Sunday, January 2, 2011


I recently watched "Agora," a 2009 film starring Rachel Weisz and directed by Alejandro AmenĂ¡bar. It is nominally about Hypatia of Alexandria, a late 4th-century philosopher and mathematician who taught in the Academy. According to the film, Hypatia--a true bluestocking--overturned the established Ptolemaic cosmology and anticipated Copernicus, Galileo, and Kepler by about 1200 years.

But this is really a film about religious extremism and its revolutionary capabilities to unmake and remake cultures. The Christian community in Alexandria (initially composed largely of slaves and the poor) eventually revolts against the established pagan cult (whose members are the long-standing ruling class of the city) and forces all pagans to convert or be stoned to death. Hypatia--an independent woman, a pagan, and a public intellectual--is intolerable to the new Christian ruling elite, and she embodies the old order that persecuted Christians and worshipped idols. Hypatia herself is not portrayed as religious--her pagan faith is barely evident--but she refuses to marry, convert, or quit her studies. Most of all, she refuses to stop questioning her beliefs; she begins the film as an ardent believer in Ptolemy's cosmology and in the perfection of the circle, but when one of her students questions the many complications of the Ptolemaic system (epicycles on epicycles) on aesthetic grounds, she begins to rethink all of her assumptions and ends up positing a heliocentric cosmology and planets with elliptical orbits.

The Christians, on the other hand, are portrayed as anti-intellectual and dogmatic (there are a few exceptions, such as the Prefect of Alexandria, who converted only for political reasons), especially as their numbers grow and they become more and more powerful. (The Jews of Alexandria don't feature prominently in this film, although they are loathed and massacred by the Christians for being rich, powerful, and crass, a stereotype that I was dismayed to see given such prominence.) They take over the great Library at Alexandria, destroy many of the classical texts held therein, and insist on the literal truth of the Bible.

But the Christians aren't entirely villainous, nor are the pagans proto-Enlightenment figures of tolerance and rationality. In the first half of the film it's clear that the Christians in Alexandria are the poorest members of the city, and Christian charity and egalitarianism are very much in evidence. The pagans own slaves (and beat them) and speak longingly of the days when Christians were thrown to the lions for their entertainment. This complicates the story in interesting ways, especially in light of the Christians' later control of civic, religious, and cultural life in Alexandria.

This film has some real flaws, but also some extraordinary beauty. The CGI shots of late antique Alexandria are fantastic, and I'd love to show that clip in a class. It's easy for students to underestimate the size and grandeur of ancient cities, and it would also highlight the difference between the cosmopolitan eastern Roman Empire and the comparatively poor and rural western Empire, especially during the late antique period. And "Agora" could also be a useful film to show in a class dealing with the Christian revolution. Historically accurate? No. Historically evocative? Yes.

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