Agora – How Christian Thugs Extinguished a Brilliant Mind

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.

18 Comments

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18 Responses to Agora – How Christian Thugs Extinguished a Brilliant Mind

  1. It is a great film and you're right, the ending is hard to watch. One thing that intrigues me about the story of Hypatia is how much of a one-off she was. A woman scientist and philosopher of such repute is a rare thing, even in this day and age. Yet she's described as teaching, counselling the city leaders etc. Was she unique or were there other women who contributed just as much to the development of philosophy, and who commanded similar respect? In any case, Agora is definitely my favourite film of 2010.

  2. As a chemist I am aware that the first lab chemist, male or female, whose name we know could well have been a contemporary of Hypatia. Her name was Maria the Jewess who seems to have worked in or near Antioch. Water baths in chemistry labs are still called bain maries after her. (I know cooks call them that sometimes too.)

  3. Very good review. Thanx for posting about Hypatia. Sad to say, I have not yet seen the film, but will soon.

  4. In a couple of very interesting articles (and it's worth wading through the comments as well) Armarium Magnum convincingly argues that Hypatia's murder was more to do with her getting caught up in the political struggle between various power groups rather than due to religion.

  5. @RWMG Thanks for that link, which certainly was interesting. I now realise that I have misunderstood the burning of the parchments scene in the film. It wasn't meant to be the destruction of the famous library, just of a library. Apologies to the film makers.

    For a film that has vanished without trace in the main stream media there do seem to be a lot of people interested in it online.

  6. Thanks for the thoughtful review. I saw Agora when it first came out in NYC and loved Weisz' performance as Hypatia. To answer John about other women philosophers, there were a number. Professor Deakin in his Hypatia of Alexandria: Mathematician and Martyr (Prometheus Books, 2007) lists Theanno, Pandrosion, Hipparchia, Eudocia Palaeogina, and Asclepigenia among others. How much they contributed to the development of philosophy or mathematics is up for debate, because so few primary sources remain. Another good source on the historical Hypatia, is Hypatia of Alexandria by Maria Dzielska (Harvard University Press, 1995). I also have a series of posts on the historical events and characters in the film at my blog – not a movie review, just a “reel vs. real” discussion.

  7. Anonymous

    Wow! You really are a Christian-hater. Just because it seems that those events were probably, means that they, in fact, did happen? Great reasoning…you might as well have been one of those (in the film) to have gone along with the crowd. Please be careful what you say – other naive people, like yourself, may be listening.

  8. @Anonymous

    I don't hate Christians. When Christians behave with integrity in line with the founder's teachings they command respect. A good example is Bishop Bell (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Bell_%28bishop%29). He stood up and opposed the area bombing of Germany during the Second World War at considerable risk to himself. I use the phrase 'command' respect because it is literally commanded. I cannot choose to despise someone like Bishop Bell just because his beliefs and mine do not match.

    When I look at history I rarely find examples like Bishop Bell and that is why my opinion of Christianity is not a very high one. But if you can give me a few positive stories about Christians I would love to hear them. Being negative is very tiresome, but the history of the Church doesn't have much uplifting content sadly.

  9. Isn't the internet amazing? Here in Sydney I go to see a little known film about a woman I'd not heard of and the worlds of history, science and communication open before me!

    Thanks for your comments on my post about the film Agora. I'm curious about the title though – I think it means an open meeting place – am I right and how do you think this applies to the film?

  10. Sorry! Forgot to leave my correct ID

  11. @Patrice

    The Agora was the open space near the temple where public events could take place. The famous one was the one in Athens but it was a feature of all large cities in the Greek world. The scene where the Ammonius(?) runs across the flames at the start of the film takes place in the Agora.

    I think the choice of title was probably intended to convey that public debate was one of the things under attack. I can't help thinking that the film maker got carried away with the charisma of Hypatia in much the same way as some of the characters in the film did. It became pretty much a film about her, but that may not have been the original intention.

  12. Lucian

    History seems indeed to be your hobby, but it's also equally transparent that you are by no means a historian. (The reason for her murder was an unfounded suspicion that she might have had something to do with the Jewish rebellion from Alexandria, which took the lives of hundreds of Christians [the stars and their motion had nothing to do with it]; and the Great Library of Alexandria housed hundreds of Jewish and patristic [early Christian] texts as well: the famous Septuagint and the writings of many early Church Fathers among others — hence the importance of Eusebius' “Church History”, which contains numerous quotes from many such works, now long lost).

  13. Thanks for the comment Lucian.

    I don't think that there is any doubt that Hypatia got on the wrong end of some kind of political going on. I haven't heard that particular suggestion but it sounds plausible enough.

    The rise of the Church in the empire is an interesting story and it is a shame to have lost documents relating to it. But to my mind the rise of Christianity is not as interesting as whether or not Hypatia had hit on the idea of elliptical orbits. All human societies have religion and politics after all. We have ended up with Christianity, but it could just as easily have been Mithras, or Elagabalus or a Neoplatonic version of the Olympian Gods. But the truth of the nature of the planets can only be discovered once. We will probably never know for sure if Hypatia got there before Kepler but it is a fascinating question. If I was able to visit the Great Library and bring back one book, Hypatia's is the one I would bring.

  14. The main theory of Hypatia seems to be that she was murdered by a Christian mob because of siding with Orestes her former student and later top politician of Alexandria, who was at odd with Cyril the leader of the Christians of the city.

    The film Agora seems to allude to the likelihood that Cyril had her killed because she was an intellectual reasoning woman that had a great popularity, a woman with power which was not going to be allowed under the emerging male dominated new religious dogma that was Christianity which was opposed to reason and especially female reasoners since their Bible preaches that men are to be the head of the household, Jesus had NO female deciples etc.

    It is all very sad, a very talented, brilliant woman snuffed out by the fundamentalists of the day.

    Christians need to look themselves in the mirror and ask why their re-ligion has been responsible for so much violence and intolerance. That is not to say there are not good Christians but the Catholic Church has a lot to answer for. The Pope should issue an apology for Hypatia as was done finally for Galileo.

  15. Anonymous

    Russ, you don't know much about the Galileo controversy. Copernicus was never prosecuted. As for war and bloodshed, the Christian record pales to insignifigance before that of progressive atheist modern states like the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany and Communist China. Russ, you secularists have a lot to answer for too..from the mindless slaughter of the French Revolution to the aforementioned Communist regimes (e.g. Pol Pot)

  16. Whatever else it was, Nazi Germany was most certainly not a progressive atheist state. Nazism and religion were closely intertwined.

    You might just stretch to apply that label to the Soviet Union and China, but even then I would have thought that Christians ought to be aiming a bit higher than just not being as bad as the worst totalitarian police states.

  17. Just to emphasise the point, here is Hitler himself from a speech.

    “My feelings as a Christian points me to my Lord and Savior as a fighter. It points me to the man who once in loneliness, surrounded only by a few followers, recognized these Jews for what they were and summoned men to fight against them and who, God's truth! was greatest not as a sufferer but as a fighter. In boundless love as a Christian and as a man I read through the passage which tells us how the Lord at last rose in His might and seized the scourge to drive out of the Temple the brood of vipers and adders. How terrific was His fight for the world against the Jewish poison.”

    I think it is fair to say that his interpretation of Christianity is not an orthodox one, but he sure as heck isn't an atheist.

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