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Hypatia and the Clash of Civilizations in Late Antiquity

When the Greeks spoke of “agora,” they meant a place for political discussion, jury trials, and a market. In other words, agora was the center of Greek life. In October 9, 2009, the Spanish movie producer, Alejandro Amenabar, released a film he pointedly named “Agora,” in which he zeroed in the clash of Greek and Christian civilizations in the fourth and fifth centuries in Alexandria, Egypt.

When the Greeks spoke of “agora,” they meant a place for political discussion, jury trials, and a market. In other words, agora was the center of Greek life.

In October 9, 2009, the Spanish movie producer, Alejandro Amenabar, released a film he pointedly named “Agora,” in which he zeroed in the clash of Greek and Christian civilizations in the fourth and fifth centuries in Alexandria, Egypt.

The violent Christianization of polytheistic Greece even redefined agora as just a place for trade, eventually becoming the “free market” of today.

The protagonist of “Agora” is Hypatia, c. 370 – 415, daughter of the mathematician Theon who headed a school of philosophy and science in Alexandria. Following her father, Hypatia became a philosopher and mathematician. She taught the philosophy of Plato and Aristotle in both Athens and Alexandria. In Alexandria, she defended the Greek way of life against the Christians who sought to abolish it.

In “Agora,” Rachel Weisz, beautiful and eloquent, very successfully played the demanding role of Hypatia.

I saw the film in late June 2010 in Claremont, California. The movie is a masterpiece of cinematography, acting and drama. But the most valuable aspect of “Agora” is its documentary-like character, bringing to life the violent globalization of Christianity.

What Christianity did to the Greek culture of Alexandria was paradigmatic of why the Greek world turned upside down and Rome itself and the West fell to the barbarians and a millennium of darkness.

Alexandria, founded by Alexander the Great in early third century BCE, was a center for Greek culture for almost a thousand years.

Alexander the Great initiated the Hellenization of the ancient world. Greek became a global language and Roman, Jewish or Christian authors who wanted to be read wrote their books in Greek. But, sometimes, spreading Greek culture was not entirely a peaceful process.

The Greek kings of Egypt, the Ptolemies, made Alexandria their capital. They built and supported modern-like institutions for scientific research and advanced studies like the Mouseion or House of the Muses. A vast library was part of the Mouseion.

Christianity came to power in the fourth century of our era, by which time the empire of Alexander the Great was a province of Rome for about 400 years.

The Christians resented the polytheism of the Greeks and Romans. They also did not like books that differed from their Bible. And when, as in Alexandria, there was a vast quantity of Greek and other non-Christian books and Greek scholars like Hypatia were teaching philosophy and science and openly worshipping the gods, the situation inevitably would get out of hand.

In fact, in 391, archbishop of Alexandria, Theophilos, was behind the destruction of the library of Alexandria. Hypatia was then about 21 years old.

According to Edward Gibbon, the British historian of the eighteenth century, the decision of Emperor Theodosius in 391 to destroy the “idols” of Alexandria “sent up a shout of joy and exultation” among the Christians. “The valuable library of Alexandria was pillaged or destroyed.”

Gibbon rightly puts much of the blame for this crime on the Christian leader, archbishop Theophilos: “The perpetual enemy of peace and virtue; a bold, bad man, whose hands were alternately polluted with gold and with blood.”

In the twentieth century, the classical scholar James Westfall Thompson accuses the Christians of destroying the library and literature in Alexandria.

The American historian, Ramsay MacMullen of Yale University, says that the Christians silenced, burned, and destroyed Greek civilization as a form of “theological demonstration.”

The Italian classical scholar, Luciano Canfora, reports that the “burning of books was part of the advent and imposition of Christianity.”

“Agora” successfully captures this climate of terror by focusing on Hypatia and her enemies, in the early fifth century, the archbishop of Alexandria Cyril and the Gestapo-like troops of monks doing his bidding.

Hypatia did not have a chance. One of her former students, Orestes, was the governor of Egypt. Orestes loved Hypatia and did whatever he could to protect her from the monks. Cyril, however, had the ear of the emperor. The church was becoming the state.

Sokrates, c. 380 – post 439, a lawyer and an ecclesiastical historian, was a contemporary of Hypatia. He says the monks:

“[W]aylaid her returning home. They dragged her from her carriage, took her to the church called Kaisareon, where they completely stripped her naked, and then murdered her with tiles. After tearing her body to pieces, they took her mangled limbs to a place called Kinaron, where they burnt them.”

Another Greek who probably knew Hypatia was an Alexandria schoolteacher named Palladas. His epigram on Hypatia speaks of his passionate love for her, only because her wisdom had made her almost divine. He says:

“Revered Hypatia, ornament of learning, undefiled star of wise teaching, when I see you and your wisdom I worship you, seeing the starry house of the virgin. Your enterprise is in heaven.”

Gibbon summarizes the life of Hypatia as follows:

“In the bloom of beauty, and in the maturity of wisdom, the modest maid [Hypatia] refused her lovers and instructed her disciples; the persons most illustrious for their rank or merit were impatient to visit the female philosopher; and [archbishop] Cyril beheld with a jealous eye the gorgeous train of horses and slaves who crowded the door of her academy. A rumour was spread among the Christians that the daughter of Theon was the only obstacle to the reconciliation of the praefect [Orestes] and the archbishop; and that obstacle was speedily removed… the murder of Hypatia has imprinted an indelible stain on the character and religion of Cyril of Alexandria.”

The murder of Hypatia in 415 was one of countless other crimes the Christians committed against the Greeks. The Christians dug their Greek enemies into obscurity and nothingness, nearly destroying their spirit and certainly wiping out the outward signs and material culture of their civilization.

“Agora” does translate this horrific Christian attack against the Greeks into a living event unfolding in front of our eyes. We see the magnificent buildings of the Alexandria library and the Mouseion, the throngs of people selling and buying in the fading agora.

We also see Hypatia teaching young men math, astronomy and philosophy, stubborn to the very end about the virtues of Greek culture and science: asking questions in order to grasp the secrets of nature and the cosmos. Her vision also made learning a bond for building a just society.

Perhaps, “Agora” is a metaphor for our enormous loss from the violent eclipse of Greek culture. It may also be a warning of the emerging hubris coming out of the clash of civilizations in our time.

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