Portrait of Hypatia (thanks to Wikipedia)

Whatever you think about Christianity, the unpalatable fact is it owed its rise to coercion, violence and a huge amount of bloodshed. The scale of persecution of Christians by the pagan empire was tiny compared to the death toll once the Church became established.  The majority of the bloodshed was fighting between Christians.  Attacks on Pagans and Jews don’t seem to have got very far up the to do list very often, but there were some celebrated cases.  The film Agora looks at one of the best known. It is the story of Hypatia, who lived in Alexandria at the same time as St Cyril, one of the founding fathers of the Church.

The actual events on which the story is based are not known in great detail, and of course we have the history written by the winner problem, But the facts that are beyond dispute are that Hypatia was a very well educated woman whose work encompassed astronomy and the mathematics of conics.   Conics is the study of the geometry of  circles and ellipses.  Given her two interests might she have hit on the idea that planetary orbits were elliptical rather than purely circular?

The shape of these orbits is not an arcane an issue. It is possible to observe small changes in the size of the Sun’s disc over the year. The planets also vary a lot in brightness and describe some very curious paths across the sky. If you start from the assumption that heavenly bodies move in circles, the easiest model mathematically and conceptually is to fix the earth’s position and postulate that the sun, moon and planets revolve around it in circles. Then you impose further circles, known as epicycles, onto the basic circle for each body. With a lot of hard work and calculation, you can work out the actual periods of these cycles and use that information to make pretty accurate predictions of where the planets will be in the future.

This was done in Alexandria by Ptolemy a couple of hundred years before Hypatia lived there. This worked pretty well and was the lynch pin of astronomy until the Renaissance. In principle it would be possible to come up with a sun centred version using a different set of epicycles, though as far as I know nobody ever did this.  The idea of working out the epicycles for the Earth itself and then applying them to changes in the position from which the observations are being made boggles my mind.  The earth centred version was easier and simpler, and it gave the right results.

But that whole edifice is only necessary so long as you are constrained by the idea that heavenly bodies can only move in circles.  As soon as you introduce ellipses into the picture, it flips over. It is much easier to explain the observations in the night sky with ellipses centred on the Sun.

We will never know if Hypatia ever did go through the thought process of applying what she knew about ellipses to what she knew about astronomy. Although we know a lot about science in the ancient world, much has been lost. We know for instance about the existence of an atomic theory in Ancient Greece only from a third hand source in one single document.  We have none of Hypatia’s actual writings. As she lived and worked in Alexandria, she would no doubt have lodged her documents in the famous library where no doubt they were destroyed along with the rest of them.

We don’t know exactly when or how this treasure trove of ancient knowledge came to be lost. Various candidates have been fingered as the villain over the years. Julius Caesar, the Jews and the Moslems have all been accused. But the Christians of the time of Theodosius have always had the strongest motive and the best opportunity. For the purposes of the film St Cyril is cast as the destroyer of the library. He was certainly in a position to do so and it is the sort of thing he would have done. We know enough of his actions to confidently describe him as an unscrupulous thug only too happy to use violence. He was also a liar and so could easily have covered up his own involvement. If it wasn’t Cyril directly, the circumstantial evidence certainly points to the destruction by Christians. We have plenty of Christian writings and numerous copies of the Bible from this time. We have very little science or philosophy.  I mentioned that the atomic theory was very nearly lost.  There was some theological objection to it – I can’t be bothered to look into the mumbo jumbo reasoning behind this.  I just don’t think the shortage of documents and the attitude of the Church are coincidence.

I am sure a scholar could find some faults with the storyline of the film, but I found it highly believable as to how things might have happened. This isn’t Ben Hur, not even Ben Hur in reverse. The Pagans are not portrayed particularly sympathetically. They are not above having a go at cracking skulls when they think they can get away with it. The Christians are not portrayed as comic book villains either. Some complexities have been dropped in the interests of making a good film. The governor of Alexandria is portrayed as being weak and not in control of the situation. In reality to have lasted more than a week dealing with the complexities of the situation, he must have had some serious political skills. But that is a minor quibble. The Alexandria of Agora strikes true visually, and the characters that live in it are believable and keep you watching.

There was nothing I could see that definitely could not have happened and most of the major events of the film come directly from contemporary accounts.  The tradition of subverting history to drama has not been followed.

But the tour de force of the film is the portrayal of Hypatia herself by Rachel Weisz. She is not portrayed as a martyr or some kind of proto-feminist. She is just a normal upper class woman of that period. She isn’t very with it when it comes to politics and is clueless about relationships. Wondering around the market place during a religious riot she shows not courage in the face of danger but lack of understanding of what is going on. But where her character shines is in her insatiable curiosity about the universe and how it works. The world is falling about around her. The great library has been destroyed. Christian mobs destroy temples and break up statues of the ancient Gods. The Jews are expelled from Alexandria following by low politics and violent provocations of St Cyril. Hypatia meanwhile is out in a boat doing experiments on how movement affects the way bodies fall. Even when holed up in a temple with other pagans besieged by armed Christians she finds time to debate whether or not the Earth moves.

I have known the story of Hypatia for many years now , but I suppose I should issue a spoiler alert now – if you are thinking of watching this and don’t already know how it ends I suggest you stop reading now and don’t google her name until you have seen it.

On the other hand, even though I knew what was coming I found the ending almost impossible to bear and was close to tears. It is often said that it is a short step from burning books to burring people. Hypatia could well have been the Galileo of the ancient world. But we will never know. The thugs who murdered her not only extinguished a brilliant mind, they also destroyed all but an echo of what that mind produced. The dark age between the end of the Classical era and the Renaissance was not caused by barbarians but by the hold over education and learning that the Church managed to achieve. And that was built on acts of terror like the gruesome death of Hypatia.

But Agora is a fitting tribute to a woman who was, like all of us, just a human. But she had a spirit of enquiry that could not be extinguished. That was ultimately why she was killed, and that is why she is remembered.

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