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

Agora Movie posterIn Parts I & II of this series on the history behind the movie, I talked about several major historical events of the times and a couple of my favorite anecdotes that made it into the film. In Part III, I’ll look at the major characters, how they were portrayed in the film and what we know about their real lives. Because I’ve written so extensively about Hypatia (essays, guest blogs, a novel, and a non-fiction book) I’ll save her for last.

Davus and the Parabalani

DAVUS (Max Minghella) is a fictional character in the movie—Hypatia’s slave, sometimes student, admirer; and (after he is freed) a member of the “soldiers for Christ”—the parabalani. His purpose in the film is to show the “downstairs” to Hypatia’s elite “upstairs.” Although Davus didn’t exist, the parabalani did. In the movie they are the black-shirted fanatics that stoned pagans and Jews and murdered Hypatia. In history, they are known for their violence, but their roots are in the charities sponsored by the Christian bishops—poorhouses, hostels, hospitals, homes for the elderly and shelters for the homeless. Ministry to “the least of these” confirmed a bishop’s holiness. The parabalani were originally recruited to help in the hospitals, probably as attendants who transported the sick and later their dead bodies. Their evolution to “enforcers” is shrouded in mystery, but it is very likely they were responsible for Hypatia’s murder. Cyril may not have ordered the hit, but he laid the groundwork. The only official Imperial response to Hypatia’s murder was to regulate the parabalani with an edict in 416 that limited their number to 500, put recruitment under the auspices of the Prefect, and forbade them “to attend any public spectacle whatever or to enter the meeting place of a municipal council or courtroom.”

Orestes, Augustal Prefect

In the first part of the movie, ORESTES (Oscar Isaac) is a pagan student of Hypatia’s, the ardent admirer who woos her, and becomes the recipient of the bloody handkerchief. Since we know almost nothing about the historical Orestes, those things could have happened, but it’s extremely unlikely. We do know the names of several of Hypatia’s students who became leaders in the Church and government and Orestes is not among them. I’ll chalk it up to “artistic license.” In the second half, he has converted to Christianity, been appointed Prefect of Alexandria, and seeks Hypatia’s advice on several matters. They are comfortable friends.

Socrates Scholasticus tells us that Orestes was a Christian baptized in Constantinople by the Patriarch Atticus shortly before he took up his post in Alexandria. Whether he was a “convenient” Christian (baptized in order to move ahead in politics) is unknown. His actions indicated he was tolerant of pagans and Jews. He included them in his circle of advisors, which infuriated Bishop Cyril. Cyril supporters spread rumors in the city that Hypatia held sway over Orestes and he “ceased to attend church, as had been his wont.” A group of monks from Nitria stoned Orestes in the street and nearly killed him. He was rescued by Alexandrian citizens who also apprehended the leader of the monks—AMMONIUS (Ashraf Barhom). Ammonius was executed for his attack on Orestes. Bishop Cyril tried to make a martyr of him, but the Christian elite balked, saying Ammonius got what he deserved for attacking a duly appointed Imperial governor. After Hypatia’s death, a short time later, Orestes disappears from the record.

Synesius of Cyrene

SYNESIUS (Rupert Evans) of Cyrene also shows up as a student of Hypatia’s in the first part of the movie. He and Hypatia’s other Christian students shelter with her in the Serapeum, then escape in the night, before the destruction; but not before a tender scene in which Synesius bids good-by to “my mother, sister, teacher” and kisses the sleeping Hypatia’s hair. Synesius returns in the second half of the movie as the “Bishop of Cyrene” to negotiate between Orestes and Cyril. He repudiates Hypatia and accuses her of heresy because she is studying whether the earth circles the sun or vice versa. When she refuses to convert, he turns his back on her and leaves her to her fate.

Because we have over 150 of his letters and several other writings, Synesius is the best known of Hypatia’s students. And now I have a bone to pick with Amenábar over some of his artistic choices. Not about the dates—Synesius spent about five years as a student with Hypatia from 390 or 393 until 395/396. Or about the trivial fact that Synesius is called the “Bishop of Cyrene” in the film, when he was actually the Bishop of Ptolemais. Or that Synesius died before Hypatia, probably in 413 or 414. My bone is with the repudiation. In reality, Synesius adored Hypatia, wrote to her constantly, lavished praise on her in letters to fellow students. Most of what we know about Hypatia is from his letters. He called her “divine guide” and “the most holy and revered philosopher.”

After he left Alexandria, Synesius spent three years in Constantinople then returned to Cyrene in 400, and spent the next ten years on his country estate “studying philosophy, mathematics, astronomy, everything; farming, hunting, having many a brush with hordes of pilfering Libyans; and every now and then upholding the cause of someone who had undeservedly fallen into difficulties.” He returned to Alexandria in 403 to marry and had three sons with his wife, who, he wrote, was given him by “God, the law and the sacred hand of Theophilus.” In 409 or 410 Synesius was chosen to be bishop of Ptolemais and, after six months of deliberation, accepted and was confirmed by Theophilus. Synesius insisted on keeping his wife and in an open letter to the congregation said he had reservations about much that was doctrinal, but agreed to teach the popular views. Over the next several years, his sons died and he was in poor health. His final letter was to Hypatia:

“I am dictating this letter to you from my bed, but may you receive it in good health, mother, sister, teacher, and withal benefactress, and whatsoever is honored in name and deed.

For me bodily weakness has followed in the wake of mental sufferings. The remembrance of my departed children is consuming my forces, little by little. Only so long should Synesius have lived as he was still without experience of the evils of life. It is as if a torrent long pent up had burst upon me in full volume, and as if the sweetness of life had vanished. May I either cease to live, or cease to think of the tomb of my sons!

But may you preserve your health and give my salutations to your happy comrades in turn, beginning with father Theotecnus and brother Athanasius, and so to all! And if any one has been added to these, so long as he is dear to you, I must owe him gratitude because he is dear to you, and to that man give my greetings as to my own dearest friend. If any of my affairs interests you, you do well, and if any of them does not so interest you, neither does it me.”

Bishop Cyril

The all-round bad guy in the second part of the movie, CYRIL (Sami Samir) led the mob that attacked and murdered the Jews of Alexandria, humiliated Orestes, and urged his supporters to murder the “witch” Hypatia. To a large extent this reputation is deserved. The former Bishop Theophilus was Cyril’s uncle and oversaw his religious education sending him to study with the fanatical monks of Nitria for five years. When he returned to Alexandria, Theophilus enrolled him as a cleric and personal attendant, but Cyril only reached the lowly level of “reader” in the church before his uncle died. During the contest for the Bishopric against the popular Archdeacon Timothy, Cyril called on the monks of Nitria. They invaded Alexandria and rioted until he was elected. Among historians he is castigated for his persecution of the Novatian Christians and his leadership in the attack on the Jews and the Nitrian attack on Orestes. Although there is no direct evidence that Cyril ordered the assassination of Hypatia, he is held accountable by the writers of the times.

Socrates Scholasticus:

“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.”


Thus it happened one day that Cyril, bishop of the opposition sect [i.e. Christianity] was passing by Hypatia’s house, and he saw a great crowd of people and horses in front of her door. Some were arriving, some departing, and others standing around. When he asked why there was a crowd there and what all the fuss was about, he was told by her followers that it was the house of Hypatia the philosopher and she was about to greet them. When Cyril learned this he was so struck with envy that he immediately began plotting her murder and the most heinous form of murder at that.”

John, Bishop of Nikiu praises Cyril for the deed:

And in those days there appeared in Alexandria a female philosopher, a pagan named Hypatia, and she was devoted at all times to magic, astrolabes and instruments of music, and she beguiled many people through (her) Satanic wiles. And the governor of the city honored her exceedingly; for she had beguiled him through her magic…And Cyril was wroth with the governor of the city for so doing, and likewise for his putting to death an illustrious monk of the convent of Pernodj [Nitria] named Ammonius, and other monks (also)…And thereafter a multitude of believers in God arose under the guidance of Peter the magistrate — now this Peter was a perfect believer in all respects in Jesus Christ — and they proceeded to seek for the pagan woman who had beguiled the people of the city and the prefect through her enchantments. And when they learnt the place where she was, they proceeded to her and found her seated on a (lofty) chair; and having made her descend they dragged her along till they brought her to the great church, named Caesarion. Now this was in the days of the fast. And they tore off her clothing and dragged her [till they brought her] through the streets of the city till she died. And they carried her to a place named Cinaron, and they burned her body with fire. And all the people surrounded the patriarch Cyril and named him “the new Theophilus”; for he had destroyed the last remains of idolatry in the city.”

In his later career, Cyril was embroiled in controversy with Nestorius, the Bishop of Constantinople over the nature of Christ and was accused of bribing those close to the emperor to get his way. He certainly used mob power to take over the Council of Ephesus in 431, which Theodosius II ordered to settle the matter. But in the Church he is best known for his writing and scholarship on doctrine. That is what earned him his sainthood.


Since I’ve covered Hypatia, her students, and science in Part I of this series; her death in Part II;  essays and guest blogs on her life; and featured her in my novel;  I’ll restrict my remarks here to the one thing I feel Amenábar most distorted—her devotion to philosophy. In the movie, HYPATIA (Rachel Weisz) is portrayed as an atheist, her life devoted to science, and particularly to math and astronomy. Yes, she was a noted mathematician and astronomer, but her greatest passion was philosophy. At one point late in the movie, city counselors accuse her of “believing in nothing.” She replies weakly, “I believe in philosophy.”

Philosophy as studied in late antiquity was very different from the subject we take in college—it was a religion with logical and mystical elements. The sources mention that Hypatia taught Plato, Aristotle, and Plotinus (all connected with Neo-Platonism) as well as the views of other philosophers and their schools. Synesius mentions they studied the Chaldean Oracles, as well as some Christian texts, and compares Hypatia’s lectures to a religious experience. He writes to a fellow student, “For my part I am and I advise you also to be, a more careful guard over the mysteries of philosophy.”

Neo-Platonists believed a person could know the transcendent One (God) from which the rest of the universe emanated, but not through logic or reason—only through deep meditation to achieve an ecstatic state. Before one could reach that state, she/he had to demonstrate levels of virtue. First, one lives an ethical life and exhibits civic virtues, but this does not elevate the soul. On the second level, one attains purifying virtues and frees oneself from sensuality and all things of the flesh. The last stage is reached through a total loss of self. Then a person may see God. In that moment a person enjoys the highest indescribable bliss, bathed in the light of eternity. Porphyry says Plotinus attained this ecstatic union with God four times during their six years together.

Hypatia led a small group of her most intimate students through the processes by which they could attain this ecstatic state. They seemed to study everything that enhanced their openness to all things divine. Her methods were never revealed by her students, but from their writings, she didn’t seem to engage in cultic experiences, but may have engaged in reciting prayers or hymns. One scholar believes Synesius’ Hymns V and IX were composed during his time studying with Hypatia.

So, Amenábar got it wrong. Hypatia believed in more that math and science. Although she was not Christian, she was not a “pagan” in the sense she did not worship multiple gods or engage in cultic practices. Nor was she an atheist who believed only in science. Hypatia was a deeply spiritual woman. She was the beloved Lady Philosopher of Alexandria.

Selected sources for this series:

  • Brown, Peter. The World of Late Antiquity AD 150 – 750 (Thames and Hudson Ltd., London, 1989)
  • Bury, J.B. History of the Later Roman Empire – Volume One (Dover Publications, Inc., New York, 1958)
  • Dzielska, Maria. Hypatia of Alexandria (Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1995) Translated by F. Lyon.
  • Haas, Christopher. Alexandria in Late Antiquity: Topography and Social Conflict (The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, Maryland, 1997)
  • Vrettos, Theodore. Alexandria: City of the Western Mind (The Free Press, New York, New York, 2001)


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!