An exemplary woman

When people go on about the great pagans of antiquity who deserve to be remembered today, everyone mentions Hypatia but she wasn’t the only exceptional female philosopher that the exceptional city of Alexandria produced – there was also, a generation later, Aidesia.


Here’s what the Neoplatonic philospher Damascius (Life of Isidore fr. 124) had to say about her:

Wife of Hermeias. She was related by birth to the great Syrianos, and was the fairest and finest of all the women in Alexandria. In her character she was similar to her husband: simple, noble, and a devotee of Justice no less than of Propriety through her whole life. But her outstanding qualities were her piety and her philanthropy. Because of this she tried to benefit those in need even beyond her means, to the extent that even when Hermeias died and she was left behind with orphan children she continued in her good works. In fact, she spent her life in debt to her sons, upon which basis some even tried to find fault with her. But she, thinking there to be but one storehouse of hope for the better — for whoever might wish to lighten the burdens of holy and virtuous men — spared nothing, out of her pity for the fortunes that befall humankind. Therefore even the most wretched of the citizens loved her. She especially took care for her sons in the area of philosophy, desiring to bequeath to them the wisdom of their father as though it were a sort of inheritence of paternal property. She saved for the children the public allowance given to their father when they were still young, so they studied philosophy. This is something that we know of no other man doing, much less any other woman. There was no small amount of honor and respect for Aidesia in the eyes of all. But when she even sailed together with her sons to Athens, who were sent there to learn philosophy, it was not only the common crowd of philosophers who marvelled at her virtue, but even their chief, Proklos. It is this Aidesia whom Syrianos would have betrothed to Proklos had not one of the gods prevented Proklos from entering upon marriage. In regard to divine matters she was so pious and holy and, to put it in a single word, god-loving, that she was deemed worthy of many divine epiphanies. Such was Aidesia, and she lived her whole life beloved and praised by the gods and by men. I met her when she was an old woman, and at her death, while I was still young, a mere lad in fact, I recited at her tomb the customary eulogy adorned with heroic verses. (s.v. Aidesia)

Granted, her story’s not as “sexy” as Hypatia’s but in some respects she is a better representative of the Classical values, especially philanthropy and piety. And the fact that she impressed the holy man Proklos in this regard says a lot.

So hail Aidesia, patron of polytheist mothers!