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Agora-phobia: The True Story of Hypatia | Sandra Miesel | Ignatius Insight | September 24, 2010

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The particular Agora arousing phobia is a new film by Alejandro Amenábar that pits rabid Christian faith against calm pagan reason in turbulent ancient Alexandria. Here, Christians are rioters, wreckers, and book-burners who murder a brilliant woman. Agora won't be coming to a multiplex near you--unless your local theater is an art house.

Why worry about a Spanish film in limited release? First, Agora could attract attention at awards time. Amenábar has already won the Best Foreign Picture Oscar (and a slew of other merit badges) for his pro-euthanasia opus The Sea Inside (2005). He also cast Oscar-winning actress Rachel Weisz in Agora as the remarkable mathematician and philosopher Hypatia. Critical response has been more favorable than not.

A second and greater reason for concern is the all-too common habit of imbibing history from fictional sources. That's a risky habit as historical entertainments stray ever farther from the facts while basic knowledge of history fades away. (Compare The Tudors on television now with The Six Wives of Henry VIII a generation ago.) A sizable percentage of Dan Brown's readers believed every misinformed word he wrote.

Agora isn't another Da Vinci Code. It won't shape minds by the millions. More people will read about Agora than see it. Either way, many will uncritically absorb the film's message that Christians destroyed ancient Greco-Roman culture to the lasting detriment of mankind. Hostility to the Church will ratchet up. Take for example the conclusion of a French viewer posted at the New York Times website: Christianity "is a factor of ignorance and enslavement, and an extinguisher of thought."

This essay isn't a review. That task has already been performed with due diligence by Catholic critic Steven Greydanus, among others. (A visit to the official website suffices to give a taste of what's on offer; also see the trailer.) My purpose here is to summarize and correct some of the issues that Agora distorts: sectarian strife in Alexandria, the fate of its fabled Library, and the life of Hypatia.

These distortions are rooted in the ignorant mind of director and co-writer Amenábar. He states the purpose of his work to be speculation "about the heights ancient civilization might have reached had the Middle Ages and the fall of the Roman Empire not occurred when they did as stumbling blocks and had the world not been paralyzed for 1500 years." Behind this judgment stands Carl Sagan's immensely popular documentary series Cosmos (1980) which blames the "darkness" of the Middle Ages on the destruction of the Library and the murder of Hypatia. Amenábar's prejudices also may have been reinforced by his historical consultant Justin Pollard who served in that capacity on another anti-Catholic film Elizabeth: the Golden Age (2007).

Alexandria, named for its founder Alexander the Great, was the queen city of the Mediterranean world before the rise of Rome. Its half million volatile residents included Greeks, Egyptians, and Jews concentrated in separate quarters of the city. Christians were numerous by the end of the fourth century, adding new rivalries to the social mix. Except for recent underwater discoveries, the nearly all of Alexandria's ancient structures are gone. Agora's elaborate sets are just plausible inventions.

The glory of ancient Alexandria was its Museum and the associated Great Library. Both were founded by Egypt's Greek conquerors, the Ptolemaic dynasty, late in the fourth century B.C. and later were patronized by Roman emperors. Located in the royal quarter, this "place of the Muses" was devoted to learning, not display. Government-supported scholars studied, taught and banqueted there. Research centered on science, mathematics, literature, rhetoric, and philosophy.

The Great Library was housed in niches along a covered passageway, somewhere in the Museum complex. Estimates of its size vary from 100,000 to 700,000 papyrus scrolls, with each scroll usually containing only part of a book. The collection belonged to the royal family. Only members of the Museum could use it but two smaller libraries elsewhere in the city were open to the public.

Julius Caesar is often blamed for accidentally burning the Great Library while besieged in Alexandria in 47 B.C. But a large commercial shipment of books awaiting export is probably what perished then. The likeliest occasion for the loss of the Great Library was the Emperor Aurelian's devastating re-conquest of Alexandria in 270 A.D. Wear, dampness and vermin also took their toll. There were no books—much less a vast collection--left for Christian mobs to destroy either at the Museum or in its "daughter library" at the Temple of Serapis when the latter building was wrecked in 391 A.D. after an imperial decree commanded the closing of pagan worship sites.

Agora not only invites confusion between the Museum library and the temple library, it makes the wrong Patriarch of Alexandria the instigator and overlooks the emperor's order to suppress pagan cults. The actual event was a siege, not an unprovoked riot. Before the final assault, die-hard pagans had barricaded themselves inside the Temple of Serapis, occasionally making sallies to capture Christian besiegers whom they crucified. The film also falsifies history by placing its heroine Hypatia at the scene, scrambling to rescue a few precious scrolls from the rampaging Christians. Having no personal attachment to pagan deities, the real woman took no part in the conflict.

Agora's version of Hypatia is the latest in a line of propaganda portraits dating back to the eighteenth century. She has represented reason stifled by dogma, beauty defiled by hate. She was a victim of historical forces or monkish perversion, a scientist, a feminist, even the model for St. Catherine of Alexandria. Agora draws on earlier identities to present her as French poet Leconte de Lisle's "spirit of Plato and body of Aphrodite" struck down by the "vile Galilean."

The Hypatia of history (355-415 A.D.) was indeed brilliant and beautiful. She was the daughter of Theon, last known member of the Museum, a mathematician and astronomer who also practiced a form of magic. Hypatia helped her father edit astronomical tables, wrote her own commentaries on mathematics and gave public lectures. (Agora fantasizes her anticipating Galileo's heliocentric universe in order to make her a martyr for science.) Her chief interest was Neo-Platonic philosophy, a system also favored by many Christian thinkers in Patristic times, including St. Augustine. Agora implies that Hypatia was irreligious but she was actually a philosophical monotheist who led her favorite students in contemplative prayer. The pupils she taught in her home included two future bishops. One of the latter, Synesius, wrote admiring letters to Hypatia even after being elected bishop of Ptolomais. Hypatia was a public intellectual, renowned for her formidable self-control and flesh-scorning chastity. Leading men of Alexandria sought her advice. Her friendship with Orestes, prefect of Egypt and a Christian, wasn't a romance as Agora would have it.

Their alliance was bitterly resented by the Patriarch Cyril because Orestes was his political enemy. Far from being an ignoramus, Cyril had received an excellent secular education before his election as Patriarch of Alexandria in 412 A.D. (He succeeded his uncle Theophilus who'd ravaged the Temple of Serapis.) Cyril attributed Hypatia's influence to witchcraft, perhaps because of her father's interest in magic which she never shared. Cyril blamed her for Church-State tensions that actually arose from Cyril's harshness towards heretics and Jews. He'd closed the churches of the former and ordered the expulsion of the latter in defiance of Orestes' authority. Hypatia's unusual scholarly life wasn't an issue, although Cyril seems to have been jealous of the prominence it gave her.

In 415 A.D., a desert monk was tortured to death for trying to kill Orestes. The patriarch's burly band of charity workers, the parabalanoi, seized Hypatia in revenge. Led by a cleric called Peter the Lector, they dragged her through the streets, slashed her to pieces with pottery shards, and burned her remains. She was at least sixty years old, an advanced age for the time, not the still-youthful beauty depicted in the film. Orestes resigned his post and left Egypt.

Cyril went on to combat Nestorius, Patriarch of Constantinople who had attacked the Divine Maternity of Mary. In 431 A.D., Cyril led the Council of Ephesus to condemn Nestorius as a heretic and to proclaim Mary the Mother of God (Theotokos or "God-bearer"). Patristic scholar Joannes Quasten calls him "one of the greatest figures of early Christian literature. Honored as a saint in the East since his death in 444 A.D., St. Cyril was added to the Roman calendar in 1882."

Contrary to the message of Agora, Hypatia's murder didn't extinguish learning nor end civilization. Scholars in Alexandria couldn't put the legions back on the Rhine. Barbarians had already invaded the Empire; the Goths had sacked Rome five years before Hypatia's death. Some knowledge survived the Western Empire's fall because the Church maintained it. More Greek learning survived in the Christian East and seeped back westward over the next millennium. Philosophy benefited from these infusions more than any other discipline.

Ancient science was mostly theory but medieval Europeans put technology to work on an unprecedented scale. They harnessed wind and water power and made advances in agriculture, metallurgy, shipbuilding, optics, weaponry and machine design beyond what the ancients had known. Without these developments and the Christian view of an orderly cosmos passing through linear time, modern science would never have emerged.

But the myth of faith as the enemy of reason has been popular since the Enlightenment. Agora simply repackages Edward Gibbon's "triumph of barbarism and religion" over superior pagan culture--this time with cgi effects.


• Luciano Canfora. The Vanished Library. Berkley, 1990.
• Maria Dzielska. Hypatia of Alexandria. Cambridge MA, 1995.
• Lynn White, jr. Medieval Religion and Technology. Berkley, 1978.

Related Ignatius Insight Articles and Excerpts:

Trust This Church? | Fr. Walter Brandmüller
Is Religion Evil? Secularism's Pride and Irrational Prejudice | Carl E. Olson
The Inquisitions of History: The Mythology and the Reality | Reverend Brian Van Hove, S.J.
The Spanish Inquisition: Fact Versus Fiction | Marvin R. O'Connell
The Crusades 101 | Jimmy Akin
Were the Crusades Anti-Semitic? | Vince Ryan
Crusade Myths | Thomas F. Madden
Urban II: The Pope of the First Crusade | Régine Pernoud
The Truth About Joan of Arc | Régine Pernoud
Mistakes, Yes. Conspiracies, No. | The Fourth Crusade | Vince Ryan

Sandra Miesel is the co-author, with Pete Vere, of Pied Piper of Atheism: Philip Pullman and Children's Fantasy and co-author, with Carl E. Olson, of the best selling The Da Vinci Hoax: Exposing the Errors in The Da Vinci Code. She holds masters’ degrees in biochemistry and medieval history from the University of Illinois.

Since 1983, she has written hundreds of articles for the Catholic press, chiefly on history, art, and hagiography. She regularly appears in Crisis magazine and is a columnist for the diocesan paper of Norwich, Connecticut. Sandra has spoken at religious and academic conferences, appeared on EWTN, and given numerous radio interviews. Outside the Catholic sphere, she has also written, analyzed, and edited fiction. Sandra and her late husband John raised three children.

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