it and translates so easily to audio books. Indeed, poetry and music is a common feature in most of my books, both fiction and non-fiction. “Gwenllian ferch Gruffydd” opens with an original poem called “Gwenllian’s Tears” and “Mary Queen of the Scots” opens with the original poem, “Of Scotland Forgotten.” There is plenty of period music in the narrative biographies and original music in the “Peers of Beinan” science fiction novels. You can hear me sing many of these songs on my youtube videos.
What makes a good story?
To me a good story has to pull at your heart strings. There are many very competent writers out there who know their stuff, but fail to really get you invested emotionally. If you aren’t empathizing with the characters or historical persons, then the author is not doing her or his job. With a good story you really truly care about these people and what is happening to them. You hurt with them at the difficult moments and you rejoice with them when they succeed at something. For non-fiction science, the aim has to be making whatever it is really compelling and interesting without sacrificing accuracy or reading comprehension. Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson is an expert at this which is why he is one of my favourite authors.
What are you passionate about these days?
Immigration to England! As a very hands-on historian I feel I do my best work when I have walked the places I’m writing about and done many of the activities in my historical narratives. There is no substitute for direct, personal experience when you are writing. And while yes, it is possible to travel to the UK and the EU from the USA, such trips are too long and expensive to take on the sort of regular basis I need in order to do the best possible work I can. So I am engaging in this extremely long, difficult process called legal immigration.
Making my life more difficult in pursuit of this effort is the current anti-immigrant climate in both the USA and abroad. Ten years ago all you really needed to prove was that you were earning enough money to be self-supporting for the first three to ten years in your new home country. Today those skilled worker visas are extremely hard to come by, particularly for writers and other creative professionals. Everyone is presumed to be a potential terrorist or an economic threat to native-borns so the number of visas available has dramatically shrank and the standards for what skills you need have skyrocketed. It’s no longer good enough to be even in the top 25% of your profession to be considered skilled.
The good news for me is that with your help, I can and will reach England from which I will be better empowered to tell these stories of inspiring historical women. All it takes from you is a review or two on Amazon and sharing what you love about my work with others! So please, help me make my dream come true. Help me earn that visa!
What do you do to unwind and relax?
I have two beautiful cockatiels who are my pride, joy, and usually a form of amusement for me. Absolutely love my birds. I play a couple Facebook games on a daily basis. And of course, I’m a big movie fan, especially of classic films. Favourite television series include Doctor Who, Star Trek the Next Generation, Star Trek Voyager, the West Wing, Victoria, Sherlock, and Downton Abbey. For social activities, I enjoy fine food and drink (I’m quite the foodie at times), history tourism, and playing several outdoor games. I don’t generally exercise if I’m alone, but in the company of a small group I rather enjoy golfing (either the driving range or miniature golf), badminton, archery, frisbee/catch games, and sometimes a bit of football (soccer). Walking around zoos and botanic gardens is also fun too, especially if the trip involves seeing birds. Roses are my favourite flowers, especial white and fire-and-ice varieties.
What made you want to become an author and do you feel it was the right decision?
I don’t think anyone in this business really wants per se to be a writer. I think it is like acting and you are a writer from birth and then, through the trials and tribulations of life, finally learn to embrace your talent. As with acting, the road can be very long and convoluted and take decades before you take the plunge and decide to really go for it as a trade as opposed to a hobby you do for fun. Some published authors never take it out of hobby mode. I personally resisted making writing my profession. None of my family, living or dead, support(ed) the idea and I was pushed hard to pursue a “real” job. That’s a key reason I majored in Psychology while in University – my writing major was for me and my psych major was for my mother. History came about through my elective course options. By the time I was registering for classes for senior year my minor advisor in the history department told me I only needed three specific required courses to turn my minor into a major –so I did. History is really the hobby I made into a profession via becoming a non-fiction history author.
As for the right or wrongness of the decision, well it took me over 25 years to finally stop resisting my talent and go for it. In that time, I tried to make a living doing anything except write; the list is very long of the odd, usually poorly paid jobs I took. Now I have taken the big plunge and made writing my sole source of income, yes, I am happy with the decision. I’m finally doing what I was always meant to do.
A day in the life of the author?
I don’t think there is a typical day for me. I get up, check my email and social media, and go from there. I am very active on twitter and there are certain people I like to keep up with every day if I can. I love a good twitter conversation about history, birds, and so forth.
My work usually involves interacting with my translators on a regular basis and in truth I enjoy talking to them about both work and personal stuff. I may have writing or research to do that day or book promotion. It really all depends. When I’m doing initial research for a book I usually start with youtube in search of documentaries relating to the new project. Look through my bibliographies and you usually will find at least one video listed as proof of that.
One thing I always do every day unless I’m traveling is take a nap after my mid-day meal – usually with my cockatiels nearby. The mid-day nap time is often my main time to get in quality interactions with each bird because they are often most friendly with me then. What could be better than your cockatiel walking right up to you for a head rub or a kiss? Heaven!
Do you have advice you would give new authors or aspiring writers?
Learn everything you can. Nothing is irrelevant. When I was seventeen I never thought I would use my high school chemistry. Flash forward to 2011 when I started writing “The Great Succession Crisis” and was laying down the scientific foundations for my world-building and I was neck deep in three different versions of the periodic table of elements, tables I couldn’t have understood without that foundation from high school.
Another piece of advice: there is no substitution for either practice or hands-on experience. Writing is not something you can really learn in the classroom. You can and should master grammar and vocabulary, the technical parts of the languages you are writing in and that can be taught to you. But the creative part of writing, the instincts for plot, pacing, character, and so forth comes from experience and from reading a lot. Details matter a great deal in making your work believable which is why you must travel and experience life directly. The more you get out into the world and experience the breadth of what life has to offer the better your writing will be.
For example, in “Mary Queen of the Scots” there is an especially detailed dancing scene, a scene that reflects my many years dancing at Society for Creative Anachronism events. The scene works because I’m not imagining how people danced at Mary’s court; I know how they danced after years of dancing those dances myself. Likewise, in “Hypatia of Alexandria” there is an early scene with Hypatia trying to learn to spin with a drop spindle. Drop spinning is one of those medieval crafts I practice and do badly. So the scene is coming from real life. Drop spinning takes years of constant practice to master. Being mathematically inclined and with her talents being much more for philosophy and astronomy, I have zero doubt that Hypatia struggled with the “traditional” crafts women are expected to master just as much as I have all my life.
Those scenes work because I have broad experiences. Therefore allow me to encourage you to put down the tech and reach for all the different sorts of experiences you can.
What are you currently reading?
I am reading “Forgotten History: Unbelievable Moments from the Past” by Jem Duducu. Like me, Duducu brings history out of academia and into the hands of “the common man” though he goes about it quite differently and focuses much more on the military side of history than I do.
How long have you been writing?
I don’t believe you choose to be a writer. I believe writing chooses you. This is my entire life for my entire life. I began as a song-writer using my music to help me cope with a violent home life. Today we call that music therapy and recognize the healing power of music, but back in my childhood people simply thought I was a freak for constantly making up songs and singing to myself, despite my lovely voice.
As for making a living writing, that really started in the wake of the Great Recession and the loss of my salaried job as a commercial photographer and graphic artist. I resisted pursuing a writing career for decades; the familial antagonism towards the profession was simply that strong. I started numerous small businesses which each failed and threw me into debt. I really come into this career really kicking and screaming.
In August 2012 I published the first version of “The Great Succession Crisis” (it is now in its third edition). Five years out it is still not yet a commercial success, but that is fine because I am happy with the quality of my writing and I recognize that science fiction is a very crowded genre. People will discover GSC in time along with its prequels and sequels in the Peers of Beinan Series. As a literary social science fiction I am well-prepared for that.
Until then, I am very happy to continue to write the Legendary Women of World History series. There are currently eight titles in English. In 2018 I begin work on “Cleopatra VII” and on “Hildegarde von Bingen.” The series itself will probably finish after about 40-50 total titles meaning you can expect more great narrative biographies for years to come!
What is your writing process? For instance do you do an outline first? Do you do the chapters first?What kind of research do you do before you begin writing a book? Whenever I start a new biography I usually begin my research by going as far back in time for that culture or nationality as possible and then working forwards in time. For example, on “Mary Queen of the Scots” I began by watching documentaries on ancient Scotland and the first known settlements in the highlands. With “Empress Matilda of England” I began with pre-Roman Germany and discovered that for all the differences between the Germanic and “Celtic” languages, northern Europeans were far more similar to each other than they were different. From there, the research propelled me into the Roman era, the formation of the “Empire of the Romans” (the term “Holy Roman Empire” dates to the Renaissance), and finally into the Salian dynasty and to Kaiser Heinrich and Matilda herself.
As a rule, I start with documentaries and then work my way into books, journal articles, and online published content. I’m very top-down, working from largest and broadest details to more specific. All this time I log my sources used and construct the timelines you see in every LWWH book since the second one (Boudicca does not have a timeline because we do not have precise dates for events in her life). In that sense I am outlining because with history I must present events in the sequence they happened.
I’m not outlining the story per se in the traditional sense, but I am logging what happened and when which in turn functions like an outline. The story telling itself (which events to include and how) does not get outlined. The bulk of what you see in the Timeline appendix in each book does not make it into the narrative. That adds to its usefulness.
With the main parts of the Timeline worked out, I usually begin with writing the opening prologue or poem that breaks the ice, that first 1-3 pages that most potential readers first see on retailer websites. Once perfected, a simultaneous process of writing, research, and editorial begins in earnest as I shape my list of historical events into a compelling narrative biography. Once I am satisfied with the core narrative, I finish by organizing, formatting, and polishing the appendices before uploading each book for publication.
Can you tell us a little bit about the historical persons in “Hypatia of Alexandria?”
Hypatia of Alexandria was born in 355 CE, just twenty years after the death of Constantine. The sixty years of her life saw some of the most sweeping changes of the late Roman Empire. It was a time of transition from the classical world to the medieval world. Hypatia lived right in the heart of it, in the intellectual capital of the Eastern Roman Empire. She was, for all practical purposes, the very last of the classical philosophers.
Two of Hypatia’s most famous students were Orestes and Synesius of Cyrene. Very little is known about Orestes. In the film “Agora” he is treated as a love interest for Hypatia, but in fact we have no evidence of that either way. The only mention to Orestes in historical sources tell us he was ’Praefectus augustalis’ which was the title given to the Roman governor of Egypt. Sources then go on to very briefly tell us of Orestes’ conflict with Patriarch Cyril in the events immediately leading up to Hypatia’s murder. After her death, Orestes disappears from the historical record entirely.
Synesius of Cyrene studied with Hypatia from 390 CE to 395 CE at which point he returned to Cyrene in modern day Libya to become its bishop in 409 CE. By this point, Synesius was married and had two sons which he refused to put away upon his elevation to bishop as was normal custom. Much of what we know about Hypatia comes from the surviving letters he wrote to her from Cyrene. He loved Hypatia deeply and to some degree continued her scientific work after he left, inventing numerous scientific instruments—some of them more successful than others. Synesius of Cyrene died heartbroken in 413 CE following the death of his wife and children. Contrary to the film “Agora” he never lived to see the brutal murder of his beloved “Philosopher” let alone contributed (as the film shows) to her death on the 15th of March, 315 CE.
Tell us about Hypatia - what makes her tick?
Hypatia of Alexandria was a woman both ahead of her time and yet very much a part of it. She was in many ways a classical philosopher in a classic sense with much in common in terms of upbringing and outlook as other greats from the classical period. She received both a Roman and Greek education, the Roman being very practical and emphasizing education to foster good citizenship and the Greek emphasizing arts, sciences, physical education, and music. The Greeks considered education a form of worship to the Gods which is one reason why Christianity so often took on anti-intellectual qualities. When Paul writes in Colossians, “See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than on Christ,” part of what he opposes is this Greek belief that learning itself is a form of worship. To Paul, philosophy was a form of idolatry, a belief that really empowers Patriarch Theophilus and his successor, Cyril, to go in and attack the intellectual communities and institutions that made Alexandria the educational center of the Roman world.
Hypatia’s world is literally falling apart around her. Everything she has ever known and ever believed in is under attack. But rather than turning a blind eye as those she knows and loves are taken off and killed, she puts her own life at risk helping and defending them, including many Jewish friends who were by this time facing extermination at the hands of the church leaders.
Hypatia taught anyone and everyone who came to her without concern for money, nationality, or religion. She put everything on the line to help and teach others. Truly a great role model for us in these turbulent times.
What did you enjoy most about writing this book?
Tough one because as a rule I love the research aspects of writing each of my books. But if I needed to specify one thing unique to Hypatia that is not present in the other books so far it is the astronomy which was really my first love growing up in Lincoln, Nebraska. Before the car accident that took my eyesight, I seriously considered a career in science. Getting back to my astronomical roots was a lot of fun and I have some very cool astronomy-related resources in this book’s bibliography along with an appendix providing the latitude and longitude coordinates for several Roman Empire cities. This appendix will help you look up star charts for each location so you can see first-hand how the night sky differs depending on where in the world you are. I also really enjoyed writing the big astronomy scene in chapter two where Theon is introducing Hypatia to what becomes her life-long passion with the stars. We forget that each of these constellations have stories behind them. It was a lot of fun researching and telling the stories of Ursa Major (the Big Bear) and Ursa Minor (the Little Bear) and exploring several of the Greek astronomical discoveries in the process.