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Hypatia, Agora, and Religion vs. Science

by Donald Prothero, Feb 29 2012

DVD cover

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 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.

51 Responses to “Hypatia, Agora, and Religion vs. Science”

  1. Walter says:

    I literally stumbled on it through Netflix a while back, and really enjoyed it. It is an overlooked gem, if admittedly a flawed one. (The slave-Hypatia relationship seemed forced to me.) And yes, it’s sad that torture-porn such as The Passion of the Christ gets wide distribution in the U.S. while Agora is viewed as too controversial to be accepted by American audiences.

  2. Kenneth Polit says:

    This film really made me angry, and yet it also made me proud to be a freethinker. One nit to pick: I had heard that Hypatia was flayed with abalone shells, not pot shards, but I could be wrong.

    • Donald Prothero says:

      The scholarly sources I read said “potsherds”, but then a lot of this record has been distorted and embellished in the past 1600 years…

  3. Somite says:

    It is streaming on Netflix:

    Thanks for the recommendation and review.

  4. Nyar says:

    According to TV Tropes and Idioms, this movie takes considerable liberties with the history represented. I don’t know and I haven’t seen it, but I will certainly check it out on netflix.

    • Donald Prothero says:

      Probably true–but in fact, so little is known about “facts” back in 400 AD that scholars have very little that is well documented and non-controversial…

  5. Steve says:

    This film also played in Seattle. I was familiar with Hypatia’s story from reading several books on the history of mathematics. When I saw the film, I was stunned. It brought her story ‘home’ as the books had never done. Thank you for this excellent review.

  6. Joe Iacovino says:

    Nice work. We watched this a while back and enjoyed too. The parallels of today are worrisome. Cheers!

  7. Insightful Ape says:

    One correction: I saw the movie on the big screen in DC. So it was showing in a few places other than NY and LA.
    There are (predictably) plenty of harsh reviews on netflix. A few are sensible but most are upset that christians are shown in a less-than-flattering light.
    One historical fact about the characters: while Hypatia was murdered for her refusal to bow to the church, Cyril (the bishop who incited the violence against her) later was canonized and is particularly repected among the eastern orthodox christians. He is also credited with inventing the Russian alphabet (named Cyrilic after him).

    • Other Paul says:

      Cyril’s probably one of the most striking examples of “History is written by the winners” that you could possibly encounter.

  8. Janet Camp says:

    I stumbled upon it as well, but didn’t watch the whole thing because I thought it was pure–and ridiculous– fiction as I have to confess that while thinking of myself as well-educated I have not heard of Hypatia). That’s embarrassing to admit and I can’t imagine how I missed her having even taken a number of “women’s studies” classes back in the day. One of my hens is named Bodecea, so now I’ll have to call one of them Hypatia in keeping with my “strong women” theme.

    I’ll give it another look and thanks for the thoughtful review!

  9. David says:

    As I understand it, the anti-science stance was a later development in Islam. The initial Muslim conquest of that part of the former Roman empire allowed the preservation of ancient thought through the Dark Ages, thanks to the translation into Arabic of what was left.

    • Donald Prothero says:

      Yes, there was a “golden age” of Muslim scholarship around 800-1100 AD while Europe was in the “Dark Ages”. But then fundamentalism came back with a vengeance, and Muslim rulers were determined to wipe out any heretical or non-Muslim ideas and imagery.

      • Markx says:

        Islamic science has a fascinating history, we really should study it more:

        Optics, the compass, decimals, algebraic symbols, cubic equations, concept of numbers less than zero, logarithms and logaritmic tables, cannon, effective gunpowder, mechanical print, the experimental methods of chemistry (from alchemic research!), anaesthetics, aseptic surgery. Accurate astronomic tables, star charts, refutation of the ideas of Ptolemy, understanding of elliptical planetary orbits.

        This was the result of their early accumulation and study of Greek texts – early translators were paid the weight of book in gold for it’s translation. Truly an early example of the cumulative and progressive process of the advancement of science.

        Some famous scientists ( )

        Abu Bakr Zakariya al-Razi (ca. 854–925/935) was a Persian born in Rey, Iran. He was a polymath who wrote on a variety of topics, but his most important works were in the field of medicine. He identified smallpox and measles, and recognized fever was part of the body’s defences.

        al-Battani (850–922) was an astronomer who accurately determined the length of the solar year. He contributed to numeric tables, such as the Tables of Toledo, used by astronomers to predict the movements of the sun, moon and planets across the sky. Some of Battani’s astronomic tables were later used by Copernicus.

        Omar Khayyam (1048–1131) was a Persian poet and mathematician who calculated the length of the year to within 5 decimal places. He found geometric solutions to all 13 forms of cubic equations. He developed some quadratic equations still in use. He is well known in the West for his poetry (rubaiyat).

        al-Idrisi (1100–1166) was a Moroccan traveler, cartographer and geographer famous for a map of the world he created for Roger, the Norman King of Sicily. al-Idrisi also wrote the Book of Roger, a geographic study of the peoples, climates, resources and industries of all the world known at that time. In it, he incidentally relates the tale of a Moroccan ship blown west in the Atlantic, and returning with tales of faraway lands.


  10. WScott says:

    This is already in my Netflix queue, but based on this review I’ll be bumping it up higher on the list. Thanks.

  11. Saran says:

    I found these two blogposts by a blogger by following a link in the wikipedia article of the movie – the post claims that the anti – christian bias shown in the movie has been hyped up. ( The blogger says he’s an atheist)

    Frankly in my point of view , the depictions in the movie seemed real and true when placed within that timeframe and context of the movie setting.

    But it is easy to get carried away when you see something that kind of validates your thoughts and ideas, and so this blog post provided me with a reality check.

    I have not independently verified or followed up on the claims made by the blogger, but however he has some interesting points and it may be worthwhile to go through them.

  12. Nyar says:

    I went to add this movie to my queue and I got this message:

    “Recommended based on your interest in: The Men Who Stare at Goats”

    For some reason that made me lol.

  13. Chris Howard says:

    That movie is awesome! It made me proud of my skeptical herritage. It kind of reminded me of the cynics, and being called a “dog philosopher” I think today we’re just called “dicks.” ;-) Anyhow, can’t recommend it enough.

  14. John Greg says:

    I wacthed this as soon as it was released to DVD. I thought it was an interesting story poorly told. The movie, not the story it was telling, was a snore: poor direction, weak script, and maudlin acting. I had to shut it off about four fifths of the way through before I fell asleep.

  15. Dr. Strangelove says:

    Correction: It wasn’t Hipparchus who proposed the heliocentric model. It was Aristarchus of Samos more than 600 years before Hypatia.

    The death of Hypatia ended Alexandrian science which lasted over 700 years. IMO Alexandrian science was original scientific revolution. The 16th century scientific revolution owed its debts to Alexandrian science. Copernicus read Aristarchus, Galileo read Archimedes, Columbus and geographers read Eratosthenes and Ptolemy, Newton read Euclid, Kepler read Apollonius.

    The ancient Greeks already had prototype steam engines and mechanical computers. Had the Church not killed Alexandrian science, we could have the Industrial revolution 1,000 years before James Watt.

    • Markx says:

      Dr. Strangelove says March 1, 2012 at 1:18 am

      “….The ancient Greeks already had prototype steam engines and mechanical computers. Had the Church not killed Alexandrian science, we could have the Industrial revolution 1,000 years before James Watt.”

      This is undoubtedly true.

      And the church was coincidently aided and abetted in this by a certain spinoff religion which initially favoured and encouraged science, but which was also overwhelmed by the same desire to suppress and control its people.

      They have much to answer for.

  16. fljustice says:

    A very thoughtful review. I saw Agora when it first came out in NYC and loved Weisz’ performance as Hypatia. I thought the film was beautifully shot, a bit uneven, and a wonderful exploration of modern themes in a historical context. As you pointed out there are some historical inaccuracies but that’s the artist’s prerogative when making a point. Agora isn’t a non-fiction documentary. Several folks commented they hadn’t much about Hypatia and you mentioned there isn’t much in the historical record. Two of the best biographies I’ve found on her are Hypatia of Alexandria by Maria Dzielska (Harvard University Press, 1995) and Hypatia of Alexandria: Mathematician and Martyr by Michael A. B. Deakin (Prometheus Books, 2009). I also have a series of posts on the historical events and characters in the film at my blog Historian’s Notebook – not a movie review, but a “reel vs. real” discussion. Thanks for this post. The more people who know about Hypatia, the better!

    • Janet Camp says:

      Thanks for the titles. I’d love to read more about Hypatia from a scholarly perspective.

  17. Trimegistus says:

    Too many modern attitudes pasted onto Roman-Hellenistic people. And too many modern attitudes about religion pasted onto early Christians. This wasn’t a historical drama, it was Narnia for atheists.

  18. Gavin says:

    I felt pretty much the same way about it as Donald, but more strongly about the negatives: the “reel” Hypatia’s discovery of elliptical orbits was totally antithetical to the real champion of heliocentrism, and her softened death scene was a shameful piece of pandering to Christian extremism. Her actual martyrdom by the Christian mob should be trumpeted as an antedote to the innumerable fictional martyrologies our culture was raised on.

    • Janet Camp says:

      Thanks for saying that so well. I was having trouble putting it into words, and also felt that Dr. Prothero was a little too generous with the artistic license taken with the ending.

    • Gavin says:

      Oops – I didn’t say it all that well: I meant “geocentrism”, not “heliocentrism”.

  19. Julien Rousseau says:

    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

    It wasn’t the library of Alexandria but the Serapeum that was destroyed. And it wasn’t destroyed because it had books but because it was a pagan temple (to Serapis); the books were just collateral damage.

    For more information you might want to read this review by a historian of Greco-Roman science.

  20. kl green says:

    Loved the movie. Wish it would get broader viewing, because a lot of Christians need to see it. No doubt many – perhaps most – of them would immediately pule “but those were REAL Christians!”

  21. David S. says:

    Interesting that kl green (#18) summarily dismisses distinctions between cultural “Christians” and observant Christians, but would likely have no trouble distinguishing between a Jew in a yarmulke and sidelocks and my Jewish friend who loves bacon and puts up a Christmas tree every year for his Catholic wife.

    It’s true that the entire Western world was called “Christian” at one time, therefore it’s technically accurate to claim that “Christian mobs” did such and so. However, I think it distorts and obscures the truth to use that phrase as if the riots and destruction were entirely fueled by Christian dogma and wholly blessed by the Church and all her officers. And did you even NOTICE the number of times the author of this piece mentions that we really don’t know much at all about this time period?

    For a website run and visited by those who call themselves Skeptics, this group is all too willing to swallow anything that confirms their own biases, no matter how contrived.

    • Chris Howard says:

      I’m not sure what you’re trying to say? Are you denying that the church sanctioned, via edict, or otherwise the killing of schismatics, infidels, heretics, and atheists? Or are you denying that there is sectarian violence directed towards those who disagree?
      It seems like you’re ignoring a lot of historical examples like the crusades, the inquisition, forced conversions via Roman Centurion, Conquistador, etc., witch trials, the list is endless, and very well documented, as is the execution of Hypathia, and the reasons for her execution.
      It seems a bit of a stretch to call that bias.

      • TimONeill says:

        “and very well documented, as is the execution of Hypathia, and the reasons for her execution.”

        The documented reason for her execution (mob lynching, actually) was city politics. And nothing to do with her learning, her paganism or any imaginary “atheism” she subscribed to. One faction was aggrieved about one of their guys being killed by another faction, so they killed a supporter of that other faction. And both factions were led by and supported by Christians.

        So what’s that got to do with “the crusades, the inquisition, forced conversions via Roman Centurion, Conquistador, etc., witch trials”?

        If people are going to try to invoke “well documented” history they might want to actually read that documentation. Have you actually read the sources about Hypatia’s death?

        We seem to have some weirdly unsceptical sceptics here who just accept stories without checking facts.

    • Janet Camp says:

      The piece says we don’t know that much about Hypatia. We know plenty about “this time period”.

      Fact it–Christianity became dominant for political reasons–not for any reason that justifies belief in mythical beings.

      • Max says:

        In the comments, Donald said we don’t know much about this time period.

      • TimONeill says:

        Donald Prothero is a geologist. So we should accept what he says about Fifth Century history because … ? He makes about half a dozen rather laughable errors of fact in his references to history in the review above, so excuse me if I don’t take him as much of an authority on this period.

        The fact is that we have multiple sources about the events fictionalised in this film and the movie’s version contradicts them repeatedly. We have no less than FIVE separate accounts of the destruction of the Serapeum, depicted in the film’s first act. That makes it one of the best attested events in the whole of ancient history. Strangely, virtually nothing they say is depicted in the film which focuses on the destruction of a library in the temple – something NONE of the sources so much as hints at, let alone mentions.

        True skeptics check their facts. A quick look at the facts and the relevant sources indicates that Donald Prothero should stick to geology and avoid getting his history from movies in future.

  22. m says:

    LOL @ the “Narnia for atheists”. The movie got shredded by this (atheist) historian.

  23. Willy says:

    I suppose one can pick and pick about any movie. Few, if any, are really all that historically accurate and many, if not most, have an agenda or at least a point to make.

    Still, we watched it after I read this article and it was a worthwhile flick that had a worthwhile message. More than you can say for a lot of movies, regardless of their origin.

  24. hardindr says:

    Please note, the film Agora does not contain ” historical details [that] could be quibbled over,” it is a total fantasy and ahistorical. For more information please see the below:

  25. Endre Fodstad says:

    There is something profoundly amusing about a site named “skepticblog” being as unskeptical and uncritical about a movie that – while it fits some popular preconceptions that resonate with the author – has taken extensive liberties with history in order to cater to precicely those preconceptions.

  26. Michelle says:

    I loved this movie. I had it in my netflix queue for about a month before I actually got to see it. This is a great review of the film, too. It’s a shame humans still squabble over issues of religion, and I think that this movie hits on oddly modern themes considering the time.

    • TimONeill says:

      “I think that this movie hits on oddly modern themes considering the time.”

      It does so by imposing modern themes on the time by distorting the history. See the links above.

  27. Daniel Power says:

    For an excellent glimpse of what actually happened, here is a link to a “Reel vs. Real” breakdown of the movie.

    The real events were more political-driven than religion-driven. Even if they were religion-driven, it would not say anything about the nature of the religion. It must be determined if the religion lends itself to approve of the events or if someone hijacked a religion and used it for his own means. Once that issue is resolved, a fair critique of said religion can be made.

    I hope that some of you will actually take the time to look into the issue instead of reading the first blog that appears in your web search and parroting the stuff you heard from the guy that sits at the back of the class the other day (this goes for both sides of the argument).

    • TimONeill says:

      “For an excellent glimpse of what actually happened, here is a link to a “Reel vs. Real” breakdown of the movie. ”

      Which pretty much details exactly the same errors and distortions as the blog posts already linked to in this discussion.

      “I hope that some of you will actually take the time to look into the issue instead of reading the first blog that appears in your web search”

      The blog posts already linked to here have said more or less the same as the one you just recommended. So, you were saying?