What can you say about a fifth-century philosopher-mathematician who was (SPOILER ALERT) stoned to death and then torn to pieces by a mob of early Christians? That she was beautiful and brilliant? That she loved Plato, Ptolemey, and Apollonius of Perga?
Well, yes. And then you can cast her story—as generations of allegorists, from Voltaire to Gibbon to Charles Kingsley have done—as a battle between the waning light of the ancient pagan world, with its amassed wisdom, and the encroaching darkness of Christian dogmatism.
This is also the approach adopted by the new Rachel Weisz/ Google Earth vehicle and Hypatia biopic Agora, directed by Alejandro Amenábar and now in limited release at Cambridge’s Kendall Square Cinema and elsewhere.
Having sat through the movie, which strings together a number of incidents from Hypatia’s life (although, confusingly, she and her disciples don’t age so much as change clothes as time passes), segueing between them by zooming way out to reveal an incongruously satellite-photo-looking spinning globe and then back in to Alexandria; and which is characterized throughout by lots of show-offy oh-hey-now-we-are-spinning! camerawork reminiscent of that in Elizabeth: The Golden Age—we turned with interest to Maria Dzielska’s Hypatia of Alexandria, translated by F. Lyra, in order to untangle historical truth from legend from celluloid.
And it turns out that lots of the most interesting (and tonally odd) parts of the story told in Agora are true. For example, Hypatia really did rebuke a smitten student by showing him her sanitary napkin, as a reminder that human beings fell short of Platonic ideals of beauty, and are thus not appropriate objects of devotion.
The Patriarch (later Saint) Cyril of Alexandria really does seem to have been threatened by Hypatia’s popularity with the ruling class and by her former disciples’ habit of seeking her guidance even after they had risen to the top ranks of Alexandria’s secular and religious leadership. Though he seems not to have planned her murder, he was almost certainly responsible, Dzielska writes, for her defamation in Alexandria and for her resulting unpopularity among the people, which ultimately resulted in her murder.
And Hypatia did teach both Christians and pagans in increasingly Christianized Alexandria, although Dzielska proves that it’s very unlikely that she and her students were in the Serapeum—the temple to the Hellenistic-Egyptian god Serapis—at the time of its 391 destruction by Christians bent on eliminating pagan monuments and idols.
On the other hand, Hypatia was almost certainly about sixty at the time of her death, rather than in the bloom of youth, as Agora and many posthumous legends have portrayed her.
And there isn’t any evidence to support the movie’s assertion that Hypatia (who would have known Ptolemy’s geocentric model of the solar system) worked out that we instead live in a heliocentric solar system, with the planets bound on elliptical orbits around the sun. Very little is known of her actual work, though Dzielska believes that she may have edited the text of Ptolemy’s Almagest and Handy Tables, editions which have in the past been ascribed to her less-talented father, Theon. But presumably—and much as those of us in the thrill-a-minute field of academic publishing would beg to differ—the filmmakers considered scholarly editing insufficiently cinematic for their purposes.
Hypatia is known to us mostly by way of letters written to her and by passing mention in historical accounts; it’s difficult, at this remove, to reconstruct her life with any degree of certainty. What we can know, Dzielska writes, is that the real, historical woman should be remembered as a resident of Alexandria, a mathematician, a philosopher, a teacher, and a woman characterized by her sophrosyne—“a model of ethical courage, righteousness, veracity, civic devotion, and intellectual prowess.” And that that the richly suggestive legend of Hypatia “will continue to unfold along its own course, according to tastes and fashions.”