Agora: The story of Hypatia

While visiting a friend recently, he persuaded me to watch the movie Agora with him. Accolades flowed from his mouth. “You must see it”, he said. In the end, I regretted it.
The movie is extraordinarily well done. Indeed, I would call it a masterpiece. The acting is phenomenal, though I admit that I’m no expert. It was obvious that its producers went to great pains to depict Roman Alexandria as accurately as possible. The actors looked like the actual people who lived in Alexandria at that time, with the exception of the prominent black faces their P.C. sensibilities forced them to include. The hair styles were 100% spot on. The architecture, the dress, and even Hypatia’s dog were clearly gleaned from accurate historical sources. The only thing, other than the painfully obvious inclusion of blacks, that bothered me was the way they depicted Jews. I seriously doubt that the Jews of ancient Alexandria wore earlocks and played Hassidic-style music. But I can forgive them for this, since nobody can prove otherwise.
I regret having seen it because the character of Hypatia, played by Rachel Weisz, was so perfect that I could not help but feel anguish over her murder. It’s a real tearjerker and I watch very few movies – so my resistance level is very low. I didn’t actually cry but it bothered me. It bothered me because my friend kept reminding me that, in real life, she died a much more horrible death than depicted in the movie.
What I loved about the Hypatia character was, aside from her stunning beauty, that she loved knowledge purely for the sake of knowledge. This is something I was brought up with. While I appreciate people who learn a profession in order to earn a living, the attainment of knowledge strictly for its own sake is on a higher plane in my eyes. Actually, it’s not so much the attainment that excites me, it’s the effort and fervor that speaks to my soul. Rachel Weisz did such a good job depicted the love of learning that it touched me deeply. The thought of her death, at the hands of ignorant monks, repels me – and this, by most accounts, is what truly happened.
After reading the Wikipedia account of Hypatia’s life, it seems Agora’s account of what transpired is as valid as anybody else’s. Not much, for certain, is known about her except that she was a brilliant thinker who was murdered in the prime of her life by monks. None of her works survive and all the theories, attributed to her in the movie, are conjecture.
In Agora, the Christians come across much as Muslims do today. Obviously, reality is much more complicated. The movie has Christians destroying the great library at Alexandria, but nobody really knows how the library was destroyed.
Why did Christianity spread so rapidly in Roman Egypt? Perhaps traditional Egyptian beliefs had been on the decline for centuries, as had the Greco-Roman pantheon. Greek philosophy, and ever-changing Roman emperors, had weakened the old gods to the point where only formalities remained and few still believed in their power. Greek philosophy was one of the first attempts at secularism and free-thinking. But the Egyptians were not ready for it. They had nostalgic memories of their own pharaonic theocracy in centuries past. As soon as Christianity gained some authority, they latched onto it as a return to the past. Religious authority was what they craved and Christianity was the only vehicle available to them that had any credibility. The Egyptians were sick and tired of Greco-Roman secularism and politics masquerading as religion. They wanted the real thing but their old gods were dead. Their anger toward Hypatia may have actually been anger toward secularism. A secularism that had been imposed upon them by force through Greeks like Hypatia.
In our own day, knowledge far greater than anything Hypatia could have imagined is at our fingertips. It’s there for the taking. But most people are more interested in celebrities or sports. Politics is a combination of the two. We’re swimming in knowledge and yet few seek it for its own sake. In its stead, faith sustains them. Whether it’s the blind faith of liberalism or an organized religion. Modern Western civilization can flourish because Christianity has lost the power to impose its will on others. It can no longer decree inquisitions, burn witches or force scientists to deny their work. It lurks in the background, mostly harmless and sometimes helpful. But what about the teeming multitudes who practice Islam? While there are some signs that it too is receding to the background, the process might take centuries. We must recognize the risks – something Hypatia failed to do.

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10 Responses to Agora: The story of Hypatia

  1. countenance says:

    While I appreciate people who learn a profession in order to earn a living, the attainment of knowledge strictly for its own sake is on a higher plane in my eyes.
    And I agree. But in the eyes of most people, that makes you a “know-it-all.”

    • 741am says:

      No. Apparently it makes those most people peceive the other as a know it all. And to you, their publicist. Education vis-a-vie the search and attainment of knowledge is in-and-of-itself a valid pursuit. But, buh-duh, what do I know?

  2. Hugh says:

    Please check out this review – this film may not be quite what it seems….:

    • jewamongyou says:

      Looks like I’ve exposed my ignorance of Roman garb of the period. Thanks for the review. I wonder if the producers were, instead of attacking Christianity, actually attacking Islam – as O’Neill implies when he writes:
      ” It’s very odd that Cyril and most of his Parabolani fanatics are swarthy types who, despite being native Alexandrians, speak with thick Middle Eastern accents. They also always wear black. The pagans and members of Orestes’ faction, on the other hand, all speak with clipped upper-class English accents and tend to wear white. The implications here are less than subtle.”

      • The Empty One says:

        When a blogger writes a critical review of a film and makes historical accuracy arguments, at least ONE source ought to be cited. I reviewed the history we have from Gibbon’s classical history by consulting my full six volume version of his famous tome, “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.” If ANYONE were to consult it, specifically Volume 3, chapter 28 pages 137-169, a full accounting of the period in Alexandria depicted in the film including the fact that a large library did exist there and was destroyed by the Christians at that time as well as the fact that a decree was made removing power from the Pagans and handing it over to the Christians who then went on a rampage, tearing down Pagan edifices is well documented therein, along with other very interesting details, all of which speaks to affirm the accuracy of the film rather than impugn it. In fact, the film seems to follow the events exactly as recorded.
        The blog of “faithljustice” contains scholarly references to Hypatia that also show that the associations made with her in the film are not only plausible, but supported. One item; atheists are mistaken if they assume that she must have been one. Philosophers of that period and earlier lived in theocratic states that were Pagan. They were at least nominal adherents just as many scientists up to the later 20th century, including Darwin, considered themselves Christian, and many still do attempt to reconcile or departmentalize Christian belief at least nominally, in their minds. The online Wikipedia article on Hypatia is well documented as well.
        As for the themes of religious tolerance, perhaps that was a message of the film. The Pagans were haughty, certainly and Gibbon shows this throughout his writings. Yet, even though he takes pains to state that it was Catholicism that deluded Christianity from the time of Constantine up until Luther’s reformation, he also cannot and did not hide the fact that early Christians were trouble makers, fanatics and fully capable of atrocious mass murdering, as he records over and over, both toward Pagans and between factions, especially the Arian and the Nicene Christians. But most lay people can recall the hundreds of years of burning Christian heretics and the long period of Christian civil wars in Europe, beginning perhaps with the infamous Albigensian Crusade and ending only lately in Northern Ireland.
        Also, that the Jews were expelled from Alexandria during this period as depicted in the film is also a fact.
        It has to be admitted however, that to make a film dialogue must be created. And often to render a story, one or two fictional characters are often created to provide a story line that might enable a story to be better told. In the case of this film the creation of David, her slave who loved her and gave her a merciful death rather than the gruesome report of Gibbon and other sources rather softens the condemnation of Christianity that the film critic seems to be objecting to.
        I cannot find any references to Roman garb of that period. Gibbon certainly makes no mention of such things. It is most likely, from the knowledge I have from years (two decades) of medieval and renaissances to Victorian re-enactments and knowing some professional costumers from places like the Ashland Shakespeare Festivals, etc., that it is likely that the Romans used older equipment as the empire declined. Since weapons for example did not change much during the Roman Empire, arms, shields and such were likely recycled and even handed down from father to son as we know they were in the Middle Ages and even later. Personally, I thought the presentation of a weakened Roman garrison was put across well enough in the film.
        Anyway, garb is not the most important aspect for the making of a critical review. The only point worth making is that since the Pagans in Alexandria (and other regions aside from the Middle-East) had long been the elite and ruling clergy classes in Alexandria, the rendering of them as Victorian “British” style aristocracy is useful for their actual place in the social hierarchy to be understood by the average viewer (as it was done in every film I can think of where Rome has been a theme). Also, it is important to remember that Alexandria was a Greek city, built by Alexander the Great and that Egypt was ruled by a Greek aristocracy from then on. Even the Middle East had been Hellenized long before Rome or the rise of Christianity. The other important point to make is that the Roman Catholic Church somehow ended up with the same ritual costumes, from the robes to the head gear – of the Alexandrian pagan priests. This has been noted by other historical writers on the history of Christianity.
        We now know from dna research that Jesus for example was not a blue-eyed Nordic type as is so often depicted, but a “swarthy” Middle Eastern type. Research has shown that he would have been a typical physical specimen of the Middle East at the time he is purported to have lived. He would have been short, olive skinned, with thick black hair and beard. What we know of the Greeks is that they were taller, and more European looking, if not actually Nordic looking, likely more Celtic, since the Celts were known and referred to often by Herodotus and the statue of Athena in the Parthenon was painted to be a blonde with blue-eyes. Certainly, the features of Greeks on those statues and vases are European, not Semitic.
        All that remains now of the reviewers protests is that the Christians wore dark garments. I have to ask, what color was natural cloth and since they were poor and were not given (yet) to living much different from say, John the Baptist, what color would their garments likely have been? What color did Omar Sharif choose to wear in Lawrence of Arabia? Enough on this subject. I simply posit that the desire to play white hat, black hat was not such a conspiracy of the makers as implied. If he or anyone watched the special features, they would realize that the producers did take a great deal of care in attempting to avoid blatant stereotyping. They even softened the Christian role in Hypatia’s murder, as noted already.
        If anyone intends to set about discussing or critiquing historic films, they ought to have read some of the founding historical documents, not pick through them online, which this one didn’t even seem to do. (I suspect he is relying on the Catholic Catechism of the event). Reading the six volume work of Gibbon is a massive undertaking, but no one can claim historical knowledge of the West if they haven’t read it and make reference to it somewhere in a discussion of Western history because it is a founding and source document for English speakers. My guess is that it is often ignored by non-scholars because reading requires so much dedication and more importantly, it challenges many assumptions about history, especially the history of Christianity.
        Finally, it must be clear that some themes seem inescapable; insecurity, fanaticism, intolerance of other thought, political scheming and the lone voice of reason often cut short, are re-occurring themes, present in at least some parts in every living individual life ever lived.

    • jewamongyou says:

      Clearly I should have done more research before hastily putting together this post on Agora.

      • TimONeill says:

        Don’t be hard on yourself – the misinformation about Hypatia is pretty much the standard view of these events, even though they are mainly myths. Some people, however, prefer myths to reality. Look at the long, weird and meandering post above by “The Empty One” which begins claiming I didn’t cite any sources, when I refer to and quote the one and only contemporary source, Socrates Scholasticus, many times. They then refer to the quaintly antiquated and hopelessly biased ideas Gibbon from way back in 1776 as though they are a touchstone of truth. This topic seems to bring out the irrational and the incoherent in some people.

  3. Don’t beat yourself up about the details of the movie–it’s a piece of art, not history. I saw Agora when it first came out in NYC and loved Weisz’ performance as Hypatia. I thought the film was beautifully shot, a bit uneven, but a wonderful exploration of modern themes (religious intolerance) in a historical context. Like you, I loved the evocation of learning for learning’s sake, even if the science was sketchy. I’ve been studying about Hypatia and her times for two decades, but for most folks, the movie is their first introduction to this remarkable woman. It perpetuates some myths, but also has a lot that is accurate. Shortly after I saw the film, I wrote a series of “reel vs, real” posts on the historical events and characters in the film at my blog. And yes, her death was more horrific than described. Made me cry.

  4. re: Knowledge for the sake of knowledge.
    A revealing measure of the low value Muslims place on knowledge….
    “the total number of books translated into Arabic during the 1,000 years since the age of Caliph Al-Ma’moun [a ninth-century Arab ruler who was a patron of cultural interaction between Arab, Persian, and Greek scholars] to this day is less than those translated in Spain in one year” World Press.
    I’ve also noticed that even in Singapore and Hong Kong bookshops tend to stock fewer general knowledge books (history, geography, popular science, etc) but rather books to help ones career, get academic qualifications, how to get rich books, etc. If this is the case in the 2 most westernised Asian countries I assume it would be even more so in China.
    What I am saying of course is that, generally speaking, it is only westerners (and then again probably those of N.W European stock) who are fascinated with knowledge for the sake of it. Hence the popularity of quiz shows, and (in the UK/Australia, etc) pub quizzes.

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