Pagan Martyrs, Murderous Monks: Agora Hits US Shores

It isn’t long before one gets the sense that there’s something off about Agora; something not quite right. Chances are it’s when Rachel Weisz, as the beguiling fourth-to-fifth-century Neoplatonist philosopher Hypatia, drops a cloth stained with her menstrual blood at the foot of a student who seeks to woo her (a style of abstinence-only education today’s advocates might do well to copy). Despite every indication that what you’re watching is a standard Hollywood period epic, you begin to doubt that it will ever get to the obligatory love scene. If you happened to read Hypatia’s Wikipedia page on the way to the theater, you might even begin to fear for not seeing her undressed until the end, when she is stripped and torn to pieces by a bestial Christian mob.

Alejandro Amenábar’s $73 million, English-language movie (which just began a limited US release in New York and, on June 4, Los Angeles) is bursting at its formulaic seams. In two overwrought hours it crams in sex appeal, city-sized sets, gory battle scenes, political intrigue, religious zealotry, and enough of Neoplatonism’s greatest hits to give us a sense for what Hypatia is supposed to be standing for. This last part, while being the toughest to reconcile—not least because of Hypatia’s inconvenient celibacy—is also Agora’s best hope. It comes as a welcome contrast, for instance, to HBO’s Rome, which turns figures like Cicero and Cato into wimps compared to a muscular Mark Antony, with no mention of the intellectual feats by which we now know them best. Ancient world or this one, big ideas don’t easily compete on screen with messy power struggles and lustrous bodies. But it’s worth a try.

“I believe in philosophy,” Hypatia declares, against all odds.

“Philosophy,” growls a sensible politician. “Just what we need in times like these.”

Amenábar stands with the heroine; he didn’t just make this movie for his health. Since Voltaire and Edward Gibbon, the story of Hypatia has been a favorite nugget of the Enlightenment narrative: her death at the hands of crazed monks marks the end of Greek high culture and the start of a steady descent into the Dark Ages. The story is supposed to stand as a beacon, like the lighthouse that towered over Hypatia’s Alexandria, of the danger that religious passions pose to all that is wise and tolerant about the human spirit.

Just in time for my own childhood indoctrination (one which I am loathe to disavow), Carl Sagan repeated this telling in his Cosmos TV series. Sagan followed Gibbon in associating Hypatia’s murder with the destruction of Alexandria’s famous library; with her body, away went the literature of the ancient world, lost forever. To remember Hypatia is now to take a stand for liberation against dogma. (No less than two journals of feminist thought bear her name.) It is this mantle that Agora seems to inherit and this message, for our own age of zealotry and intolerance, that it appears meant to convey. Ideas are propped up to fight like gladiators, with Faith in one corner and Reason in the other.

“I wonder if it ever occurred to Amenábar that his movie might incite violence against religious people…”

Hearing about Agora’s success in Spain last year (it was the highest-grossing film of the year, sweeping up awards) couldn’t help but bring to mind the empty insides of so many of that country’s churches, still charred after the various anti-clerical mobs of the last few centuries. I wasn’t the only one to make that association. With predictable ressentiment, an open letter came to Amenábar from the Religious Anti-Defamation Observatory, a Catholic watchdog group in Spain, warning him: “Your film is going to awaken hatred against Christians in today’s society.”

American “Catholic evangelist” Father Robert Barron adds in his Catholic New World review, “I wonder if it ever occurred to Amenábar that his movie might incite violence against religious people, especially Christians.” One can only hope that it’s not a good enough movie to drive people to the streets.

In an interview with the New York Times, though, Amenábar turned the tables on his pious critics. “Fundamentally, this is a very Christian film about the life of a martyr,” he explained. “Jesus would not have approved of what happened to Hypatia, which is why I say no good Christian should feel offended by this film.” In this respect, at least, his sentiments have historical basis.

Our best period account of the life and death of Hypatia comes from Socrates Scholasticus, a Christian historian in Constantinople who had among his sources a pair of refugee pagan priests from Alexandria. His decree on the whole matter is, exactly, Amenábar’s: “Surely nothing can be farther from the spirit of Christianity than the allowance of massacres, fights, and transactions of that sort.”

Nor were his sentiments any fluke; Hypatia was widely admired by Christians in antiquity and afterward for her learning, chastity, and martyrdom—beginning with her onetime student Synisius of Cyrene, portrayed in the movie as a surfer dude trapped in bishop’s clothes. The Suda, a tenth-century Byzantine (Christian) encyclopedia wistfully remembers her beauty and eloquence, reserving no sympathy for the fellow-Christians who did her in.

From that point the Gibbon-Sagan narrative only continues to unravel. First, it isn’t at all clear that the great library was destroyed by Christians in Hypatia’s time, as the movie suggests. Caesar set it on fire half a century before the birth of Christ. And the last straw may have been a Muslim conquest of Alexandria in 642. What is given in Agora as the orgiastic immolation of the library’s volumes corresponds with the Christians’ destruction, in 391, of a magnificent temple dedicated to Serapis, essentially a political god intended to unite the Alexandrian ethnic maelstrom under imperial rule. The Serapeum was not the library, though it seems to have housed at least an offshoot of the library’s collection. In any case, Agora reminds us that its destruction was provoked by a prior pagan attack on Christians (provoked, in turn, by Christians, etc., ad infinitum).

Early accounts differ about what actually led to Hypatia’s death. The Suda places the blame squarely on the Christian Patriarch Cyril (that’s St. Cyril to you), who grew jealous of the crowds her lectures gathered and sent goons to kill her. Socrates Scholasticus’ depiction is a bit more messy: a triangle of political intrigue between Cyril, Orestes the Roman prefect, and the lady philosopher. This is the scenario Agora most closely follows. And despite Amenábar’s noble effort to squeeze in a scientific discovery before the end, her death just doesn’t seem to have been about ideas, ultimately.

In Alexandria at the time, people were getting martyred left and right for not much good reason at all. Socrates Scholasticus tells us, “The Alexandrian public is more delighted with tumult than any other people: and if at any time it should find a pretext, breaks forth into the most intolerable excesses; for it never ceases from its turbulence without bloodshed.” With Jews, Christians, pseudo-Christians, philosophers, and pagans all angling for power, Hypatia’s may be more a story about universal stupidity than anything else.

As the Stars, the Streets

The best-developed character in Agora, held as a foil against the street riots, is the sky. Amenábar used a starscape calibrated to look exactly as it would have in antiquity, accounting for axial precession. Several times he juxtaposes the stars’ stillness, and the Earth’s roundness, with the chaos below. Like a good Platonist, Hypatia was obsessed with the stars, which Plato and Aristotle held to be demigods, eternal as the universe and its Prime Mover. Contemplating of their order and their perfection is where her philosophy lurked. Unfortunately, other Platonic legacies mar her contemplation in Agora: an obsession with the circle, which blinds her to the elliptical motion of the planets, together with sitting atop a society predicated on slavery and gross inequity.

The Christians turn out to be even worse astronomers, but they do get some things right. The Parabalani (a band of the patriarch’s bodyguards that Agora implicates in Hypatia’s murder) were actually a fellowship chosen from among the poor, principally to serve the poor. They tended to the sick and buried the dead, risking infection in the process. Between violent mob scenes, the movie does at least give a glimpse of what brought so many in the vast Alexandrian underclasses to wear the sign of the cross: bread, freedom, and the good news of the Beatitudes. Hypatia’s slave Davus is, to her, only a slave, albeit a clever one; among Christians, he learns that feeding the hungry is better than fattening the full.

Hypatia’s society collapsed around her, it must be admitted, because its time had come. Alexandria had built its wonders on slavery (Sagan called it, in the Cosmos segment on Hypatia, “the cancer of the ancient world”), and those who enjoyed them didn’t bother to do anything about the streets. But Christians did—or at least, in their way, they tried to.

The lesson of Hypatia, inscribed as much in Agora as in the historical record, is not one of reason over faith or inquiry over intolerance. It’s that as we yearn for the peace of the stars, we have to take care of our city too; we have to make this world just, and thereby safe, for philosophy.