Agora: the “Reel” vs. the “Real” Hypatia – Part I

Agora Movie posterFinally! The movie Agora starring Rachel Weisz as Hypatia, the Lady Philosopher of Alexandria made it to the US shores. I’ve been following the controversy around this film for several months. Alejandro Amenábar wrote (with Mateo Gil) and directed this English language film with an international cast.  Because it shows early Christians as intolerant and murderous, it kicked up some dust in Catholic European countries. There was even some talk about whether it would make it across the pond. In New York City, it is only in two “art house” theaters, hardly a major release, but it did garner a “critics’ choice” designation by the New York Times.

But, why was I excited? Because the movie is about my people and my events; characters and times I’ve studied and lived with for over twenty years; characters and events featured in my book Selene of Alexandria. Normally, I’ll go to a historical movie with some relish, but this time it was with eager anticipation and some trepidation. Would the writers/director get it right—the setting, the politics, my beloved characters? And here’s the answer: big picture yes, details no.  For the record, this is not a movie review. I’ll leave the assessment of Agora’s worth as a piece of art to others. For those who haven’t seen the movie, there are spoilers. But if you know the story of Hypatia, you basically know the movie plot. What I talk about is the history behind the movie-what the writers/director got right and what (in my opinion) they got wrong.

A Little History

The movie starts in AD 391 in Alexandria, Egypt. Since early in the 4th C and the time of Constantine the Great, Christianity has been a legal religion and, except for Julian the Apostate, the religion of the Emperors.  But it is wracked by controversy and constant accusations of heresy. In spite of Constantine’s efforts to get some unity through the adoption of the Nicene Creed in 325, the next seven decades see brutal infighting in what was to become the Catholic Church. Bishop Hilary of Poitiers described it this way:

Every year, nay every moon, we make new creeds to describe invisible mysteries. We repent of what we have done, we defend those who repent, we anathematize those whom we defended. We condemn either the doctrine of others in ourselves, or our own in that of others; and reciprocally tearing one another to pieces, we have been the cause of each other’s ruin.

Alexandria is no different. There are frequent riots throughout the 4th C as one group persecutes another. In 391, the pagans are a dwindling but still powerful group and the Jews constitute a third religious force. Theodosius I is Emperor of the Roman Empire, reigns from Constantinople and outlaws all public non-Christian worship. Theophilus is Bishop of Alexandria and is engaged in a campaign to purify the Church of all heresies and extend Christianity throughout the city. The pagan  mathematician Theon and his philosopher daughter Hypatia are active in teaching and writing. That sets the stage. Now for some general reactions in roughly the order they appear in the movie:

The Fire-walking Christian

Early on, Theon (played by Michael Lonsdale) witnesses a Christian (Ammonius played by Ashraf Barhom) taunting a pagan about the impotence of his gods. Ammonius then does a “fire walk” across a bed of coals to prove the superiority of Christ. When the pagan refuses to do the same, he is picked up and thrown on the coals allowing time for his clothes to burst into flame. This “miracle” helps convert several witnesses including Hypatia’s slave Davus (Max Minghella.)

This is one of my favorite stories from the texts. But it happened between two Christians of different sects, not between a Christian and pagan. I also have this story in my book and one of the characters gets to explain how the “miracle” works: “He will take no hurt if he walks quickly and keeps his robes from the coals…Anyone can move their hand through a flame without harm. The fire burns only when the hand stops over the flame or a man stays in one place on the coals.”

Hypatia’s  Science and Students

In the big picture, Amenábar got this right. We see Hypatia challenging her students to explain an astronomical anomaly, exhorting them to be “brothers” in spite of their religious differences, and rebuffing an amorous student by giving him a handkerchief stained with her menstrual blood. Although little of what Hypatia worked on survived, we do know she was an avid astronomer and built instruments like the astrolabe. I was delighted that the movie presented Aristarchus‘ (3rd Century BC) heliocentric model of the earth revolving around the sun (not to be revived in the West until Copernicus.) But using it as a theme for Hypatia to study and try to prove is most likely bogus.

There is no evidence that she agreed with or studied this model. Dr. S. James Killings, a Medieval scholar, wrote a piece called Was Hypatia of Alexandria a Scientist (as opposed to a mathematician) in which he argues that the empirical way of thinking and experimenting Hypatia displays in the movie didn’t exist until several centuries later.  Dr. Richard Carter, a classical scholar, in his piece called Killings Hypatia, says empirical thinking did exist, but Neo-platonism was antithetical to its use.  Both men agree that  Hypatia was unlikely to have thought about science in the way the movie depicts. It’s  a lovely thought and served the dramatic arc, but probably inaccurate.

(Note: since I first posted this, there have been a number of on line discussions about Hypatia’s science. A scientist in the UK who blogs at History Books Review posted an interesting piece “What did Hypatia really know? The science of Agora.” He agrees that it’s impossible to know what Hypatia knew or didn’t but does a good job of laying our what was generally known about astronomy, and Hypatia would have had access to, at the time.)

As to her students, they came from prominent families from all over the Empire to study with her. She had both Christian and non-Christian students and many went on to occupy high positions in both the Church and government. We know the names of some of her most intimate circle from the letters of Synesius of Cyrene who later became Bishop of Ptolemais. Hypatia espoused the philosophy of Neo-Platonism that taught that in man’s search for god; he must live in harmony with himself and give up the distractions of the world—similar to the teachings of the aesthetic Christians. In order for her students to attain “union with the divine” they must study, meditate, and live ethical lives. Beauty is a result of inner perfection, not physical beauty. Which leads us to the story of the bloody handkerchief—another of my favorite Hypatia stories.

The Bloody Handkerchief

Amenábar has one of Hypatia’s students Orestes (Oscar Isaac) fall in love with her. He corners her in the library to press his suit, where she suggests that he choose another muse—music. He then declares his love for her and praises her beauty in a public theater where he plays an original musical piece and presents his pipes to Hypatia. During their next class, Hypatia hands Orestes a “present” in return—a handkerchief stained with her menstrual blood—and asks, “Is there any beauty in that?” Humiliated, Orestes storms out.

Bravo! The movie managed to get both versions of the story as told by Damascius in his Life of Isadore. The student wasn’t Orestes (I’ll talk about all the characters in a later post), but the sentiment was real. Damascius reports that after a student professed his love for her, Hypatia showed him her bloody menstrual rag and said, “This is what you really love, my young man, but you do not love beauty for its own sake.” He relates another version of the story where Hypatia counsels music as an antidote to love, but he deemed that version “ignorant.”

I’ll continue my “reel” vs. “real” analysis in Part II where I’ll look at the destruction of the Serapeum, the expulsion of the Jews from Alexandria, and Hypatia’s murder and in Part III where I look at the major characters.


Hypatia: Her Life and Times

Print book and eBook now available in all digital formats.

Hypatia: Hher Life and Times coverLike most bloggers, I obsess over my “views” and track which articles are most popular. Hands down, anything about Hypatia draws the most readers and generates the most discussion. As a favor to my readers and Hypatia fans, I put all the material in one place. This article and many others from this blog and guest posts on other sites are now collected in eBook  and print versions (buy direct or order from any online or private bookstore). If you feel you can’t afford the $2.99 for the eBook, contact me through this website and I’ll send you a free PDF copy. Check it out and let me know what you think!