A Review of Agora
(directed by Alejandro Amenábar, co-writer Mateo Gil)
Reviewed by Max Dashú for Coreopsis: A Journal of Myth and Theatre
(pre-2013 editions are no longer archived online) ©2011 Max Dashú
First things first: this is a gorgeous movie, with beautifully realized vistas of ancient Alexandria. The camera approaches the Nile Delta from space, and zooms in to the Serapeum, one of the last strongholds of pagan learning in the Roman Empire. The film (shot in Malta) shows city streets with seamless CGI backgrounds of distant temples and buildings. The crowd scenes pop with realistic costumes and glimpses of merchants, drovers, and paupers. Panoramic views of the harbor take us past a believable reconstruction of the Pharos lighthouse, one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient Mediterranean, with the morning sun glowing on its stone.
There are a few visual missteps, like the New-Kingdom-style pharaonic sculptures on the side of the Serapion, and a not entirely convincing statue of Serapis. This Hellenized god, a composite of Osiris, the bull-god Apis, and Zeus, is awkwardly rendered in the film, far short of the massive scale reported by historians. The filmmakers can hardly be faulted for failing to reproduce the colossal edifice of the Serapeum! Agora is still a great pleasure to watch for history buffs like me or, for that matter, for anyone who is curious to taste what life might have looked like in other times and places.
I’m not a movie reviewer, but a cultural historian, and approach the film from that perspective. What did they do right? Casting the talented Rachel Weisz was an excellent choice, and all the actors are good. The cinematography is luscious. I liked the thematic return to views of the heavens, with the night sky seen from a balcony or through the open roof of an atrium, and occasionally pulling back to satellite shots of earth. A sympathetic treatment of pagans is not something you see often in historical movies every day, either.
The film is about a brilliant, independent, and courageous woman, and this is something to celebrate in what is all too often a media wasteland. It touches on why marriage was not an option for Hypatía. Without elaborating, it makes it clear that marrying would deprive her of self-determination and quash her ability to do her work. This legal and customary reality was baldly stated by Hypatía’s Christian contemporary Prudentius, who scorned the Vestals for “rejecting the lawful fetters of the sex designed for marriage.” But Christians had no monopoly on patriarchy; late Antiquity was no picnic for pagan women, either. That is why outstanding figures such as Hypatía, and the Ionian seeress-philosopher Sosipatra before her, loom so large.
Agora presents Hypatía as a scientist, not a pagan. In one dialog with a Christian, she talks about not being able to believe anything. It’s often been claimed that Hypatía does not qualify as a pagan, only as a philosopher, with the implication that this equates to “rationalist.” But this assertion relies on an impossibly narrow definition of “pagan.” The contemporary word was “Hellene,” and for many this meant something closer to Indian Vedanta than classical belief in an Olympic pantheon. Philosophy in late Antiquity—Neoplatonism in particular—had a strong spiritual flavor. Hypatia revered Plotinus, the mystic founder of Neoplatonism, and her own student Synesius called her “blessed lady” and “divine spirit.” Even Augustine referred to her prophecies.
It comes with the movieland territory that a biopic about a woman must have at least one love story angle, and this one is no different. In fact, it has two, contrasting one suitor at the top of the social pile, the aristocrat Orestes, with Hypatía’s (fictive) slave Davus. Admirers of beefcake will find plenty to love in this movie, which is also refreshing for women tired of the scriptwriters’ commandment that a female lead must fall for some guy or another. Orestes’ amorous approaches to Hypatía are constantly thwarted, directly or indirectly. In one scene she reaches past his approaching arms to gesture toward the heavens, rapt in her celestial visualizations. What we do know is that these two were close friends and political allies—of which more below.
Nevertheless, Agora fails the Alison Bechdel Rule, which (for the edification of non-lesbian readers) evaluates movies on the basis of three considerations: 1. There must be more than two women. 2. Who talk to each other 3. About something other than a man. This film doesn’t even get to points 2 and 3, because Hypatía is practically the only female character in it, major, minor, or walk-on. I freely grant that Hypatía operated in a male-dominated world; female peers in her field were as scarce as hen’s teeth. That does not mean that there were no significant women in her life. However, as the Rule indicates, the over-preponderance of men is less a failing of this film than a movie-industry-wide issue of our times. Most films have three to five male leads but only one woman (if that) who is usually made to fit into a romantic angle. At least Agora revolves around Hypatía and her accomplishments.
The trailer calls Hypatía “A woman ahead of her time, a legend, who fought to unite men.” All this is true (if you are willing to overlook the masculine default for “humanity”). She truly was a leader who courageously stood up for social justice and tolerance. The voiceover also says, “The world changed forever.” This is true too—but it was not “the fall of civilization.” The film telescopes the repression of pagan culture into a few decades, and ignores the role of the Christian emperors who drove this process over more than a century. In the first half of the film, I was a little apprehensive that it was also about to collapse the pagan defense of the Serapeum into the assassination of Hypatía fourteen years later. But no, the director was setting the stage with this important event, and he made the right choice.
Let’s back up and fill in some missing historical context. The storming and destruction of the Serapeum of Alexandria was not a one-off event, but happened in a wider context of state-supported temple destruction around the Roman empire that had already been going on for six decades. A long string of imperial laws had attacked Pagan temples and worshippers throughout the 4th century. The years 354-58 have been described as a time of “religious fury.” [Chuvin, 39] Emperor Constantius ordered the temples closed and their treasures confiscated. He outlawed public sacrifice; whoever made offerings to the old gods, “let him be stricken by the avenging sword.” Diviners were to be burned and, soon, those who consulted them as well. By 371, emperor Valens extended the persecution to philosophers, astrologers, sophists, and “magicians,” and executed multitudes.
The edicts of emperor Theodosius I ranted “against the madness of Jewish impiety or the error and insanity of foolish Paganism.” In 388 this emperor ordered the destruction of temples in Syria, Asia Minor and Egypt. He also prohibited temple services and prayers, and in 391 decreed that “no one is to go to the sanctuaries, walk through the temples.” The emptied temples became sitting targets for fanatical monks emboldened by these imperial decrees against non-Christians. In some places bishops were destroying synagogues as well as temples. In Alexandria, before the attack on the Serapeum, they demolished another pagan temple and desecrated its statues.
Bishop Theophilus of Alexandria led the charge to destroy the Serapeum in 391—the same year that the emperor extinguished the Vestal fire in Rome and abolished its college of priestesses. The bishop obtained an imperial order to demolish the massive temple, “the most magnificent building in the whole world” (the Artemision of Ephesus being already in ruins) with backup from the regional governor and military commander. In other words, it was Roman soldiers who felled it, not just the local parabalanoi thugs. While some temples were left standing and turned into stables and latrines, or supplanted by churches, the Serapeum was razed. Apparently the director was reluctant to destroy the lavish set, opting for the stables instead.
Left: Bishop Theophilus stands on top of the Serapium in triumph, with African deity or person inside it
Agora places Hypatía and her friend Orestes among the defenders of the Serapeum. Although there’s no evidence for or against this, it is plausible. The seige was a momentous event in their lives and for their city. The same can’t be said for the movie’s implication that Christian marauders destroyed the Library of Alexandria. It had long since gone down in stages, the last being a fire started by troops of Julius Caesar in 48 bce. But according to Ammianus Marcellinus, the Serapeum did have “two priceless libraries” which may well have been among the most important libraries remaining. Still, the scenes showing Hypatía clutching at scrolls to save them are a symbolic plot device. What the movie does not show is that the fall of the Serapeum triggered a wave of temple destruction that spread through Egypt.
Although some sources place the birth of Hypatía around 370, her biographer Marie Dzielska concluded that she was more likely born in 350. That would make her about 40 when the Serapeum was torn down, and over 60 at her death in 415. The movie shows a young, and at times girlish, Hypatía. Rachel Weisz is 30, and doesn’t age a whit during the course of the film. This Hypatía does not “put on her philosophers’ cloak and walk through the middle of town,” as Damascius described. Instead, she throws a diaphanous dark cloth over one shoulder. She is not shown, either, receiving crowds of visitors at her home. But Weisz does project the woman’s profound intelligence.
The emphasis is on Hypatía as an astronomer and mathematician, leaving out her teaching as a philosopher. Her attainments in those fields were famous, although none of her writings survive. She wrote commentaries and edited works on astronomy and mathematics. She charted the planets, worked with conic sections, invented the hydrometer, and worked with astrolabes. (Some say she invented this instrument, but scholars say it is more likely that she refined it). The film shows some of this, but it also invents a storyline about her investigating Aristarchus’ heliocentric model. All right, this is a fictionalized story, not a biography, but here’s the difficulty. Most people will never learn anything more about Hypatía than what is in this movie. Thus, we find a reviewer relating its fiction as fact: “She discovered that the sun was the center of the universe a millennium before Copernicus did.” [Ruthe Stein, San Francisco Chronicle, Datebook, July 18-24, 2010, p. 24]
Agora offers no hint that Hypatía was also an internationally regarded philosopher, and the head of the Neoplatonist Academy in Alexandria. Socrates Scholasticus wrote that she “made such attainments in literature and science, as to far surpass all the philosophers of her own time.” He went on to praise “her extraordinary dignity” and powerful civic authority: “On account of the self-possession and ease of manner which she had acquired in consequence of the cultivation of her mind, she not infrequently appeared in public in the presence of the magistrates.”
So when the fictionalized Orestes tells Hypatía: “I won’t be able to protect you any longer!” it makes her look as if she is dependent on him. In reality, she had considerable political capital, with other movers and shakers coming to her for advice. What’s more, her backing was probably instrumental in Orestes’ being appointed as prefect of Alexandria. Likewise, when the eminent female philosopher goes to speak before the city magistrates, it is a one-off affair, with her standing modestly at the margins, her arms hanging at her sides. We have gotten so used to seeing hesitant females in film that even a giant like Hypatía cannot be portrayed as a mature woman at the height of her powers, who is accustomed to speaking authoritatively and having men listen to her. I wanted to see the movie show this dimension of her, because it is not something we often get to see onscreen. And that would have been true to her history.
If Hypatía loses some gravitas and historical agency, her Libyan student Synesius fares far worse. Already a Christian when he studied with her, he later became a bishop (of Ptolemais, not Cyrene as the script has it). Agora distorts the character of Synesius to an unrecognizable degree, using him as a plot device to portray the intractability of the Christian leaders. Returning to Alexandria as a bishop, he denounces Hypatía’s work, refuses to help her unless she converts, and when she refuses, cuts off all connection with her. Priestly bigots of this stripe certainly existed, but Synesius was not one of them. He remained an ardent admirer of Hypatía and corresponded with her for the rest of his life. His letters survive as one of the few contemporary accounts of her thought, and they prove the depth of his love and esteem for her philosophy. And: he died at least a year before her murder.
Orestes was one of countless Hellenes who converted to Christianity in order to ensure the success of his career. With temple destructions all around, the political climate made it increasingly difficult for pagans to secure high office. It is then significant that, according to Socrates Scholasticus, the conversion of Orestes came shortly before he was appointed prefect of Alexandria. His circle of advisors included pagans and Jews as well as Christians. There is of course no evidence that he was ever in love with Hypatía, or her student for that matter. It’s that a romantic angle remains a near-must for female characters.
In Hypatía’s time, and for centuries before, Alexandria was racked with outbreaks of violence between Greeks and Jews, Christians and pagans, and even between orthodox and “heretical” Christians. Early on, the movie shows a parabalanos monk taunting Pagans. He pushes one aristocratic Hellene into a fire. The Pagans react by drawing their swords and run through the streets slaughtering Christians. In other scenes, the parabalanoi stone Jews from the upper galleries of a theater; the Jews later retaliate by locking Christians into a church and stoning them (but much more severely, and at length). While such outbreaks were real, I felt that both these episodes portrayed the pagans and Jews as being more violent, their attacks as deadlier. This could not have not been the case, since both of these groups were on the losing side; the slaughter of Alexandria’s Jews was especially notorious.
There’s another political aspect that some people might not notice: the retrograde racial subtext of the casting. Patriarch Cyril, a villain in the film as well as in history, is played by the Palestinian actor Sami Samir. Ashraf Barhom plays another baddie, the half-crazed parabalanos Ammonius. I’m not the first to point out that the Christian fanatics were all cast as Arabs and Africans, but the aristocratic Pagan heroes (who were also Alexandrians) were played by Europeans with classy English accents. (Sword and sandals movies would do well to move away from having all their aristocrats sound like they come from the House of Lords—why not some Egyptian or even Greek accents? Weisz is up to it.)
Sami Samir as the villain Cyril
Michael Lonsdale as the wise Theon
The actor who plays the Libyan Synesius looks like he should be heading up a Lutheran church in Milwaukee, and Theon’s casting wasn’t convincing either. This tiresome polarity of dark villains and light heroes has always had a negative cultural impact, but it is especially troublesome in the current Muslim-demonizing climate. In the movie, it’s Christians who are terrorists, but the actors portraying them are dark and look like the Muslims that so many people are being primed to hate and fear. This political bleedover made me uneasy.
Hypatía’s antagonist Cyril was another aristocrat. His uncle was bishop Theophilus, who sent him to live among the desert monks for several years. This explains his ties to the parabalanoi. They helped get Cyril appointed as bishop of Alexandria by rioting in the streets, and continued to operate as his shock troops. The prefect Orestes got into a power struggle with the bishop who was over-reaching, to an unprecedented degree, into his sphere of civic affairs. A key issue of contention was the treatment of the Jews of Alexandria. Orestes supported them in a dispute with Cyril, and Hypatía backed him up.
Cyril sent his thugs into the Jewish quarter, killing many and expelling the rest from the Alexandria. Orestes was unable to stop him. The film shows him refusing to acquiesce to the bishop’s authority by accepting a Bible from him, after Cyril preaches a sermon about women not presuming to lead men. A mob of desert monks made Orestes pay for his defiance, accusing him of being a pagan and stoning him in the street. (Agora doesn’t show us how the prefect’s bodyguards fled for their lives, or that it was the populace who saved him and chased off the monks.) Cyril and his faction blamed Hypatía for Orestes’ refusal to back down. This was the trigger that led to her assassination.
But there was a problem: the universal high regard for the female philosopher-astronomer in Alexandria. Cyril found that he could make no headway against her directly, so he resorted to underhanded means. He used the accusation of witchcraft to turn the populace against Hypatía. This has been the missing element in so many interpretations of what happened in Alexandria in 415, and Amenábar deserves credit for including it. As many scholars have pointed out, Hypatía was not killed for being a pagan, but because of her civic stand for religious pluralism and equality, and for her political opposition to the bishop’s instigation of slaughter of the Jews. However, her being female and pagan made her especially vulnerable to the witchcraft charge. This was the pretext that allowed Cyril to get away with siccing his thugs on her, in spite of her social standing and her glorious “masculine” career.
With Hypatía gone, Orestes knew he was doomed too. Soon after her assassination, he disappeared. Whether he fled or was killed is unknown. As for paganism, it did not end with the death of Hypatía. Other pagans—all men—continued to be active at the university of Alexandria for another sixty years before being hounded out. But totalitarian religious repression was becoming the norm throughout the empire, sooner in some places than others. By the mid-400s, pagan professors were being sentenced to death in Syria. And it wasn’t just Hellenes. Gnostic Christians like the Priscillianists in Spain had already been executed as heretics in 385. So the assassination of Hypatía does have symbolic value as the eve of a far-reaching overthrow of ancient cultural traditions.
This brings me to a last observation about the movie. (Spoiler alert.) The director made a choice to soften the horrific death of Hypatía. He did so through one of the made-up romantic threads, the unrequited love of the ex-slave Davus for Hypatía. As the parabalanoi march her into the Caesarion church and tear off her clothing, Davus saves her from rape and dismemberment by telling them that they should not soil their hands with her blood. Unbelievably, the gang agrees and they all obediently trot off to look for stones, leaving him alone with the naked—and passive—Hypatía. She makes no attempt to escape. He embraces her longingly (recalling a previous scene where he came close to raping her) and then strangles her to death to spare her being hideously murdered by an angry mob.
So Hypatía is given a soft and loving death before being stoned, not her actual fate of being cut to pieces or dragged to death behind a chariot, and then burned. This to me is a lost chance. Who says messing with the facts, which are dramatic in their own right, makes a better story? No, showing a woman of deep spiritual conviction as she faces her enemies at the climax of her life, that would have been a powerful ending. And it would have been true.
© 2011 Max Dashu
Book excerpt on Hypatía by the same author
The Spanish movie promo reads, "They defied the law of god and men."
No: if anything they stood for the rule of law against inter-communal
violence and religious totalitarianism.
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