If, like me, you have an atavistic hunger for cinematic epics set in the ancient world but are sick of always seeing Christians depicted as heroes and martyrs and pagans as villains and torturers, have I got a movie for you. Agora, directed (in English) by the Chilean-born Alejandro Amenabar, (you didn’t think a movie about the attack on classical Greek and Roman scholarship by Christians flexing their new political muscles was created by an American, did you?) focuses on the life of Hypatia, a distinguished philosopher and mathematician in Alexandria who was literally torn limb from limb by a Christian mob around 415 A.D. Hypatia was not only a legend but a real woman who was slaughtered for the crime of being female, intellectual, and an exponent of classical thought who refused to embrace Christianity as it assumed power in the deteriorating Roman empire. In this unusual film, she is the voice of reason, doubt, and learning in a society torn by religious and political passions–with the Christian religion insisting, as paganism, never had, on a claim to absolute, universal truth. .
Hypatia is known to history because her works on mathematics and philosophy, as well as the manner of her death, are mentioned in surviving writings by contemporary scholars. Her original works perished in the burning of the Library of Alexandria around 415 A.D. by a band of Christian militants, known as parabolini, commanded by the fanatical Bishop Cyril. According to the British scholar Charles Freeman in The Closing of the Western Mind (2002), Cyril’s troops–call them terrorists–were so feared by the people of Alexandria that the emperor demanded their number be limited to only 500. The Temple of Serapis, daughter institution of the Library of Alexandria and believed to contain around 10 percent of its scrolls, had already been forcibly converted into a Christian church and its holdings largely destroyed around 391 A.D. The final destruction of the ancient library, founded in 283 B.C. by Alexander the Great’s successor, was probably the work of Arab invaders in 640 A.D. The Muslim Caliph Omar is said to have stated that whatever was left of the library’s holdings “will either contradict the Koran, in which case they are heresy, or they will agree with it, so they are superfluous.” This account is somewhat suspect, however, since it was written three centuries later by a Christian bishop, Gregory Bar Hebraeus and because it makes no mention of the earlier destruction of most of the library by Christians–which, unlike the details of the later Arab invasion, is recorded in contemporary accounts. What is considered most likely by classical historians is that the fourth-century Christians did the most damage and the Muslims finished the job.
The movie makes admirable use of the known historical details about Alexandria at the turn of the fourth century–a hotbed of conflict among pagans, Christians and the longstanding Jewish community. Since Hypatia could only have been an unmarried woman (there is no possibility that a married woman would have been a teacher attached to the library), the screenwriter, Mateo Gil, manages to insert an obligatory note of fictional romantic interest by tracing the unrequited love for their teacher of three students–one who becomes a Christian bishop, the other the pagan (maybe) prefect of Alexandria, and the third an ambivalent member of Cyril’s band of thugs. But the real subjects of the movie are the clash between restrictive religion and freedom of thought and the plight of a woman dedicated to intellectual inquiry.
Hypatia, as played by the physically stunning and imposing Rachel Weisz (her contemporaries described her as both beautiful and brilliant), is animated by a hunger to figure out the movements of planets and stars through pure mathematics, in a world without telescopes and in which all religions agreed that the earth was the center of the universe. In one scene, the scholars, gathered on the roof of the library on a starry night, allude to the heliocentric theory of Aristarchus of Samos (310-236 B.C.). His treatises were believed to have been lost in the first Alexandria library fire in 48 B.C., accidentally touched off when the invading Julius Caesar torched the Egyptian fleet in the harbor. (Build a great library at one of the most coveted crossroads of the known world before the internet, and you place a great many scrolls in continuous peril.) The heliocentric theory was ridiculed by pagans as well as Christians and Jews of Hypatia’s time, but it would not have been surprising if mathematicians, above all, doubted the “evidence” of their own eyes about the earth being the center of the universe.
One of the most intelligent qualities of this movie is that all of its scenes depicting fictional events are nevertheless entirely plausible in terms of what is known about the era. I have no idea whether the real Hypatia, like the Hypatia of the movie, raised the question of whether the earth itself is rotating imperceptibly to humans, but it is certainly plausible that this theory might have occured to a mathematician. In one of the most moving lines, the prefect asks Hypatia, “Why do you always insist on shifting the ground beneath our feet?” (I must admit, though, that it’s not as funny as the final line in one of the many movie versions of The Greatest Story Ever Told, in which one Roman centurion turns to another after Jesus dies on the cross and declares, “Well, that’s the last we’ll ever hear of him.”)
As A.O. Scott writes, in his review of Agora for The New York Times, “Films about ideological strife in the past frequently reassure modern audiences with a vision of progress in which ignorance is at least partly vanquished and enlightenment is allowed to prevail.” That was not, of course, the case in the western world after Christianity became the dominant religion in the waning years of the Roman empire. Most of the polytheistic pagan rulers of Rome were tolerant of other religions as long as the religions did not directly challenge Rome’s authority. You had to act, or perceive to be acting, to tear down Roman political authority for your faith to be suppressed.
The 313 Edict of Miian, issued by the emperors Constantine in the west and Licinius in the east, is often incorrectly thought to have established Christianity as the dominant religion of the empire. In fact, the edict extended tolerance to all religions (or “cults,” as they were called) and restored the official tolerance that had existed before the persecution of Christians conducted by the emperor Diocletian (284-305). As Jonathan Kirsch observes in God Against the Gods (2004), the edict stated that “all gods and goddesses may be freely worshipped, and the Christian deity is put in a position of parity with Apollo, Isis, the Great Mother, Mithra, and the other gods and goddesses.” Oh, and Yahweh too. The edict, had the institutionalizing Christian church accepted its spirit, might have been good for the Jews as well as the Christians.
It didn’t happen that way, of course. As Agora reminds us, and as the events in Alexandria demonstrated (Cyril also expelled the Jews from the city), the consolidation of church and political authority eventually ruled out the free practice of other religions and obstructed all non-Christian scholarship (even though many of the early church fathers did have classical educations). Although monasteries would preserve many works that had been scattered throughout the empire during the Dark Ages, the Church of Rome, with its relentless hostility to free and scientific inquiry, was a leading player in the making of the darkness. Caliph Omar notwithstanding, the remnants of classical mathematics and science survived mainly in educated outposts of the Muslim world and among Jewish scholars, like Maimonides, who were part of that world on the Iberian peninsula.
What would the western world have been like if religions had remained on a more or less equal footing and Christianity had not become the cultural, religious and political arbiter in the nation-states of the West? We cannot necessarily say that it would have been better, but it certainly would have been different. There surely would have been less blood spilled if the idea of absolute spiritual truth had not been united with state power. And our progress toward modern concepts of the scientific method would likely have been much faster without the power of church authorities committed to the idea that both the Holy Trinity and the status of earth as the center of the universe were not challengeable ideas but unchallengeable truths.
Agora opened last week in Washington, New York, and a number of other large cities. I don’t know how long it will be around–given that it contains no animated characters, no space aliens and no sex (though there is plenty of religiously motivated violence)–so catch it while you can. As E.M. Forster wrote of Hypatia’s murder in Alexandria: A History And A Guide (1938), “With her the Greece that is a spirit expired, the Greece that tried to discover truth and create beauty.” To be sure, English intellectuals of Forster’s generation did regard Greece in an idealized light. Let us say, rather, that the best Greek scholars regarded truth as part of an unending quest, not as a set of a priori assumptions to be imposed. This idea of intellectual inquiry as a self-evident good died in the West for nearly 1200 years with the ascendancy of Christianity, and it is always–as we see in much of the Islamic world and in the precincts of far-right Christianity today–an object of hatred for those who would still criminalize heresy and blasphemy and, in the case of Islamists, murder those who defy their definitions.