It’s been a few months since I watched the film Agora. It's one of my favorite historical films, and I watch it a couple of times a year. I once wrote a post about it. In spite of the historical inaccuracies in it, I do enjoy the film. From my study of history, I would say there are many parts in the film that ring true, historically I mean.
For example, the non-denominational mutual affiliation of the members of the Academy where Hypatia was lecturing. This seems to be factual. Synesios (later bishop of Cyrene in North Africa) was certainly one her pupils. Both Synesios and Hypatia were the type of highly intelligent and well-educated pagans whose philosophical views could be merged into the rising Christianity, but not at the popular level. In other words, there were barbarous Christians and there were enlightened ones. Not much different from the scene today.
Synesios was a man of such integrity that the Christians of Ptolemais elected him to be their bishop even as an unbaptized catechumen, and even though he was happily married and would not abandon his wife. As was common back then, the belief that baptism washes away actual sins was so strong that people waited till just before their deaths to be baptized, even though they were already believing in Christ and living their faith. In the case of Synesios, since priests had to be baptized come what may, he submitted to baptism and then took up the defense of the Christians of Ptolemais, leading and encouraging them to carry on, despite the repeated incursions of barbarians from the desert, who eventually destroyed their civilization.
All the while, Synesios remained in touch with and a close friend of Hypatia, up until her assassination. Though the records are silent on this point, many believe she was in fact a Christian in the philosophical sense at least, something that the film Agora does not allow. Instead, it tries to demonstrate that there is more freedom in non-Christianity, in science, in philosophy.
We know that Christ has applied a tourniquet to the severed arm of our unbridled speculations and actions, but that is only to keep us from spiritually bleeding to death. The freedom of a Christian is not just personal, but moral, freedom. Thus, it is in a somewhat different category than what the world calls ‘freedom.’ Nevertheless, history is full of examples of false authority being wielded in the name of Christ or the Church in suppressing freedom, but in this as in all other deviations from the Gospel, these are not Christian acts, but religious ones. And the spirit of religion serves many masters.
After watching the film the first time, I took up and began reading a wonderful but uncommon book about another pagan Greek female philosopher who was almost the exact contemporary of Hypatia, except that she lived not in Egypt, where the blend of ancient and sometimes violent cultures could lead to tragic results, but in Greece itself, in Athens.
This was Athenaïs, the daughter of Leontios the philosopher. Though she did not publicly teach, as did Hypatia, she was nonetheless educated in all things by her philosopher father, and like Hypatia she was a cultured and chaste woman of intelligence and dignity. When the widowed father of Athenaïs died, his estate was divided between his two sons, leaving her with only a purse of ‘a hundred coins.’ My guess is this was a hundred gold solidi, but perhaps it was a different coin, worth even less.
She was forced to leave the house of Leontios and lodge with a sister of her mother in Athens, who advised her to go to Constantinople and seek justice from the youthful Emperor, Theodosios II. This is the same Theodosios mentioned in the film Agora. While she was waiting for an audience, she lived with a sister of her father. Eventually, she was granted an audience with the older sister of the emperor, the Augusta Pulcheria. According to the author Jeanne Tsatsos, author of my book and wife of a former president of Greece, it was Pulcheria who picked out Athenaïs for her brother the emperor, as his wife.
“I found her young, pure, modest, fine-featured, with a well-proportioned nose, a complexion white as snow, large eyes, curly blond hair, little feet, also educated, a Greek virgin,” was what Pulcheria announced to her brother, leaving Athenaïs waiting in the reception room. Theodosios had to see her himself, and came and stood behind a curtain to view her. This was the beginning of a beautiful but, in the end, tragic romance. The emperor was not her equal in courage or brilliance of intellect, but he was faithful. They would marry, but first, the future empress of the Romans had to be evangelized.
Contrary to what many moderns think, not all conversions in the Christian Roman Empire were insincere. Constantine's was not; neither was the conversion of Athenaïs. The biography attests,
“A thick veil was torn from Athenaïs’ eyes. The horizon which spread before her had the force of revelation. A simple man spoke, without making a revolution, without abolishing anything, and the very essence of the world was changed. Here, mind and learning were not needed. Only a boundless heart to receive Him completely. ‘Blessed are they that mourn…’ ‘Another commandment give I unto you, that ye should love one another.’ The proud Logos of the Greeks and the severe Jehovah stepped aside respectfully before this trumpet-call of compassion for the overflowing pain of humanity. And this commandment God Himself gave from His Cross. By His total sacrifice, truth covered the earth, and this truth is our salvation. With her whole soul Athenaïs answered this call. In her sure, open acceptance of the first values, she was overwhelmed by the divinity of Christ. She studied His words; she lived by His precepts. ‘Walk while ye have the Light, lest darkness come upon you…’ ‘Enter in at the strait gate,’ and many others.”
Reading history is the best antidote, or at least the most fitting remedy, for correcting distortions intentional or merely dramatic that we find in the movies. Though the big screen captivates us, we should still come away with the desire to complement mere entertainment with knowledge, especially when sacred history is the subject. The life and times of Hypatia as depicted in the film Agora are at best a local snapshot in time and place. During the same era, other events were taking place, many of which shaped our world without us knowing it.
One final lesson in history that I learned early on, is that one age cannot judge another, just as one culture cannot really judge another. We tend to do both, and our judgments are usually very partial and motivated by self-love and the desire to be ‘better than them.’ But the best response to history is simply to learn from it, as best we can, and of course, to try to find real history among the hundreds of books that are written, again, with an agenda in mind.
Usually the victors in a conflict write the history books. But there is really only One Victor, and it is only what we find in His History Book that really matters.