Thursday, July 08, 2010

Night Descending
Movie poster for Agora

Recently I saw the movie Agora (2009) directed by Alejandro Amenabar and staring Rachel Weisz as Hypatia, Michael Lonsdale as Hypatia’s father Theon, Oscar Issac as Orestes, Max Minghella as Davus, Rupert Evans as Synesius and Sami Samir as St. Cyril.

The movie takes place in the late 4th century C.E., in the city of Alexandria, then part of the Roman Empire. Hypatia the heroine of this movie is a philosopher and teacher at the University or Mouseion attached to the library attached to the temple of the God Serapis called the Serapeum. Later I will discuss the historical veracity of this movie.

In Hypatia’s class are two students, Synesius and Orestes who are in love with her. Also in love with her is her slave Davus. Tension between Christians and Pagans is rife in Alexandria leading to incidents of violence between the groups. Theon whips Davus when he takes the place of a slave who has a cross in her possession. Hypatia tries to keep peace between the Christians and non-Christian among her students.

Things come to a head when a Christian mob egged on by Cyril, then a priest, start pelting the statutes of pagan gods with filth and rotting vegetables / fruit. The Pagans at the Serapeum egged on by the chief priests and with the approval of Theon arm themselves and attack the mob killing many. The Christians rally and receiving reinforcements drive the Pagans into the Serapeum which they besiege. The pagans take some Christians as hostages. Hypatia pledges to protect her Christian students.

After a short siege the people in the Serapeum are promised amnesty by the emperor, but only if they abandon the Serapeum to the Christians outside. Hypatia and her father with the aid of the various librarians of the library try to save as many books as they can before fleeing. Davus stays behind and joins the Christians. Subsequently Hypatia frees him. The Christians destroy the statue of the god Serapis and then destroy the library.

Shortly before the destruction of the Serapeum Orestes endeavours to court Hypatia and asks her to marry him, she refuses by giving him a cloth soaked with her menstrual blood. Thus establishing that Hypatia as no interest in ever getting married.

During the siege Hypatia becomes interested in the question of does the earth move and starts to reconsider the old abandoned idea that the Earth moves around the sun.

Many years have past and Orestes is now Governor of Alexandria and a Christian, at least nominally. Theon is dead. Davus is a member of a Christian militia group guilty of many outrages against both Pagans and Jews. The remaining non-Christians on the governing city council are being pressured to become Christians. Synesius is now Bishop of Cyrene, and Cyril has become Bishop of Alexandria. Hypatia continues to teach and to research the heavens. In one scene she conducts an experiment and notes that on a moving ship a weight falls as if the ship was not moving.

Cyril and Orestes are involved in a violent power struggle over who actually controls Alexandria and Cyril continues to incite violence in his bid for power. The attacks by Cyril’s militia against Jews incites a violent retaliation that in turn leads to a pogrom against the Jews and many leave the city. Meanwhile Cyril uses Hypatia as a stick to beat Orestes with including stage managing a scene designed to humiliate Orestes after which Orestes gets hit with a rock by a monk in a rioting mob.

Hypatia continues her research on the movement of the planets. Davus is meanwhile getting disillusioned with his overly fanatical friends. Finally Synesius and Orestes plead with Hypatia to become a Christian. She refuses with the line:

You don’t doubt your beliefs. I must!

The night before, Hypatia in a moment of inspiration, concludes that the orbit of the planets is an ellipse and discovers Kepler’s first law of planetary motion.

As Hypatia returns home she is set upon by a mob who take her to the Serapeum, now turned into a Church, to kill her in front of the alter. Davus has tried to warn her but is unable to get to her in time. Helplessly he has followed her to the Serapeum. The mob leaves to gather rocks to stone her with. There is however no escape except the blocked entrance. To save Hypatia the agony of being stoned, Davus suffocates Hypatia to death. Hypatia’s last sight is the ellipse shaped opening in the ceiling of the Serapeum.

Davus leaves never looking back. A brief text records that none of Hypatia’s writings survived and that shortly afterwards Orestes disappeared and that Cyril became St. Cyril.

That is the movie what does history say?

Amazingly the movie is actually quite accurate on many things. For example its depiction of the events that led to the destruction of the Serapeum, which occurred in 391 C.E., is quite accurate. Although in actuallity the desecration that served as a provocation by the Pagans to attack the Christians is not what is depicted in the movie. Also the involvement of Hypatia, Theon, Orestes and Synesius is not historical fact. The picture of Alexandria divided into different religious factions perfectly willing to kill each other, with the Christians in a position of dominance and using that dominance to impose their faith is accurate.1

The order of the Emperor that the Pagans evacuate the Serapeum and it being sacked and then turned into a Christian church is accurate. And yes the Pagans were besieged in the Serapeum after taking some Christians as hostages.2

Hypatia was almost certainly not teaching at this time in Alexandria. It is believed that she was born between 450-470 CE, with the later date more likely. It appears that she started teaching in Alexandria in c. 400 C.E., after the sack of the Serapeum.3

It is unlikely that the Serapeum had much of a library to be destroyed in 391 C.E. It appears to be the case that the library had ceased to exist in the Serapeum due to neglect, deterioration and lack of funds and people removing scrolls by 370 C.E. Although it is possible that some remnants of the former library existed to be destroyed in 391 C.E.4

However it is to the credit of the script writers and director that one of the characters mentions that the main library had been destroyed many years before. The destruction of Library of Alexandria as been alleged to have been caused by the soldiers of Julius Caesar setting fire to it, (48 B.C.E.) by the fighting between the soldiers of the Emperor Aurelian and Queen Zenobia of Palmyra in 274 C.E., the above mentioned attack on the Serapeum in 391 C.E., and by the Arabs in 642 C.E.5

It appears that the fire caused by Julius Caesar’s soldiers may have destroyed some scrolls stored near the harbour only. The main library or Mouseion was apparently completely untouched. It appears that in fact the Mouseion or least the library associated with it was in fact destroyed during the fighting between Aurelian and Zenobia in Alexandria, (274 C.E.). After that the center of learning and research in Alexandria shifted to the Serapeum and its smaller library. As mentioned above it appears that their was little or no library to destroy in 391 C.E., when the Christians took over the Serapeum. The story of the Arabs destroying the library in 642 C.E. is a complete fabrication.6

Hypatia has I indicated above apparently began teaching in Alexandria in c. 400 C.E. Her father Theon, a renowned mathematician was called the “the man from the Mouseion”. Which indicates that part of the Mouseion, from which we get the word museum, still existed at the time. It was probably closed in 391 C.E., at the same time as the Serapeum was turned over to the Christians. For this was also the same time that Theodosius I decreed the closing of all Pagan temples in the Empire and turned over many of them to the Christians.7

Hypatia worked in astronomy and mathematics and was apparently a Platonist, and yes a Pagan. She did teach Orestes and Bishop Synesius of Cyrene. She wrote several commentaries and a text called The Astronomical Canon, which did not survive, along with editing what became the most common version of Ptolemy’s work the Almagast, which was the central text of Western and Middle Eastern astronomy for over a thousand years. So the movie showing her interested in astronomy and math is in fact accurate.8 The whole bit about her discovering Kepler’s first law of planetary motion is sadly almost certainly fiction. It is not however, impossible.8

The story of Hypatia rejecting a suitor by giving him a cloth with menstrual blood on it is true. Although the suitor was almost certainly not Orestes as depicted in the movie.9

Orestes, who was indeed a Christian, did in fact became governor (Prefect) of Alexandria and engaged in a power struggle with St. Cyril who did in fact use Hypatia as a weapon against him. The whole incident in the Church in which Cyril tries to humiliate Orestes, is sadly not an invention. Also the Christian militia that attacked non-Christians along with the violence between Christians and Pagans and Jews is also not an invention. The slave Davus is an invention however.10

Hypatia was in fact set upon a mob c. 415 C.E., and killed. In the movie she is suffocated; in actuality she seems to have been flayed alive and then burned. A rather more gruesome death than the one in the movie. In the movie this is suggested, but they decide to stone her instead.11

The movie telescopes events together and makes Hypatia much younger than she actually was at the time of her death (at least 45). Orestes did indeed disappear soon after and St. Cyril did in fact come to dominate Alexandria.

The depiction of St. Cyril in the movie will probably attract criticism. St. Cyril is considered a Father of the Church and of course a Saint. His involvement in the violence that tore apart Alexandria and led to the death of Hypatia, mob violence etc., is contested. Unfortunately there can be little doubt that St. Cyril was an intolerant, bigoted and power hungry individual despite his sincere faith. It is also sadly true that the scene in movie whereby St. Cyril praises as a martyr to the faith and puts in a church the body of the monk Ammonius, who had in fact been part of a mob that tried to kill Orestes and had in fact thrown a rock that had injured Orestes, really happened. The penalty for an attempt on the life of the Prefect of Alexandria was death. So Ammonius was put to a rather grisly death under torture. This was right after St. Cyril’s attempt to humiliate Orestes. The movie gets that right also.12.

If St. Cyril comes across as an unpleasant individual that is because from our point of view he probably was.

It appears likely that while Hypatia taught some remnant of the library and Alexandria’s position has a center of classical learning existed. With her death it probably vanished along with the any other Pagan philosophers working there.

A more germane criticism of the movie is that the movie ignores largely the positive features of Christianity showing a picture of no-nothing fanaticism. The fact that many of the Christians are depicted as dressed in black while Pagans get lighter colours is too much of a cliché. The scene in the movie of Cyril and Davus giving bread to the hungry is undercut by the bread they are giving being Theon’s. That said the Pagans and Jews are also shown to be capable of intolerant murderous violence. For example during the Pagan attack on the Christians a Pagan Priest is urging a slave to stab and kill a injured man on the ground, in a screaming rage.

The movie relies less on CGI than you might expect and the sets, especially the Serapeum are impressive and convincing. Also convincing is the amazing accuracy and authenticity of the costumes worn, which are not only of the right cut of the time, but unlike most costume epics seem to be made not of modern fabrics but fabrics used at the time.

  Scene from the movie Agora
The acting is generally just serviceable. Max Minghella as Davus especially seems to be just going through the motions.

Rachel Weisz performance is wonderful. She gives it the gravitas and seriousness that it requires. Given that Rachel Weisz is a very good looking woman, (as apparently Hypatia was also in real life); she acts her role with enough conviction and in a convincing enough fashion to take this Hypatia seriously as an intellectual. With Rachel Weisz’s performance you can believe that you are meeting a genius. The fact is given the still sexist ways women are regarded it takes some effort to overcome the deeply ingrained notion that a women is her looks. Rachel Weisz overcomes it brilliantly.

Michael Lonsdale as Hypatia’s father Theon is the other good to great performance. He is shown as a man exceptionally proud of his brilliant daughter and anxious for her happiness. He is also an old man ill at ease. The world as changed in ways he doesn’t like and so there is in him a great anger. He feels impotent to alter the way the world is going and he lacks his daughter's cultivated sense of intellectual ease and basic serenity. The result is he is subject to dangerous impulsive decisions. Michael Lonsdale gives an excellent performance of a man who hates the way the world is changing and wishes it had not.

The other performances are as said above are merely serviceable. St. Cyril for example is far too much a cardboard villain.

In the end the movie has it right night is descending and the long period of decay that characterized the early Middle Ages in Europe is coming. Learning and the search for knowledge would not reawaken in Europe until the Renaissance. Until then it would take tremendous intellectual effort just to preserve the remnants of Classical knowledge.

1. Canfora, Luciano, The Vanished Library, Vintage, London, 1987, pp. 87, 190-193, Wikipedia, Serapeum, Here, Library of Alexandria, Here, Hypatia, Here, St. Cyril Here.

2. IBID, Serapeum, Canfora, pp. 111-114.

3. Hypatia.

4. Serapeum, Canfora, pp. 137-144.

5. Library of Alexandria, Serapeum, For details regarding those alleged burnings see Canfora.

6. IBID, Canfora, pp. 66-70, 81-99, 109-118, 123-125, 137-144, 183-197.

7. Canfora, p. 87, Serapeum, St. Cyril, Wikipedia, Theon Here.
8. Hypatia.

9. IBID.

10. IBID, St. Cyril, Serapeum, Canfora, pp. 87-88.

11. Hypatia, St. Cyril.

12. St Cyril, Serapeum, Hypatia.

Pierre Cloutier

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