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

Agora Movie posterIn Part I of this series, I talked about some of the controversy surrounding this film and dealt with a few of the historical events depicted: the fire-walking Christian, Hypatia’s science and students, and (one of my favorite stories) the bloody handkerchief. In Part II, I continue with the events depicted in the movie including the destruction of the Temple of Serapis and the Great Library, the expulsion of the Jews from Alexandria, and Hypatia’s murder. In Part III, I’ll deal with the characters. Again, for those who haven’t seen the movie – spoilers!

The Destruction of the Temple of Serapis and the Great Library

Amenábar got the destruction of the Serapeum almost right. He shows us a beautiful temple complex with statues of gods and goddesses, classrooms, and the Great Library.  Rufinus described the Serapeum shortly before it was destroyed:

“The whole edifice is built of arches with enormous windows above each arch…Sitting courts and small chapels with images of the gods occupy the edge of the highest level…Behind these buildings, a freestanding portico raised on columns and facing inward runs around the periphery. In the middle stands the temple, built on a large and magnificent scale with an exterior of marble and precious columns. Inside there was a statue of Serapis so vast that the right hand touched one wall and the left the other.”

In the film, pagans, incensed by Christians mocking their gods, gather in the Serapeum and decide to punish the Christians by attacking them, but underestimate the size and ferocity of the Christian populace who fight back. They barricade themselves in the complex until the local governor brings a decree from the Emperor. The “insurgents” are pardoned their crimes of attacks on the Christians, but they must vacate the premises and turn it over to the Christians. The pagans flee the Serapeum and the Christians enter, topple the gods, and burn the library. The buildings left standing (including the library) are used to house livestock—a deliberate insult to the pagans.

All this happened except the Temple of Serapis was completely destroyed. Bishop Theophilus had a Christian church dedicated to John the Baptist and Elijah built on its ruins. As to the destruction of the Great Library, I’ve written a lot about this and you can read the post “Burning Books: What Really Happened to the Great Library of Alexandria.” Rufinus doesn’t mention a library in his description. Suffice it to say, if any books were destroyed at the Serapeum they were part of a “daughter” library.

The main piece Amenábar got wrong is Theon’s and Hypatia’s relationship to the Serapeum. In the movie, Theon is a “director” and makes the decision to attack the Christians. Hypatia teaches there, her students are among those who shelter there, and she valiantly organizes people to “save the library” by personally hauling out as many scrolls as possible. In reality, there is no evidence that either Theon or Hypatia were connected to the Serapeum in any way. They weren’t “pagan” in the traditional sense of worshiping multiple gods. In fact, Hypatia taught her students that there was one god, which they could know through meditation and study—particularly study of “divine mathematics.” There is some evidence that she and Theophilus held each other in mutual respect.

“Sometime Later”

…was actually 23-24 years later. The movie used a transition which didn’t specify the time shift, allowing Hypatia to be as young and beautiful as ever for the second half of the movie. This is my biggest peeve, but I totally understand why the director chose to do it. Rachel Weisz at 39 is perfectly fine for the 391 sequence (Hypatia was probably born about 355 making her 36 when the Serapeum was destroyed), but unless you want to use old age makeup, Weisz would have been an incredibly well-preserved 60-year-old in 414-415. And who would want to use old-age make up on such a beautiful actress; but maybe a streak or two of gray in the hair?

With nearly a quarter of a century past, we have a new political line up in both the Empire and the Church. Theodosius‘ younger son Honorius rules in the West where massive incursions of barbarian Goths are ravishing the lands. The city of Rome is sacked for three days in 410 sending shock waves around the Mediterranean world. Among the booty is Galla Placidia, the emperor’s half-sister. In the East, Theodosius II (grandson of Theo I) is a boy emperor under the control of his extremely pious sister Pulcheria who declares herself Regent and Augusta at the tender age of fifteen. In Alexandria, the new Prefect Orestes is installed. Bishop Theophilus, who spent his tenure building churches, dies and his young  inexperienced nephew Cyril takes his place after three days of rioting. The pagans are a much weaker force, many having fled the city or converted after the destruction of the Serapeum, but the Jews still have a significant presence. Theon is dead, but Hypatia continues to teach. Men of power seek her advice and she is one of the most honored citizens in Alexandria. On to the film…

The Expulsion of the Jews

Again, Amenábar got the dramatic gist of the history right, but fudged the details. In the movie, black-shirted “soldiers of Christ”—known as the parabolans—sneak into a theater on the Jewish Sabbath and stone the Jews. The Jewish leaders protest to Orestes and Cyril claims they should not be at the theater on their day of worship. One night, the Jews lure the parabolans into a trap by calling through the streets that a church is on fire. When the parabolans arrive they are shut in and stoned. Most die. Key players in this action are Ammonius (from the fire walking incident) and Davus, whom Hypatia freed in 391. They both survive the stoning. Cyril takes matters in his own hands and calls out a Christian mob which storms the Jewish quarter, killing everyone (including the women and children) and destroying their synagogues.

What really happened is much more complicated and had more to do with politics than religion. Cyril needed to consolidate his power base, but due to his youth and inexperience wasn’t getting the respect he felt was his due. Orestes, on the other hand, had the support of the city elite (including Hypatia) and the Jews. At a theater performance, the Jews identified a Cyril supporter among the audience saying he was there to spy on them and cause them trouble. Orestes in a bid to placate the Jews had the man Hierex flogged immediately. This riled Cyril who protested. There began a series of back-and-forth raids by both parties. The Jews laid a trap by crying that the Church of St Alexander was burning. When the local populace came out to save their church, they were attacked and many were killed. Cyril led the mob that retaliated in the Jewish quarter. Many Jews were killed, but most left the city and a few converted. A small Jewish population remained. Orestes’ position was considerably weakened when it was shown he couldn’t protect his supporters.

Hypatia’s Death

Here, I think, Amenábar almost got it, but backed away at the last minute in favor of his dramatic narrative of “black-shirted, bearded, middle-eastern fanatics are destroying civilization.” In this case they are Christians trying to destroy the last of the Greek culture, but from an artistic point of view, I’m sure he was using that as a metaphor for all fanaticism. (Oops, sorry, I promised not to “review” the movie as art, but this is important to my analysis!) So, in the movie, Cyril refuses to meet with Orestes to negotiate a peace, but requires Orestes to attend him in church where he reads a passage from the scriptures saying women should be meek, silent, and not teach men. He demands that Orestes kneel before the holy book, which Orestes refuses to do. Orestes is stoned by Ammonius, rescued by his guard, and has Ammonius put to death. Orestes recognizes that Cyril is after him. He tells Hypatia that he can’t protect her. Cyril mutters some dark comments about Hypatia being a witch and having Orestes in her thrall. The parabolans go out to do Cyril’s bidding. They capture Hypatia in the street, take her to “the library,” and strip her. Davus knowing she will suffer a painful death, smothers her, then tells his fellow parabolans “she fainted.” He walks away as they stone her lifeless body. The audience is left with the feeling that the Dark Ages have begun.

But Amenábar buries the lede. He has Orestes acknowledge that it’s all about him, but focuses on the religious aspect, even to asking Hypatia to convert. In reality, Cyril was trying to eliminate a rival power in the city by taking out his supporters—first the Jews, then Hypatia. He used lies and a superstitious mob to accomplish his ends, but it was all the same in the end—after Hypatia’s death, Orestes resigned and Cyril effectively controlled the city. Socrates Scholasticus tells the story in his Historia Ecclesiastica (emphasis added):

“…Hypatia, daughter of the philosopher Theon, who made such attainments in literature and science, as to far surpass all the philosophers of her own time…For all men on account of her extraordinary dignity and virtue admired her the more. Yet even she fell a victim to the political jealousy which at that time prevailed. For as she had frequent interviews with Orestes, it was calumniously reported among the Christian populace, that it was she who prevented Orestes from being reconciled to the bishop. Some of them therefore, hurried away by a fierce and bigoted zeal, whose ringleader was a reader named Peter, waylaid her returning home, and dragging her from her carriage, they took her to the church called Caesareum, where they completely stripped her, and then murdered her with tiles. After tearing her body in pieces, they took her mangled limbs to a place called Cinaron, and there burnt them. This affair brought not the least opprobrium, not only upon Cyril, but also upon the whole Alexandrian church. And surely nothing can be farther from the spirit of Christianity than the allowance of massacres, fights, and transactions of that sort. This happened in the month of March during Lent, in the fourth year of Cyril’s episcopate, under the tenth consulate of Honorius, and the sixth of Theodosius.”

I’ve written much about Hypatia (essays, guest blogs, and a novel) and believe she was not murdered because she was a pagan, a learned person, or a woman. She was murdered because she engaged in politics. And in the 5C, politics was deadly.

In Part III, I’ll review the characters in the movie Agora and compare them to what we know from the records.


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!

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Agora: the “Reel” vs. the “Real” Hypatia – Part II — 18 Comments

  1. After reading the IMDB forums regarding this film, it’s been a delight to read a ‘level headed’ response to its historical accuracy.

    The film depicts still derisive issues of opinion on religion and civil rights which, when mixed with inconsistencies in historical accuracy, perhaps only further fuels the heated reviews and discussions as each cite the events portrayed.

    It’s been fascinating after watching the film and having both appreciated it as cinematic art and somewhat disappointed with it as an historical accounting, how vehemently opposed (and ill-informed) both sides discussions’ are, which perhaps means as art the film is a success regardless of its historical merits.

    I hope more people will temper their responses in the light that even history and religion too, are an amalgamation of opinions. That allowing multiple perspectives to form a picture in hindsight gives us the patience to understand the differences better.

    Thanks for taking the time educate us!

  2. “At a theater performance, the Jews identified a Cyril supporter among the audience saying he was there to spy on them and cause them trouble.”

    As I recollect, it was not a performance but a reading of Orestes new edict regulating the performances – which had been leading regularly to rowdy behavior outside the theaters. Hierax was cheering too much – apparently the edict was favorable to those wanting the shows regulated – but Orestes could not make out what was being said. The Jews said he was crying sedition, and Orestes jumped on that.

    + + +

    Socrates Scholasticus makes it clear that the whole thing was politics, and had nothing to do with religion, Hellenism, paganism, astronomy, etc.

    (Tidbit: Two of Socrates’ teachers were the rhetors who had been among the ringleaders of the pagan mob bunkered up in the Serapeum. It seems the site was a favorite refuge because it was virtually unattackable from the City. In 457, sixty-seven years after it was totally destroyed, the City troops took refuge in the Serapeum when they were driven there by a huge mob protesting something or other.)

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  6. HI There, thank you for dropping by my blog.

    This is actually my first time here in your blog and honestly I’m really overwhelmed by your content.

    I’m into socio-anthro. I’ve read also a lot about these figures in our history for knowledge sake, but not as historical researcher.

    But my god, you’re a genius in this field, I understand you’ve been doing this all your life, 25 years you say… that’s an achievement… I never had a chance to teach history.

    I’ve read that you had a giveaway on Selena of Alexandria… I was late, but love to read a piece from you, you wrote it… I would assume none of it available in our local bookstore yet.

    Thank you also for the intensive information about the movie Agora, I find some scenes of that movie too raw.

    All the best.. its an awesome feeling knowing you.

    Greetings from the Philippines.


  7. Thank you for all the enlightening information. Based on what you say, it seems to me that the director was quite accurate, and the main storyline does not deviate from what was happening at the time. The fact that it was ‘deadly politics’ and not her atheism that killed Hypatia seems a subtle difference. As we all know from the history of Christianity that this kind of bigotry was rampant and was very intermingled with politics. No one knows the details of exactly what was said, bu the idea of not being a good christian could have easily been used to incite antagonism to Hypatia for political means (which what the film is really saying).

  8. Have you read Stephen Greenblatt’s, “The Swerve”? He spends a couple of pages on Hypatia. He downplays her political role as a cause of her murder. What do you think?

    • I haven’t read “The Swerve” so can’t comment on it directly. I’ve seen many people who bring up the political role in Hypatia’s murder called “Christian apologists” by those who want to castigate the church; in spite of the fact that no one I’ve read lets Bishop Cyril (and therefore the Church) off the hook for the actual act. My personal opinion (and it is only an opinion) is that it’s impossible to separate the church from politics, at that time. The early church flexed its political muscles whenever it could in its effort to control and influence government and individual people. Like all human organizations, its leaders had flaws and personal ambitions and those were sometimes expressed through a search for as much power in both the public and spiritual spheres as they could aggregate to themselves. Cyril seemed to be one of those people who sought power for its own sake. To me, that’s politics at its most raw.

  9. I’ve just caught up with this highly enjoyable film and hugely appreciate this blog.

    One thing that puzzled me was the band of Jewish musicians on what we’re told was the Sabbath. My understanding has always been that pious Jews avoid instrumental (as opposed to vocal) music on the seventh day.

  10. I just left this entry on my FB page:
    “Got the truck, got the TV just in time for the Philosophy Club Movie night! A big thank-you shout out to Jay Yeakley and family for giving the HD-TV and helping me to load it on the truck and tie it all down. Then to all the guys at my house that helped to carry it, then to Thomas Riordan (Siridion) for hooking up all the wires, and then to the 25 students and guests who showed up with wonderful food/drinks/desserts. It was a rocking night watching the most excellent movie, “AGORA”, with wonderful discussion that took us past 11pm.”

    History, art, religion, politics, philosophy, discussion — I can’t think of a better way to spend the night.

  11. Yeah, I know I’m posting on something years after the most recent comment was made. Oh well.

    I’ve seen a lot of discussion around the internet about how the movie inaccurately portrays the burning of the Library of Alexandria. But that’s not correct. It’s not even wrong, in fact. The movie explicitly *doesn’t* portray the Great Library of Alexandria at all. During the scene where they’re first considering a Heliocentric model the old man on the wall talks about how Aristarchus’s original works were lost when ‘the mother library’ burned. So the film is explicitly acknowledging that what is at the Serapeum isn’t the great library. That there was a small library there is reasonable to assume, and yes the people working there would have wanted to save what works they could. As for the Serapeum being completely destroyed and a church built on the spot, the movie doesn’t necessarily contradict that fact. Who’s to say it was demolished immediately?

    My overall impression of the film is that it actually tows the line of historical fact pretty closely. It simplifies elements and does some poetic invention (there’s no evidence Orestes was one of Hypatia’s students, for example) but it’s a lot like Rome in that it invents stuff to fill in gaps and flesh out plot elements, but much of what it invents isn’t completely unreasonable. Portraying Hypatia as an atheist is wrong, but I see where the film is coming from. The historical reality is that she was a professional thinker who never hurt anyone and was killed because she was an easy target in a political struggle, and that’s what the film fundamentally portrays. There’s always been something of a disconnect between what the historical record indicates about Hypatia and the martyr for science and secularism that she became in the popular imagination. I’m perfectly fine with her being shown as that poetic symbol, because of what it represents.

    The entire Heliocentrism plot-line was all a bit pointless though. It’s there to rather unsubtly hammer home how tragic her death was (she just made a world-changing discovery and was killed before telling anyone, oh no!) but her death is already depressing and bleak without that element. The film already did an excellent job showing her to be a good, charming person who absolutely didn’t deserve what happened to her. Though I don’t necessarily think that it’s completely absurd to imagine her, or someone else, coming up with a Heliocentric model long before Copernicus and it simply being lost for whatever reason. Aristarchus had already taken a stab at it 500 years before the movie takes place, is it unreasonable to imagine someone trying to continue his work? I would imagine someone like Hypatia who was well versed in Ptolemy would be more aware than anyone of his models shortcomings.

    As for Christians getting mad about being vilified, sorry, but them’s the facts. If Cyril comes across as a bastard it isn’t because of the movies biases. It’s because he objectively was a bastard. Alexandria was rocked by political fighting, Jews were expelled, and an innocent woman was dragged through the streets and hacked into pieces. Getting angry about it on the internet isn’t going to change the fact that those are the events that took place.

  12. I don’t think any apology is required for continuing the conversation.

    I was thinking of this film just a few days ago, whilst reading Larry Siedentop’s “Inventing the Individual”, which asserts (perhaps rather over-dogmatically) the liberating potential of Christianity vis-a-vis the cultures of antiquity, whilst also touching on the tensions between philosophy and empirical science.

    These themes are as complex as they are contested but remain of significance to anyone who wants to understand our civilization and its origins. Given the obvious limitations of the genre, I don’t think the film did a bad job, even if it over-egged the pudding.

  13. Pingback: Everybody’s Talkin’ 7 – 9 (Chatter From Other Bloggers) | The Matinee | Cinematic Passion & Perspective

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