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

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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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