Agora and the Dangerous Silliness of Really Bad Film History Print
Written by Sherry   
Wednesday, 26 May 2010 10:05

Father Robert Barron has written a thoughtful response to the new movie, Agora, which purports to tell the story of Hypatia, the famous pagan woman philosopher and mathmatician who was killed by a "Christian" mob in Alexandria, Egypt in 415 AD.

Agora shows mobs of hate-filled, ignorant, Christian monks under the command of St. Cyril, bishop of Alexandria burning the great Library of Alexandria and killing Hypatia because they saw reason and thought as the enemies of the true faith.

For you who are really busy, here’s the short version of the real history:

The destruction of the Library of Alexandria was 1) probably the result of an accident rather than a plot 2) done by pagans, not Christians and 3) occurred 40 years before Jesus was born and 418 years before Hypatia was born. The part of the Library's collection that survived Julius Caesar was kept in a branch library in a pagan temple in Alexandria but had almost certainly vanished before that building was destroyed in 391 AD, 24 years before Hypatia was killed and 21 years before Cyril became Bishop of Alexandria.

The destruction of the Library of Alexandria had nothing to do with Hypatia or Christianity or Cyril of Alexandria. This is an anti-Christian 18th century urban legend.

Hypatia’s death was horrific and unjust but Cyril of Alexandria probably had nothing to do with it. Her death was probably the result of a political dispute between Christians (not between pagans and Christians) and had nothing to do with a Christian hatred of philosophy and learning or the destruction of the Library of Alexandria.

(Update:  I've just visited the Agora website and see that the film is set conveniently in 391 AD - the year that the pagan temple which had once held a branch library was destroyed.  (See the detailed history below).  The problem is that Hypatia was her early 20's in 391 and wasn't murdered until a quarter of a century later in 415 AD.  Cyril was a teenager of 15 in 391 AD and wouldn't become Bishop of Alexandra for another 21 years.  Oh yes, and the temple was, according to ancient witnesses, probably empty of all library scrolls by 391 AD anyway.  No witnesses made any reference to it as a "library".

In the film, Hypatia's father and mentor, Theon, is portrayed as the last librarian of the library that hadn't, in fact, existed for many years.  Theon was a mathematician and philosopher as was Hypatia.  But math and philosophy don't make for strong visuals and if you focus on astronomy, as the film does, you can always present your heroine as a Galileo-like figure, ready to entertain the idea that the earth is not the center of the universe, and we all know how the Catholic Church treated Galileo!

So this film is nothing less than CGI heavy anti-Christian propaganda.  The only difference between Agora and the Da Vinci Code is that the assassins in Agora aren't albinos.  Yet it was the most popular film of 2009 in traditionally Catholic Spain.

Agora is being released in New York this weekend and in LA a week later. )

For those of you who would like more details, read on:

The Library of Alexandria was the first known library of its kind to gather a serious collection of books from beyond its country's borders and was, in fact, charged with collecting all the world's knowledge. The only problem with Agora’s scenario is that numerous ancient historians tell us that the library of Alexandria was destroyed accidently by Julius Caesar’s army in 48 AD, at least 40 years before Jesus was born.

Fr. Barron mentions The Serapeum, a pagan temple, which had once housed part of the great Library’s collection.  The Serapeum was, according to ancient writers, probably empty of scrolls when it was destroyed in 391 AD, 24 years before Hypatia’s death and when the future Cyril of Alexandria was only 15 years old. The Serapeum was destroyed by the Patriarch Theophilus of Alexandria as a pagan temple on the order of Roman Emperior Theodosius I who ordered the destruction of all pagan temples.  (Theophilus is regarded as a saint only by the Coptic Orthodox Church.) Even the pagan historians who witnessed and lamented its destruction made no reference to the Serapeum as a library.

Carl Sagan, who popularized the Agora version of the story on his 70’s PBS series, drew from the 18th century historian, Gibbon, (of "The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire" fame), who was the first to link the murder of Hypatia with the destruction of the great library at Alexandria, the greatest storehouse of learning in the ancient world.  Both were drawing from the work of the early 18th century Deist scholar, John Toland, who used her death as the basis for an anti-Catholic tract entitled Hypatia: Or the history of a most beautiful, most vertuous, most learned, and every way accomplish’d lady; who was torn to pieces by the clergy of Alexandria, to gratify the pride, emulation, and cruelty of their archbishop, commonly but undeservedly stil’d St. Cyril.

Far from being regarded as the embodiment of evil pagan scholarship by Christians, Hypatia had Christian students and friends. For instance, Hypatia maintained correspondence with her former pupil Synesius of Cyrene, who in AD 410 became bishop of Ptolemais and wrote a letter defending Hypatia as the inventor of the astrolabe.  This is how Hypatia's contemporary, Christian historiographer Socrates Scholasticus described her in his Ecclesiastical History:

There was a woman at Alexandria named Hypatia, daughter of the philosopher Theon, who made such attainments in literature and science, as to far surpass all the philosophers of her own time. Having succeeded to the school of Plato and Plotinus, she explained the principles of philosophy to her auditors, many of whom came from a distance to receive her instructions. On account of the self-possession and ease of manner, which she had acquired in consequence of the cultivation of her mind, she not unfrequently appeared in public in presence of the magistrates. Neither did she feel abashed in going to an assembly of men. For all men on account of her extraordinary dignity and virtue admired her the more.

Modern historians think that Hypatia was killed because she became associated, in popular understanding, with a political dispute in Alexandria.  The Christian prefect of the city, Orestes, may have cultivated his relationship with Hypathia to strengthen a bond with the Pagan community of Alexandria, as he had done with the Jewish one, to handle better the difficult political life of the Egyptian capital.   Hypatia's influence was believed by many to be preventing a reconciliation between Orestes and Cyril.  In March, 415 AD, during Lent, a Christian mob - possibly led by monks - grabbed Hypatia out of her chariot and brutally murdered her, hacking her body apart and burning the pieces outside the city walls.

Shortly after Hypatia’s death, a forged letter attacking Christianity was published under her name.  The pagan historian Damascius (another former student of Hypatia's) laid the blame squarely on the Christians and Bishop Cyril. Although Damascius’ account became widely known, he is the only ancient source to say that Cyril was responsible.

Agora is getting strong review from the top critics and being taken as a serious "idea" film by some.

Fr. Barron’s concern is not so much the mangling of history but the visceral impact upon 21st century audiences:

“In one of the most visually arresting scenes in the film, Amenabar brings his camera up to a very high point of vantage overlooking the Alexandria library while it is being ransacked by the Christian mob. From this perspective, the Christians look for all the world like scurrying cockroaches. In another memorable scene, the director shows a group of Christian thugs carting away the mangled corpses of Jews whom they have just put to death, and he composes the shot in such a way that the piled bodies vividly call to mind the bodies of the dead in photographs of Dachau and Auschwitz. The not so subtle implication of all of this is that Christians are dangerous types, threats to civilization, and that they should, like pests, be eliminated.”

As critic David Edlestein of New York Magazine put it:

"Agora doesn’t merely exalt the empirical outlook of Hypatia, it portrays religious faith—all religious faith—as monomaniacal superstition, a fount of anti-truth."

And what do you want to bet that 50-something Hypatia didn't look like Rachel Weisz?

Your response?