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Agora (2009) is set in Alexandria, Egypt in the 4th and 5th Centuries AD and describes the life and death of the Neoplatonist and Stoic philosopher Hypatia and a freed slave named Davus, who is in love with her. Many of the characters and events depicted in the film are true, such as the Christian Archbishop Cyril, who really did expel the Jews from Alexandria and forced the pagans to convert to Christianity. He was also extremely hostile to pagan philosophers like Hypatia, and very likely ordered his supporters to put her to death in 415 AD. She was dragged from her chariot and dismembered, although in the movie Davus smothers her before the mob tears her body apart, in order to spare her suffering. Orestes, the Roman prefect, was also a genuine historical character, who was opposed to Cyril politically and sympathetic to the Jewish and pagan communities in Alexandria that the Christians wanted to destroy. As shown in the film, a mob of Christian monks inspired by Cyril did try to stone him to death once because they thought he was still a pagan at heart. He was once a student of Hypatia's and fell in love with her at that time, but by all accounts she never married and remained a version.
As a follower of Plato and the Stoics, Hypatia downplayed physical passions and pleasures, in favor of the life of the intellect and the spirit. From her study of Aristotle, though, she also had an interest in science (natural philosophy) and in mathematics. In the film, she is depicted as supporting the theory of Aristarchus that the earth moved around the sun (heliocentric theory) as opposed to the earth-centered theory of Ptolemy Claudius that the Christians preferred. She also studied gravity, motion and the elliptical orbits of the planets, and is shown to have many of the same ideas as Copernicus, Newton and Galileo over a thousand years before the Scientific Revolution. Although the historical Hypatia was probably not nearly so advanced in her scientific views, many of the Christians were hostile to her scientific experiments, regarding them as witchcraft and the Devil's work. Cyril almost certainly believed this, and in the movie he stirs up the mob against Hypatia by calling her a witch and a satanic influence in the city.
Hypatia's father Theon was the librarian of Alexandria and the head of the academy, and in the film he is portrayed as very hostile to the Christians. When he finds one of his slaves in possession of a cross, he threatens to flog her because he will not permit any Christians in his household. To be sure, the Roman Empire had never been sympathetic to Christians and had put many of them to death over the centuries since it regarded their religion as subversive to the state. Under the emperors Diocletian and Galerius a century before, the Christians had suffered the worst persecution of all, with all their churches closed and their writings destroyed, and those he did not renounce their faith were executed. Since the time of the first Christian emperor Constantine, Christianity had been the official religion of the Roman Empire, although paganism had not yet been completely banned as it was later in the 4th Century by archbishops like Cyril. Hypatia interceded with her father for the slave girl, and throughout the movie she is shown to be on the side of reason and religious tolerance for all. Theon ignores her pleas, however, but then Davus steps forward to take the punishment for the girl, which is one of the most genuinely Christian gestures he makes in the film. He willingly takes the punishment for another person, just as Jesus would have done. After Theon flogs him, Hypatia treats his wounds and it becomes very clear that he is in love with her.
Later, Davus becomes a Christian and joins in the attack on the pagan academy, beating up Theon in the process. To him, this intellectual center is just a symbol of the oppression of upper class Romans, and he happily smashes their statues, burns their books and even destroys the model of the solar system that he used to demonstrate in Hypatia's classroom. Davus seems to regard Christianity as a revolutionary liberation movement that feeds the hungry and frees the slaves, especially because the wealthy pagans mock it as being founded by a Jewish carpenter. In the movie, Hypatia is denounced at one point for believing in nothing, to which she responds "I believe in philosophy." As a Platonist, though she was actually an ethical monotheist who believed in an impersonal Creator and the immortal soul of each individual, no matter that most souls were slaves to their passions and desires. All matter was created by God and could be understood through reason and philosophy, although in real life she was probably not a Copernican. Many Christians like Augustine had also been heavily influenced by Platonic and Stoic philosophy, and in fact these merged with Christianity very early on, particularly in its dualistic view of the material and spiritual world.
Hypatia never really disproved the earth-centered theory of Ptolemy, but rather refined it, and for Christians like Augustine this concept was perfect since it placed earth and humanity at the center of the universe and therefor at the heart of God's plan (Moore and Bruder 2010). In the film, while Hypatia is shown arguing about whether the earth revolved around the sun, Davu and his fellow Christian monks are not even certain whether the world is round or flat, and Davus finally says that "only God knows these things." Like all the Greek philosophers, of course, Hypatia knew that the earth was round and that it had been proved mathematically many centuries before. She also realizes that some attractive force like gravity is at work in the universe although she admits that no one understands it, and near the end of the movie also came to realize that the planets moved in elliptical orbits, which no one in Western science knew until the 17th Century.
One of the most powerful scenes in the movie occurs when Davos tries to rape Hypatia but then regrets it almost immediately and kneels at her feet. Instead of asking forgiveness, he hands her a sword and places the blade on his neck, giving her permission to kill him for his crime. Instead, she pulls off his slave medallion and announces that "you're free," which in the Platonic sense means that Davus is not only physically free, but that he has overcome his baser lusts and instincts and learned self-control, unlike many of the other characters in the film. Earlier in the film, Orestes publicly expressed his love for her, and in the classroom she presented him with a rag stained by her menstrual blood, telling him "this is what you're in love with." This was based on an incident that actually happened, and was once again cited as proof of her devotion to mental and spiritual life rather than pleasure, sexuality and the animal passions. Throughout the movie, Hypatia opposes the expression of these lower passions like greed, anger, revenge and prejudice, and prefers the path of nonviolence. In this she is far more Christian than many of those like Archbishop Cyril, who use violent methods to defend and advance their religious views. Very few of these people are actually free in the broader sense as defined by philosophers Hypatia and Jesus Christ, but rather are slaves to hatred and violent passions even though they are not literally bondservants like Davus.
In history and the film, Cyril was extremely prejudiced against the Jews, and preached sermons against them as blasphemers and the murderers of Jesus Christ. He inspires mobs to attack them and they retaliate with violence against Christians, which plays into Cyril's hands given his plans to either have them killed, forced to convert to Christianity or be expelled from the city. Cyril represents the origins of Christian anti-Semitism which lingered well into the 20th Century and resulted in many pogroms, massacres and expulsions, such as during the time of the Crusades and later when the Black Death broke out in Europe during the 14th Century or when Queen Isabella ordered them all expelled from Spain in 1492. Cyril's intolerance for Jews, pagans or even Christians he considered heretical were very well documented, and many of his successors over the centuries had identical views. Hypatia does speak up for the Jews many times in the council meetings and pleads with the ineffectual Orestes to take action against Cyril and his mobs. She warns him that very soon he will have no subjects left to govern, but Orestes fears that the mobs will turn against him and the Roman state if he attempts to block Cyril. About all he manages to do is speak in cliches and platitudes about how "we are all brothers," although Cyril and his followers definitely…[continue]
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