ANCIENT ALEXANDRIA, HYPATIA, AND THE DECLINE OF GRECO-ROMAN CIVILIZATION
SUBJECTS — World/Ancient Greece, Rome; Egypt; Religions (Christianity & Judaism);
SOCIAL-EMOTIONAL LEARNING — Female Role Model;
MORAL-ETHICAL EMPHASIS — Respect.
AGE: Age: 13+
MPAA Rating — R for some violence (This rating is undeserved; given the less stringent standards used recently by the MPAA, the violence in Agora is comparable to films given a PG-13 rating); Drama; 2009, 127 minutes; Color. Available from Amazon.com.
NOTE TO TEACHERS
This film has many historical inaccuracies; however, it provides a compelling visual introduction to the glory of ancient Alexandria; the breakdown of the belief system of the Greco-Roman civilization in the 5th century, CE; the sectarian violence that followed the rise of Christianity in Alexandria; and Hypatia, the greatest female mathematician, philosopher, astronomer and teacher of the ancient Greco-Roman civilization. The movie is also an occasion for students to learn about the Great Library/Museum, the city’s knowledge industry, and Roman slavery. In addition to its historical lessons, themes of the film include gender equality and the evils of intolerance and religious strife.
Two Ways to Present the Movie: The quick way is to provide students with the Introduction, in writing or through direct instruction, and then show the first 78 minutes of the movie or the entire film. Afterward, have a short discussion with the class (see the suggested Discussion Questions) or have students complete an Assignment. If the whole movie is shown, be sure to review Additional Notes for Viewing the Entire Film. Consider presenting the class with the information set out in Add-ons to Link the Lesson to Later Events.
The second and recommended method of presenting the film is to follow the complete lesson plan set out below. The student reports in Section 2 will enrich the experience of watching the movie and the Add-ons to Link the Lesson to Later Events will take students beyond the time of the lesson to later events.
The first 78 minutes of the film (until the view of the Earth after the pogrom) present a reasonable, if sometimes flawed, presentation of the topics described in the note.
The remaining 42 minutes of the film veer far from the historical record. The entire movie should be used only if the misimpressions left by this part of the film receive a very strong correction. See Additional Materials for Using the Whole Film.
SELECTED AWARDS & CAST
Selected Awards: Agora was nominated for 13 Goya Awards (the annual awards by the Spanish movie industry) and won seven.
Featured Actors: Rachel Weitz as Hypatia, Max Minghella as Davus, Oscar Isaac as Orestes, Ashraf Barhom as Ammonius, Richard Durden as Olympius, Michael Lonsdale as Theon, and Rupert Evans as Synesius.
Director: Alejandro Amenábar
RATIONALE FOR USING THE MOVIE
Properly introduced, scaffolded and corrected, the film provides a vivid picture of the topics described in the Note above. This knowledge is essential to an understanding of the arc of the history of the West. The movie and the comparison with the historical record can also provide an excellent opportunity for the study of historical fiction, the changes in attitudes toward gender in Western Civilization, and the dangers of intolerance and communal strife.
Cross-Curricular Opportunities: This film can be used to link history with the following areas of instruction: astronomy, women’s studies, humanities, and religion. For astronomy, see TWM’s Snippet Lesson Plan on the Historical Evolution of Views About the Solar System and the Retrograde Motion of Mars Using Film Clips from Agora and Internet Animations. For women’s studies note that Hypatia was probably the most accomplished female mathematician, philosopher, astronomer, and educator in the Greco-Roman World. Consider studying her in depth. (See the Introduction, the minimum information to be included in a student report and the Supplemental Materials for information on Hypatia.) Humanities classes can focus on the city of Alexandria and its library-knowledge industry. The communal strife that roiled Alexandria as the Christians confronted first the Pagans, then Christians with unorthodox beliefs, and then the Jews will provide an added dimension to religion classes.
This film has been incorrectly criticized as being anti-Christian. Actually, the movie is against intolerant fundamentalism — that of the Pagans who started the fight that led to the destruction of the Serapeum, as well as Cyril’s bitter approach to communal relations which, according to some historians, “fomented the pervading atmosphere of hostility which led to Hypatia’s death.” The movie was screened by the Vatican before it was released, and the Catholic Church made no objection. TWM agrees with the statement that “[Agora] is not against Christians and most certainly not against the Christians of today.” Both quotations from World Catholic Association for Communication — SIGNIS Statement: Agora, April 18, 2010.
The first 78 minutes of the Movie: On one occasion the actress playing Hypatia is seen fully nude from the back with a fleeting partial view of one of her breasts as she exits a bath. Later in the film, her clothed breast is groped for a moment by a rebellious slave who is in love with her. He immediately repents and begs her forgiveness. An actress portraying a young Jewish girl is shown for a second losing her clothing in the scene of the pogrom. There is some violent close quarters combat between Pagans and Christians which is shown to be painful, however, the R rating for violence is undeserved given what is now rated as PG-13.
The Remainder of the Film: If the entire film is used, in addition to the historical inaccuracies, there is one additional scene in which the actress playing Hypatia is again shown fully nude from the rear just before she is strangled by Davus in an act of mercy.
USING IN THE CLASSROOM
A. Watch the film and decide whether to use the first 77 minutes 53 seconds only (until the view of the Earth after the pogrom), or the entire movie. If the entire movie will be shown, correct for the two egregiously incorrect scenes. See Additional Materials for Using the Whole Film.
B. Decide how to present the pre-viewing materials (steps 1 & 2 below). If student reports will be used, assign report topics in advance of the screening.
C. Decide upon post-watching activities including which Discussion Questions and/or Assignment to use.
Add-ons Linking the Lesson to Later Events in History
D. Consider adding a report on Poggio Bracciolini, book hunter extraordinaire — Teachers can introduce the class to the urgent effort in the 1300s and 1400s to find copies of the lost works of Greco-Roman literature, science, and philosophy that may have been hidden away in monastic libraries and that were quickly being destroyed by mold, book-worms and other causes. A good way to access this period is to focus on Poggio Bracciolini. A student or a group of students can research his life and present an oral report of their findings to the class. An excellent account of Sr. Bracciolini’s achievements can be found in The Swerve: How the World Became Modern by Stephen Greenblatt. This is an excellent work on a pivot point in history. It provides a lengthy description of Sr. Bracciolini and his contribution to the effort to rescue ancient classics from oblivion. The assignment should be given enough in advance to allow students to complete their work and give their report on the day the film is finished. In the alternative, teachers can provide this information through direct instruction.
E. Consider a section on “From Aristotle to Ptolemy to Columbus” — An excellent way to show students the reach of Aristotle’s love for learning and Ptolemy I Soter’s vision for a library and community of scholars is to read to the class or describe the Preface and the Epilogue to the book, The Rise and Fall of Alexandria by Justin Pollard and Howard Reid. The Preface describes how in 1295 CE Maximos Planudes, an Eastern Orthodox monk, found a treasure hidden in a used book-seller’s shop. It was a copy of Geographia, Claudius Ptolemy’s book setting out the parameters of the discipline of geography. Written in Alexandria in the second century CE and originally deposited in the Great Library/Museum, it had not been seen for a almost a thousand years and was thought to have been lost when the Library/Museum was destroyed. In this book Ptolemy contends that the world is, in fact, a sphere. In their Epilogue, Pollard and Reid describe how, some 1200 years after it was written, Ptolemy’s masterpiece made its way to the hands of a young explorer — Christopher Columbus.
In presenting this information to students, remind them that in the fifteenth century Ptolemy’s model of the geocentric universe still held sway — in other words, when Columbus read what Ptolemy had written, the words had the authority of the man who had figured out how the heavens worked . . . or so everyone thought at the time.
Thus, Aristotle’s belief in the power of knowledge — transmitted in Macedonia to a young boy who later became Ptolemy I Soter, the ruler of Egypt, leading to the creation of the knowledge industry of Alexandria creating the conditions for Claudius Ptolemy to do his pioneering work in astronomy and geography — helped to inspire Christopher Columbus to undertake the voyage that led to the discovery of a new world.
Presenting this information involves purchasing the book or getting a copy from a colleague or a library. It’s well worth the effort or the expense.
Step by Step
1. Student Handout/Lecture: The following introduction can be given by the teacher or printed and given to the class to read. Click here for a version of the Introduction in word processing format suitable to be printed and distributed to students. Teachers giving the introduction themselves, can print and highlight the introduction to serve as notes for the lecture.
Introduction to Agora
The city of Alexandria in Egypt was the third great city of the Greco-Roman world, often surpassing Athens and Rome in scholarship, learning, and artistic achievement. It had a renowned market and the most complete library the world had ever seen. For six centuries from its founding in the 3rd century BCE to the assassination of Hypatia in 415 CE, Alexandria was a Greek city with a Greek tradition of scholarship and philosophical inquiry in which a form of Greek was the language of choice. The Greek influence in the city remained strong for centuries after that, until the Arab conquest of the city in the 642 CE.
A few of the great philosophers, scientists, and mathematicians of ancient Alexandria and their achievements are briefly described below.
Euclid set out the parameters of geometry for the next 20 centuries. Euclid’s geometry is still used today, and his book on geometry is still published.
Claudius Ptolemy whose works on geography and astronomy were only superseded in the Renaissance, some 12 centuries after his death, lived and worked in Alexandria. While Ptolemy’s astronomy has been discredited, many aspects of his Geographia, including the concept of a spherical earth measured by latitude and longitude, are still in use today.
Archimedes, perhaps the greatest ancient mathematician, did most of his work in Syracuse, but he studied and got his start in Alexandria.
Galen, the great physician and physiologist, learned his trade and worked in Alexandria before being brought to Rome. While in Alexandria, Galen learned about or discovered the circulation of the blood, a finding forgotten in Europe and not rediscovered until 1628.
Appollonius wrote Jason and the Argonauts.
Clement of Alexandria was a great Christian theologian.
Philo was a Jewish scholar and theologian.
Hero, also Heron, was a lecturer at the Great Library/Museum in mathematics, mechanics, physics, and pneumatics. He was also one of the ancient world’s greatest inventors, creating, for example, automatons which worked on gravity and hydraulics, an automatic vending machine for holy water, and a wind-powered organ. He also wrote a description of a steam engine. Hero’s greatest work of mathematics was lost until it was found in 1896, translated into Arabic.
Hypatia was the greatest female mathematician, astronomer, philosopher, and educator of the Greco-Roman civilization. None of Hypatia’s work has survived, but the following description is echoed by several ancient sources:
Revered Hypatia, ornament of learning, stainless star of wise teaching, when I see thee and thy discourse I worship thee, looking on the starry house of the Virgin [Virgo]; for thy business is in heaven. [Palladas, Greek Anthology (XI.400)]
Hypatia was respected by the elites of Alexandria and had extensive moral authority in the city. She supported Orestes, the Roman Prefect, in his political struggle with Cyril, the Patriarch of Alexandria. She was brutally murdered in 415 CE by Cyril’s supporters with his encouragement, direct or indirect.
There were in ancient Alexandria many other scholars, not all of them were as famous or accomplished as these superstars, but they were philosophers, scientists, and teachers in the Hellenistic tradition. They made valuable contributions to the advancement of knowledge and educated the elites of their times. (The word “Hellenistic” comes from “Hellas” the Greek word for the country of Greece.)
And all of this was by design! Ptolemy I Soter (ruled from 323–283 BCE) was the second Hellenistic ruler of Egypt; Alexander the Great having been the first. (Alexander got his start as the ruler of Macedonia, a Greek kingdom.) Ptolemy I Soter was the son of a Macedonian aristocrat and one of the small group of boys at the Macedonian court who were schooled along with Alexander by Aristotle. Later, Ptolemy became one of Alexander’s most trusted generals.
Alexander the Great called Aristotle his second father. Alexander, Ptolemy, and most of the Western world, at least until the time of the Renaissance, revered Aristotle and considered him to be the most authoritative scientist and philosopher who had ever lived.
When Alexander died, his generals divided up the Macedonian Empire. Ptolemy I seized Egypt, which due to the annual floods of the Nile river, was one of the richest provinces of the Empire. Following the precepts of Aristotle, Ptolemy I wanted his newly acquired domain to benefit from the best knowledge available in the world. He took the first steps to establish the Library/Museum of Alexandria and its surrounding community of scholars. The Library was completed under his son, Ptolemy II.
Scribes from the Library/Museum borrowed scrolls and books from all over the ancient world and copied them. Founded in the third century BCE the Library/Museum grew to 500,000 volumes and the overflow was housed in a “Daughter Library” located in a pagan temple complex called the Serapeum. The great Library/Museum was burned and rebuilt at least once. Julius Caesar was responsible for the first destruction of the library in 48 BCE when, as a military maneuver, he set fire to ships in the harbor, and the flames accidently spread to buildings in the city. There is evidence that the library was rebuilt after that, but historians have not been able to determine how or exactly when the Great Library or the “Daughter Library” were finally destroyed. However, they do know that Theon, Hypatia’s father, was the last Trustee of the Library, or whatever was left in the late fourth century CE.
In the 4th and 5th centuries CE, Christianity was a relatively new religion that had only recently gained acceptance in the Roman Empire. For hundreds of years before this time Christians had been killed and persecuted by Pagans who often acted with the authority of the Roman state. While the Roman Emperors were Christian during the times shown in this film, Paganism was not just a harmless discredited mythology, as it is today. It was a genuine threat to Christians, and Pagans did not hesitate to kill Christians. The history of 4th and 5th century Alexandria shows an early Christianity with strong memories of past persecution, feeling the need to rid society of any influence that could challenge the new faith.
The temple complex called the Serapeum was destroyed in 391 CE on the instructions of the bishop of Alexandria. While historians do not know if any scrolls or books of the “Daughter Library” survived to that time, had they existed they would probably have been destroyed along with the buildings and cult objects of the temple. The community of scholars continued without the Library/Museum but was then dealt a significant blow with the assassination of Hypatia in 415 CE. The death of Hypatia was a milestone in the slow de-Hellenization of the city. While Alexandrians continued to make significant contributions to the Neoplatonic philosophy that Hypatia had taught, no mathematician approaching Hypatia’s status ever worked in Alexandria again. The city was changing.
In the streets violent religious extremism and an associated rise in ethnic tensions were fanning the flames of [Egyptian] nationalism. Customs were changing, shunning the “foreign” Greek influence of Hypatia’s Hellenism, despite the fact that it had been the cornerstone, indeed the very raison d’etre, of the city. [The Rise and Fall of Alexandria, Pollard and Reid, p. 280]
It is estimated that only about 1% of the half-million books and scrolls in the Great Library/Museum of Alexandria survived into the Renaissance and from there into modern times.
About the Movie
One of the themes in this film is a criticism of intolerance and the tit-for-tat retaliation often involved in ethnic and religious strife. The movie shows intolerance of Christians by Pagans and intolerance of Pagans by Christians. Alexandria had a very large Jewish community. The film shows Christians persecuting Jews, Jews retaliating, and Christians taking retribution for that retaliation.
Agora is historical fiction: entertainment set in the past with some reference to people and places that actually occurred. But since the filmmakers were not present back in Alexandria in the 4th and 5th centuries and because the historical records are very sparse, much of what is shown on the screen came from educated guesses schooled by the filmmakers’ study of the history of the times. In addition, in all historical fiction there is a tension between accurately describing what occurred and telling a good story. This often leads to telescoping events in terms of time, to moving events around on the time-line, and the creation of scenes which are different from but which are intended to represent what actually occurred.
All of the major characters in this movie, except for the slaves, are depictions of people who lived in ancient Alexandria in the 4th and 5th centuries. All of the slaves are fictional. While a man named Orestes was for a short time the Roman Prefect of Egypt and was advised by Hypatia shortly before her death, he was never her student. The young Orestes shown as Hypatia’s student is a fictional character, although the incident in which Hypatia discouraged a student who fell in love with her as shown in the movie is described in the historical literature.
The movie shows the destruction by a Christian mob of the Serapeum in 391 BCE, and the moviemakers assumed that the “Daughter Library” had continued to exist and was destroyed along with the temple complex. However, no one knows for sure whether the “Daughter Library” still existed in the Serapeum at the time the temple was destroyed. Historians take different positions on this question. This scene should be seen as a symbol for the general decline in learning as the ancient Greco-Roman civilization crumbled and Medieval times, also called the Dark Ages, began.
This version of the film is in English, but of course, the characters weren’t speaking English — but they weren’t speaking Egyptian either, or even Latin. As you watch the movie remember that Hypatia, Orestes, Cyril and all the rest were speaking Greek.
[End of Written/Lecture Introduction]
2. Student Reports: After the introduction described in step #1 and before showing the film, have students present short reports on the following topics. This information will help the class get the most out of the movie. The minimal information to be conveyed to students is set out in brackets below the topic. If the report does not include this information, the teacher should supply it to the class along with any other insights that the teacher believes will be helpful in understanding the film. Delete any topics already covered by the class. In the alternative, teachers can provide this background in a lecture using the material in brackets as lecture notes.
The Spread of Greco-Roman civilization
[Beginning in the seventh century BCE Greek civilization was spread around the Mediterranean and Black seas by traders and then by colonization. There were hundreds of Greek colonies. Greek civilization was later spread by the military conquests of Alexander the Great 336 – 323 BCE and then by the Roman Empire which had adopted many aspects of Greek culture. Often, as in Egypt, the Greek civilization combined with the local cultures but sometimes the Greeks in foreign lands kept apart from the indigenous people.]
Ptolemy I Soter, including his theft of the body of Alexander the Great
[If the introduction to the movie is not given (see Step 1 above) then this presentation should include the information about Ptolemy I Soter contained in the introduction]. Ptolemy hijacked the mummified body of Alexander the Great and its beautifully made golden sarcophagus as they were being sent to Macedonia to be interred in the plot set aside for Macedonian kings. Ptolemy took the remains to Egypt, where the people believed that Alexander was the son of Egyptian gods. Ptolemy’s possession of the body of Alexander gave him credibility in the eyes of the Egyptians. Another way in which Ptolemy gained favor with the Egyptians was to venerate the Apis bull, who the Egyptians believed was sacred to one of their gods. Ptolemy I Soter was a strong king and ruled Egypt for 40 years, from 323–283. He established a dynasty of pharaohs in Egypt which lasted until 30 CE, almost three centuries. Cleopatra VII Philopator, a direct descendant of Ptolemy and the first Ptolemaic ruler to speak Egyptian (all the others spoke only Greek), committed suicide in 30 BCE shortly after the suicide of her consort, the Roman general Mark Antony.]
Creation of the City of Alexandria
[In the third century BCE, Alexander the Great invaded Egypt, at that time ruled by the Persian Empire. The country capitulated, virtually without a fight, and Alexander spent six months in Egypt setting up his government and learning about Egyptian culture and religion. He was pronounced son of the gods by the priests of the oracle at Silwa. Alexander wanted to shift the focus of Egypt from the Nile to the Mediterranean and chose the location of a new city to be named Alexandria. The city had a good harbor and was to be a trading center and the capital of a Hellenized Egypt. Alexander mapped out its main streets and buildings. He then left Egypt and died soon after. After Ptolemy I Soter gained control of Egypt he determined to complete the design of Alexandria, to construct the city, and to make it his capital as well as the intellectual center of the ancient world. He and the Ptolemaic Pharaohs who followed him succeeded admirably, establishing the great Library/Museum of Alexandria and the community of scholars of which Hypatia was a member.]
The Library/Museum at Alexandria
[The Library/Museum was the center of learning for a large group of scholars and also a pagan religious center. The Library/Museum attracted scholars and functioned as a center of learning for all areas of knowledge; it could be said that the ancient City of Alexandria was the first university of Western civilization.]
Serapis and the Serapeum at Alexandria
[When Ptolemy I Soter sought to rule Egypt, he knew that it was important to respect the Egyptian gods, but he also needed to retain the loyalty of his Greek troops. One of the ways that he did this was to take what had been a minor god, Serapis, give him attributes of both Egyptian and Greek gods, and elevate him to the status of the chief god of the city. A commission was given to a master Greek Sculptor to create an imposing statue of the new improved god. It was housed in the Serapeum, a large temple complex that later included the “Daughter Library” in which books and scrolls that would not fit into the Great Library/Museum were stored. The Serapeum was destroyed in 391 CE, but it is not known whether the Daughter Library had survived to that point. The circumstances of the destruction of the Serapeum are that after a group of Pagans attacked Christians, the Christians responded and threatened to overwhelm the Pagans. The Pagans took refuge in the Serapeum which was then besieged by the Christians. A standoff ensued. The parties submitted the dispute to the Emperor, himself a Christian, who ordered that the lives of the Pagans would be spared but the Christians could do what they wanted with the Serapeum The Christian Bishop of Alexandria, Theophilus, ordered that that the Serapeum be destroyed. Any remaining scrolls and books in the Daughter Library would have been destroyed at that point.]
Bust of Serapis
Carthage, Tunisia, Third Century, CE.
[If the introduction is not given, add the information on Hypatia from the introduction. Hypatia, the greatest female mathematician, astronomer, philosopher and educator of the Greco-Roman World, was born in approximately CE 350. Her assassination occurred in 415 CE. She is one of a very few women in the ancient world who was allowed to become a scholar. As near as historians can determine, she devoted her life to philosophy, which included mathematics and science. She wore the Tribon of a philosopher, was celibate, and was at least moderate in everything and perhaps a complete ascetic, practicing a severe self-discipline and abstention from all forms of indulgence.
Hypatia presided over a school for aristocrats and the wealthy in which she taught mathematics, Neoplatonic philosophy, and astronomy. Her students came from the all segments of Alexandria’s population: Pagans, Christians and Jews. Hypatia’s students called themselves her “disciples” and called each other “brothers.” This is a description of Hypatia by Socrates Scholasticus, a Christian church historian, writing about 40 years after her death.
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 infrequently appeared in public in presence of the magistrates. Neither did she feel abashed in coming to an assembly of men. For all men on account of her extraordinary dignity and virtue admired her the more. Yet even she fell a victim to the political jealousy which at that time prevailed. For as she had frequent interviews with Orestes, it was calumniously reported among the Christian populace, that it was she who prevented Orestes from being reconciled to the bishop [Cyril]. Some of them therefore, hurried away by a fierce and bigoted zeal, whose ringleader was a reader named Peter, waylaid her returning home, and dragging her from her carriage, they took her to the church called Caesareum, where they completely stripped her, and then murdered her with tiles [oyster shells]. After tearing her body in pieces, they took her mangled limbs to a place called Cinaron, and there burnt them. This affair brought not the least opprobrium, not only upon Cyril, but also upon the whole Alexandrian church. And surely nothing can be farther from the spirit of Christianity than the allowance of massacres, fights, and transactions of that sort. This happened in the month of March during Lent, in the fourth year of Cyril’s episcopate, under the tenth consulate of Honorius, and the sixth of Theodosius [AD 415]. Socrates Scholasticus, Ecclesiastical History (VII.15)]
Note that there is more on Hypatia in the Historical Accuracy section of the Supplemental Materials
The Lighthouse at Alexandria
[Built between 280 and 247 BCE, begun by Ptolemy I Soter, and completed by his son, Ptolemy II, the Lighthouse at Alexandria rose by some estimates to 450 ft. (140 m). For some 16 centuries it was one of the tallest man-made structures on Earth. The Lighthouse was constructed of stone and was deactivated only in the 14th century CE after it was damaged by a series of earthquakes. The Lighthouse at Alexandria was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.]
Reconstruction of the Lighthouse of Alexandria
by Emad Victor Shenouda
The Roman Empire in the 5th Century, CE
The turn of the 5th century C.E. saw a Roman Empire in the process of collapse. In many cities, such as Alexandria, there was conflict between the Pagans and the Christians, who were becoming stronger every day.
Cyril, Patriarch of Alexandria
[Patriarch of the Christian church in Alexandria from 412 to 444 CE. He was one of the most influential theologians of the early Christian church, earning the title “Doctor of the Church.” He is honored as a saint. Cyril ruled during a time of increasingly violent conflict between the city’s Pagan, Jewish, and Christian inhabitants. Cyril ordered a pogrom and the expulsion of many Jews from Alexandria. In a political struggle, he wrested temporal power from Orestes, the Roman governor of Egypt; the assassination of Hypatia was the turning point in this struggle.]
Icon of St. Cyril of Alexandria
[In the fourth and fifth centuries, the Parabolani were a Christian clerical brotherhood, made of up men from the lower classes who voluntarily undertook the care of the sick and the burial of the dead, a hazardous occupation because of the risk of contracting disease. In this way the Parabolani hoped to die for Christ. They were also used as bodyguards for church officials and in violent clashes with the opponents of the Church. The Parabolani were implicated in the murder of Hypatia and afterwards their numbers and activities were restricted by Imperial decree.]
Slavery in the Roman Empire
[Slavery flourished in ancient Rome. Approximately 30% of the population of the Roman Empire were slaves. The economy of ancient Rome depended so heavily on slaves that it was called a “slave society& The Christian religion with its belief in the equality of all souls was particularly popular among slaves, although as late as 1865 (the end of the U.S. Civil War) many branches of Christianity (as well as some Jewish synagogues), especially those located in the American South, supported the institution of slavery. Roman slaves were purchased or came from the populations of conquered territories. They were used not only in manual labor but in the skilled trades. Roman slaves could be highly educated, and slaves educated in Greece were highly prized. Slaves could own property and save money to purchase their own freedom, at which time they would be admitted as Roman citizens. However, only the most highly educated or talented slaves had a realistic chance to purchase their freedom.]
Jews in Ancient Alexandria and in the Roman Empire
[Large Jewish communities, chiefly of traders, lived in many cities of the Roman Empire, with a particularly large community in Alexandria. There were periodic revolts by Jews against the Romans, none of which were successful. The Romans brutally suppressed all revolts. The Great Revolt in 66 – 70 CE lead to the death or enslavement of an estimated one million Jews and the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem.]
The Geocentric Astronomy of the Ancients
[The circle was considered the perfect form, and the Ancients believed that all planets, as part of the perfect heavens, necessarily moved in circles around the Earth. Ptolemy taught that the Earth was the center of the Solar System. There are many common sense arguments for a geocentric Solar System. The Earth seems solid and immovable. The Sun and the stars seem to revolve around the Earth in what appear to be perfectly circular routes, except that every once in a while the planets would “wander” off course for a short time. The word “planet” derives from the Greek word for “wanderer.” Without an understanding of gravity and inertia, concepts that the Ancients did not have, it is logical to think that if the Earth were not the center of the Universe, people, and objects would fall off the sides and that if the Earth rotated on its axis, the winds would constantly blow in a uniform direction.]
The Philosophy of Aristarchus of Samos
[Aristarchus (310 BCE – ca. 230 BCE) developed the first known model of the Solar System with the Sun at its center. He arranged the planets in their proper order in terms of distance from the sun. His work has been lost, but we know it from a surviving book by Archimedes called The Sand Reckoner. This view was rejected by the ancients who settled on Claudius Ptolemy’s model of a geocentric Solar System. Copernicus knew that the theory of a heliocentric universe had been developed by Aristarchus and found that it matched his observations. See ANCIENT GREEKS AND MODERN SCIENCE: Who Discovered the Heliocentric System? by Leonidas Petrakis, Ph.D.]
Aulos – musical instrument
[The Aulos sounded like a modern-day bag pipe. It was described as “penetrating, insisting and exciting” The History of Musical Instruments, Curt Sachs, 1940. At times aristocrats would play it, like the lyre.]
Mosaic from Casa del Poeta Tragico in Pompeii.
From the Museo Archeologico Nazionale (Naples).
3. After the Serapeum has been sacked stop the movie and tell the class the following. This can also be done after the movie is finished.
[It is not clear that books and scrolls were destroyed in the sack of the Serapeum. However, it is clear that at some point, the Great Library and the Daughter Library and much of the knowledge of the ancient Greco-Roman civilization was destroyed. This scene is meant to show us the loss of this knowledge. Agora’s director/screenwriter Alejandro Amenábar, who studied the history of the times when he was making the film, quotes astronomer Carl Sagan as saying that the industrial revolution would have occurred 1,000 years earlier if the knowledge accumulated in Alexandria’s library had not been lost. If the Great Library/Museum had not been destroyed, would we be on Mars by now?]
After Watching the Movie
4. Allow time for the report(s) on Poggio Bracciolini and the efforts to preserve ancient manuscripts, or for a lecture on this topic. The minimal information that the report should reveal is set out below. In the alternative, the teacher can provide this information through direct instruction.
[Poggio Bracciolini was a scribe with beautiful handwriting, and that skill as well as a talent for diplomacy and bureaucratic infighting, allowed him to work for the Roman Curia for 50 years. He rose to the position of apostolic secretary, personal secretary to the Pope. Poggio and other educated men were aware that many ancient manuscripts had been lost but that a copy of a few of them might be found in the libraries of monasteries. They were also aware that because of fires, wars, mold, and bookworms, these manuscripts were disappearing. Poggio and several others resolved to try to find and copy them to try to save what was left of the knowledge of the ancients. Poggio spent many days and months searching the libraries of monasteries, mostly in Germany, Switzerland, and France, for the ancient books which had been thought to be lost. He found and copied several important works of ancient philosophy and literature, the most famous being Lucretius’ philosophical work, “On the Nature of Things,” which sets out a philosophy that defines modernism in many ways. Once found, these works were copied again and again and thus preserved. The books found by Poggio and others, were fuel for the early Renaissance, which arose from a new appreciation for the scholarship and learning of the ancient Greco-Roman civilization.]
5. After the report or lecture is completed tell the class that some ancient manuscripts have been discovered relatively recently, including an important mathematical work by Hero in 1896 (see note on Hero in the Introduction) and the Dead Sea Scrolls which were found on the West Bank of the Jordan river from 1946 to 1956, although the latter are not from the Hellenistic tradition.
6. Finally have the class read, or tell them the story told by the Preface and Epilogue of The Rise and Fall of Alexandria. See Preparation Step E, From Aristotle to Ptolemy to Columbus.
1. The moviemakers wanted to make several points in this film in addition to introducing Alexandria and Hypatia. What were they, and do you think the points were legitimate?
These include: 1) the repression of women in the Medieval society that was developing out of the ruins of the pagan culture; 2) the loss of knowledge that resulted from the destruction of the Greco-Roman civilization and its books and scrolls; 3) how much the assumption that the circle was the perfect shape and that therefore the celestial bodies had to move in circles, made it difficult to comprehend the true structure of the Solar System; and 4) Christianity was the first Western religion to focus on the poor, the weak and the enslaved.
2. There are many reasons for the loss of the traditions of philosophy and the knowledge of the Greco-Roman civilization. This film highlights several of them. What are they?
These include: (1) the fact that the philosophy and knowledge were seen by Christians as tied to pagan religious beliefs, just as the Library/Museum functioned not only as a repository for books but also as a temple for worship of the pagan gods; and (2) the chaos surrounding the collapse of the Roman Empire. There were many others. [Teachers may want to mention additional reasons.]
3. [It might be best to give students the following question in written form. Click here for the question in a separate word-processing document that can be handed out to the class.] Most anthropologists believe that in prehistoric hunter-gatherer societies men and women functioned as equals. Patriarchy is a way of organizing society so that positions of power and prestige are held by men, while women are confined to the home or to menial work in the fields. One theory holds that patriarchal social structures developed after social and technological innovations such as the domestication of animals like goats and cattle. This led to the development of herding cultures when a family’s wealth could be stolen overnight unless the warriors in the family, primarily male, could protect the herd. Another theory claims that about six thousand years ago (4000 BCE), the concept of fatherhood developed and that this initiated the spread of patriarchy. Under this theory, men wanted to be sure that the children born to women in their households were their biological heirs and began to restrict the activities of women to assure themselves of this fact. Another theory is that changes in climate around 4000 BCE resulted in increased competition for reduced amounts of food in the Sahara, the Middle East, and the Central Asian deserts. Societies became more war-like, developing patriarchal social structures in order to become more successful in fighting for resources. Patriarchy could have developed from a combination of these and other factors. For whatever reason women were restricted to the sphere of home, to menial labor, and to serving their men.
In modern Western society, patriarchy has lost ground, and women are being treated in most instances as equal to men. What changes in society have caused women to be treated more equally?
There is no one correct response, but a strong response will include one or more of the following: (1) scientific research has shown that in most ways, except for sheer physical strength, women are equal to men, and since there is a broad range of talent and ability within the ranks of both men and women, there are some women who are more talented and more accomplished than almost all men in almost all types and levels of endeavor; society, when evaluating people, now focuses on the individual and thus individual women who can perform in any occupation are given more chances than previously; (2) while, on the whole, men are more physically powerful than women, in modern society there is less and less need for physical labor; modern society requires intelligence and education, and women are as talented in those areas as men; (3) there are fewer traditional families than before and women are being required to assume leadership roles in the family and to become the principal wage earners; this translates into the advancement of women in society.
4. One of the themes in this movie is a criticism of communal strife and of intolerance toward others with different beliefs. The film shows intolerance of Christians by Pagans, intolerance of Pagans by Christians, intolerance of Christians by Jews, and intolerance of Jews by Christians. Which scenes in the movie show this?
These include: Theon whipping Davus, the slave who took on the punishment for a slave girl’s possession of a cross; pushing the Pagan into the fire, the attack by the Pagans on the Christians, and the response of the Christians leading to the destruction of the Serapeum; the attack by the Jews on the Parabolani; the pogrom, and the assassination of Hypatia.
5. What is the message of the film regarding intolerance?
Intolerance causes great harm including death, injury and the loss of important knowledge.
6. The Parabolani as portrayed in this film bear a striking resemblance to the “morals police” or similar radical Muslim enforcers who operate in places like Iran, Saudi Arabia and Taliban controlled Afghanistan and Pakistan. In addition, the intolerance shown by the character portraying Cyril and his sexist interpretation of the biblical quotation (1 Timothy 2:8 – 2:12), seem to be similar to the intolerance and sexism of some fundamentalist Muslims operating in those areas. The portrayals in the movie were reasonably accurate. Identify some reasons for these similarities or make the case that it is a false analogy.
There is no one correct response to this question. Interesting thoughts include: (1) that the relative tolerance of the West and its rejection of a sexist interpretation of this and other Biblical passages came only after centuries of development; (2) Islam is about 500 years younger than Christianity (Muhammad was born in 570 CE) and intolerance and sexism characterized the Christianity of 500 years ago; (3) some extreme Christian and Jewish sects still have this view of women and some are intolerant; and (4) these are views of a strongly patriarchal society and modern society is moving beyond patriarchy; when that process is complete treatment of women as second-class citizens will end.
For several additional discussion questions, click here.
FEMALE ROLE MODELS
1. Is Hypatia a female role model for modern women?
There are two potential ways in which Hypatia can be criticized. First, there is nothing to indicate that she tried to change slavery and second there is nothing to indicate that she tried to elevate the status of women, except perhaps by example. Otherwise, she appears to be a good role model. She was courageous, she lived the life as she thought it should be lived, she didn’t allow social convention to restrain her, she was intelligent and hard-working. The reservations that she failed to attempt to elevate the status of women and her acceptance of slavery are subject to criticism as being unfair, given the time in which Hypatia lived.
MORAL-ETHICAL EMPHASIS (CHARACTER COUNTS)
(Treat others with respect; follow the Golden Rule; Be tolerant of differences; Use good manners, not bad language; Be considerate of the feelings of others; Don’t threaten, hit or hurt anyone; Deal peacefully with anger, insults and disagreements)
1. Were the Pagans and their cults in Alexandria in the 4th and 5th centuries deserving of being treated with respect? Were the early Christians wrong to destroy the Pagan temples? Suggested Response: This is a question that may be difficult for some students to answer. TWM suggests that the best response is that the superstitious beliefs of the pagan cults could be countered with the arguments for Christianity. This may involve some amount of ridicule in the rough-and-tumble marketplace of ideas. However, it was disrespectful to kill people who held those beliefs and to destroy their temples or to convert the buildings into Christian churches or animal holding pens. However, on the ground in the 4th and 5th centuries, it wasn’t so easy for Christians to put these principles into practice because the Pagans were attacking the Christians and there was a long history of persecution of Christians by Pagans. However, respect should have been accorded to people, to their buildings, and to the sincerity of their beliefs.
2. If you generally believe that other cultures should be treated with respect, how do you respond to those who say that the beliefs of the Taliban deserve no respect because they prohibit women from getting an education, permit honor killings, and require women to wear the Chador and be clothed from head to foot? Suggested Response: Tolerance, i.e., respect for the beliefs and customs of others, is a core value for the U.S. and Western civilization as a whole. However, each society has its limits. A strong response to this question will discuss those limits. Ask students: Does tolerance include recognition of a god, other than the god you believe in or a belief that there is no god? Does tolerance include permitting the oppression of certain groups, such as women? What about a culture that permits slavery — should that value be accorded respect? Many believe that those aspects of a culture which oppress and limit personal liberty should not be accorded respect. Are those people intolerant or is it right to draw some lines. If that is so, then who is the judge of where those lines are drawn?
ASSIGNMENTS, PROJECTS & ACTIVITIES
Any of the discussion questions above and in the Supplemental Materials can serve as a writing prompt. Additional assignments include:
1. Research the life of Hypatia using both books and the Internet. Write an essay concerning her historical significance.
2. Compare the life and work and the times in which they lived of two of the following women: Mary Wollstonecraft; Alice Paul, Hypatia, and Marie Curie. [Teachers should feel free to add other accomplished women to this list.]
3. Describe a lesson from this film that viewers can apply to their own lives.
4. The Industrial Revolution started in about 1760 CE, a little more than 250 years ago. Some scientists say that had the knowledge of the Great Library of Alexandria not been lost, the Industrial Revolution would have occurred a thousand years earlier. That’s about the year 760 CE. Write up a thought experiment containing ideas about how our lives would have been different and what would have changed in history, if we were living in the thirteenth century after the Industrial Revolution rather than the third.
5. Research and write a critique of the historical accuracy of the film answering the following question: Given the fact that the audience will take away from this film an impression of the historical events and figures portrayed in the movie, do you think that on the whole this film improves the viewer’s understanding of the history of the 4th and 5th centuries?
BRIDGES TO READING
The following books are excellent selections for advanced readers:
The Rise and Fall of Alexandria – Birthplace of the Modern Mind by Justin Pollard and Howard Reid, Viking, 2006.
The Swerve: How the World Became Modern by Stephen Greenblatt, W.W. Norton and Company, 2011.
LINKS TO THE INTERNET
- Independent Catholic News – Article on Agora Monday, May 10, 2010;
- Surviving Fragment of Damascius’ Life of Hypatia;
- The Library in the Serapeum;
- Wikipedia Article on Patriarchy;
- Parabolani: A Terrorist Charity in Late Antiquity by Glen W. Bowersock;
- Hypatia and “Agora” Redux;
- Destruction of the Temple of Serapis;
- Article on Epicurus from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy;
- Hypatia of Alexandria by Cara Minardi from Scholarworks at Georgia State University;
Debating the Historical Accuracy of the Movie
- Was Hypatia of Alexandria a Scientist? a film review by S. James Killings, on esceptic; this article challenges the credibility of the scene in which Hypatia discovers (1200 years before Copernicus and Kepler) that the Earth moved around the Sun in an elliptical orbit; be sure to read the comments which support the credibility of the scene, they strongly challenge the thesis of the main article and are really interesting; See also Richard Carrier’s Blog of August 1, 2010 which also challenges, Killings’ hypothesis;
- “Agora” and Hypatia – Hollywood Strikes Again;
- “Agora” and Hypatia Redux;
- A History of Violence: Agora, Hypatia and Enlightenment Mythology by Steven D. Greydanus, a Catholic film critic.
CCSS ANCHOR STANDARDS
Multimedia: Anchor Standard #7 for Reading (for both ELA classes and for History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Classes). (The three Anchor Standards read: “Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse media, including visually and quantitatively as well as in words.”) CCSS pp. 35 & 60. See also Anchor Standard # 2 for ELA Speaking and Listening, CCSS pg. 48.
Reading: Anchor Standards #s 1, 2, 7 and 8 for Reading and related standards (for both ELA classes and for History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Classes). CCSS pp. 35 & 60.
Writing: Anchor Standards #s 1 – 5 and 7- 10 for Writing and related standards (for both ELA classes and for History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Classes). CCSS pp. 41 & 63.
Speaking and Listening: Anchor Standards #s 1 – 3 (for ELA classes). CCSS pg. 48.
Not all assignments reach all Anchor Standards. Teachers are encouraged to review the specific standards to make sure that over the term all standards are met.
The web pages referred to in this Guide and the following books:
Hypatia of Alexandria — Mathematician and Martyr by Michael A.B. Deakin, Prometheus Books, 2007.
The Rise and Fall of Alexandria – Birthplace of the Modern Mind by Justin Pollard and Howard Reid, Viking, 2006. (Mr. Pollard was the historical advisor for the movie.)
Hypatia of Alexandria by Maria Dzielska, translated by F. Lyra, Harvard University Press, 1995
The Swerve: How the World Became Modern by Stephen Greenblatt, W.W. Norton and Company, 2011 (The information on Alexandria and Hypatia can be found at page 86 – 94.)