Perhaps you’ve seen this movie. It’s intended as a historical dramatization, for events in Alexandria, Egypt in the late 4th and early 5th century. We’ll look at the real history and then at the very different plot of the movie. Then, in another post, the attitudes and dialogue in the movie that unfold for us an insight into modern agnosticism.
The Alexandrian Library
There was a library in Alexandria which was understood to be a repository of much ancient learning. It has been lost to history, and its loss has become a symbol for the grievous loss of cultural heritage; a cutting off of the ancient knowledge about which we have only fragments or hints through other references.
The library was not burned in one episode by a single fire, as is often said. It was probably at least partially destroyed under the reign of Caesar Augustus, in 48 BC. If books remained, there may have been another destruction, or partial destruction, in an attack by the Roman emperor Aurelian in about 272 A.D. In any event, the library no longer existed in 391, the date relevant to the movie Agora, though there was a daughter library in another building in Alexandria, called the Serapeum. It is not clear whether it housed any books by 391 A.D., but in any event, there is no evidence of any books having been destroyed then.
Hypatia was a female philosopher and mathematician in Alexandria at the end of the 4th century and beginning of the 5th. She was highly regarded, during her life and in history, for her contributions to mathematics and science, and for her personal decorum. At the time she lived, it was not unusual for a woman to participate in the intellectual life of the city, nor even to teach men, at least not if they be as gifted as was Hypatia.
Alexandria was of course part of the Roman Empire. At this time in history, Christianity had become legal, and was on its way to becoming the dominant religion in the empire. The religious viewpoint it was displacing was primarily paganism. The pagans did not worship the gods in the same subjective, devoted way that the Jews or Christians worshipped God, but acknowledging the gods by various pagan religious practices was deemed crucial to an orderly society. We discussed paganism in The Pagan Epoch.
Hypatia might have been a pagan, or she might have been only nominally so, preserving instead an agnosticism concerning the pagan demiurges, that could be sustained in the climate of relative religious freedom of the Roman Empire, especially after Christianity achieved toleration. She apparently was an ardent Platonist, by which is generally meant that she believed in a higher reality, and in a necessary god in the same way that the ancient Greek philosophers had – as a philosophically necessary Uncaused Cause, but not as a personal God such as that envisioned first by the Jews and then by the Christians.
Jews were a strong presence in Alexandria at the time. Christians were, too. There was a strong presence still of pagan influence. There were riots in which these groups fought. Orestes, the Roman Prefect of the City and a Christian, was in a political feud with Cyril, Bishop of Alexandria. Cyril and certain of the more militant of the Christian population persecuted the Jews of the City. The Jews retaliated against the Christians with more violence. The feud between Orestes and Cyril intensified. Cyril sought reconciliation with Orestes, attempting to appeal to their common faith, but to no avail.
Hypatia was a victim of political intrigue among these groups. She and Orestes had been friends, and so she was seen to be his ally. A band of the more radical followers of Cyril brutally assassinated her, evidently because they believed that she was the reason Orestes refused to be reconciled to Cyril. Some historians believe she was more politically involved than this, but in any event the assassination had a sobering effect on the population, because Hypatia had been so well regarded.
The movie is worth watching. It gets many details right. For example, one gets a real sense of the relationship of Roman slaves to their masters; of the sometime mutual toleration among religions; of the Jewish/Christian antagonism that erupted; and of the ever-questioning disposition of pagan philosophers.
There are some minor points with which one might quibble. The movie depicts Orestes as a student of Hypatia’s, before he becomes Prefect. That could be true, we don’t know. He was shown as being romantically interested in Hypatia. We don’t know that either.
Here’s where the movie goes completely off the rails, so much so that it can only be considered an intentional slander against Christianity. Christians are depicted as having burned the riches of the famous library at Alexandria. But, it never happened. Without going into more detail, let me refer you to one who knows, David Bentley Hart, who not only remarks on the Alexandrian library myth, but does so in the context of considering the movie Agora: The Perniciously Persistent Myths of Hypatia and the Great Library, published in First Things.
This is a good place to mention that this false Christian-burning-Alexandrian-library charge was also made by Carl Sagan on the tv show Cosmos in 1980. Again, just factually wrong. But the myth gets repeated, and in fact the producers of Agora apparently borrow their Alexandrian library myth from Sagan.
Reinforcement of Agnosticism
Another thing that’s wrong about the movie. Two eye-opening lines of dialogue mouthed by the character playing Hypatia.
One, when accused of believing nothing, she answers “I believe in philosophy.” What would be meant by “philosophy” in that context was science. This sounds weirdly like Esqueleto, Nacho Libre’s sidekick: “I believe in science.”
Two, when a Christian suggests to Hypatia that she declare herself to be a Christian, she says “you don’t question what you believe. You cannot. I must.”
An easy analysis of the sentiments expressed in these two lines of dialog will unravel much of what is wrong with the modern agnostic view of the existence of God. We do so in the post Running in Place.