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Hypatia of Alexandria

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Hypatia of Alexandria, in the words of O’Connor and Robertson, was the first woman to make a substantial contribution to the development of mathematics”. She lived in Alexandria, Egypt—a great entrepot and center of learning—in the late 4th and early 5th centuries C.E. It is believed that she studied mathematics under her father, Thon of Alexandria. It is known that, remarkably, she became head of the Platonist school in Alexandria around 400. She appears to have based her teachings on Plotinus, the chief Neoplatonist of the Hellenic world, and Iamblichus, another, less influential and far less readable author, who wrote c. 300 C.E. Rose Cicy has stated that Hypatia dominated the cultural life of Alexandria in the last years of the fourth century. Hypatia of AlexandriaIf that is true, then she would have to have been a truly remarkable woman for, next to Rome and Constantinople, Alexandria was the most learned and cosmopolitan place in the Roman Empire.

John Leonard has noted that Hypatia has been a figure that has captured the literary imaginations of many writers. She is said to have died a martyr’s death at the hands of Christian monks and this story has been mentioned by numerous writers including Henry Fielding. She is thought by some to have represented the last flowering of pagan learning in Alexandria.

We do not have any examples of Hypatia’s work. Titles survive as do also references to her writings in the works of her contemporaries. O’Connor and Robertson state that “There is no evidence that Hypatia undertook original mathematical research”. She appears, however, to have assisted her father in editing Euclid’s Elements and it is also believed that she wrote commentaries on Diophantus’ Arithmetica, Apollonius’ Conics, and Ptolemy’s astronomical works. It is thought by some that she invented a version of the astrolabe and a hydroscope to measure the weight of liquids.

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