SUPPLEMENTAL MATERIALS FOR THE LESSON PLAN FOR:
ANCIENT ALEXANDRIA, HYPATIA, AND THE DECLINE OF GRECO-ROMAN CIVILIZATION
Using the Film AGORA
Additional Helpful Background
Notes on Historical Accuracy
The history of this era is sparse and much of what is presented is from the imagination of the filmmakers. However, they tried to capture the flavor of 4th and 5th century Alexandria.
The Faces: Generally, the filmmakers studied surviving portraits of people from ancient Alexandria. In casting the film, including the choice of extras, they tried to match the facial characteristics of the people seen in the portraits from the era. However, there is no surviving painting or statue of any of the principal characters, except Cyril.
The Setting: The filmmakers also knew what some of the physical landmarks looked like, such as the Lighthouse, the face of Serapis, etc. All of these were copied with substantial verisimilitude.
The Character of Hypatia: For Hypatia and many of her fellow philosophers, truth was considered divine. In this sense religion and philosophy merged.
Critics justifiably complain that Hypatia in this film “comes across as a modern career academic “married to her job” Armarium Magnum in “Redux”. Hypatia saw herself as a devotee of philosophy. We know that she was celibate. She probably lived a very ascetic life and was at least moderate in everything, except the pursuit of knowledge.
The devotion of Hypatia’s students is accurately portrayed and even understated. Hypatia’s teachings and her philosophy attracted a number of wealthy young men from near and far who accepted her as their master. Dzielska, p. 27. Hypatia was referred to as a “blessed lady” possessed of a “divine spirit.” Even her hands were considered sacred. Her voice was “oracular.” Hypatia was a “genuine guide in the mysteries of philosophy.” Dzielska pp. 47, 48, 57 citing sources including Synesius Epistle 133 and Synesius Epistle 137. The students of Hypatia formed life-long allegiances to Hypatia and to each other. They referred to themselves as “companions” and “brothers” and to their group as a “family”. Dzielska pp. 37, 42 58 & 59.
Synesius was a Christian and late in life served as Bishop of Cyrene. However, this did not stop him from revering Hypatia. While he was Bishop, he sent books that he had written to Hypatia asking her opinion and stating that if she did not approve of what he had written, he wouldn’t have them published. See Synesius Epistle 154.
In addition to educating her students, Hypatia gave lectures that were attended by the upper class of Alexandrian society. Dzielska p. 57. She was well-respected by them, and her informal influence with city government, shown in the scenes in which she addresses Orestes and the council, has support in the historical record. Hypatia was described as being a “sophrosyne” which meant a person due respect as a result of their integrity, self-control, prudence, and, in a woman, virginity. See also Damascius: “The whole city loved and worshipped her in a remarkable way, but the rulers of the city envied her. . . .”
History supports the notion that Hypatia had Pagan, Christian, and Jewish students and associates. In addition, there is nothing to indicate that she was a devotee of pagan cults. Dzielska pp. 63 & 64. It is a small jump, taken by the filmmakers, to the proposition that she advocated tolerance among the warring factions in Alexandria. Thus, the statement of the Hypatia character in the film that “we are all brothers” and her efforts to protect her Christian students from pagan retribution appear correct, although there is no indication that Hypatia was in the Serapeum in 391 CE when it was under siege by the Christians.
In the movie, Hypatia does not always treat Davus well and shows prejudice against slaves. This eventually drives the fictional Davus into the arms of the Parabolani. This too has a ring of truth. Hypatia was a “proud Greek aristocrat” and “though clad in the modest mantle of the philosopher, [she] gathered around her a circle of young adepts living in a moral order circumscribed by philosophy, convinced that they were made of better clay than others. In this small group, as if taken straight out of the ideal Platonic state, the cult of aristocracy was intense.” Dzielska, p. 60 & 61.
See also section on The Assassination of Hypatia below.
Orestes: There is no record of Orestes being a student of Hypatia. In fact, he did not live in Alexandria for long. However, as Imperial Prefect he attended Hypatia’s public lectures along with many others of Alexandria’s powerful and wealthy elite. Orestes and Hypatia were well acquainted with each other, met frequently, and he consulted with her on governmental and political issues. Orestes was a Christian but a moderate. Dzielska, pp. 38 & 39. He did not share Cyril’s uncompromising views about the Pagans, unorthodox Christians, or the Jews.
Clothing: The colors of the different types of people (gray for the Christians, black for the Parabolani, light colors for the Pagans; and multi-colored for the Jews) are an invention of the filmmakers to allow us to easily tell them apart. There is historical basis for some of this choice. Generally, pagan philosophers wore white, and Christian monks wore black. See Sinesius Letter to Hypatia #154 at note 1. Hypatia, as shown in the film often wore the white philosopher’s cloak. Damascius. Some critics have claimed that showing the Parabolani and Cyril in black show a prejudice of the filmmakers against Christians.
Specific Scenes: Many of the scenes in the film are based on a combination of historical information and the filmmakers’ reasonable, and in some cases unreasonable extrapolations of what they think probably happened. Below are comments on the historical accuracy of the major scenes in the film based on statements by the writer/director Amenábar in the commentary to the film and TWM’s own review of secondary sources.
The first Classroom Scene: Excavations of classrooms in ancient Alexandria, show that students sat on benches that were tiered, like in an amphitheater, and that the teacher sat or stood on a platform or large stone in the middle. The classroom shown in the movie shows student seating only on one side. This was, no doubt, for ease of filming.
Scene in the Stacks of the “Daughter Library”: — No one knows how the scrolls and books were arranged in the “Daughter Library.” The filmmakers’ solution seems a fair interpretation. No one knows if the “Daughter Library” in the Serapeum existed in 391 CE.
Theon and Hypatia Working Together: Theon educated, trained, and worked with his daughter.
Fire Pit Scene: According to the director, this comes from an account of a real incident.
Theon Confronting Slaves about Christianity: For centuries Pagans in the Roman Empire had persecuted Christians in public and in private.
Second Classroom Scene: Young Orestes when he says, “It all seems so whimsical,” referring to the Ptolemaic model of the Solar System is criticizing its unwieldy complications with its circles upon circles. This was a necessary invention by Ptolemy to explain the movement of the planets in a geocentric Solar System with circular orbits. By giving this bit of dialog to the character, the filmmakers are making a subtle reference to Occam’s Razor which states that between two equally plausible explanations of natural phenomena, the simplest is the most likely and is to be preferred.
Scene in the Amphitheater: The means of clapping using hand-held noisemakers is from historical accounts. Later scenes in the amphitheatre show Jews attending Saturday dance performances, which were quite popular. The stoning by Christians is fictional, although there are accounts of Christian spying on the Jews attending Saturday entertainments and making the attendees feel uncomfortable.
Third Classroom Scene: In this scene in which Hypatia discourages the affection of the young Orestes (i.e., the fictional character) comes from a report by Damascius (the last Neoplatonist Scholarch of Athens) who claimed that to discourage a student who had fallen in love with her, Hypatia showed him her sanitary napkin stained with blood and said “This is what you love, young man, and it isn’t beautiful!” Damascius’s Life of Isidore, reproduced in The Suda. See also Dzielska pp.50 & 51. Hypatia, a Neoplatonist did not want her students to be distracted by the physical expression of the ideal forms but to contemplate pure and ultimate truth and beauty. Deakin at p. 63 notes that in societies without effective birth control the inhibition of menstruation caused by pregnancy and nursing meant that menstruation was a “relatively rare event.” For a woman who had chosen celibacy, menstruation was an insignia of her lifestyle and a sign that she had kept her vows of celibacy.
Giving Out Loaves of Bread: the Scene in Which Davus Visits the Church: This is a fictional scene, but it is meant to emphasize Christianity’s focus on giving aid to the poor and the sick which distinguished it from Paganism. The movie correctly shows that Christianity gained adherents among the oppressed, the poor and the slaves. Introducing Davus to Christianity by introducing to him the grace felt when giving bread to the hungry was a way for the filmmakers to demonstrate this important aspect of Christianity.
The Destruction of the Serapeum: Hypatia’s presence in the Serapeum during the Christians’ siege of the temple complex is fictional. There is no evidence that she was there, and it was unlikely. Hypatia’s focus was on philosophy and not on pagan cult practices. Dzielska pp. 79 – 83. The preliminaries of the destruction of the temple complex are a simplified view of what happened as described in the Introduction.
There is no report of books or scrolls being destroyed during the destruction of the Serapeum in 391 CE, but there had been a “Daughter Library” in the Serapeum at one point in time. The Christians were not responsible for the destruction of the Great Library/Museum. No one knows how or exactly when the Library/Museum was finally destroyed or whether any books remained in the “Daughter Library” in CE 391. However, it is not illogical to believe that the “Daughter Library” survived and it would have been destroyed in the destruction of the Serapeum.
The Serapeum building was razed to the ground. It was not kept as a barn for livestock, which was the fate of some former pagan temples. This scene is not correct as to the Serapeum but was added by the filmmakers to show what happened to other pagan houses of worship and is a symbol of the destruction of Paganism.
The Conflict Between the Christians and Jews: Cryil’s predecessor, Theosophilus, had crushed the pagan influences in the city. Cyril first consolidated his power over those Christians whose faith did not follow the orthodox line. For example, he closed the churches of the Novations and expelled its adherents from the city. Cyril next turned his attention to reducing the influence and size of the large Jewish population. They were allies of Orestes in Cyril’s power struggle with the Prefect, and they were an impediment to the Christianization of the city. As shown in the film, Alexandrian Jews had a custom of attending plays and dancing performances in the amphitheatre on Saturdays. Deakin p. 69. There were attacks by members of each community on the other, although the stoning of the Jews in the amphitheatre was not reported and is poetic license. The pogrom shown in the film occurred around 414 CE (Deakin p. 22) and was preceded by an incident in which Jews killed Christians by falsely claiming that a church was on fire, luring the Christians into a trap. Cyril encouraged the Christians to retaliate with an extensive pogrom that resulted in the destruction of Jewish homes and property and the expulsion of many Jews from the city. See Dzielska pp. 85 & 86 and The Life of Hypatia By John, Bishop of Nikiu, from his Chronicle. See also Deakin pp. 69 – 71.
The attack on Orestes: The filmmakers’ version of the assault on Orestes by radical Christian monks with a stone thrown by a Parabolani named Ammonius, is reasonably accurate except that it was apparently one of the Nitrian monks from the desert, summoned by Cyril to support his position, who threw the stone. These men were different than the Parabolani who lived in the city and killed Hypatia. Orestes, who was struck in the head and bled profusely, was abandoned by his Roman guards who feared the monks. The Prefect was rescued by citizens of the city of Alexandria, most likely including moderate Christians. The crowd caught Ammonius and turned him over to Orestes, who had him tortured and killed. Cyril then tried to elevate Ammonius to the status of a martyr and saint, as shown in the film. However, Cyril was not able to complete the process because the people of Alexandria did not accept it and Christians, embarrassed by Cyril’s actions, persuaded him to stop. Deakin pp. 72 – 73. Dzielska pp. 86 & 87.
The scene in which Cyril confronts Orestes with a sexist interpretation of the biblical quotation (1 Timothy 2:8 – 2:12) is reminiscent of a report of a confrontation between the two. At that point Cyril was asking Orestes to soften his refusal to reach a compromise on Cyril’s assumption of temporal authority in the city. Cyril displayed the New Testament to Orestes and asked the Prefect to reconcile. See Dzielska p. 86. The filmmakers transformed this into a scene relating to their theme on the oppression of women and the centerpiece of a fictional trap that Cyril sprang on Orestes. This is clearly a departure from historical accuracy, the question is, however, was Orestes correct to refuse to compromise with Cyril on the issue of how much temporal authority Cyril would assume? The history of the times is not sufficiently complete to show where the balance could have been struck or if Cyril was sincere. The filmmakers take the position that he was not and given Cyril’s continuing efforts to assert temporal power in the city and his assumption of that power when Orestes disappeared, this position is not illogical. Certainly, for modern times, Cyril was overreaching and acquiring too much authority over non-church affairs.
The Murder of Hypatia: In short, there was a struggle for temporal power between Orestes, the Imperial Prefect, and Cyril, the Patriarch of the Christian Church in Alexandria. In this political struggle, Hypatia was an ally of the Prefect. The Prefect and probably Hypatia, were actively seeking to limit the temporal power of the Patriarch. The power struggle last several years in which the Prefect was supported by many members of the City’s elite including some moderate Christians. After the attempt on the Prefect’s life had failed, it served the interests of Cyril to have Hypatia eliminated; she was an easier target. He initiated a campaign of calumny against Hypatia accusing her of being a witch and practicing black magic. Eventually, the Parabolani assassinated her in a particularly brutal way which is not shown in the film.
As for the involvement of Cyril in Hypatia’s death, the movie suggests that he set the conditions for his followers to kill her but did not directly participate in the plot. Some ancient commentators go further in implicating Cyril:
Thus, one day, Cyril, bishop of the opposition sect [i.e. the Christians] was passing by Hypatia’s house, and he saw a great crowd of people and horses in front of her door. Some were arriving, some departing, and others standing around. When he asked why there was a crowd there and what all the mess was about, he was told by her followers that it was the house of Hypatia the philosopher, and she was about to greet them. When Cyril learned this he was so struck with envy that he immediately began plotting her murder and in the worst form he could imagine. For when Hypatia went out of her house, in her accustomed manner, a throng of merciless and ferocious men who feared neither divine punishment nor human revenge, attacked and cut her down, thus committing an outrageous and disgraceful deed against their fatherland. Damascius
Modern and ancient historians disagree about how much blame Cyril should bear for Hypatia’s murder. See Dzielska pp. 94 – 99. The film takes a moderate position, with which, for example Professor Dzielska agrees. She contends that while Cyril cannot be “held legally responsible” for Hypatia’s murder “there is no doubt that he was the chief instigator of the campaign of defamation against Hypatia, fomenting prejudice and animosity” against her. Ibid. at p. 97. The professor notes that “conflict between Orestes and Cyril was concluded in a manner . . . used for ages: murder for a political purpose”. Id at p. 94. She concludes that “However directly or indirectly he was involved, Cyril violated the principles of the Christian moral order, which he was bound to nurture and uphold. He could not reconcile himself to the possible eclipse of his influence [over temporal matters in the city].” Id at p. 97.
There is nothing in the historical record supporting a claim that gender bias played an important role in Cyril’s efforts to undermine Orestes or in the decision to assassinate Hypatia.
Synesius died before Hypatia and his participation in the political struggle that led to her death is fictional.
No one was punished for the murder of Hypatia, a failure which brought shame to Alexandria. Dzielska p. 99 & 100. This failure is emblematic of the collapse of the Greco-Roman social order.
While some historians see the death of Hypatia as a mortal blow to the Hellenic traditions in Alexandra (for example, Deakin p. 280), others disagree. See Dzielska p. 105. There were a few Neoplatonic philosophers who worked in Alexandria after 415 CE. Some of these also had pagan beliefs. However, there was no mathematician of note who worked in Alexandria after Hypatia died. The Greek tradition in Alexandria continued in a declined state for two hundred years and was snuffed out only by the Arab invasion, which occurred around 642 CE.
Go to Additional Notes for Using the Entire Film for a discussion of historical errors in (1) the scene in which Hypatia allegedly discovers that the Solar Systems in heliocentric and that Earth has an elliptical orbit around the sun and (2) the manner in which Hypatia was assassinated.
Additional Discussion Questions
7. Describe any aspect of the film that showed something you hadn’t seen before, caused you to think in a new way, or helped you understand something more thoroughly than before. In addition, describe how it changed your thinking.
There is no one correct response to this question.
8. At times the camera pulls back to show the entire Earth as if the camera was in outer space. What are the filmmakers trying to say in these scenes?
There is no one correct answer. One possible response is that the concerns of people on Earth, even when there is communal violence and many people are being killed, are small when compared with the Universe. Another possible explanation is that the cries and screams of terrorized people are somehow heard in the Universe, as we hear them from space in the movie.
9. During the siege of the Serapeum by the Christians the camera shows ants along the wall of the temple complex. What are the filmmakers trying to do by showing us with the scene of the ants?
How little and insignificant are our lives. The conflicts that we think are so important are irrelevant to the forces of nature, represented by the ants. [The same question can be asked of the scenes in which the camera pulls up and the people below seem to be small and scurrying around.]
10. Christianity was the first Western religion to focus on the poor, the weak and the enslaved. The filmmakers wanted to show this theme. What scenes in the film showed this?
These include, generally, scenes with the slaves, particularly when the slave girl kisses the cross, when slaves revolt and attack their masters, the scene in the church in which Davus gives his bread to the poor, and the focus on the Parabolani, who were poor.