Friday, May 22, 2009

Film "Agora" Profiles Female Mathematician and Pagan Martyr Hypatia


The new film "Agora" starring Rachel Weisz as 4th century CE female scholar, Hypatia, sounds almost like the antithesis of Ben Hur.

"The heart of the film is Hypatia (Rachel Weisz in an unfaltering performance), the fourth century AD philosopher and teacher who lived in Alexandria during the Roman Empire. Married only to her unquenchable intellect and passion for mathematics and astronomy, she is loved by two men: her slave, Davus (Max Minghella), and her student, Orestes (Oscar Isaac).

Politics in the film are weakest during the overtly political speeches and monologues, and best captured in the details. Like many, Davus seeks not spiritual salvation in the Christian uprising but freedom from slavery, despite the bloodshed. His first attempt at prayer is brilliant: Unable to remember the Lord's Prayer, he quickly falls into a mantra to God to keep Hypatia away from Orestes. For his part, Orestes will renounce paganism and convert to Christianity during his rise in Roman politics." - More: Reuter

Hypatia was the daughter of Theon, who was her teacher and the last known mathematician associated with the museum of Alexandria. She traveled to both Athens and Italy to study, before becoming head of the Platonist school at Alexandria in approximately 400 AD . According to the 10th century Byzantine encyclopedia the Suda, she worked as teacher of philosophy, teaching the works of Plato and Aristotle. - More: Wikipedia

"Hypatia corresponded with and hosted scholars from others cities. Synesius, Bishop of Ptolemais, was one of her correspondents and he visited her frequently. Hypatia was a popular lecturer, drawing students from many parts of the empire.

From the little historical information about Hypatia that survives, it appears that she invented the plane astrolabe, the graduated brass hydrometer and the hydroscope, with Synesius of Greece, who was her student and later colleague.

Hypatia dressed in the clothing of a scholar or teacher, rather than in women's clothing. She moved about freely, driving her own chariot, contrary to the norm for women's public behavior. She exerted considerable political influence in the city."

"...[The local Christian bishop Cyril incited] a mob led by fanatical Christian monks in 415 to attack Hypatia as she drove her chariot through Alexandria. They dragged her from her chariot and, according to accounts from that time, stripped her, killed her, stripped her flesh from her bones, scattered her body parts through the streets, and burned some remaining parts of her body in the library of Caesareum." - More: About.com

So much for compassion and tolerance!

Update: 7/7/09: Agora trailer has been released. Apparently, the film is set to premiere in December!

5 comments:

  1. After which lecture it seems almost a moral duty to burn down a church; in the name of "tolerance", of course. (wince)

    Surely we should avoid using ancient history to demonize people? (Particularly harmless people whom the establishment sees as an obstacle to the free indulgence of their favourite vices?) Christians are one of the few groups we are still allowed to hate, it sometimes seems. Let's share our enthusiasms, not our antipathies.

    The movie is welcome, and I don't mind looking at Rachel Weisz. I hope that it will encourage interest in late antiquity.

    Moving on, I saw that the post quotes modern opinions from website. Why not revise it to display ancient sources? After all, a bunch of websites will merely give us hearsay. English versions of all the sources are probably online.

    As Socrates Scholasticus tells us, Hypatia -- a friend of Bishop Synesius of Cyrene -- was murdered because she was stupid enough to meddle in Alexandrian politics and to stir up feeling against one faction. Even Ptolemaic kings feared the mob of Alexandria.

    Cyril has often been criticised, and to our eyes can be an unattractive figure. But that doesn't mean we should allow Gibbon's smears, as retailed by Hollywood, to go unchallenged. For instance he probably isn't responsible for the murder of Hypatia. He inherited his uncle's position as leader and gang boss of the mob, but he was really more inclined to intrigue than violence (probably because he was really good at intrigue). I feel she was just rubbed out because she happened to drive down the wrong street at the wrong time.

    I sense that we are all probably unfair to Cyril. If we live in a corrupt despotism -- as he did -- our options are few if we wish to carry out any political or religious programme. That problem is why lots of people went off to live in caves in the desert in that period.

    ReplyDelete
  2. It's through the dispassionate study of ancient history that we learn the truth that sets us free. I hope the distributors of this film -- it's been bought up by the same group that distributed Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ) will not bury this film -- bury it just as the early church in its first inflations buried pagans and the high Greek philosophy it took its higher teachings from. Bury it as it eventually buried the stray Christian lambs it chose to deem "heretical."

    Framing the era Hypatia came from, ancient historian Peter Brown writes (in The Body and Society; Men, Women, and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity):

    Small study-circles were the powerhouses of the Christian culture of the second and third centuries. The extraordinary intellectual ferment of the period is unthinkable without them. The shadow side of this creativity was a growing sense of polarization. The notion of "heresy" developed early among Christians. It was, indeed, Justin, a man accustomed to the intellectual infighting of pagan schools of philosophy, who may well have been the first to introduce the notion into Christian literature. His model for the rise of heresy assumed that it was a deviation from the original truths of Christianity, brought about by a process of degeneration and proliferation. The competitive spirit of individual teachers allied with pre-existing pagan and Jewish sects to introduce alien doctrines into the Church.
    A modern reader should not be misled by this potent stereotype. It was evolved so as to give an acceptable explanation for the painful fact that Christians had disagreed profoundly with each other since the days of Saint Paul. But its acceptance by many second-century Christians reflects a hardening of the boundaries between rival traditions of Christian teaching. One group, connected with the bishops and clergy, wished to present itself as representing the "Great Church." They claimed not only that they alone had preserved the authentic teachings of Christ -- every group claimed to do that -- but also represented the views of an overwhelming majority of right-thinking individuals.

    Must we continue down this path?

    Rome married to the mysteries: a vast self-serving machine.

    This is why spirituality and politics must stay separate. Yet -- lost teachings have a way of coming back to us, found in ruins, emerging from excavations, carved in cast-off stone -- but when they land in the hands of those who frame reality as pre-conceived unassailable "truth" (say, for instance, scripture translated and mutated and shaped to fit an established purpose, need, agenda, etc.) they have a way of being (once again) buried. Flayed alive.

    You mock tolerance. And is not tolerance the example set by the Christ? Or do you plow that under, too, like the current movement that spawns projects like the Conservative Bible. Who is being demonized? Hypatia was murdered. You ask us to blame the victim just as you assume a belief in demons. In truth, Hypatia, the good, the devoted teacher, suffered the fate of a Christ. And the Christ symbolizes a spiritual level that understands a light that lives in all. Including Hypatia.

    So my passionate sermon. I love this woman, a love brought to me by those who loved her and what they left behind in their own rare unburied letters.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Anonymous5:31 PM

    You guys will swallow anything as long as it's anti-religious, no? Agora is full of historical inaccuracies. Look it up. Use that big brain God gave you.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Anonymous6:03 AM

    About.com is your source of information?
    Really?

    ReplyDelete
  5. Anonymous9:08 AM

    The Big brain that God Gave Me says stop clinging to fairy tales from the bronze age.

    Yes this is a movie that is based on actual events. The director does take some artistic liberties for dramatization, but this is a movie and not a documentary. Despite that the essential story is correct. Religious group even today do nothing but hamper progress based on ancient stories that have been either edited or modified and in some cases even deleted is needed.

    Religious stories and made up gods have always been used to control people, brainwash the weak, and help those in need to see the true way... their way of course. This world would be a much better place if it was not for Religion, God or Gods.

    The movie is wonderfully acted, fantastic set and very epic looking. Yes it will offend those closed minded and stuck in their own religious dogma, but it is a movie that touches on how evil the Bible, The Koran or most other religious doctrine and tenants can be on human progress.

    ReplyDelete