Agora (2009, dir. Alejandro Amenábar) is a surprisingly fresh film about ancient Rome. Unlike most films about ancient Rome, which tend to focus on the period from roughly 100 BC to 68 AD, Agora is set in the late 4th/early 5th century AD, as the Roman Empire was entering the decline from which its western half would not never recover. Instead of focusing on sword-and-sandal heroics, it tells the twin stories of the religious upheavals in Alexandria, Egypt (one of the largest cities of the ancient world) and of the intellectual pursuits of the female philosopher Hypatia of Alexandria (Rachel Weisz). One of my readers, Jerise, has kindly made a donation to my Paypal account and asked me to review it. I was planning on getting to this film eventually, so thank you Jerise for giving me a reason to get to it sooner rather than later!
Agora tells a complex story, so this review is going to focus specifically on its depiction of Hypatia. We’ll look at the political and religious upheavals in Alexandria in the next post.
Of the historical Hypatia we know only bits and pieces. She was probably born between 350 and 360 AD, and thus was in her 30s or 40s in 391 when the film opens (making Weisz just about the right age to play her). Her father was Theon of Alexandria, a mathematician of some note who was probably responsible for her unusually high degree of education in an era when women were rarely educated at all. She became a Neoplatonic philosopher and taught male students at Alexandria, numbering both pagans and Christians as her pupils. That in itself indicates that she was held in remarkable regard. One of her pupils, Synesius, went on to become the bishop of Ptolemais in Libya, while another, Orestes, became the praefectus Augustalis, essentially the governor of Egypt, although the film simply calls him Prefect.
According to the Greek historian Damascius (d. after 538 AD), one of Hypatia’s students professed his love for her. Damascius gives two different versions of her response. The more polite version (which he discounts) is that she told him that music was the antidote for love. The less polite version is that she handed him a bloody menstrual rag and said “this is what you really love, my young man but you do not love beauty for its own sake.” Her point in the latter story is that he is merely infatuated with her body, but her body has an ugly side to it.
Of her scholarly works, comparatively little is known, because none of her writings have survived. She is known to have been a mathematician like her father. She was clearly interested in astronomy, because she edited and corrected the most important ancient work on the subject, the Almagest of the Alexandrian astronomer Ptolemy. The Almagest still survives, so we do have something with Hypatia’s fingerprints on it, as it were. She was also interesting in the geometry of cones. She has incorrectly been attributed as the inventor of the astrolabe and the hydrometer (a device for determining the density of liquids). Beyond that, all we know is that she subscribed to the Neoplatonic school of philosophy and that she was a pagan, a fact that was to become extremely important to her eventual fate. As a Neoplatonist, she probably believed in a single god who had much in common with the Christian Creator.
Unfortunately for Hypatia, late Roman Alexandria was an extremely tumultuous place religiously, with intense political and religious disputes between the pagans, multiple sects of Christians, and Jews. The city was subject to frequent religious riots and acts of violence. The patriarch of the city, Cyril of Alexandria, was locked in a struggle with Orestes, and because Hypatia was a good friend of Orestes, Cyril’s supporters became convinced that she was preventing a reconciliation between the two men.
In 415, a group of Cyril’s supporters attacked Hypatia. According to Socrates of Constantinople (an historian who died some time after 439 AD), a religious official named Peter led a crowd who waylaid her as she returned home on day in a chariot, dragged her to one of the major churches, stripped her naked and stoned her to death with tiles. They dismembered her corpse and had it burned. The 7th century historian John of Nikiu (who seems to have been quite hostile to Hypatia) says that Peter’s crowd seized her, stripped her naked, and dragged her through the streets until she died, and then burned her body. A later and more lurid account claims that the rioting crowd flayed her with sea-shells, a detail that modern scholars entirely discount. Regardless of exactly what happened, it’s clear that a mob of Christians led by Peter murdered her and burned her body. Thus died the most highly-educated woman of the ancient world (at least that we know anything about).
Hypatia in Agora
Amenábar’s film manages to include virtually everything we know about Hypatia, although it fleshes out the details considerably with its own invention. But one of the things I love about this film that, with the exception of two fictitious slaves (Davus and Aspasius), virtually every named character in the film was a real historical person. That in itself suggests that Amenábar (who wrote the script) was serious about trying to be historically accurate.
The film opens in 391 with Hypatia teaching Orestes (Oscar Isaac) and Synesius (Rupert Evans). Since Orestes is a pagan, this correctly captures the fact that she taught both pagans and Christians. Orestes is in love with her, makes a public declaration of his love by playing a tune he has composed on the aulos in a theater, and then giving her the aulos. The next day, she responds by giving him her menstrual rag, which he throws down in disgust, not really getting the point she was making. Historically, Orestes is not the student who professed his love to her, but this modest adjustment to fact allows the film to set up the idea that Orestes will be in love with her his whole life, even after he becomes the Prefect.
In the film, Hypatia teaches at the Serapeum, an important temple dedicated to the late Egyptian god Serapis. Her father Theon is described as the ‘director’ of this institution, which contains an enormous library, all that’s left of the Great Library of Alexandria. Although the film does distinguish between the Great Library and the Serapeum library, it doesn’t really go out of its way to do so, giving viewers a sense that Hypatia taught at the Great Library.
The Great Library of Alexandria was founded at the end of the 3rd century BC by Ptolemy Soter, the first member of the last pharaonic dynasty of Egypt, the Ptolemids. At its height, it had over 500,000 books housed in it, far and away the greatest library of the ancient world. It was large enough that the collection wasn’t all housed in one building. The Serapeum was one of the ‘daughter’ libraries.
One of the little puzzles of ancient history is what happened to the Great Library. Although various people have been accused of destroying it, it probably was destroyed gradually by a series of crises, including Julius Caesar’s siege in 48 BC, Emperor Aurelian’s siege in 269 AD, Emperor Diocletian’s harsh actions in 298 AD, Bishop Theophilius’ destruction of the Serapeum in 391 AD, and the Arab conquest of the city in 641.
Theon may possibly have been associated with the Serapeum, perhaps being educated there, but there is no evidence either that he was the director of the institution or that Hypatia taught there. As a leading philosopher of Alexandria, it’s not a huge stretch to make her one of the Serapeum’s faculty, but that’s an invention of the film.
Another thing I love about this film is that one of its two plots is Hypatia’s drive to figure out an astronomical puzzle. The film opens and closes with the shot of the whole Earth, making it clear that this film is to some extent about astronomy. Early in the film, Hypatia lays out the classical Greek understanding of the universe. The Earth must be the center of the universe because while objects in the heavens move in perfect circular orbits, on Earth objects move in a linear direction downward, toward the center of the universe. If the Earth were not the center of the universe, objects would fly off the planet seeking the center of the universe. In the absence of any concept of gravity, the idea that physical things have an inherent attraction to the center of the universe makes a pretty good explanation.
Hypatia’s slave Davus (Max Minghella) is in love with her. Having listened to her lectures, he builds an orrery, a model of the universe according to the astronomer Ptolemy’s system. It shows the Sun and the planets moving in circular orbits around the Earth, but each planet (including the Sun) also rotates around the moving point on their own circular orbits, known as an epicycle. This was Ptolemy’s attempt to explain some of the irregularities in the observed motion of the planets, irregularities actually caused by the fact that we are observing the motion of the planets from a platform that is itself moving. Orestes ridicules this system as needlessly complex. Why, he demands, wouldn’t stationary planets be more perfect than moving ones?
That question sets Hypatia off on an intellectual journey that will last throughout the film and through the rest of her life. Every so often the film gives us a scene in which Hypatia and others try to reason out what’s actually going on with the planets.
In my opinion, the film does an excellent job of explaining the logic of ancient astronomy as well as how Hypatia slowly solves the problems inherent to it. In a later scene, she and her students discuss the Heliocentric theory, first proposed by Aristarchus of Samos centuries before. As one of her fellow scholars points out, the Heliocentric theory makes no sense. If the Earth was moving, why wouldn’t there be a constant wind against us as the planet moved? Why wouldn’t objects we dropped fall a distance behind where we were when we dropped them (since the planet would have moved on)? These are entirely reasonable objections to the Heliocentric theory based on what knowledge the Greeks had access to. So while most films tend to depict pre-modern people as scientifically backward and foolish, Agora treats its characters as intelligent, capable of observation and reason, and coming to reasonable conclusions based on what they know.
Later on, Hypatia conducts an experiment in which Aspasius, her slave and research assistant, drops a bag of sand from the mast of a ship as it sails. Instead of falling a distance behind the mast, the bag lands near the mast. So, she reasons, the objection that objects would fall away from us as the Earth moves must be invalid. She begins to think that maybe the Heliocentric theory might be right.
Still later, Hypatia debates the problem of the Earth moving around the Sun with Orestes. She suddenly realizes that the problem is that everyone has been blinded by the perfection of the circle. Maybe the Earth’s movement isn’t circular. But what sort of shape could explain things?
Then she realizes that one of the shapes contained within a cone, the ellipsis, might do the trick. In a scene that is one of the climaxes of the film, she works out the puzzle of the Heliocentric theory as Aspasius watches. It’s a truly beautiful scene that celebrates the joy of intellectual discovery. Have a look.
However, to be clear, there is absolutely no evidence that Hypatia actually did find a way to prove the Heliocentric theory. The film acknowledges in a epilogue text that Johannes Kepler is credited with the discovery. It doesn’t say that everything it’s shown us is hypothetical, which is unfortunate. When the film first came out, I was teaching Early Western Civilization, and I decided to allow my students a little bit of extra credit by going to see the film and then writing a 2 page paper about it. I told them beforehand that there is no evidence that Hypatia proved the Heliocentric theory, but every single student who decided to take the extra credit came away from the film convinced that she had.
That’s why historical accuracy in film matters. Despite the active admonition of a college instructor that the film was going to show them something entirely hypothetical and probably untrue, all of my students found the dramatic visual presentation of the material more persuasive. Film is an incredibly powerful teaching tool, and film makes owe it to their audiences to be more careful about what they teach their audiences. Remember that there is no such thing as ‘just a movie’.
Despite this major flaw in the film, I find myself forgiving Agora on this point. While the film overstates what we know about Hypatia intellectually, Amenåbar is careful to base his film’s speculation on two things that we actually do know about Hypatia: she was interested in astronomy, and she was interested in conic sections. Had she combined those two interests with a certain degree of experimentation, it’s not impossible that she could have worked out a proof for the Heliocentric theory 1200 years early. And in the film, she makes her discovery and is then killed by the Christian mob before she has a chance to tell anyone, so her discovery dies with her. In a nice touch, as she’s dying, she looks up and sees an ellipsis in the dome of the room.
It’s also incredibly rare for a film to depict a woman as an intellectual, a scholar, and a discoverer of truth. Typically, our cinema celebrates the intellectual work of men while glossing over the critical contributions of women. So I find myself liking this film the way I like Hidden Figures, for highlighting a woman for her smarts, not her beauty.
There is one really egregious anachronism in the film that bugged me the whole way through. Although it’s set in Alexandria in the late 4th and early 5th century AD, the Roman soldiers are shown dressed in gear from about the 2nd century AD, with rectangular shields, metal breast-plates, pilums, and helmets with a neck-flap, instead of the mail tunics and round shields they should have had. That would be like making a movie set in the modern day and dressing and equipping all the American soldiers as minute men.
Want to Know More?
Agora is available through Amazon.
There hasn’t been a lot written about Hypatia by scholars, since the hard facts about her are so few. But Edward J. Watts’ Hypatia: The Life and Legend of an Ancient Philosopher might be worth your time.
Also, novelist Faith Justice has written a number of blog posts about Agora, so you might find what she has to say worthwhile.