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Movie Review: Agora(2009)

Alexandria — the third largest city in the Roman empire — was not a secular town by any means in the fourth century. Christians, once lion food in the Roman Empire, were allowed to practice in public. Intolerance was on the rise with ever-recurring battles between Jews, followers of Greek traditions, and Christians. The intolerance was facilitated by Roman Emperors who after conversion had discovered a new hobby which provided primal excitement – wiping out idolatry.

Theodosius I, for example, banned non-Christian rituals and his man in Alexandria, Pope Theophilus, facilitated the destruction of Serapeum — a temple dedicated to Hellenistic-Egyptian god Serapis. But in spite of religious fanaticism, Alexandria was the Takshashila of Egypt; students came from Syria, Cyrene and Constantinople to learn philosophy, math, astronomy and astrology. The city had temples and churches and schools for intellectual and cultural nourishment. It was here that Hypatia, the female astronomer/mathematician/philosopher lived, taught, and was murdered. The movie is the biography of this less known Egyptian.

When this visually stunning swords-and-sandals movie starts, Hypatia (Rachel Weisz) is already a well known teacher. She had learned from her father Theon, one of the members of the Museum of Alexandria, where some scrolls from the library of Alexandria were preserved. She also wrote commentaries, edited Ptolemy’s texts, and taught Neoplatonism, a monistic theology with similarities to Indic schools of thought (not mentioned in the movie).

She is seen wondering about the paths of planets; this was a time when Ptolemy’s geocentric model prevailed. The observations did not match Ptolemy’s model and she wondered if there was a simple explanation for the wanderers. She mentions Aristarchus, who had proposed a heliocentric model, but was not quite sure if that was the answer.

While she was worrying about the wanderers in the sky, the minds of some of her students were wandering around hers. This included an aristocrat Orestes, who eventually became the Prefect of Egypt. Hypatia rejected his public advances, devoted herself to science, and stayed a virgin till her death.

On the streets, Christians were mocking and aggressively converting followers of Greek traditions. This leads to the first major conflict between the scholars and Christians. Fed up with the constant mocking, the Christians are attacked by the locals. But the Christians gain an upper hand and lay a siege of the Serapenum. The news reaches the emperor who grants amnesty to the non-Christians, but allows the Christians to ransack the place and burn the scrolls.

The second set of disastrous events start following the death of Bishop Theophilus. He was succeeded by his nephew, Cyril, a self-aggrandizing control freak who continued his uncle’s overzealousness with vigor. Since the “pagans” were take care of, Cyril turned his attention to the Jews. The fact that Jews watched the theater during Sabbath turned to be the peace breaker. The violence between Christians and Jews exploded and the matter was bought to the Prefect, Orestes, who was a once student of Hypatia. But he could do nothing. Jews, who lived in Alexandria since the time of Alexander, were forced to leave.

Though a baptized Christian, Orestes does not approve of Cyril’s attempts to encroach over civil power, but he has to steer through the foggy borderlands between his religion and his friendship with his teacher. As the crisis gathers steam and boils over, Cyril notices Hypatia’s popularity and her friendship with Orestes. Cyril gives a public lecture in which he blames Hypatia for controlling Orestes and calls her a witch — an unpopular profession in 5th century Egypt and 21st century Delaware. He also quotes scripture which mentions the role of women and asks Orestes to accept the word of God; Orestes refuses.

To hurt the Prefect, the Parabalani monks — monks whose primary duty is to take care of the ill and homeless — decide to take action. They kidnap Hypatia, a humanist who thought all people were brothers, to a church and stone her to death. In the movie, one of her slaves, who was in love with her, chokes her before the stoning.

None of her works survived, but we know about her from the letters written by one of her students, who later became a Christian priest. In the movie he is portrayed as the one trying to reconcile Cyril and Orestes.

Though the movie is made on large scale with stunning sets which recreate the Alexandria of the 5th century, the script is loose on facts. In the movie Hypatia is seen as discovering the heliocentric model and elliptical orbit, much ahead of Kepler, but facts don’t support it. A millennia later, Galileo would be imprisoned by the Pope for suggesting a heliocentric model of the universe, but Hypatia was not murdered for her philosophy or science, but due to political reasons.

Alongside Hypatia’s death, the destruction of the traditions and beliefs and Gods of the classical antiquity too was happening. These traditions survived the blood thirsty Roman empire, which did not give a hoot as to which Gods you worshiped so long as the coffers were filled. But against the new nemesis — intolerant mutation of monotheism — traditions which survived centuries had no chance of survival. As Rachel Weisz mentioned in an interview with Charlie Rose, Europe slipped into the Dark Ages.

Additional Reading & Credits

  1. Hypatia, Ancient Alexandria’s Great Female Scholar
  2. The New York Times review of Agora
  3. Movie Trailer in HD
  4. Maria Dzielska, Hypatia of Alexandria (Harvard University Press, 1996)
  5. Image from Wikipedia.
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