Alejandro Amenábar’s film Agora, starring Rachel Weisz as the celebrated pagan mathematician and philosopher Hypatia of Alexandria, has occasioned a number of online reality checks regarding the tensions and outright contradictions between the Enlightenment myth of Hypatia’s story and what is historically known. Many of these are from Christian writers, but the most complete and helpful online treatment I’ve found so far belongs to a self-styled “Irish-Australian atheist b-st-rd” with an academic background in medieval literature and ancient and medieval history, blogger Tim O’Neill of Armarium Magnum (hat tip).

O’Neill’s year-old post “Agora” and Hypatia - Hollywood Strikes Again takes the film’s 2009 press release as the occasion for a blistering critique of what O’Neill calls “pseudo historical myths about the history of science,” “hoary Enlightenment myths” that turn Hypatia’s story “into a morality tale about science vs fundamentalism.” (O’Neill is also the creator of an in-depth website called History Versus the Da Vinci Code.) O’Neill writes:

As an atheist, I’m clearly no fan of fundamentalism—even the 1500 year old variety (though modern manifestations tend to be the ones to watch out for). And as an amateur historian of science I’m more than happy with the idea of a film that gets across the idea that, yes, there was a tradition of scientific thinking before Newton and Galileo. But Amenábar has taken the (actually, fascinating) story of what was going on in Alexandria in Hypatia’s time and turned it into a cartoon, distorting history in the process.

Specifically, O’Neill cites a rendition of events traced to the anti-Catholic 18th-century writer Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, and popularized by Carl Sagan’s Cosmos. According to this picture, mobs of violent Christians, guided by the patriarch Theophilus, torched the great library of Alexandria, while Hypatia, despised by Theophilus’s successor Cyril for her “learning and science,” was murdered by fanatical mobs moved by Cyril’s rabble-rousing.

From the film’s press release, O’Neill gathers that the filmmakers are at least clear, as Sagan was not, that the great library at Alexandria was apparently long gone by Hypatia’s day. Was it burned by Caesar’s forces? There’s some evidence in that direction, but the record is unclear. It seems likely that the great library succumbed to a series of debilitations: successive fires, plundering, decay and neglect. A decent overview of the historical issues is available at the Straight Dope website (maintained by Cecil Adams, also an atheist, I think).

Does Agora present the Christian mob as the destroyers, not of the great library, but of a “second library,” as the press release indicates? Barely. If you are very alert, you may catch a snatch of unclear, partly offscreen dialogue mentioning the “fire that destroyed the mother library,” and identifying the present library as a surviving “daughter library.”

The opening titles, though, simply speak of “the greatest library in the world” (no mention more than one). Apart from one or two oblique references, Agora does nothing to dispel the identification of this one great library as the one we see destroyed by Christians in the film. Essentially, the film celebrates the popular myth with only the barest of sops to historical plausibility.

The historical basis for the myth is that circa 391 a mob of Christians destroyed the Serapeum of Alexandria, the pagan temple of Serapis. Such violence, as Agora dramatizes, was tragically not uncommon in Alexandria, and Christians, pagans and Jews were all guilty of it, though even Agora acknowledges that the persecution of the Christians by pagan Rome preceded any Christian violence. (To that extent, Agora‘s version of events is at least better than the Da Vinci Code movie, which first floats the outrageous claim that the Christians started the violence before agnostically concluding, “We can’t be sure who began the atrocities.”)

There is evidence that the Serapeum once housed a “daughter library”—but also evidence that by 391 that library was no longer extant. In actual accounts, pagan as well as Christian, of the destruction of the Serapeum, there is no indication of a library or of scrolls. Agora, by contrast, speaks constantly of “the library,” and dramatically displays the gleeful plundering of an immense collection of thousands of scrolls (as well as Hypatia’s frantic efforts to save as many as possible).

Regarding Agora‘s portrait of Hypatia herself, O’Neill aptly notes:

There is some suggestion that Amenábar’s film depicts her as an atheist, or at least as wholly irreligious, which is highly unlikely. Neo-Platonism embraced the idea of a perfect, ultimate source called “the One” or “the Good”, which was, by Hypatia’s time, fully identified with a monotheistic God in most respects.

This is indeed what the film does. Charged with believing “in nothing,” Hypatia improbably responds, “I believe in philosophy”—a response that elicits sneers from the Christian authorities. (“Philosophy—just what is needed at this time.”)

In reality, far from being despised for her “learning and science,” evidence indicates that Hypatia was widely admired by learned Christians. Cyril, a ruthless and brutal tactician but also well-educated and able scholar, regarded Hypatia as a political enemy: Cyril’s efforts to expand ecclesiastical power were actively opposed by Orestes, the Christian Roman prefect and a friend and student of Hypatia. Cyril’s attempts to make peace were rebuffed by Orestes, and Hypatia publicly backed the prefect—support the patriarch obviously resented. Cyril believed that, without Hypatia’s support, Orestes would not continue to oppose him—correctly, as it turned out, since after Hypatia’s murder Orestes resigned and left Alexandria.

Obviously, Hypatia’s pagan status wouldn’t have endeared her to Cyril or his followers, but given Cyril’s ruthlessness toward fellow Christians he considered enemies (Novatians, Nestorians), there seems to be no reason to think that he would have been any less displeased with Hypatia’s support of Orestes had she been baptized. If Cyril’s followers dared to throw stones at Orestes and his entourage, they could just as easily have murdered Hypatia had she been a Christian.

While Hypatia’s “learning and science” was the basis for her fame and influence, there seems to be no reason to assert that Cyril or his followers hated her specifically because of her learning, as opposed to the way she used her influence. Cyril would hardly have scorned her support had she offered it to him instead of to Orestes.

Ultimately, the consuming message of Agora is: Reason unites us, faith divides us, and never the twain shall meet. It’s not without nuance in other respects, but on this point Agora is as diagrammatic and predetermined as one of Hypatia’s astrolabes.

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