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Hypatia and the Role of Women in Hellenistic Society

From Ancient Greece to the traditions of Hellenistic society, gender stereotypes have been considered as one of the main characteristics present within these civilizations. Most significantly for Hellenistic society, it was the rule of patriarchs that best described the gender orientation of their society. In fact, the role of patriarchs or males were very much emphasized in philosophical arguments, such as Sirach’s Jewish apocryphal literature stating, “There is wrath and impudence and great disgrace when a wife supports her husband” (Sirach 21-23; cited in Sawyer 40).

As far as Hellenistic society was concerned, the roles of women were limited to being wives who provide services to men, home manager, and the weak gender. The perspectives of Hellenism considered females as subordinates to men, which somehow raised men’s role in the society in the pedestal considering that females were deprived with the opportunity to learn and to gain knowledge from subjects like science and philosophy. However, this societal stereotype was thwarted by Hypatia (370 – 415 C.

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E.) who initiated her efforts to learn the subjects that were previously exclusive to men alone.

She became one of the most regarded female scholars in the history of Greece, specifically in Alexandria. Hypatia was one of the earliest gender rights petitioners who focused mainly on education and learning. Within the study, the discussion provides significant emphasis on the life of Hypatia and the various encounters she had during her struggle for her education. With this, the study covers the role of women within the Hellenistic society and the means these women thrive with men.

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Furthermore, a critical argument between gender roles of the earlier periods of Hellenistic era is incorporated within the study in order to provide substantial evidence on women’s societal significance back in the Hellenistic society. The study also considers the implications and contributions made by Hypatia towards the feminine roles in the society. Discussion Overview on Hypatia Hypatia was born in Alexandria where she spent most of her childhood and adolescence that influenced her identity.

According to scholars, the early education of Hypatia came from her experience within the Museums of Alexandria. She was able to convince her father to let her obtain her primary education in Athens where she obtained an award of laurel wreath for her outstanding scholastic performances. According to O’Grady (2005), Hypatia was noted to possess a dynamic personality that was legendary and a riveting, ultimately tragic, biography (235). Hypatia of Alexandria was considered the first woman mathematician who obtained positive inclinations in the subjects of philosophy and mathematics.

Considering Hypatia’s father, Theon, was also a well-respected mathematician and astronomer of their time, Hypatia must have acquired her significant skills in numbers through her patriarchal lineage. However, Hypatia was not only limited in these subjects, but she also expanded her reach within the context of philosophy and astronomical studies. The fundamental idealisms that greatly influenced her perspectives were the ideas from Hellenism and Neo-Platonism. From the book of Anderson, Katz and Wilson (2004), they pointed Suidas and Socrates description towards Hypatia’s physical features.

According to them, Hypatia possessed a body of rare beauty and grace (47). Ogilvie (1986) mentioned in her book that according to Socrates Scholasticus, Hypatia was not only famed because of her intellect and skill, but also with her beauty, which captivated Synesius, later bishop of Prolemais (104). However, there is a clear agreement between historians that Hypatia never married during her lifetime. Aside from her physique, her intellectual capacity obtained recognition from various fields of sciences. At about 400 A.

D, Hypatia became the head of the Platonist school of Alexandria where she taught her expertise, mathematics and philosophy (O’Grady 235). Her Neo-Platonist philosophy was influenced by classical Greek logic and idealism from Plato that was merged with the concepts of Oriental mysticism, which she obtained after she studied at Egypt. Hence, the philosophical teachings of Hypatia revolved in an intensive reasoning through Neo-Platonist perspective. With the vast diversity of culture and religious backgrounds present in Alexandria, the complexities of the political and economic climate did not stop the philosophical ideations of Hypatia.

On the other hand, one of the most controversial points in Hypatia’s legacy was her death, which became the point of arguments on whether it contributed to the end of Hellenistic society or triggered the disruption of patriarchal domination (Anderson, Katz and Wilson 48). There had been different theories that explain the death of Hypatia, such as her conflict with Cyril, Alexandrian’s stampede, etc. However, Hypatia’s death can be considered worthwhile due to her contribution to the feminine society.

Role of Women in Hellenistic Society Within the patriarchal context of Greece’s city-states and colonies during the Hellenistic era, women had indeed experienced diversity in their roles and views towards their society. Significantly, the women of their time considered being more sheltered and subordinate in their existence before men. Added by Witherington (1990), by Hellenistic and Roman times these views were still in existence, though less strongly held because of the liberalizing influence of Macedonian and Roman occupations (11).

Despite of their weak presence within the Hellenistic society, women were still treated with respect and regards from the male society. Although, their fate as wives or married Hellenistic women was not viewed entirely appropriate. The primary roles of women during this era were either for being the males’ wives or concubines. Athenian-citizen women were married usually at fifteen or sixteen years of age, and from this time, their understanding and coherence of the world and their surroundings was not yet established.

After the marriage, these women were separated through a guarded chamber, but their freedom was always retained. During this era, concubines were the least feminine class looked upon between legal wives and prostitutes. The role of concubines was even recognized by Athenian law, which comprised the legitimacy and freedom of lineage produced through her. However, with a clear picture, the Athenian law towards these concubines was much more inclined to the benefits of patriarchal society by having their sexual needs filled (Witherington 11).

Despite of these limited atmosphere and role diversion provided by the male society to the females, these women were still able to foster their interest in expanding their capacity and placement within the society. In the Hellenistic sense, one of the most historically significant events brought by the feminine gender was their interest for liberation. As supported by Swidler (1979), the conditions of women greatly improved to the point where a woman could in general marry and divorce on her own initiative and even choose her own name (18).

From this point, the placement of women exceeded their previous condition of their societal function. They even attained significant minor roles within the realm of education and political affairs. Hellenistic period marked the era of feminine role expansion wherein various opportunities within the society became available for them. With the opportunity to study and educate themselves, the profession that became the greatest threat to male poetic body was women poets.

During the Hellenistic period, women, such as Hypatia, obtained honorary recognition for their skills in expressing their thoughts and opinions through poetry. Most of the time, the contents of their literature were related to their desire to possess equal outlook on both genders. The presence of Hellenistic monarchies provided the new outlook played by monarchical wives – the Hellenistic queens. The upper-class women society enjoyed the vast newly opened opportunities since they were the ones who can avail the new places in society, such as education, political career, etc.

Spielgovel (2005) mentioned that there had been documents indicating the increased numbers of women involved in managing slaves, selling property, and making loans (93). The immense expansion of women’s role did not only consider careers and personal developments, but rather, they were also given the chance to acquire ownership of their own lands, wealth and significant placement within the quarters of men. However, the expansion did not consider full equality for both genders but only the increase of feminine roles. Hypatia and her Contribution the Hellenistic Regime

Hypatia of Alexandria was an example of a pre-historic figure that fought the society’s stereotype for gender discrimination. From her biography, she was able to surpass even the best scholars of her time, a woman of legendary Athene-like beauty and virtue, and a woman who possessed distinct features of martyrdom. Hypatia can be considered as one of the famed personalities in Alexandria during the Hellenistic era. Her contribution to the society paved an example of feminine capacity to acquire development in the fields of education.

She was considered as one of the famed Alexandrian poets that contributed to the modern sense of literature. Despite of her womanhood and society’s stereotypes against feminine gender, she was still able to make substantial contributions in the fields of philosophy, mathematics and astronomy. In the fields of science, she was able to discover the early forms of astrolabe and hydrometer; although, this was not taken in regards by the male scientific society and regarded it as lacking of scientific studies (Anderson, Katz and Wilson 387).

He provided her commentaries with Diophantus’s Arithmetica, on Apollonius’s Conics, and on Ptolemy’s works but all of her works was lost in time. IN the fields of philosophy, she was able to merge the concept of oriental perspectives to Platonistic views. One of her commendable disciples to this teaching was Synesius who moved within the context of religious philosophy (Kahlos 40). She was able to prove to the patriarchal society that females can also stand their ground and contribute to the society’s welfare if only they can obtain the sense of rightful placement.

Her philosophical views under the teachings of Neo-Platonist were considered by the Christian orthodox as an opposition to their beliefs. The Christian society branded her teachings as Paganistic and even considered her as the Pagan martyr. According to Forrest (2001), the Christian orthodox had seen the influence of her philosophical views and, since this threatens the Christianity of Alexandrian society, Hypatia was murdered by an angry Christian mob, which ended the teachings of her neo-platonic views (127).

The roles of women within the Hellenistic society expanded giving them various opportunities to acquire proper placement in the society; however, this did not eliminate the gender discrimination and inferior sense towards feminine society. The trademark of Hellenistic era did open the new quarters for female society, but still, the last opinion came from the patriarchal society; hence, limiting the expansion of feminine career and roles in the society. Conclusion

In the conclusion of the study, the life of Hypatia was used in order to analyze the systems and the social conditions of feminine roles during the Hellenistic era. Indeed, the functionalities and placement of women expanded during this era, although it did not consider full equality between the two genders. Females were given the chance of education, political participation, material and wealth possession, and significant position in the fields of philosophy and sciences.

Hypatia portrayed the Hellenistic woman of their time wherein she established a remarkable educational background and contribution to the fields of sciences and philosophy. However, most of these were either hindered or rejected by the male society. Hypatia was a victim of society’s stigma against Christian Orthodox in which she somehow contradicted with he Neo-Platonic teachings; hence, she was murdered in order to end her influence. Still, with Hypatia’s life portrayal, the Hellenistic women did achieve role expansion but still under societal limitations brought by male society.

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Hypatia and the Role of Women in Hellenistic Society. (2017, Mar 28). Retrieved from

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