Friday, December 10, 2010

How much of "Agora" is historically accurate?

I had a post yesterday about the movie Agora. In one of the comments, author Faith L. Justice pointed to her three part blog posts on the historical accuracy of the movie. All three parts are fascinating and provide a nice background information about the events that are depicted in the film. She might know a thing about this history as her first historical novel, Selene of Alexandria, is set in the same time period and includes some of the same characters. Overall, she finds that Agora gets most of the big picture right, but some of the details wrong. Hey - we have to give these directors some slack also. At least Alexander Amenabar made an attempt to get things right, and even had a historical advisor (Justin Pollard - co-author of The Rise and Fall of Alexandria).

I will only post parts that dealt with Hypatia and the destruction of the library . For the rest you should read the posts directly - and you should (see Part I, Part II, and Part III). There are lot of SPOILERS in here - so be warned. Read this after you have seen the movie.

On Hypatia's science and her students (from Agora: the "Reel" vs. the "Real - Part I):

In the big picture, Amenábar got this right. We see Hypatia challenging her students to explain an astronomical anomaly, exhorting them to be “brothers” in spite of their religious differences, and rebuffing an amorous student by giving him a handkerchief stained with her menstrual blood. Although little of what Hypatia worked on survived, we do know she was an avid astronomer and built instruments like the astrolabe. I was delighted that the movie presented Aristarchus‘ (3rd Century BC) heliocentric model of the earth revolving around the sun (not to be revived in the West until Copernicus.) But using it as a theme for Hypatia to study and try to prove is most likely bogus.
There is no evidence that she agreed with or studied this model. Dr. S. James Killings, a Medieval scholar, wrote a piece called Was Hypatia of Alexandria a Scientist (as opposed to a mathematician) in which he argues that the empirical way of thinking and experimenting Hypatia displays in the movie didn’t exist until several centuries later.  Dr. Richard Carter, a classical scholar, in his piece called Killings Hypatia, says empirical thinking did exist, but Neo-platonism was antithetical to its use.  Both men agree that  Hypatia was unlikely to have thought about science in the way the movie  depicts. It’s  a lovely thought and served the dramatic arc, but probably inaccurate. (Note: since I first posted this, there have been a number of on line discussions about Hypatia’s science. A scientist in the UK who blogs at History Books Review posted an interesting piece “What did Hypatia really know? The science of Agora.” He agrees that it’s impossible to know what Hypatia knew or didn’t but does a good job of laying our what was generally known about astronomy, and Hypatia would have had access to, at the time.)
As to her students, they came from prominent families from all over the Empire to study with her. She had both Christian and non-Christian students and many went on to occupy high positions in both the Church and government. We know the names of some of her most intimate circle from the letters of Synesius of Cyrene who later became Bishop of Ptolemais.  Hypatia espoused the philosophy of Neo-Platonism that taught that in man’s search for god; he must live in harmony with himself and give up the distractions of the world—similar to the teachings of the aesthetic Christians. In order for her students to attain “union with the divine” they must study, meditate, and live ethical lives. Beauty is a result of inner perfection, not physical beauty. 

On the Destruction of the Temple of Serapis and the Great Library (from Agora: the "Reel" vs. the "Real - Part II)
Amenábar got the destruction of the Serapeum almost right. He shows us a beautiful temple complex with statues of gods and goddesses, classrooms, and the Great Library.  Rufinus described the Serapeum shortly before it was destroyed:
“The whole edifice is built of arches with enormous windows above each arch…Sitting courts and small chapels with images of the gods occupy the edge of the highest level…Behind these buildings, a freestanding portico raised on columns and facing inward runs around the periphery. In the middle stands the temple, built on a large and magnificent scale with an exterior of marble and precious columns. Inside there was a statue of Serapis so vast that the right hand touched one wall and the left the other.”
In the film, pagans, incensed by Christians mocking their gods, gather in the Serapeum and decide to punish the Christians by attacking them, but underestimate the size and ferocity of the Christian populace who fight back. They barricade themselves in the complex until the local governor brings a decree from the Emperor. The “insurgents” are pardoned their crimes of attacks on the Christians, but they must vacate the premises and turn it over to the Christians. The pagans flee the Serapeum and the Christians enter, topple the gods, and burn the library. The buildings left standing (including the library) are used to house livestock—a deliberate insult to the pagans.
All this happened except the Temple of Serapis was completely destroyed. Bishop Theophilus had a Christian church dedicated to John the Baptist and Elijah built on its ruins. As to the destruction of the Great Library, I’ve written a lot about this and you can read the post “Burning Books: What Really Happened to the Great Library of Alexandria.” Rufinus doesn’t mention a library in his description. Suffice it to say, if any books were destroyed at the Serapeum they were part of a “daughter” library.
The main piece Amenábar got wrong is Theon’s and Hypatia’s relationship to the Serapeum. In the movie, Theon is a “director” and makes the decision to attack the Christians. Hypatia teaches there, her students are among those who shelter there, and she valiantly organizes people to “save the library” by personally hauling out as many scrolls as possible. In reality, there is no evidence that either Theon or Hypatia were connected to the Serapeum in any way. They weren’t “pagan” in the traditional sense of worshiping multiple gods. In fact, Hypatia taught her students that there was one god, which they could know through meditation and study—particularly study of “divine mathematics.” There is some evidence that she and Theophilus held each other in mutual respect.
Read more here. Part III addresses the Hypatia's devotion to philosophy and it questions this premise in the film (from Agora: the "Reel" vs. the "Real" Hypatia - Part III)
Philosophy as studied in late antiquity was very different from the subject we take in college—it was a religion with logical and mystical elements. The sources mention that Hypatia taught Plato, Aristotle, and Plotinus (all connected with Neo-Platonism) as well as the views of other philosophers and their schools. Synesius mentions they studied the Chaldean Oracles, as well as some Christian texts, and compares Hypatia’s lectures to a religious experience. He writes to a fellow student, “For my part I am and I advise you also to be, a more careful guard over the mysteries of philosophy.”
Neo-Platonists believed a person could know the transcendent One (God) from which the rest of the universe emanated, but not through logic or reason—only through deep meditation to achieve an ecstatic state. Before one could reach that state, she/he had to demonstrate levels of virtue. First, one lives an ethical life and exhibits civic virtues, but this does not elevate the soul. On the second level, one attains purifying virtues and frees oneself from sensuality and all things of the flesh. The last stage is reached through a total loss of self. Then a person may see God. In that moment a person enjoys the highest indescribable bliss, bathed in the light of eternity. Porphyry says Plotinus attained this ecstatic union with God four times during their six years together.
Hypatia led a small group of her most intimate students through the processes by which they could attain this ecstatic state. They seemed to study everything that enhanced their openness to all things divine. Her methods were never revealed by her students, but from their writings, she didn’t seem to engage in cultic experiences, but may have engaged in reciting prayers or hymns. One scholar believes Synesius’ Hymns V and IX were composed during his time studying with Hypatia.
So, Amenábar got it wrong. Hypatia believed in more that math and science. Although she was not Christian, she was not a “pagan” in the sense she did not worship multiple gods or engage cultic practices. Nor was she an atheist who believed only in science. Hypatia was a deeply spiritual woman. She was the beloved Lady Philosopher of Alexandria.
Enjoy! Please also visit the blog of Faith L. Justice to read all three parts.

Also see:
Movie Interlude: "Agora" - a prequel to "Contact"?


faithljustice said...

Thanks so much for your generous post on my Agora series! I just finished a great book on Hypatia's mathematics by Professor Michael A. B. Deakin titled Hypatia of Alexandria: Mathematician and Martyr (Prometheus Books, 2007.) BTW, my daughter was accepted at Hampshire and we visited a couple of times. It was first on my list, but second on hers. I probably should have kept my mouth shut!

Anonymous said...

what about the way in which Hypatia was killed? How accurate was that?

majheadrush said...

Some reviewers have heavily criticized Agora for historical inaccuracies, heavy artistic licenses and perceived anti-Christian bias in the movie. Robert Barron, an American Catholic priest, writes in an article: "Hypatia was indeed a philosopher and she was indeed killed by a mob in 415, but practically everything else about the story that Gibbon and Sagan and Amenábar tell is false".[42] Irene A. Artemi, a Dr. of Theology of the Athens University, states that "the movie - albeit seemingly not turning against the Christian religion - is in fact portraying the Christians as fundamentalist, obscurantist, ignorant and fanatic".[43] Similarly, the atheist Armarium Magnum blog said: "Over and over again, elements are added to the story that are not in the source material: the destruction of the library, the stoning of the Jews in the theatre, Cyril condemning Hypatia's teaching because she is a woman, the heliocentric "breakthrough" and Hypatia's supposed irreligiousity."[44]

44. O'Neill, Tim. (2010-05-20). "Hypatia and Agora Redux=Armarium Magnum".

majheadrush said...

I think the depiction of Christians of the time adds to this films historical accuracy... where there is no documentation producers much use what they do know about the people and the situation through history and assumption to be as accurate as possible... from what is known of the actions of Christians at the time we have to assume this was a new religion very much in the populist vein and not only encompassed the poor but the extremely badly treated of the period and would have been proned to extreme reactionary mob violence which is documented...