Agora (2009), directed by Alejandro Amenábar and written by Mateo Gil, focuses on the life (and death) of Hypatia, a philosopher in Alexandria of the 4th century CE. The film’s title comes from the Greek word for “marketplace,” traditionally a place for shopping, debates, and public gathering.
We don’t know a great deal about the historical Hypatia, but we can piece together a compelling portrait from a handful of historical sources. We know that she studied astronomy, mathematics, and philosophy, and that she taught students who came from great distances to study with her. She was a major part of the public life of the era, counting bishops and prefects among her friends. There’s also strong evidence that Hypatia never married, and one ancient source provides a colorful story of her rejection of a particularly persistent suitor; she threw her menstrual rags at his feet, saying “Here is what you love, O youth, but there is nothing beautiful about it”. This is a scene the film reenacts to great effect.
But Hypatia is perhaps most famous for her death. According to historical sources, a group of Christians dragged her from her carriage one night, stripped her naked, and flayed her to death with tiles, after which they dragged her corpse around the city before burning it.
To whom do science and religion belong? Can we identify themes in Agora other than the clash between rationalism and religion?
Amenabar and Gil vividly recreate Hypatia and the world of ancient Alexandria in Agora, but they also introduce some contemporary concerns about the clash between science and religion. Some have characterized the film as offensive to Christians, while others have lauded it as an atheist manifesto. Particularly controversial has been the portrayal of Hypatia as the first to discover the heliocentric model of the solar system—thus casting her as the intellectual ancestor of Galileo, the archetype of the wise scientist persecuted by the dogmatic religious. However, Amenábar and Gil were aware of the historical materials, and made conscious choices about what to include. I want to take a step back and ask why. What are the characteristics of the “atheism” of the film? Who are the “Christians,” and what are they like? To whom do science and religion belong? Can we identify themes in the film other than the clash between rationalism and religion?
The only major character in the film who can be described as atheist is Hypatia. She has no attachment to any pagan deity, and she is stubbornly resistant to Christianity (though she is friendly to Christians). Toward the end of the film, she quarrels with a high-ranking dignitary:
DIGNITARY: The majority of us here […] have accepted Christ. Why not the rest of you? It’s only a matter of time and you know it.
HYPATIA: Really? It is just a matter of time? … As far as I am aware, your God has not yet proved himself to be more just or more merciful than his predecessors. Is it really just a matter of time before I accept your faith?
DIGNITARY: Why should this assembly accept the counsel of someone who admittedly believes in absolutely nothing?
HYPATIA: I … I believe in philosophy.
In addition to her non-theism, this exchange highlights another important aspect of Hypatia’s beliefs in Agora: her insistence on justice and mercy. Hypatia is consistently portrayed as a bit more just, a bit more kind than the other people around her. She urges her father not to whip a slave who confessed to being a Christian (though he does anyway); later, she brings the slave ointment for his wounds and applies it herself. She is fiercely opposed to the violence erupting in her city, and draws on all her political influence to resolve it peacefully.
She also values the ability to think critically, to generate new ideas and let go of old ones. In one of the last scenes of the film, her dear friend Bishop Synesius urges her to accept Christianity to save her life. Sadly and tenderly, she says to him, “You do not question what you believe. You cannot. I must.” This statement underscores Hypatia’s freethinking, but also implies that it is not possible for Christians to do the same.
This is a premise that the film continues to assert. In another scene, Bishop Cyril condemns Hypatia as a witch and an impudent woman, citing 1 Timothy 2:8-14. He then orders the prefect Orestes (a newly baptized Christian) to submit himself to the authority of this passage from the Bible—to kneel and to kiss it. Orestes refuses to either kneel or betray his dear friend Hypatia and storms out, causing a riot. Later, the Christian Synesius comes to Orestes, and explains that he insulted not Cyril but God, by rejecting God’s word. Weeping, Orestes collapses and prostrates himself.
Orestes cannot say that he does believe in God and the Bible, but he can say that he does not believe that women should be silent in the churches or anywhere else. Bishop Cyril and his cabal demand that he accept Christianity as they present it, unquestioningly, in all of its parts. Orestes has no way to express a faith which differs from Cyril’s orthodoxy.
A closer viewing of the film makes it clear that philosophy, science, mathematics, and rationalism are the territory of a very specific group of people—the elite, who are mostly pagan.
In addition to their inflexible thinking and monolithic dogma, the Christians are also portrayed as violent and anti-intellectual (basically, the very opposite of the atheist Hypatia). Yet Amenábar and Gil are not simplistic; they have created a world in Agora, one which is not limited to the theme of a disjunction between rationalism and religion; they also attempt to show Christianity as a movement that gave dignity and value to the lives of the oppressed.
A closer viewing of the film makes it clear that philosophy, science, mathematics, and rationalism are the territory of a very specific group of people—the elite, who are mostly pagan. They are the only ones who have the time and the capital to pursue these questions. This is abundantly clear to Davus, a slave in Hypatia’s household. Though he is intelligent enough to construct a model of the cosmos based on Ptolemy’s calculations, he is not worthy to be present as a participant in Hypatia’s classes; his only role is to pick up her bloody handkerchief. He is also in love with Hypatia, but can never be with her. Hypatia herself is quite oblivious to his painful position: she chides two of her noble-born students by saying that “brawls are for slaves and riff raff.” Davus lowers his eyes.
Later, Davus meets the monk Ammonius, who says that he will show Davus a miracle. Ammonius takes him to a church, and urges him to give bread to the poor gathered there. Davus does so, at first unwillingly, offering his bread to the poor who then share it among each other. A change comes over him. For the first time in his life, Davus has the experience of serving others not out of coercion or fear of punishment, but out of compassion. He can be a provider and a protector instead of a cowering slave. Ammonius says as much when he exclaims, “You look like a true parabolano, a true soldier of Christ!”
Entering Christianity means leaving behind his low status in the pagan world; it has given him a new community and a new way to envision himself. He joins with other Christians in a (literal) attack on the old, pagan, elite order, knocking down the statues of the Serapium and burning its library. It is easily possible to imagine others like Davus. Could there be, then, an undercurrent to their rancor that isn’t explicitly anti-rationalism, but rather the anger of the disenfranchised against those who have unjustly dominated them?
In this article, I have limited my consideration to the world of the film. It presents a courageous, kind, freethinking version of Hypatia, heartening to those who still struggle with misperceptions of atheists as immoral. The depiction of Christians in the film is immensely frustrating for modern-day Christian viewers who don’t feel that their religion constrains free thought; however, the film also introduces a very interesting class element.
Amenábar and Gil might have chosen differently in their selection of themes from historical sources. They might have made Hypatia an elderly woman at her time of death. They might have increased the role of Synesius, Hypatia’s student, who adhered to a blend of pagan philosophy and Christian belief. They could have depicted the intrareligious conflicts between Christians. But in the end, they have still succeeded in creating a powerful work of art whose ancient questions still resonate today.
Alexandra Nichipor is an MTS student at Harvard Divinity School. Her area of focus is women, gender, and sexuality in religion.
 Byzantine Suda, see below.
 It is possible that this is an oblique reference to Neoplatonic belief, a faith to which many philosophers (including some of Hypatia’s students) subscribed. We have reason to think that the historical Hypatia was a Neoplatonist, and not an atheist in any modern sense.
Letters of Synesius to Hypatia. (4th/5th century)
John of Nikiu. “The Life of Hypatia” from Chronicle. (7th century)
The Byzantine Suda. (10th century, adapted from earlier works)
Dzielska, Maria. Hypatia of Alexandria. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995.
Deakin, Michael A. B. Hypatia of Alexandria: Mathematician and Martyr. Amherst, NY: Prometheus, 2007.
Image from Flickr via zymurgeist