A History of Violence: Agora, Hypatia and Enlightenment Mythology


Alejandro Amenábar’s Agora is a work of hagiography, and, for that matter, of anti-hagiography. Among its burdens are that Hypatia of Alexandria, the celebrated neo-Platonic philosopher and mathematician, is worthy of veneration, and also that Cyril of Alexandria, saint and doctor of the Church, is not. Neither of these theses is without prima facie plausibility, or unworthy of serious-minded and nuanced exploration. Agora is serious-minded to a fault, but nuance, while not absent, is lacking.

Agora illustrates why Hypatia is so irresistible as a poster girl of modernity, feminism, secularism and science. An accomplished and influential female scholar in the patriarchal world of antiquity, Hypatia was reportedly beautiful, but neither sought nor accepted suitors, preferring intellectual and spiritual fulfillment to the role of wife and mother. An unwashed pagan in what was fast becoming a Christian culture, she was widely admired by Christians and pagans alike, yet she was also an opponent of overweening hierarchy in the person of Cyril, the ruthless, ambitious patriarch of Alexandria. Horrifically murdered by a Christian mob in a conflict between Cyril and the Roman prefect Orestes, Hypatia has been misrepresented for centuries as martyr of religion’s war on reason. Coupled with the earlier Christian despoiling of the pagan temple of Serapis at Alexandria—an incident mistakenly conflated with the loss of Alexandria’s fabled library—Hypatia’s story has taken on iconic significance in the Enlightenment narrative of science versus religion, placing her in an unlikely pantheon alongside Giordano Bruno, Copernicus, Galileo and others.

Amenábar’s film has occasioned a number of online reality checks regarding the tensions and outright contradictions between this Enlightenment myth and what is historically known about Hypatia’s story. Many of these are from Christian writers, but the most complete and helpful online treatment I’ve found so far belongs to a self-styled “Irish-Australian atheist bastard” with an academic background in medieval literature and ancient and medieval history, blogger Tim O’Neill of Armarium Magnum (hat tip). O’Neill’s year-old post “‘Agora’ and Hypatia - Hollywood Strikes Again” takes the film’s 2009 press release as the occasion for a blistering critique of what O’Neill calls “pseudo historical myths about the history of science,” “hoary Enlightenment myths” that turn Hypatia’s story “into a morality tale about science vs fundamentalism.” (O’Neill is also the creator of an in-depth website called History Versus the Da Vinci Code.) O’Neill writes:

As an atheist, I’m clearly no fan of fundamentalism—even the 1500 year old variety (though modern manifestations tend to be the ones to watch out for). And as an amateur historian of science I’m more than happy with the idea of a film that gets across the idea that, yes, there was a tradition of scientific thinking before Newton and Galileo. But Amenábar has taken the (actually, fascinating) story of what was going on in Alexandria in Hypatia’s time and turned it into a cartoon, distorting history in the process.

Specifically, O’Neill cites a rendition of events traced to the anti-Catholic 18th-century writer Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, and popularized by Carl Sagan’s Cosmos. According to this picture, mobs of violent Christians, guided by the patriarch Theophilus, torched the great library of Alexandria, while Hypatia, despised by Theophilus’s successor Cyril for her “learning and science,” was murdered by fanatical mobs moved by Cyril’s rabble-rousing. From the film’s press release, O’Neill gathers that the filmmakers are at least clear, as Sagan was not, that the great library at Alexandria was apparently long gone by Hypatia’s day. Was it burned by Caesar’s forces? There’s some evidence in that direction, but the record is unclear. It seems likely that the great library succumbed to a series of debilitations: successive fires, plundering, decay and neglect. A decent overview of the historical issues is available at the Straight Dope website (maintained by Cecil Adams, also an atheist, I think).

Does Agora present the Christian mob as the destroyers, not of the great library, but of a “second library,” as the press release indicates? Barely. If you are very alert, you may catch a snatch of unclear, partly offscreen dialogue mentioning the “fire that destroyed the mother library,” and identifying the present library as a surviving “daughter library.” The opening titles, though, simply speak of “the greatest library in the world” (no mention more than one). Apart from one or two oblique references, Agora does nothing to dispel the identification of this one great library as the one we see destroyed by Christians in the film. Essentially, the film celebrates the popular myth with only the barest of sops to historical plausibility.

The historical basis for the myth is that circa 391 a mob of Christians destroyed the Serapeum of Alexandria, the pagan temple of Serapis. Such violence, as Agora dramatizes, was tragically not uncommon in Alexandria, and Christians, pagans and Jews were all guilty of it, though even Agora acknowledges that the persecution of the Christians by pagan Rome preceded any Christian violence. (To that extent, Agora’s version of events is at least better than the Da Vinci Code movie, which first floats the outrageous claim that the Christians started the violence before agnostically concluding, “We can’t be sure who began the atrocities.”) There is evidence that the Serapeum once housed a “daughter library”—but also evidence that by 391 that library was no longer extant. In actual accounts, pagan as well as Christian, of the destruction of the Serapeum, there is no indication of a library or of scrolls. Agora, by contrast, speaks constantly of “the library,” and dramatically displays the gleeful plundering of an immense collection of thousands of scrolls (as well as Hypatia’s frantic efforts to save as many as possible).

Regarding Agora’s portrait of Hypatia herself, O’Neill aptly notes:

There is some suggestion that Amenábar’s film depicts her as an atheist, or at least as wholly irreligious, which is highly unlikely. Neo-Platonism embraced the idea of a perfect, ultimate source called “the One” or “the Good”, which was, by Hypatia’s time, fully identified with a monotheistic God in most respects.

This is indeed what the film does. Charged with believing “in nothing,” Hypatia improbably responds, “I believe in philosophy”—a response that elicits sneers from the Christian authorities. (“Philosophy—just what is needed at this time.”) In reality, far from being despised for her “learning and science,” evidence indicates that Hypatia was widely admired by learned Christians. Cyril, a brutal tactician but also well-educated and able scholar, regarded Hypatia as a political enemy: Cyril’s efforts to expand ecclesiastical power were actively opposed by Orestes, the Christian Roman prefect and a friend and student of Hypatia. Cyril’s attempts to make peace were rebuffed by Orestes, and Hypatia publicly backed the prefect—support the patriarch obviously resented. Cyril believed that, without Hypatia’s support, Orestes would not continue to oppose him—correctly, as it turned out, since after Hypatia’s murder Orestes resigned and left Alexandria.

Obviously, Hypatia’s pagan status wouldn’t have endeared her to Cyril or his followers, but given Cyril’s ruthlessness toward fellow Christians he considered enemies (Novatians, Nestorians), there seems to be no reason to think that he would have been any less displeased with Hypatia’s support of Orestes had she been baptized. If Cyril’s followers dared to throw stones at Orestes and his entourage, they could just as easily have murdered Hypatia had she been a Christian. While Hypatia’s “learning and science” was the basis for her fame and influence, there seems to be no reason to assert that Cyril or his followers hated her specifically because of her learning, as opposed to the way she used her influence. Cyril would hardly have scorned her support had she offered it to him instead of to Orestes.

All of this is turned on its head in Agora. Rather than a thorn in the side of Cyril’s attempts to come to terms with Orestes, Hypatia is depicted as the focus of the controversy. It is Hypatia herself that Cyril is after; far from Orestes actively opposing Cyril and rebuffing his attempts at peace, the film depicts Orestes as a passive, weak leader concerned to avoid dangerous conflict with the powerful Cyril and wishing only to protect Hypatia. A liturgical confrontation between Cyril and Orestes, in which Cyril attempts to exert authority over Orestes by compelling the prefect to reverence a codex of the Gospels, becomes a referendum on Hypatia as Cyril first reads from 1 Timothy 2 (not a Gospel text, but never mind) about women keeping silent in church, going on to preach in veiled terms against Hypatia. Orestes’ refusal to reverence the Gospels is thus interpreted not as opposition to Cyril, but as loyalty to Hypatia.

While a profoundly critical depiction of Cyril would be historically justifiable, Agora goes over the top in making the patriarch a mustache-twirling monster with no redeeming traits. Played by Israeli actor Sami Samir, Cyril’s accent and style of dress typifies the film’s portrayal of Christian fundamentalists as ethnic Middle-easterners in dark garb, in contrast to the pagans, who are brightly robed European types with Oxbridge accents. (There are also non-ethnic, Oxbridge Christians—all educated admirers of Hypatia.) The depiction of the Christian Parabolani brotherhood, who are transformed over the course of the film from proto-Franciscans who care for the needy into proto-Taliban armed enforcers of public morality, completes the film’s not-so-subtle correlation of Christian violence in Alexandria with Islamic extremism today.

Agora doesn’t blame the Christians exclusively: Christians, pagans and Jews all commit atrocities. (This may be the only film I have ever seen in which a mob of Jews ambushes and kills a group of Christians, apparently a historical incident.) Still, Christians are presented as the instigators. The first act of violence is a pair of ragged Parabolani Christians publicly murdering an aristocratic pagan leader. This is the film’s opening salvo, its first portrayal of Christianity. A couple of scenes later, the film seems to show a nobler side to early Christian experience as Hypatia’s father Theon threatens to whip a female slave discovered to be a secret Christian—at which point a male slave named Davus kneels and asks to take her punishment, confessing that he too is a Christian. “Now they presume to teach us mercy?” Theon shakes his head before proceeding with the whipping. Then, though, the other shoe drops: When Hypatia comes to wash the slave’s wounds, Davus admits that he was lying to spare the female slave—that he is not a Christian. So much for the film’s first noble Christian act.

Only later does Agora make an effort put a more sympathetic face on early Christianity, as a Parabolano named Ammonius (Palestinian actor Ashraf Barshom) invites Davus to join them in feeding the poor and needy, and brings him to hear the patriarch Theophilus reading the Beatitudes from a book of the Gospels—a “real miracle,” Ammonius asserts. But since Ammonius is one of the killers from the opening scene, even these scenes are tainted. Ammonius feeds the poor, but it’s not clear he has real charity for them. He seems motivated by what older writers called enthusiasm, by euphoric religious fervor. He seems, in fact, rather nutty. (The press notes report that both Samir and Barshof were concerned that their characters not come across as villains. You see why they were concerned.) It’s in retaliation for that initial murder that the pagans escalate, massacring a crowd of Christians, which leads to the assault on the Serapeum. The Jewish ambush against the Christians is likewise preceded by a pogram-like attack on Jews at the theater. One might say, then, that Christians, pagans and Jews are all equally culpable, especially Christians.

Ultimately, though, Amenábar wishes to pit all faith traditions—pagan, Jewish, Christian (and, by implication, Muslim)—against reason. Even the film’s most sympathetic and unconflicted Christian, Synesius, bishop of Cyrene and a former student of Hypatia’s, holds his faith uncritically and irrationally. “You don’t question what you believe; I must,” Hypatia says gently in response to Synesius’s urging that she receive baptism. Ironically, a film that devotes considerable energy to cinematic dramatizations of geometric and physical principles never suggests that Christian belief could have anything to do with reason or argument.

Aligning its heroine with its Enlightenment narrative, Agora makes astronomy, rather than pure mathematics or wisdom, the great love of Hypatia’s life. As she works out the mysteries of heliocentrism, relativity and finally elliptical orbits, the film essentially recasts Hypatia as a proto-Galileo (or even a super-Galileo, since Galileo rejected the idea of elliptical orbits) rather than a neoplatonic philosopher. Agora offers no insight into Hypatia’s neoplatonic asceticism. It prominently depicts, but does not understand, the famous episode in in which she rebuffs a would-be suitor by presenting him with her menstrual rags as graphic evidence of the manifest error of his attraction. No attempt is made to illuminate this distasteful episode for viewers, to explore the distance between Hypatia’s neoplatonic sensibilities and our own “sex-positive” milieu. Instead, Hypatia’s disinterest in marriage is presented solely in terms readily accessible to modern feminism: Marriage in ancient Alexandria would mean subservience to a husband, the end of her independence and her career. The idea that the biological realities of human reproduction were considered unworthy of a soul seeking the highest good isn’t even on the radar.

On this accounting, the menstrual rag can only be a stunt, something that Hypatia and the suitor—Orestes himself, in this telling!—can laugh about years later, in a quasi-romantic moment alone: Hypatia reclining on a couch, Orestes chastely at her side, devoted, resigned, demanding nothing. “Even my father loved a woman,” Hypatia smiles wistfully, sounding more like a Jane Austen heroine than a neoplatonist. “What have I ever loved?” It’s about as plausible as the film’s depiction of Hypatia’s egalitarian embracing of slaves and aristocrats alike, with no trace of the aristocratic elitism of her era and social class. While Agora stops short of having its heroine speak out against slavery, she does free Davus on her father’s death—this, despite the fact that he has just briefly molested her! The problem here isn’t simply that the filmmakers make Hypatia the embodiment of all virtue, devoid of even small faults. It’s that they want too much for us to relate to their heroine to allow her to be in any way foreign or alien to us, a woman of her own times.

Agora is not without some thoughtfulness and interest. The opening scene, in which Hypatia confidently holds forth on geocentrism and moral absolutes, is intriguing, and not entirely diminished by her later adventures in relativity and heliocentrism, which are engaging in themselves, however fictional they might be. Ammonius’s nuttiness notwithstanding, the Christian Parabolani feeding the poor has some power, as does Theophilus’s reading of the Beatitudes. There is some poignancy in Hypatia’s relationship with her father Theon. Ultimately, though, the consuming vision of Agora is: Reason unites us, faith divides us, and never the twain shall meet. It’s not without nuance in other respects, but on this point Agora is as diagrammatic and predetermined as one of Hypatia’s astrolabes.

Ancient World Epics, History