Fables should be taught as fables, myths as myths, and miracles as poetic fancies. To teach superstitions as truths is a most terrible thing. The child mind accepts and believes them, and only through great pain and perhaps tragedy can he be in after years relieved of them. In fact, men will fight for a superstition quite as quickly as for a living truth — often more so, since a superstition is so intangible you cannot get at it to refute it, but truth is a point of view, and so is changeable.
—Hypatia of Alexandria
I happened to be flipping through the cable TV movie channels the other night, and managed to catch the 2009 movie Agora, about the 4th century female astronomer and mathematician Hypatia of Alexandria. A Spanish production (in English) directed by Alejandro Amenabar, it received great reviews, seven Goya Awards in Spain, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Feature Film Prize at the Hamptons International Film Festival, and accolades at Cannes as well. It broke box office records in Spain. But it only played on four screens in the U.S. in very limited release in New York and LA, so almost no one in this country got to see it. Now, three years later, it appears on cable TV, and can be purchased on Amazon.com or rented on Netflix and other outlets. This seems to be a typical pattern of most thoughtful or provocative European movies that are not written for American teenage boys with lots of guns, violence, superheroes, and car crashes. If you don’t live in a major media center with lots of small independent theaters that cater to a worldly intelligent crowd that likes stimulating, challenging movies, you just have to wait for it to show up on cable or Netflix.
Although it has its flaws, it is a gem of a movie with amazing, provocative scenes and the overarching theme of religious intolerance suppressing science and free inquiry. It was filmed in Malta with minimal CG imagery, so it truly captures the milieu of the blazing Egyptian sun baking the ancient stone city of Alexandria. It portrays both the glories of the temples and monuments to a mixture of Egyptian, Greek, and Roman gods, and the degradation of the slums and the poor amidst great wealth. The acting by an international cast, including the luminous Rachel Weisz (as Hypatia), is excellent, and it does a far better job than most period pieces (especially the “sword and sandal” genre of films about ancient Rome) of capturing the essence of late Roman Alexandria. In that regard it evokes more recent efforts like Ridley Scott’s and Russell Crowe’s “Gladiator” and the HBO series “Rome”. Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian wrote that it is “an ambitious, cerebral and complex movie…Unlike most toga movies, it doesn’t rely on CGI spectacle, but real drama and ideas.” As many other reviewers noted, it is an historical epic (done on an epic scale) not about wars and conquests and romance, but about complex concepts and themes of science, religion, and intolerance.
The central story revolves around Hypatia of Alexandria (born ca. 350 to 370 A.D, died 415 A.D.), who lived in Hellenistic Alexandria during the final death throes of the Roman Empire. At this time, the Roman prefect had very little real power to control the warring factions of Christians and Jews who far outnumbered the pagans who had once dominated the region. Most of the historical events portrayed in the film as as accurate as historians can know them, from the religious tension to the destruction of the Alexandrian library (and its priceless collection of the works of the ancients) by a black-clad Christian mob who viewed philosophy and learning as pagan and idolatrous, to the eventual subjugation of the Roman Empire by Christian leaders. The characters of Orestes the prefect, Synesius the bishop of Cyrene, Hypatia’s father Theon Alexandricus, and the rabble-rousing radical Christian Cyril are all based on real people and what little we know about them; only the slave Davus is fictional. About Hypatia herself, very little is really known. She is practically the only prominent female name among scholars in the ancient world. Naturally, the movie carries a strong feminist subtext as she teaches male students and is treated as an equal among male scholars, refuses to get married, and battles discrimination by religious leaders bent on subjugating women. She was apparently one of the best astronomers and mathematicians of her day, and may or may not have invented the astrolabe and the hydrometer. The movie has her character questioning Ptolemaic astronomy and investigating the heliocentric model of Hipparchos of Samos, and coming up with Kepler’s elliptical orbits as a solution to the problem of heliocentrism. This last part is probably fiction, but then Hypatia has been such a symbol of science and feminism for centuries that nearly every author has embellished our ideas of her. And the ending, where her Christian former slave suffocates her to save her from a painful death for being a pagan and a witch, was not nearly as harsh as reality. According to historical records, a Christian mob kidnapped her from her chariot, stripped her naked, flayed her alive with sharp potsherds, and then dragged her skinned body through the streets.
But although the historical details could be quibbled over, the main point of the movie rings true, especially in this current age where religious dogmatism is still attempting to suppress science and free inquiry. Late Roman Alexandria was indeed a tolerant place where the Egyptian, Greek, and Roman gods were still worshipped. It had the largest Jewish community in the world, where the Hebrew Bible was translated into Greek (the Septuagint). This tolerance was soon overpowered by lower-class Christian mobs who first destroyed the pagan temples, and then drove out the Jews, and finally destroyed the centuries of learning built up in Hellenistic Alexandria since the time of Alexander the Great some 700 years earlier. Many scholars still consider the murder of Hypatia and the conversion of the Roman Empire to Christianity (with the destruction of nearly all Greek and Roman scholarship) as the beginning of the “Dark Ages” in the west. In this regard, the movie brings to mind the centuries while the Catholic Church suppressed free inquiry and scholarship, especially when Copernicus and Galileo came along; or the efforts of American fundamentalists to censor or suppress the teaching of evolution, anthropology, astronomy, or any other aspect of science that conflicts with their dogmas; or the suppression of free inquiry in much of the Muslim world today. Ironically, the intolerant Christian mobs that came to rule the late Roman Empire were in turn defeated and driven out of Alexandria by even more fanatical Muslim armies and rulers, who destroyed what little remained of classical civilization that the Christians had not already burned or banished. Intolerance and religious fanaticism are not just problems of our time, but of nearly all times in human history.
My favorite shots in the movie are the ones where we see the earth in space as a pale blue dot, then zoom down in scale until we see the streets of Alexandria—with the screams of humans being slaughtered in religious riots, or Christians suppressing heretical notion that the Earth is round or that it orbits the sun. Talk about putting everything in context! So, if you happen to see it listed on cable TV, or have time to rent it from an online movie provider, I recommend it highly. It is truly a film about ideas that are as current today as they were almost 2000 years ago.