Sunday, May 30, 2010

Hypatia and "Agora" Redux


Redux

Well, it's been just over a year since I wrote my article on Alejandro Amenábar's film Agora and expressed my misgivings that it would perpetuate some Gibbonian myths about how Hypatia of Alexandria was some kind of martyr for science, how wicked Christians destroyed "the Great Library of Alexandria" in AD 391 and how her murder and the Library's destruction ushered in the Dark Ages.  That article certainly attracted some attention and stirred up emotions - so far it's racked up 4,872 page views and attracted 125 comments, many highly hostile.

Of course, when I wrote that article the film had only been screened at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival and so I was simply able to comment on what the director and star said about it in press releases and interviews and on what could be gleaned from trailers and a couple of brief clips.  Inevitably, some of those who weren't happy with what I had to say pounced on this and claimed that I couldn't criticise the movie until I'd seen it, even though I made it very clear that I wasn't criticising the film per se and that I would withhold judgement on it as a whole until I'd seen it.

Agora has now been released in both the UK and US and so is attracting rather more attention.  Since there is still no sign of when (or if) it will be released here in Australia, I decided to put aside my usual principles and download a copy from the internet so I could finally see it for myself.

The Good, the Bad and the Silly

To begin with, there's actually quite a bit to like about this movie.  The cinematography is rich and engaging and the sets combine nicely with some judicious use of CGI to give us a vivid reconstruction of late Fourth and early Fifth Century Alexandria.  At several points Amenábar pulls the camera out of the action, up into the sky for a bird's eye view of the city and then out into space to look down on the earth as a whole.  A few critics have called these the "Google Earth shots", but personally I thought it worked well as a way of noting how petty and insignificant the violent political and religious squabbles at the centre of the story actually were.  Amenábar has noted in interviews that he was originally inspired to make the movie by Carl Sagan's 1980s TV series Cosmos and these shots were a nice nod to Sagan's ability put our human concerns into a cosmic perspective (even if, as I detailed in my original article, Sagan also managed to bungle the history of Hypatia rather badly in that series).

I also thought  Rachel Weisz and most of the rest of the cast did a very good job with a story and, at times, a script that had the potential to be highly unwieldy.  The dialogue was often clunky, as it certainly can be in historical epics like this, but Weisz managed to make scenes where she expounds on the Ptolomaic cosmological model interesting and certainly captured the "self-possession and ease of manner" that Socrates Scholasticus says Hypatia was known for very nicely.

While the sets were impressively detailed, with Roman and Hellenic elements mixed with Egyptian motifs, the same can't be said for the costumes, which tended to be "generic ancient tunics and togas" rather than clothing of the specific period.  Even less thought was given to the arms and armour of the Roman troops and the warring factions.  It seems no-one can make a "Roman" film without equipping Roman soldiers in generic First Century AD helmets, swords and armour, regardless of what century the film is actually set in.  So here the Romans wear what look like left-overs from Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, with brassy-looking pseudo-First Century helmets, short gladius swords and, of course, leather lorica segmentata for armour.  It would have been nice for nitpicky obsessives like me to finally see a movie set in the later Roman Period where the soldiers actually look like late Roman troops, but that was probably expecting too much.

The movie does do some playing around with the timeline of events and with the major characters in the story, but most of this can be excused on dramatic grounds.  In the first half of the story the Prefect Orestes (Oscar Isaac) is depicted not just as one of Hypatia's students but also as the one who, according to the famous story, publicly declared his love for her and got rebuffed.  It's said the historical Hypatia rejected him by presenting him with rags stained with her menstrual blood and said "This is what you're in love with".  But because the film never bothers to make her neo-Platonist asceticism clear - exactly what her philosophical views might be is never explored except in the vaguest terms - this incident doesn't really make much cultural sense - she comes across as a modern career academic "married to her job" rather than a disciple of the school of Plotinus. 

We know that Synesius (Rupert Evans), who later became Bishop of Cyrene, was one of her students.  And in the movie he comes back into the latter part of the story as well and tries to convince Hypatia to placate her enemies by converting to Christianity.  Finally, a fictional slave, Davus (Max Minghella), is introduced to provide the third element in an unrequited love triangle with Orestes and Hypatia.  All these changes to the historical accounts are fairly tolerable, but where the "history" in the story goes widly off the rails is when Amenábar and fellow screenplay writer Mateo Gil begin their hamfisted sermonising.  Then things get silly.


The Library That Never Was

The screenplay includes sufficient elements and details from the actual historical story to indicate that Amenábar and Gil did enough homework to have been able to depict things as they actually happened.  But this is a movie with a message and an agenda, so these elements get mixed around, downplayed, countered or simply distorted to suit Amenábar's objectives.  More importantly, most of the elements that support the "message" the director is preaching are wholesale fictional inventions.

To begin with, "the Library of Alexandria" forms the focus of the first half of the film.  Amenábar depicts this "Library of Alexandria" as forming the core of the Temple of Serapis - in fact, the Temple itself seems almost an adjunct to it - and it is described as containing "all that remains of the wisdom of men".  This is historically problematic on several fronts.  To begin with, as I detailed in my article last year, there was no "Great Library of Alexandria" as such in the city at this time.  The former Great Library had degraded and suffered several major losses of books over the centuries but it had ceased to exist by this stage - the last clear reference to it that we know of dates all the way back to AD 135.  We do know from several sources that the colonnades of the Serapeum did contain a collection of books at one time and this was a "daughter library" former Great Library's collection.  But Ammianus Marcellinus, who may have visited Alexandria himself when he was in Egypt in the late 360s, refers to the "two priceless libraries" it had once housed in the past tense, indicating they were no longer there by his time.  This fits with the descriptions we have in no less than five sources about the sack and destruction of the Serapeum at the hands of the Christians in AD 391: none of which mention any library or books at all.  This silence is made more significant by the fact that one of these sources was Eunapius of Sardis, who was not only a vehement anti-Christian but also a philosopher himself.  If anyone had an incentive to at least mention this aspect of the destruction it was Eunapius, but he makes no mention of any library or any destruction of books.

So the idea that any "Library of Alexandria" or any library at all was destroyed by the Christian mob in AD 391 is simply without evidential foundation.

Amenábar's screenplay gives some indication that he is aware of at least some of this.  The opening titles (in Spanish) do declare explicitly that in Hypatia's time "Alexandria .... possessed ... the (world's) largest known library" (poseia .... la biblioteca mas grande conocida) and a subtitle a few minutes later declares the site of Hypatia's lecture in the opening scene is "the Library of Alexandria" (Biblioteca de Alejandria).  But later one of the characters mentions " ... the fire that destroyed the mother library ... ", though this is in a piece of background dialogue while Hypatia is saying something else - less attentive viewers may even miss it completely.  Amenábar himself referred in one interview last year to the library in his film as "the second Library of Alexandria", so he clearly understands that the original Great Library no longer existed in AD 391.  But he doesn't exactly go out of his way to make this clear to his audience.  And he not only includes a library in the Serapeum, despite the evidence even this smaller library no longer existed at this point, but makes it the centre and focus of the whole complex.

Not surprisingly, it is also the focus of the scenes of the storming of the Serapeum by the Christian mob that form the climax of the first half of the film.  The accounts of the destruction of the Serapeum make it clear that the mob did not just storm the temple, they tore it to the ground, leaving little more than its foundations.  But the movie doesn't depict this at all.  Apart from toppling the great statue of Serapis and some other vandalism, the Christians leave the building intact and concentrate almost entirely on dragging the scrolls out of the library and burning them in the temple courtyards.  At one point as they swarm through the gate someone can even be heard shouting "Burn the scrolls!", as though this was the whole point of the exercise  So, oddly, Amenábar doesn't bother depicting what the mob did do and concentrates instead on something not even hinted at in the source material.  He wants to keep the emphasis firmly on the idea of Christians as destroyers of ancient knowledge and reason.  One reviewer, accepting this scene as wholly factual, calls it "the movie's most emotionally powerful moment" and says "it really makes you cry".  She's blissfully unaware that the whole scene is almost entirely fiction.


 Alexandrian Street Politics

The second act of the film concentrates on the disputes within the city that led to the murder of Hypatia.  Again, Amenábar and Gil's screenplay indicate that they are aware of some of the complexities of the situation, but their movie's agenda means that it's almost always the Christians who are cast in the worst possible light.  Socrates Scholasticus makes it clear that the political struggle for civic dominance between Bishop Cyril and the prefect Orestes had its origin in the Orestes torturing to death a follower of Cyril's, Hierax, who the Jewish community in the city accused of stirring up emnity against them.  In response, Cyril threatened the Jews, ordering them to "desist from their molestation of the Christians" and the Jews reacted by setting an ambush for Christians in the Church of Alexander, killing a number of them.  Cyril retaliated by setting his mob on the Jews and driving them (or at least some of them) out of the city.

Amenábar depicts some of this tit-for-tat series of threats and violence, but invents a scene where the Taliban-style Parabolani instigate the whole dispute by sneaking into the theatre where the Jews are holding a Sabbath celebration and stoning them.  This is found nowhere in the sources but, once again, Amenábar introduces a fictional incident into the story to make the whole conflict with the Jews and the subsequent feud between Cyril and Orestes into the fault of Cyril's faction - a clear distortion of the reported facts.

He also distorts other incidents in the dispute.  Again, Socrates Scholasticus reports that Cyril made overtures of a negotiated settlement with the prefect, but "when Orestes refused to listen to friendly advances, Cyril extended toward him the book of gospels, believing that respect for religion would induce him to lay aside his resentment." (Socrates, Ecclesiastical History, VII, 13).  Orestes, however, rejected the gesture and refused to be reconciled with the bishop.  A garbled version of this incident appears in the movie, but - yet again - Amenábar adds a fictional scene where Cyril implicitly condemns Orestes, not for supporting the Jews, but for being influcenced by Hypatia: something not mentioned in the sources.  In this scene, during a church service Cyril reads the passage in 1Timothy 2 where Paul orders women to be modest, to submit to men and to be silent and condemns women teaching men.  He then orders Orestes to kneel before the Bible he's just read from in acknowledgement that what Cyril has read is true and Orestes refuses.  Amenábar changes the incident to put its focus on Hypatia, despite the fact this scene is almost totally invented.

The movie then moves from this fictional scene to Cyril ordering the Parabolani to respond by attacking Hypatia.  So while it does make it clear that this was in retaliation for the torture and death of another of Cyril's followers by Orestes and due to the political struggle between the two rivals - which is factual - by inventing a scene where Cyril condemns Hypatia for being a woman who teaches men  Amenábar sets up the idea that this was the also a reason Hypatia was targeted - which is not factual at all.  But it serves his ideological purpose of implying that Hypatia's learning was a major issue, not simply the political faction fighting.

None of the factions come out of the movie looking particularly good, but these invented scenes do their best to cast Cyril and his followers as the instigators of the trouble and make them the clear villains in what was, on all sides, a rather grubby power struggle.  It's very odd that Cyril and most of his Parabolani fanatics are swarthy types who, despite being native Alexandrians, speak with thick Middle Eastern accents.  They also always wear black.  The pagans and members of Orestes' faction, on the other hand, all speak with clipped upper-class English accents and tend to wear white.  The implications here are less than subtle.


Fictional Science and Supposed Atheism

The final major invention by Amenábar which also suits his agenda is the rather fanciful idea that Hypatia was on the brink of not only proving heliocentrism when she was murdered but at establishing Keplerian elliptical planetary orbits into the bargain.  The film makes reference to the fact that Aristarchus of Samos had come up with a heliocentric hypothesis in the 300s BC, and mentions a couple of reasons it was regarded as making "no sense at all" (though doesn't mention the primary one - the stellar parallax problem).  But it invents a series of scenes depicting Hypatia pressing on with this idea despite these (then) not inconsiderable objections.  The whole purpose of these sequences is to make the murder of Hypatia seem like more of a loss to learning at the hands of ignorant fundamentalists.  Hypatia was certainly renowned for her learning, but there is actually no evidence she was any great innovator, let alone that she had any interest at all in Aristarchus' long-rejected hypothesis.  In fact, as the daughter of Ptolemy's most famous ancient editor and commentator, the idea that she would reject the Ptolemaic model of cosmology is pretty far fetched.  Once again, it's Amenábar's invented elements that work to support his agenda of simplifying the story into one of "ignorance and fanaticism versus scholarship and inquiry".

The movie also heavily implies that Hypatia was entirely non-religious or even an atheist - something else not found in any of the source material.  Confronted with the accusation that she is without any religion ("someone who, admittedly, believes in absolutely nothing") Hypatia replies, rather vaguely, "I believe in philosophy".   Later Cyril describes her as "a woman who has declared, in public, her ungodliness".  In fact, of all the pagan schools of thought, the neo-Platonists were the closest to a monotheistic view of the world, which is why first Jewish and then early Christian theologians took on board so much of their philosophy and integrated it into their ideas.  Yet again, Amenábar invents something that has no basis in any of the evidence that suits the sermon his movie is preaching.

Over and over again, elements are added to the story that are not in the source material: the destruction of the library, the stoning of the Jews in the theatre, Cyril condemning Hypatia's teaching because she is a woman, the heliocentric "breakthrough" and Hypatia's supposed irreligiousity.  And each of these invented elements serves to emphasise the idea that she was a freethinking innovator who was murdered because her learning threatened fundamentalist bigots.  The fact that Amenábar needs to rest this emphasis on things he has made up and mixed into the real story demonstrates how baseless this interpretation is.

Reactions

It may be baseless, but it's receiving a predictably enthusiastic reception by many critics and moviegoers.  One IMDB reviewer certainly got the message, writing a glowing review entitled "Atheists of the all the world unite!". Another notes, "Amenábar made a statement before the screening that if the Alexandria library had not been destroyed, we might have landed on Mars already."  A third declares "I hope the film is appreciated and understood, and that we learn a little bit from its depiction of history so that we can't allow the destruction of art, history, knowledge, and the respect that allows civilizations to flourish."  And these comments are typical.  These viewers accepted all the invented pseudo historical additions to the story without question and happily swallowed the sermon they rest on.

Several blog posts and articles have attempted to counter these distortions of history (notably Father Robert Baron, decentfilms.com, Jeffrey Overstreet, and the Catherine of Siena Institute).  All these writers are, however, Christians.  While several of them have attempted to deflect the charge that they are biased by reference to my article of last year (one poster on artsandfaith.com notes that I am "an atheist, no less!"), I know from my encounters with true believers in The Da Vinci Code that their Christianity will mean these attempts will be generally rejected or ignored - people like to cling to myths that confirm their ideas.

Which means, rather ironically, this film exposes who are the true fundamentalists in this picture.

183 comments:

Cecelia said...

Thank you for a thorough discussion - reading the reviews I was astonished at the ignorance of the reviewers - the film seems to be trying to set atheists and religious folk against each other based on fabrications - what a foolish thing to do. Cause we really need more conflict nowadays

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this balanced and thoughtful review. I think you hit on all the major points. The "astronomy" depicted in this film is anachronistic beyond belief (witness Hypatia carrying out an "experiment" an a ship drawn straight from the works of Galileo Galilei). I also agree that the notion of Hypatia being an "atheist" is quite silly. As numerous scholars have pointed out over the years, the fact that she still held an influential teaching position by the year 415 in a predominantly Christian city, strongly indicates that her brand of philosophy must have been quite compatible with Christianity.

Anonymous said...

It seems like your standards for this film are way too high. You seem to be nitpicking (what the Romans wore, etc). As movies go, this is about as accurate as you are ever going to get. And I don't think you gave any proof that the writer and director had an anti Christian agenda. You assume too much. If anything, this movie is rather fair to the Christians of Alexandria, who were like the Taliban. And from what I can gather from your review, there doesn't seem to be much in the way of any real historical evidence either way for Hypathia. Also, your writing is very clunky.

Emanuel said...

Muito interessante!

Already we saw this filme in Portugal, there is many months sinse release.

Obrigado (thanks)!

Tim O'Neill said...

Anonymous wrote:

It seems like your standards for this film are way too high. You seem to be nitpicking (what the Romans wore, etc). As movies go, this is about as accurate as you are ever going to get.

Actually, sadly enough, this is about as accurate as we're likely to get. Which is kind of sad. And I made it pretty clear that my comment on the armour was clearly nitpicking compared to the other criticisms - thus my use of the phrase "for nitpicky obsessives like me".

And I don't think you gave any proof that the writer and director had an anti Christian agenda. You assume too much.

You seem to be the one who is assuming things. If you read over my review again you'll find I never said his agenda is "anti-Christian" at all. Several of the Christians are presented in a fairly positive way. His agenda is to present a rather clumsy dichotomy between the "bad guys" (who are all religious) and the "good guys" (who are non-religious or not fanatically so). And to present Hypatia as a martyr of science and reason to religious ignorance. And he has to resort to twisting of the story and invented elements to do this.

And from what I can gather from your review, there doesn't seem to be much in the way of any real historical evidence either way for Hypathia.

We have enough evidence to show us that she was murdered because of the political dispute between Cyril and Orestes, not because she was a philosopher, because she was a woman or because she was a pagan. And that's the point. This movie distorts that evidence to paint a picture that fits Amenábar's sermon.

Also, your writing is very clunky.

*Chuckle* Well, as a guy with a Masters in English who is also a published freelance journalist, I think I'll manage. Thanks all the same.

Anonymous said...

Great review, Tim! I agree that the film has some redeeming qualities but, on the whole, is just as simplistic and manichean as any peplum from the 50s, perhaps even more. "Quo Vadis", although extremely pious, at least had a sympathetic pagan villain (the emperor Nero) delightfully played by the great Peter Ustinov. And if I remember well the character of Petronius (another pagan) was the most noble and complex of that film.

While, in "Agora", the Christian characters are all deeply unsympathetic: Cyril, Ammonius and the Parabolani are nothing more than a bunch of hateful fanatics, and even the moderate ones like Orestes and Synesius are ultimately shown in a negative light, acting for their own personal gain in the name of political opportunism. The character of Synesius is particulary problematic, since he humiliates Orestes over his loyalty to Hypatia and then viciously abandons her when she refuses to convert to Christianity. This, of course, contradicts all the historical evidence we have about him, available here: http://www.livius.org/su-sz/synesius/synesius_cyrene.html.

James van Maanen, said...

This was really thorough, Tim, and for the most part, fair. Though, I think you overstate Amenábar's mistakes and/or inventions. They don't seem to me to work that much against either his thesis or the facts. They elaborate, probably for purposes of telescoping and making it easier for those of us who don't have all the facts at our fingertips. You're probably right, though: This IS just about as close to accurate as we're likely to get...

Tim O'Neill said...

James wrote:

I think you overstate Amenábar's mistakes and/or inventions. They don't seem to me to work that much against either his thesis or the facts. They elaborate, probably for purposes of telescoping and making it easier for those of us who don't have all the facts at our fingertips.

If that's all they actually did I'd have no problem with them. Several fictional additions to the film (eg Davus, Orestes as her student etc) are there simply for this kind of reason.

But the problem lies in additions/changes that do far more than this. The whole business with "the Library" is the most obvious example. We have five accounts of the destruction of the Serapeum and none of them mention any library there. And Ammianus tells us why - it wasn't there any more. Yet the movie makes the destruction of this non-existent library the focus of its first half. That's hardly a small addition for the purposes telescoping etc - that's a major addition designed to support the film maker's heavy-handed agenda.

And there are multiple other examples: Cyril's sermon on 1Timothy 2, the scene where the Parabolani burn the pagan aristocrat in the agora, the fictional stoning of the Jews in the library etc. All of these additions are there purely to keep the movie's agenda clear, despite the fact they are all fictional inventions.

Yet over and over again I keep reading reviews of this movie that accept its distorted history as fact. And that's the problem.

Denise said...

As someone who tried herself to turn what is known about Hypatia into a screenplay I know just what an amazing job Agora did.

And while I found it desperately hard to find any meaning in her hideous death, this was beautiful and I must commend this scriptwriter for how he managed to make it work.

Lovely review, by the way. Very in-depth, learned and clever, although you don't make any reference to that wonderful line someone or other made back in 4th century Alexandria "This is an act of savagery that future generations will choose to blame on the villains of their own age."

I thought, if you'd have come across that in your research, you could have used it as a frame for your entire review.

Tim O'Neill said...

Denise wrote:

although you don't make any reference to that wonderful line someone or other made back in 4th century Alexandria "This is an act of savagery that future generations will choose to blame on the villains of their own age."

I thought, if you'd have come across that in your research, you could have used it as a frame for your entire review.


It's a good quote (though I must say it does sound suspiciously modern), but I didn't use it because I've never come across it. I also can't find any references to it online.

Where is it from?

Wildrow12 said...

Your review was a joy to read and incredibly informative, Mr. O'Neil. But at this point, I wouldn't expect anything less from you.

Bravo sir!

Anonymous said...

Maybe I'm just being obtuse here, but if a film among whose central claims it is that heliocentrism + elliptical planetary orbits were discovered 1600 years ago by Hypatia of Alexandria (the daugher of Theon, Ptolemy's most important editor) is allowed to qualify as being "as accurate as it gets" I think we're in serious trouble. What's next? A movie about Galen discovering Pennicilin?

Suburbanbanshee said...

Well, Ayla from Clan of the Cave Bear discovered all the major human inventions.... :)

I don't think it's nitpicky to want late Romans to wear late Roman armor. Sheesh, it's like seeing people run around in WWII with weapons and armor from the War of the Roses.

The problem is that most people believe and remember the history they're shown on screen, whether or not it's true. Since they believe it, they won't read Synesius or Cyril or any of the sources. If they do read the sources, they'll be sure the moviemakers had some more definitive source, and that the rest of it is a cover-up.

The whole thing makes me sick to the stomach. Also, as a feminist, it disgusts me to see a great lady of history turned into a puppet for men to play with. Yes, we only exist so that male filmmakers can use us as ideological points. Why try to recreate the probable thoughts and feelings of a Neoplatonic philosopher, as if she were a real person to be taken seriously? Why not just pull something out of your butt that you can set up on a pedestal and then kill, pulling sad faces over your own little fantasy sexy professor?

There are worse things than just being in love with a woman's body instead of her soul, or of wanting her but not wanting to accept the real facts of her daily life. This movie illustrates its utter contempt for Hypatia by setting up a bizarre ideal in her place; and therefore, shows contempt for all the complexity of all humanity and history.

Suburbanbanshee said...

Oh, and a few more things:

Christian catechism in Alexandrian history all descended from St. Clement of Alexandria's philosophical school, which taught philosophy, theology, and Bible interpretation. So to reject philosophy entirely would have been to spit upon their own hometown saints and martyrs. The Christian mob was volatile, but not that volatile.

Plenty of patrician women and wealthy widows studied philosophy, though of course most didn't become famous for it. But unless the ladies were studying an austere philosophy like Neoplatonism or Stoicism, the general idea a lot of people got about it was that the ladies were just studying as an excuse to get out of the house and have pleasant intellectual conversation with men (not that there's anything wrong with that) or to find and sleep with guys they weren't married to (thus preserving their money).

So if Hypatia wanted to be taken seriously as a philosopher, instead of as a dabbler and 'cougar' hunting for pretty young men, she either had to come down hard on students coming onto her, or marry them and take on a load of trouble.

But there were married female philosophers out there, too, IIRC; they usually seem to have married distinguished male philosophers. (Sort of a family business merger as well as a marriage, perhaps.)

Anonymous said...

"The problem is that most people believe and remember the history they're shown on screen, whether or not it's true."

This is indeed a crucial point, which is often unfairly pooh-poohed by those who believe they have to defend Amenábar's artistic license.

To illustrate this point:
There's a recent promotional video for "Agora", produced by a German movie website. It consists of a street survey, in which random people are asked whether the earth revolves around the sun (or vice versa) and about the shape of planetary orbits. They are subsequently asked whether they know which scientist "proved" all these astonishing facts, only to be told that it was really a woman in the fourth century AD, as depicted by the forthcoming movie "Agora".
Funnily enough, one of the kids interviewed is already well-versed in Amenábar's mythology: He's even able to tell how Hypatia's "research results" were held back at the time "because she was a woman" etc.

I find this somewhat frustrating. One important task that both professional historians and history teachers are faced with today, is to debunk the (sometimes dangerous, sometimes plainly stupid) historical myths that still dominate so much of public historical consciousness. But guys like Amenábar make it seem like a sisyphean task.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WNlDCCvNyJY&feature=player_embedded

james_joyce said...

Nice review - I'm not actually bothered by the historical distortion, probably because while I was watching it I didn't assume that any of the characters were even historical. I had never heard of Hypatia or Cyril or Orestes. I knew vaguely about the takeover of the Roman world by Christians, but didn't know any details.

So I didn't watch this film as a window into history - I watched it as a historical fiction speaking about modern problems, and I thought it did that very well.

I agree with your criticism about the apparent ethnicities of the Christians vs the Pagans - that was totally unnecessary. But beyond that I find the inaccuracies and distortions tolerable when not viewed as a dramatic documentary but as a political and social commentary.

Anonymous said...

The link to the historically accurate roman soldier dudes shows them using wooden swords. Am I being "nitpicky" to point this out?

Greg G said...

"I watched it as a historical fiction speaking about modern problems, and I thought it did that very well."

Even that is a highly problematic view of this film. Are modern issues regarding science and religion so conveniently reducible to the view put forward in Agora?

Amenábar's attitude to history shares a lot with his fake christian's fake book burning. Facts are to be discarded when they conflict with his philosophy.

Perplexed said...

[i]They are subsequently asked whether they know which scientist "proved" all these astonishing facts, only to be told that it was really a woman in the fourth century AD, as depicted by the forthcoming movie "Agora".[/i]

I find the promotion of this pseudo-history of science deeply disturbing, even if it's unwitting.

Julia Ergane said...

In addition to many of the comments already here, there is strong evidence that Hypatia was actually in her 50s/60s at the time of her death. When the film was first talked about last year, I did think that they "tarted" her up. Well, sex sells. She still remains one of my personal heroines (since 1964, when I first heard about her in geometry class)to whom I burn incense occasionally.

Anonymous said...

Only to add further to the list:
Another historical blunder, which is at least implicit in the film and explicit in Amenábar's ex cathedra statements, is the claim that - before the rise of Christianity - Alexandria used to be a peaceful, enlightened and multicultural society; whereas in reality, Alexandria was notorious almost throughout antiquity for its violent street riots and different ethnic and religious (Greek, Jewish, indigenous Egyptian) groups had been at each other's throats for centuries, long before Christianity began to play a significant role.
The Alexandrians' "natural proclivity" towards violence was almost proverbial in late antiquity and even the Suda-entry for Hypatia cites it as one possible explanation for her death. ("According to some, [this was the fault of] Cyril, but according to others, [it resulted] from the inveterate insolence and rebelliousness of the Alexandrians. For they did this also to many of their own bishops – consider George and Proterios.")

Jose said...

Great piece!

I think you might've been a bit too harsh on the filmmaker's need to bend history for dramatic purposes (it happens all the time after all) but I agree in the fact that he does so with a hidden agenda that condemns the very things he's supposed to be against.

I wrote another piece on the film if you're interested http://filmexperience.blogspot.com/2010/06/imperfect-circle.html

Again great work and thanks for the comment in my site!

Jorgon Gorgon said...

Thanks; pretty much my thoughts. A well-made--and on, occasion, even inspiring!--pseudo-historical fantasy film, full of anachronisms and distortions. Definitely worth watching, as long as one realizes that! It is a fantasy, after all (I take the attempts to market it as history as an inside joke).

And I say that as one of those "militant" atheists.

Rachel is hot, however.:)

Anonymous said...

Anybody care to leave a message over at P.Z. Myers' blog?

He thinks this film is the bee's knees and that there is possibly some big theocratic conspiracy to prevent its wider distribution so The Truth can't get out there. The comments left to this post are - well, let's just say that nobody is saying "Hang on a mo, what's the actual history behind this?"

*sigh*

I'm too disheartened to do it myself after the debacle of the communion Host affair where I left a message but that had no effect on his gang of cheerleaders, and what with me being a self-confessed religious believer, obviously I'm part of the great theocratic conspiracy.

Sharon said...

http://www.firstthings.com/onthesquare/2010/06/the-perniciously-persistent-myths-of-hypatia-and-the-great-library

The Perniciously Persistent Myths of Hypatia and the Great Library
Jun 4, 2010
David B. Hart

Anonymous said...

Ah, I knew the history of this thing was going to be all warped. Thanks for a clear and relatively concise stating of the facts.

whomever1 said...

I just wanted to point out that in addition to showing the Christians, Jews and Pagans in a bad light it also showed Hypatia to be totally insensitive to the humanity of her slaves. The main point of the film might be focused on when she implied that if the Earth wasn't the center we would all just be random and meaningless bit players. I was basically pretty depressed when I left the film.

Anonymous said...

Having just seen the movie, I thought it did a fairly good job of showing biases and poor assumptions from everybody (like Hypatia's attitude towards her slaves, as noted already). And it's not too difficult to assume that they are sexing up their history (though there is dispute about Hypatia's birthday). But I don't think that saying her death was a political rather than a religious matter solves anything. First, it's not clear from the few relevant sources. Second, how separable have these ever been in our history? Religion is politics is religion, and has been from the beginning.

Tim O'Neill said...

Anoymous said:

But I don't think that saying her death was a political rather than a religious matter solves anything. First, it's not clear from the few relevant sources.

It isn't? Socrates Scholasticus TELLS us her murder was due to "political jealousies" and gives the context and background of those political jealousies in some detail. Damascius, who unlike Scholasticus was a pagan, supports what he says. And none of the sources indicate that religion played any role at all. So how is this unclear?

Second, how separable have these ever been in our history? Religion is politics is religion, and has been from the beginning.

That's a neat little truism, but how is it relevant here?

Anonymous said...

I have now seen this movie, and even with my rather limited knowledge noticed the inaccuracies contained within; I have not, however, felt that the movie either depicts Hypatia as especially atheistic, which I concur is very subjective, nor the reason for her death as that of being a woman, a philosopher, a pagan or all three. I had the strong impression that the dialogue throughout the movie and especially leading up to Hypatia's refusal to convert and subsequently to Davus' decision to warn Hypatia of the impending murder clearly illustrated that the underlying reason was a power struggle. Maybe the difference in perception lies within the fact that I am well aware that history is represented poorly in many if not most films concerned with it. I can understand your problem with the film, but for me the central points and most moving scenes were those showing the progress of thinking and discovery, and the joy connected to it (nothing to do with Hypatia especially).

Anebo said...

"Cyril implicitly condemns Orestes, not for supporting the Jews, but for being influcenced by Hypatia: something not mentioned in the sources. "

Now her is a quot from the Coptic life of Cyril"

"And thereafter a multitude of believers in God arose under the guidance of Peter the magistrate -- now this Peter was a perfect believer in all respects in Jesus Christ -- and they proceeded to seek for the pagan woman who had beguiled the people of the city and the prefect through her enchantments. "

Surely you must agree that this is a historical source that talks about Cyril's concern of Hypatia's influence on Orestes?

But, more fundamentally, I though you were signed on to the the hypothesis that Hypatia was killed for political reasons? Isn't the political motive exactly Jealousy of Cyril over Hypatia's influence on Orestes?

Here is a quote from Socrates:

"Yet even she fell victim to the political jealousy which at that time prevailed. For as she had frequent interviews with Orestes, it was calumniously reported among the Christian populace, that it was she who prevented Orestes from being reconciled to the bishop."

Damascius says that Cyril determined to kill her when he became jealousy that her influence was such that Orestes actually went to her morning levy, rather than the other way around.

So, Please, amend your original post to indicate that the reason all the sources agree Hypatia was killed was because of Cyrill's jealously of her influence with Orestes. You're even contradicting yourself there.

Tim O'Neill said...

Anebo wrote:

Surely you must agree that this is a historical source that talks about Cyril's concern of Hypatia's influence on Orestes?

That's taken word for word from John of Nikiu's very late account that also includes other things that aren't found in the earlier sources, including the idea Hypatia was a "witch". I'll stick to the contemporary sources.

But, more fundamentally, I though you were signed on to the the hypothesis that Hypatia was killed for political reasons? Isn't the political motive exactly Jealousy of Cyril over Hypatia's influence on Orestes?

Of course her influence over Orestes was the reason she was targeted - I never claimed otherwise. The quote from my article that you've chosen to take out of context was talking about how this idea is inserted in this particular incident and makes out that the confrontation between Cyril and Orestes where the bishop presents the prefect with the gospels was somehow to do with Hypatia, rather than over Orestes' defence of the Jews. It's another example of the movie changing events to skew the focus of the story.

Anebo said...

So far from taking it out of context, I am pretty sure that The Socrates passage I quote there is what stands behind that part of the film (I also finally down-loaded it).

Yes the earlier quote is a quotation from John as I clearly indicated. It does not say she was a witch (what is Coptic for witch anyway?), but that she practiced magic--a perfectly normal charge in ancient political rhetoric. While it is is a little later than other sources, it gives a popular perspective that I do no think is inauthentic to the period and could well go back to contemporary records of the Alexandrian See kept in Coptic. It would be silly to throw it out. Just consider it for what it is.

Tim O'Neill said...

Anebo said:

So far from taking it out of context, I am pretty sure that The Socrates passage I quote there is what stands behind that part of the film.

No, it doesn't. Socrates is the only account we have of the story of Orestes rejecting Cyril's offering the gospels to him and makes it perfectly clear this was in the context of their dispute over Orestes' protection of the Jews. Hypatia is not mentioned or even hinted at in this episode. Yet the movie inserted her into its depiction of this scene.

It does not say she was a witch (what is Coptic for witch anyway?), but that she practiced magic--a perfectly normal charge in ancient political rhetoric.

Here's what it actually says:

"And in those days there appeared in Alexandria a female philosopher, a pagan named Hypatia, and she was devoted at all times to magic, astrolabes and instruments of music, and she beguiled many people through Satanic wiles."

"Magic" AND "Satanic wiles". Now show me where this is found in any of the earlier sources.

While it is is a little later than other sources ...

Two centuries later, actually.

... it gives a popular perspective that I do no think is inauthentic to the period

Despite the fact nothing like it is found in either Socrates or Damascius? You really are reaching now.

and could well go back to contemporary records of the Alexandrian See kept in Coptic.

If that's the case, why did Nikiu use Socrates as his primary source?

Just consider it for what it is.

It's a late source with some later anti-pagan prejudice added to what we already know from the earlier sources.

Anebo said...

We seem to be arguing at cross purposes. We seem agreed that the passage is taken out of context by the film, not by me.

The Coptic life represents traditions about Hypatia within the Coptic Monophysite community. There is no reason to think that John is making things up out whole cloth. he is more likely relying on written records and oral tradition. We don't have so many sources of antiquity that we can pick and choose what we use. We have to understand how to use what is available. The accusation that one's opponent is a magician is found everywhere in political discord in antiquity, int he treason trials under Tiberius and (more to the point the ones described by Ammianus), in the New testament, in the Talmud. There seems little reason to doubt that it was made against Hypatia. That doesn't mean it was true, naturally.

On the other hand, before the stunt with the sanitary napkin, she tried to realign her student's soul by Neopythagorean number mysticism. That certainly falls under one definition of magic (and that comes from Damascius).

Tim O'Neill said...

Anebo wrote:

We seem agreed that the passage is taken out of context by the film, not by me.


Actually, what I said you had taken out of context was one of your quotes of me. I wasn't saying the resentment of Hypatia's influence on Orestes was invented, just that the insertion of this into the scene with the gospels was an invention.

The Coptic life represents traditions about Hypatia within the Coptic Monophysite community. There is no reason to think that John is making things up out whole cloth. he is more likely relying on written records and oral tradition

Sorry, but unless we have some indication that he was, we can't simply assume this. That's not historical analysis, that's just wishful thinking. The idea that she used "magic" and "Satanic wiles" are not found in the earlier sources. But they are what we'd expect someone like Nikiu to say about a pagan woman - a rather weird and remote concept in his time. So the most likely conclusion, in the absence of any actual evidence to the contrary, is that this a later tradition or simply his later spin in the story.

We don't have so many sources of antiquity that we can pick and choose what we use.

But we have to be aware of how to use those few sources we have. Later sources with additional elements that reflect the prejudices of their own time are clearly suspect when it comes to those additional elements.

The accusation that one's opponent is a magician is found everywhere in political discord in antiquity

I'm well aware of that, thanks. BUt the early sources make no mention of any such accusations. If they had been made, why wouldn't one of them mention it? Since it's not found in those early sources, is only found in Nikiu and reflects the preijudices against pagans in his later time, this element remains highly suspect.

There seems little reason to doubt that it was made against Hypatia.

There is one big whopping reason to doubt this actually - the fact it's not mentioned in the contemporary sources. Their silence on this point indicates that it wasn't one of the origional accusations at all, just some anti-pagan trimming added by a much later source.

Anebo said...

Are you aware of some source that I am not that is better informed than John about Cyril's viewpoint?

John had access to sources about Cyril we don't; its perfectly clear that its summarizing older documents and what he he says has great historical plausibility as reflecting a likely attitude of the Coptic Christian community. That doesn't mean its true (whatever that means), it means it has a likelihood of representing Cyril's viewpoint, and the viewpoint of the men who killed Hypatia.

Tim O'Neill said...

Anebo continued:

Are you aware of some source that I am not that is better informed than John about Cyril's viewpoint?


I'm aware that we have absolutely no idea of how well informed or otherwise Nikiu was about Cyril's viewpoint on this matter. Your imagining that the difference between his account of Hypatia and the earlier one is because of some other, lost sources is just that - imagining. You have no evidence for it.

Sorry, but I stick to the evidence and leave imagination and wishful thinking to fiction writers and people with axes to grind.

Anonymous said...

I think most historians (those who are schooled in good old-fashioned art of "Quellenkritik") would react to John's text with the same instinctive assumption: that we are faced with a late attempt to remove the stain in Cyril's reputation caused by his controversial involvement in the "Hypatia-affair" both by re-inventing her as a pagan evildoer and by re-inventing him as a defender of Christianity against paganism. Accordingly, any attempt to draw conclusions about what might have actually happened from John's late source text seem to be futile.

Anonymous said...

Only to add further to my point that "Agora" will have detrimental effects on the public understanding of the history of science:
Those capable of reading German may be interested in reading this longish article from an online science mag, which endorses all of Agora's spurious claims as historical truth. Most distressingly, the astronomer Antonio Mampaso, who served as Amenábar's scientific "consultant", seems to be publically endorsing the preposterous idea that Hypatia anticipated the discoveries of Copernicus, Galileo and Kepler by 1200 years. He is cited to this effect both in this article and in other promotional material I have found on the web.
What is wrong with this guy?

Most distressingly, too, the online mag in question is run by "Springer", one of the most renowned science (and history of science) publishers out there.
What are they thinking?

http://www.scinexx.de/dossier-detail-486-5.html

http://es.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antonio_Mampaso

Wildrow12 said...

Baerista,

Behold the terrible power of education via Hollywood.

David said...

I have just seen the film and discovered your site. I already have enormous respect for your writings and gratitude for all you have shared with us. So rather than dwell on the majority of details on which you are persuasive, permit me to focus on what appears to me to be a failing -- your comfort in accepting the statement by the Christian chronicler Socrates that the cause for Hypatia's murder is only "political." A few points: (1) It seems obvious that a moderate scholarly Christian would seek to deny that his Christian religion had any role in inspiring such an horrific murder. Just look at how religious moderates today seek to say Islam has no role in the acts of "political" violence perpetrated by followers of Muhammed. (You may agree with this argument that let's Islam off the hook, which would explain why you are so comfortable accepting Socrates' assessment.) But there is nothing historically irresponsible about recognizing the likelihood of a bias that should make you less comfortable relying on Socrates omission of any mention of any "religious" cause for her murder. (2) You do not recognize or comment upon the following distinctions: (a) the reason why Cyril wanted to attack and undermine Orestes - which I accept can be largely explained as a political power struggle, and (b) the reason why Cyril & Co. chose Hypatia as the vehicle for his power play, and (c) the reasons why Cyril's followers murder her so brutally. It seems that your historical evidence addresses (a), above, but it seems woefully inadequate to even begin to address (b) or (c). I do not think you can responsibly just say "no contemporary writer said why she was chosen as the target among the countless other allies and counsels of Orestes, or why she was butchered with such malevolence, so it must have been just politics, as one Christian writer said." It may not be strict documented history, but it seems a compelling and plausible interpretation of history to suggest that the anti-female and anti-pagan vehemence that sprang from the fanactics encounter with Biblical literature are likely related to this credulous sect's choice of a learned pagan women as their target, and the carnal blood lust with which the attack is manifest. Those cannot be adequately explained as merely political acts.

Anonymous said...

The problem is that Socrates is not just some random "Christian" chronicler. Christianity was never a homogenous entity (neither is Islam, BTW). Socrates had strong sympathies for the Novatian sect, whereas he was highly critical of Cyril and the "orthodox" community represented by him. One of the most discernible biases in Socrates's account is his dislike for Cyril's way of interfering with secular politics.
More importantly, if Socrates chose to suppress the "true" background of Hypatia's murder ("anti-female", "anti-pagan"), one would expect that some hints in this direction would appear in Damascius' account, as it is (partly) preserved in the Suda. Since he's writing from a pagan perspective, it is quite baffling how little he does to bolster Amenábar's version.

Also, if you think the idea of an "anti-female" and "anti-pagan" background is "compelling and plausible", you should ask yourself why you find it so plausible. Because of all the historical evidence or because it complements our contemporary stereotypes of late antique Christianity, which are derived not from a close reading of the sources, but rather from Victorian novels and movies such as "Agora"?
Historians try to avoid this kind of speculation as to what is "plausible" precisely because they don't want their personal preconceptions to get in the way.

Don't get me wrong: of course it is possible that Hypatia's death was a product of "anti-female", "anti-pagan" violence. But then again, if it wasn't, most people today would still believe so, which shows how futile such speculations are. And why stop there? We could go on re-interpreting all sorts of historical events based on what we find "plausible" (i.e. what we would like to be true). But in the end, that's not what most of us mean when we talk about "history".

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this article. It was a really interesting read.

I agree with you that some things that you're saying here were historically inaccurate were displayed as factual in the film -- that Hypatia was an outspoken atheist, that she was killed for being a woman of learning. And I think that the movie definitely left me with a, "Wow, atheists of that time were screwed," feeling.

That said, I don't think that the messages that you took from the way they told the story are really there. For example, I don't think the movie presents Hypatia as being killed because she was an atheist or because she was a thinking woman. It seemed to me fairly clear that what it was saying these were the loopholes that were used to execute her execution, but that the underlying reason was that the Christians wanted to strike at the Prefect, but were unable to get to him directly because of his military support. So at least to me it still felt like she was killed as part of the political machinations, although as you say the historical accuracy of the details of how that happened are misrepresented.

On the heliocentric model and the elliptical orbit aspects, though, I thought that the movie was *very* clear that there is no evidence that she actually discovered that. They depicted her making those discoveries, but the text that they overlay right after the end of the film pretty much spells out the message: "There's no actual record of her making those discoveries. She was known to be an intelligent woman who had access to the knowledge required to make them, and we the creators of this movie feel that it's possible and plausible that she may have made them, but if she did, there's no remaining record and it was lost to the sands of time." Now, that may just be my perception, but that was the take-away message. If that's still going too far (for example, even if they admit that those specific discoveries are conjecture, they still present her as having been reknowned as the then-equivalent of a scientist, which I gather you think is misleading at best), then that's certainly a different matter, but I don't think the film presents her as actually having discovered the elliptical orbits at least, and while it more widely depicts her as a proponent of heliocentrism, the disclaimer again to me cast that as the filmmakers positing what she may have done instead of documenting what she did.

Moth Woman said...

Excellent review. I will have to read more of your writings. You are very informed and your writing style is excellent. I disturbs me that some people think that distorting our own human past and presenting it as fact is a non-issue so long as the film is entertaining. It also disturbs me that a filmmaker would use a real, historical woman as a puppet for his own contemporary ideas.
I don't think you're nitpicking the film. Why do historical fiction without the desire to be, well, a tad historical?

Tim O'Neill said...

David wrote:

It seems obvious that a moderate scholarly Christian would seek to deny that his Christian religion had any role in inspiring such an horrific murder. Just look at how religious moderates today seek to say Islam has no role in the acts of "political" violence perpetrated by followers of Muhammed.

That analogy would work if we had Socrates actually denying that Christianity was part of the reason for her murder. If he had done that, as the Muslims in your analogy do with Islam and terrorism, that would be a loud warning bell that Socrates was protesting too much. But he doesn’t do this at all. What he actually does is tell us that her murder was due to “political jealousies” and detail what the political conflict in question was.

Of course, Socrates could have simply made all that detailed political background up (rather unlikely) or simply highlighted it while failing to mention some other, underlying religious motivation (more likely). But to simply assume either of these things without evidence is not valid. Socrates was no fan of Cyril’s religious views or policies, so he could have blamed Cyril for any religious motivations for the murder without attacking his own faith. But he doesn’t do so. And as Baerista has already pointed out, why don’t we find any religious motivation in Damascius’ account either, considering he was a pagan?

The fact remains that neither of the contemporary accounts give any indication of a religious motive. We can’t simply conjure one up out of nothing because we think it makes for a better story. We have to stick to the evidence and can only dismiss or doubt it if we have good reason to do so. We have no such reason to do so here.

(2) You do not recognize or comment upon the following distinctions: (a) the reason why Cyril wanted to attack and undermine Orestes - which I accept can be largely explained as a political power struggle

I thought I did do so actually. Cyril represented a new class of bishops who now had imperial backing as well as the popular support of a vastly increased diocesan congregation. This meant that bishops across the Empire went from being the harried and often persecuted popular leaders of an illegal faith to being imperially-backed demogogues. Alexandria was not the only place where these new types of politically potent bishops began throwing their political weight around and began annoying the older political establishment.

and (b) the reason why Cyril & Co. chose Hypatia as the vehicle for his power play

I make that quite clear – because she was a prominent and known political ally of Orestes and because it was thought she was preventing a reconciliation with Cyril.

and (c) the reasons why Cyril's followers murder her so brutally.

I made that clear as well – because Orestes had tortured Cyril’s follower Ammonius to death so they did the same to one of Orestes’ followers in revenge.

It seems that your historical evidence addresses (a), above, but it seems woefully inadequate to even begin to address (b) or (c).

See above. I actually address (b) and (c) far more overtly than (a).

(Continued)

Tim O'Neill said...

(Continued)

I do not think you can responsibly just say "no contemporary writer said why she was chosen as the target among the countless other allies and counsels of Orestes, or why she was butchered with such malevolence, so it must have been just politics, as one Christian writer said."

I say nothing remotely like that. I made the reasons for the conflict, the reason she was targeted and the reason she was murdered in that way all perfectly clear. And none of them have anything to do with religion.

It may not be strict documented history, but it seems a compelling and plausible interpretation of history to suggest that the anti-female and anti-pagan vehemence that sprang from the fanactics encounter with Biblical literature are likely related to this credulous sect's choice of a learned pagan women as their target, and the carnal blood lust with which the attack is manifest.

Sorry, but if it’s not supported by the evidence, then simple “plausibility” isn’t enough. Nor is the fact that it makes a more poignant or appealing story. All kinds of things are “plausible”. Lots of things are poignant and appealing. But history is about evidence.

Fatpie42 said...

It doesn't sound like the movie portrays her as non-religious at all. It portrays her as a pagan Neo-Platonist.

Like Socrates, she is accused of godlessness because she aspires to an ideal of "the good" rather than the typical pagan gods (or Christ, if her accusers are Christians).

The condemnation for being godless here seems exactly the same as the condemnation received by Socrates. It doesn't make either of them non-religious.

Anonymous said...

Here we go again: Bettany Hughes jumping Amenábar's band-wagon, "popularizing" historical "knowledge", selling speculation as fact.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Paztsjhqwgk&feature=related

TheOFloinn said...

I knew vaguely about the takeover [sic] of the Roman world by Christians, but didn't know any details.
The Christians =were= the Romans. When abandoned temples were being renovated for Christian use, they sometimes discovered cult objects in caverns underneath – things like giant phalluses, skulls of eviscerated babies, etc. – which they paraded through town in the daylight where folks could see them for what they were. Lots of pagans converted. Other pagans rioted. One riot ended with the pagans occupying the fortress-like Serapeum. The emperor preferred amnesty to a costly assault, but ordered the Serapeum turned over to the Christians as expiation; thus removing a refuge for rioters.
Two pagan leaders of the Serapeum occupation later went to Constantinople, where one of them bragged of killing nine Christians during the riots. These two guys were the tutors of… Socrates Scholasticus. So when ol' SS tells us about the Serapeum affair or about the character of Hypatia, he was getting it from the horse’s mouth.
+ + +
epi-lj
the Christians wanted to strike at the Prefect but were unable [evidence?] to get to him directly because of his military support
When a couple hundred Nitrian monks came to town to rally round Cyril, they accosted Orestes in a traffic jam and his bodyguard fled. That's when Ammonius threw a rock and beaned Orestes on the head. They were quite able to “get” to Orestes himself. The other Christians intervened and rescued him and seized Ammonius, whom Orestes then tortured to death.
You see, there were two parties, dating from the death of Patriarch Theophilus. One party supported Theo's deacon, Timothy; the other party supported Theo's nephew, Cyril. They settled things the good old Alexandrian way: with three days of street riots. Cyril won; but the "other party" still had strong adherents among the patricians in the Upper City. Cyril's strength came from the poor in the Lower City. The Timothy party became Orestes' party and Hypatia aligned herself with them.
Cyril was terrified of her because not only was she connected with the rich and powerful, but her former students (who idolized her) included several bishops, a wealthy Syrian landowner, and men who were friends with the military governor of Egypt and the praetorian prefect of the East. She was not a two-bit philosophy prof. at a jerkwater college.
+ + +
"There's no actual record of her making those discoveries. She was known to be an intelligent woman who had access to the knowledge [sic] required to make them, and we the creators of this movie feel [sic!!!] that it's possible [sic] and plausible [sic!!] that she may have made them, but if she did, there's no remaining record and it was lost to the sands of time."
Intellectually dishonesty bordering on deliberate deception. But folks today "feel" things, and feeling require no proof. Ptolemy had been an Alexandrian and Hypatia’s known commentaries are on Alexandrian mathematicians. But Neoplatonists pursued mathematics not as we do, but as an extraction of Pure Forms from the yucky material world as a way of getting closer to God and learning his will. By the same token, astronomy was not a study of the yucky material world but a specialized branch of mathematics whose only purpose was to accurately cast horoscopes and so learn of God’s plans. No Ptolemaic ever supposed that epicycles and descants were physically real. Astronomy was simply not a branch of physics. Even in the Physics, more an Aristotelian playground than a Platonist one, the planets were not imagined as balls of dirt and gas whirling in orbits empty space, but as embedded in thick hollow nested spheres made of quintessence (aether) that turned around their common centers. An “elliptical” orbit was quite literally unimaginable.

TheOFloinn said...

why she was chosen as the target among the countless other allies and counsels of Orestes
The sources tell us it was because the blue collar folks in the Lower City believed she was the barrier keeping Orestes from reconciling with Cyril and thus prolonging the crisis. So a lynch mob took matters in their own hands. The mob was made up of Christians. Overlooked is that Cyril’s opponents – Orestes and those who had supported Timothy for bishop – were also Christians. That is, Hypatia was aligned with and supported by one of two factions composed of Christians; so it makes no sense to say “the” Christians killed her when they also supported her.
+ + +
(c) the reasons why Cyril's followers murder her so brutally.
Dude. Because it was freaking Alexandria, that's why. What makes you think that such cruelty was unusual?
St. Mark was killed by the pagans, who dragged him by his heels through the street to the Serapeum, where he was torn limb from limb. A pagan mob killed the Arian bishop George after Julian became emperor: dragged through the streets, torn limb from limb. Ammianus tells us that because the Christians built churches over the relics of martyrs, the pagans then burned the corpse and scattered the ashes. Hypatia was killed by Peter’s mob, torn limb from limb, her body dragged through the streets, and the corpse burned. (Did they fear a church built on her relics?) When a Monophysite mob killed the orthodox Patriarch Proterius, one of Cyril's successors, dragged through the streets, etc., Evagrius tells us they did not refrain from "tasting" his intestines. It was like they had a freaking ISO procedure.
The populace in general are an inflammable material, and allow very trivial pretexts to foment the flame of commotion, and not in the least degree that of Alexandria, which ... vaunts forth its impulses with excessive audacity. Accordingly, it is said that everyone who is so disposed may, by employing any casual circumstance as a means of excitement, inspire the city with a frenzy of sedition, and hurry the populace in whatever direction and against whomsoever he chooses. (Evagrius Scholasticus, Ecclesiastical History, Book 2 ch. VIII)
+ + +
it seems a compelling and plausible interpretation of history to suggest that the anti-female and anti-pagan vehemence that sprang from the fanactics [sic] encounter with Biblical literature are likely related to this credulous [sic] sect's choice of a learned pagan women as their target, and the carnal blood lust with which the attack is manifest. Those cannot be adequately explained as merely political acts.
Sure they can. Alexandrians did it all the time. It seems a compelling and plausible interpretation of history only to the credulous.
If female public philosophers were a problem, why was nothing done to Aedesia, who taught publicly in Alexandria the generation after Hypatia? Why were most of Hypatia's known students themselves Christians? – Synesius, Heraclian, Cyrus, Euoptis, Olympius, "the deacon," "the holy father Theotecnus." At least three later became bishops. Anti-female? The Blessed Virgin Mary? Do we need a list of Egyptian females honored as saints? St. Theodora, St. Eugenia, St. Piama, St. Mary of Egypt? St. Catherine of Alexandria, patron saint of philosophers, who it was said confounded all who debated her?
Hypatia followed Plotinus, who taught that the One God had three hypostases: the One, the Intellect, & the Soul – similar to the Christian Trinity. Augustine, a contemporary of Hypatia, was using Neoplatonism to expound Christian doctrine. Moderns and postmoderns suppose that Neoplatonism and Christianity would be at odds because that moderns and postmoderns know nothing about either one.

Anonymous said...

"Here we go again: Bettany Hughes jumping Amenábar's band-wagon, "popularizing" historical "knowledge", selling speculation as fact."

Bettany Hughes is cute, sexy and charismatic, no doubt about it. But she is also a very lousy historian! Just look at this piece of politically correct garbage to know what I mean: When the Moors Ruled in Spain.
Oh dear, I don't want to sound like a mysoginist, but I think that Aristotle may have been right after all when he said that the proper place for women is at home. History teaching is clearly beyond their grasp. ;)

Greg G said...

"I don't want to sound like a mysoginist"

I think that's exactly what you want to sound like.

Presumably spelled correctly.

Anonymous said...

"I think that's exactly what you want to sound like.

Presumably spelled correctly."

Hehehehe. That was a deliberate spelling mistake, since my previous comment was not to be taken entirely seriously. ;) But the fact remains that Bettany Hughes is not a great historian by any standard.

Tim O'Neill said...

I haven't read any of Hughes' work, so I can't comment on her writing. I couldn't see anything wrong or "politically correct" about that documentary on Moorish Spain though. Seemed pretty straightforward to me.

We are getting off topic though. Let's keep to Hypatia and Agora. And leave out the brainless sexism, however much of a "joke" it's supposed to be. It's still dumb.

Anonymous said...

"I couldn't see anything wrong or "politically correct" about that documentary on Moorish Spain though. Seemed pretty straightforward to me."

Come on, Tim! Right at the beginning Bettany Hughes says that, after the fall of Granada, the Spanish authorities burned "as many as a million Arabic books". I don't know where this number comes from. Do you? Then she also states that while Greek science was studied and expanded in Al-Andalus, in northern Europe it was "supressed" by the Church because of its pagan origins. There's also a conspicuous omission of all those bloody battles and massacres that followed the Arab-led Berber invasion of 711. In fact, at one point, Hughes asserts that the vast majority of the Iberian population happily embraced the new invaders as liberators from their "barbaric" Visigothic Christian kings. This is far removed from the historical facts, as you should know. For instance, the Christians of Toledo and Seville, which had first submitted in 711, revolted in 713. In response, the towns were pillaged, the nobles beheaded and the population sold as slaves. The infamous Jizya tax is also never mentioned in this documentary and the ruthless fanaticism of the Almoravid and Almohad dynasties is extremely downplayed, while the Spanish Inquisition receives once again the "big bad wolf" treatment.
That Al-Andalus was a great civilization is not in question, but this documentary on the whole seems to me as selective and biased as the Wikipedia article on Islamic science. Hughes' documentary about Alexandria is also poorly researched, especially the part about Hypatia and the Library.

"We are getting off topic though. Let's keep to Hypatia and Agora. And leave out the brainless sexism, however much of a "joke" it's supposed to be. It's still dumb."

Fair enough. But remember that Aristotle was not Belgian! ;)
I'm sorry about my previous sexist comment but I rewatched A Fish Called Wanda the other day and so I still was under Otto's influence.

Cheers, mate.

Greg G said...

Here's Bettany Hughes and Edith Hall talking about Hypatia before having seen the film (sorry it's in Real Player).

http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/womanshour/01/2009_20_thu.shtml

Anonymous said...

Mike Flynn has driven the final nail into the coffin of the myth of Hypatia. It's a treat!

Here: The Mean Streets of Old Alexandria.

Richard Carrier, Charles Freeman and all the other anti-Christian/pro-pagan asinine ideologues should read this superb piece of writing and learn from it. This is History with a capital H!

Ignorance said...

Great review! Though it will sadly not be the death of any myths, it is a very informative review.

In the meantime, I took the liberty to put your quote into an image:
http://img826.imageshack.us/img826/8694/amloandbelong.png

Ignorance said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

Excellent review. I'm glad I took the time and read it.

Johan said...

Some great nitpicking there. I applaud your efforts to educate people "wie es eigentlich gewesen".

I am not so sure about judging the movie negatively for its liberties with the truth however, it being after all a work of fiction.

Authors taking liberties with the historical truth is nothing new. Just look at Shakesperare's history plays. Is Richard III a worse play just because it deviates heavily from what actually happened?

Anonymous said...

In last year's post you showed that (1) it was the Christian faction in the city that had escalated the power struggle and that (2) there was a stoning by that faction (not on the Jewish faction per se, but not too far from it either). You stated the opposite in this post??? Here is the relevant section from last year's post:
The tensions spilled over when a group of monks from the remote monasteries of the desert - men known for their fanatical zeal and not renowned for their political sophistication - came into the city in force to support Cyril and began a riot that resulted in Orestes' entourage being pelted with rocks, with one stone hitting the Prefect in the head. Not one to stand for such insults, Orestes had the monk in question arrested and tortured to death.

TheOFloinn said...

Good old Alexandria.

Tim O'Neill said...

Joahn said:

I am not so sure about judging the movie negatively for its liberties with the truth however, it being after all a work of fiction.

I ahve no problems with works of fiction based loosely on history. I rather liked Gladiator, for example, even though what little history was in it was mangled gibberish. But that didn't matter, as the director made it clear he was invoking a certain romanticised image of ancient Rome, not trying for a historical depiction.

But Amenabar can't use the "it's just fiction" excuse because he was publically and repeatedly stated that what he has depicted is accurate and insisted we should draw historical lessons from it. He claims that the destruction of the "Great Library" by Christians set back learning so far that if it hadn't happened we'd now have colonies on Mars. That claim is nonsense if - as it seems - the destruction he depicts never actually happened.

He is also promoting this movie in Germany by telling people that Hypatia discovered heliocentrism and elliptical orbits. Which is total fantasy. So I'm afraid the "it's fiction" excuse fails because Amenabar himself has claimed it is something more than "fiction". Which immediately exposes him to my kind of "nitpicking".

Tim O'Neill said...

Some anonymous person said:

In last year's post you showed that (1) it was the Christian faction in the city that had escalated the power struggle and that (2) there was a stoning by that faction (not on the Jewish faction per se, but not too far from it either). You stated the opposite in this post???

No, not at all. In last years’s post I was focusing on how the conflict between Orestes and Cyril came to focus on Hypatia – one of Cyril’s men got tortured to death for throwing a stone at the prefect so his friends did the same to Hypatia. In this post I go back to how that conflict between Orestes and Cyril began in the first place – which involved an attack by the Jews on the Christians and Orestes championing the Jews.

The movie, however, invents an initial attack on the Jews by Cyril’s Christians, which is not in the sources. It’s one of a number of additions that Amenabar makes to the story which skews the story and makes the Christians into more of the bad guys.

bill benzon said...

Here's a review that references this post:

http://new-savanna.blogspot.com/2010/08/agora-impurity-they-name-is-knowledge.html

Pressed Rat and Wart Hog said...

Valid criticism of the historical inaccuracies within this film. However I wonder how many Christian myths and martyrs would stand up to the same level of detailed analysis and debunking? Few indeed I'd bet. And the fact is despite however one casts the details of the process the rise of Christianity coincided with the advent of the Dark Ages.

Finally, something which this analysis misses completely is the irrefutable historical fact that Hypatia, a great scholar of her time was brutally murdered by a mob of Christians for political purpose. That PER SE is enough to carry the thesis that fundamentalism and rejection of humanism is a path none of us can afford. It is no different from the actions of the Taliban or the Cultural Revolution and must be abhorred no matter what justification is offered, and attempts to let it slide by by cloaking it claiming that there was "political" ferment behind it need to be rejected absolutely. This is the exact same reasoning that Papal apologists offer for treatment of scientists during the inquisition. It is as morally bankrupt now as in the past.

TheOFloinn said...

PR&WH
I wonder how many Christian myths and martyrs would stand up to the same level of detailed analysis and debunking?

Mr. O'Neil was comparing the movie to the known sources. He was not commenting on whether the original source materials were true. What if Socrates Scholasticus were simply repeating an urban legend which his disaffected teachers, Ammonius and Helladius, had told him?

A Christian parallel would be a movie on the life of Habib the Martyr that showed him as trying to sneak out of town and let his friends and family die, only to be talked into returning by a wise pagan philosopher. That would not be true to the source material.

the rise of Christianity coincided with the advent of the Dark Ages.

Actually, the Dark Age coincided with the collapse of Roman civil administration in the Western provinces and the consequent sacking and looting of the Western cities by Goths, Franks, Saracens, Vikings, and Magyars. It might be hard to keep the light bright when civilization itself is on the brink. Byzantium did not sink into a Dark Age; and intellectual ferment in Alexandria did not cease until after the muslim invasion. By AD 1000, the darkness in the West was lifting, after the final defeat of the Magyars at Lechfeld; and the ancient learning, carefully preserved in those monasteries that had not been sacked and burned by Saracens and Vikings, Europeans once more had the leisure to contemplate.

Then, too, the period from AD 500-AD800 is called the Dark Age not because the Western Romans and the Gauls and Britons and Spaniards who had also been Roman citizens suddenly forgot their own history and heritage, but rather because the aforesaid barbarian razzias managed to burn up a lot of the documentation that moderns find so essential. IOW, it's dark because we are ignorant, not because they were.

the irrefutable historical fact that Hypatia, a great scholar of her time was brutally murdered by a mob of Christians for political purpose.

Yeah, and bishop George was brutally murdered by a mob of pagans; and Mark the Evangelist was brutally murdered by a mob of pagans; and the Christians of St. Alexansers were brutally murdered by a mob of Jews; and the bishop Proterius was brutally murdered by a mob of Christians; and the prefect Callistus was murdered by an Alexandrian mob, make-up uncertain. The virgins of Heliopolis were murdered by a mob of pagans.

Even back in Roman days, before there ever were any Christians, mobs of Greeks, Egyptians, and Jews would have at one another in jolly old Alexandria. The city had a reputation for going off at the least provocation or pretext.

The great scholar Archimedes was murdered by the Romans. The great scholar Cicero was murdered by his fellow Romans. The great scientist Lavoisier was murdered by the rational secularists of the Revolution. Countless black men in the old South were murdered by mobs of Democrats.

What would any of this prove?

This is the exact same reasoning that Papal apologists offer for treatment of scientists during the inquisition.

Name three such scientists.

Anonymous said...

"And the fact is despite however one casts the details of the process the rise of Christianity coincided with the advent of the Dark Ages."

Seeing how the "rise of Christianity" belongs mostly to the fourth century, whereas the Dark Ages are typically dated 500-800 CE, I wonder how many centuries events have to lie apart so that they no longer qualify as "coinciding".

"It is as morally bankrupt now as in the past."

To insist on the truth and the obligation to provide warrant for one's assertions cannot be "morally bankrupt" and never will be. If we have to distort history in order to support our sweeing claims about the nature of religion, humanity etc., our points are not really worth making. That's obviously why Tom O'Neill, as a self-described atheist, goes out of his way to set the historical record straight, even if it should seem to benefit the "religious" side of debate.

Brian Shapiro said...

I'm new to your blog, but I think we're of like minds on many subjects. I'm not a theist or observant religiously, and I was also raised in Judaism, so have no inherent interest in defending Christianity.

It bothers me that the film shows Hypatia on the verge of discovering the elliptical orbit of planets, because it seems to want to affirm a certain narrative of history in which the period between Rome and the Renaissance were just an 'interruption'. The ancient pagans had a love of learning and science, then Christians came in and stopped it, then, come the Renaissance, people became interested in challenging the Church and returning to learning.

Its not only a very bad understanding of history, but also a very bad understanding of human nature. Whenever things change, and some political power is able to rise and take over, it happens for a reason.

In the political sphere, what the fall of Rome meant was the rejection of the Romulus & Remos mythos -- the idea that society, through the state, had the role of creating order in the world, the political leaders the standard bearers. As Rome fell, European society returned to the bare necessities of political arrangements -- lords in contractual arrangements with peasants for mutual survival. Lords appealed to the religiosity of peasants, and so the Church was a check on their power, because it became legitimate to overthrow a ruler that was unjust. This set the foundation for the 'natural law' view, which itself required rejecting some Christian doctrine, but nonetheless couldn't have existed without the rise of Christianity.

In the scientific sphere, the predominant interest after the Renaissance became reconciling ancient views with Christian ones. In philosophy and art, this meant reconciling humanism with piety. Everything was readjusted and renanalysed to make sense with the view that there was a natural order in the world and a single first cause (God). In general, this led to a search for 'first principles' like had never existed in the ancient world. How many ancient thinkers spoke of first principles? Plato, for one, which is why he was so admired in certain Christian traditions.

There's also a good discussion to be had here on how Christianity influenced art and literature, but I think that's more obvious.

Its not a coincidence that the fall of Rome roughly coincided with the rise of Christianity, no. But like a lot of anti-theists are so fond of saying these days, correlation is not causation. What Christianity represented to people was the spiritual authority that "Rome" as a concept and entity lost. The Emperor, the head of state, was no longer the only God, everyone was now considered a child of God who was in the Church of believers. And the Christian world view agreed with the Roman intellectual class, who had blamed the fall of Rome on moral decline.

Roman society fell because it was destined to fall -- it was built upon a shaky mythos and not on natural contractual relations between peoples. Roman art and philosophy also too often just fell back on imitating the Greeks, and their largest innovations were in applying Greek learning to practical fields like engineering and politics. The most interesting Roman philosophers were the Neo-Platonists, who were inspired by Christianity. Christianity revitalized philosophy in the West.

What the fall of Rome and the rise of the Christian world represent is a "reset" for European civilization. What we call the "dark ages" represent the start of that reset. But the fall of empires are as important to progress as the rise of them. People learn from disasters and mistakes. People change their perspective when their life falls apart, and readjust their perspective when they fall prone to depression.

Disasters happen for a reason. History isn't a series of accidents!

Brian Shapiro said...

It is no different from the actions of the Taliban or the Cultural Revolution and must be abhorred no matter what justification is offered, and attempts to let it slide by by cloaking it claiming that there was "political" ferment behind it need to be rejected absolutely. This is the exact same reasoning that Papal apologists offer for treatment of scientists during the inquisition. It is as morally bankrupt now as in the past.

I haven't seen anyone justify the treatment of scientists during the Inquisition. The importance of pointing out the complexities is to draw a picture of how the Church had a mixed relationship with science, and not an antithetical one. They were both patron and prosecutor.

The Church's views often represented the "orthodox" position in scientific fields (i.e., they supported Aristotelianism), and brought them in conflict with non-orthodox views. This not only happened during the scientific revolution, but with alchemists, and even followers of Alexandrian Christian philosophers. They -actively- supported the progress of science, they just wanted dominion over what would be regarded as the 'correct' view of science.

And alas, in some sense, the more things change the more they stay the same.

The metaphor of "orthodoxy" -- a word which comes from the Christian church -- imo, still can apply to academia even with the Church involved. Academics just now use the comforts of their tenured positions to stand against critics rather than the comforts of the Church's patronage.

I think everyone is happy, atheist and theist alike, though, that the Church doesn't have the power to prosecute people anymore.

Disco Stu said...

"I think everyone is happy, atheist and theist alike, though, that the Church doesn't have the power to prosecute people anymore."

I think we can all be glad that NO ONE has the power to prosecute people for their scientific ideas (Lysenko trials come to mind as well).

Anonymous said...

if there is little evidencence of her who is to say that what happened where you there ? All I know is history is like the game telephone something is said over and over agin till eventually it changes. Hapitia was refrenced in may letters and that is all we know of her

Tim O'Neill said...

Ah the old "you weren't there, history is a game of telephone, therefore I can believe whatever the hell I want" nonsense.

Sorry pal, but history is actually based on something called "evidence" and we have several sources by people who were there. We base our analysis of what probably happened on that. Some nice people called "historians" at your local university can explain how this is done.

Brian Shapiro said...


if there is little evidence of her who is to say that what happened where you there ?


I hadn't studied the events depicted in the film, but just having a good understanding of history in the broader sense made me skeptical of Amenábar's version. Christians around that time were more interested in martyrdom than killing and destroying, and there were a number of important Christian scholars and theologians working in Alexandria around 200-300 AD. So it seemed strange to me that Christians would want to "Burn the scrolls!" as shown in the film.

But a lot of people just have bad stereotypes of who Christians were.

Brian Shapiro said...

Tim,

This is something I haven't seen you discuss on your blog, but I've come to the impression from things I've read that religiosity among the general population increased -- not decreased -- with the end of the Middle Ages.

During the Middle Ages, you see a lot of priests complain about peasants immoral behavior, drinking, and observance of pagan rituals. Then, the Crusades seems to inspire a popular calling to the faith. With the Renaissance, religion almost becomes positioned as a part of civic duty, with the Church involved in the life of cities and lot of with public sculptures done on Christian themes. The Reformation, of course, was a reaction to the material excesses of the Renaissance and served as a hotbed for religious fanaticism.

This is almost contrary to the idea most people have that the Middle Ages was the most religious time in European history, and that the Renaissance and Reformation marked a decline in religious thinking.

Is that a fair understanding of what was happening?

Tim O'Neill said...

Is that a fair understanding of what was happening?

I think you'll find that clergy complained as much about people doing immoral things and cavorting around in ancient semi-pagan festivals etc after the Reformation as before it. And that public communal and even civic religious expression was as common before it as after.

I also think we're wandering off topic.

Anonymous said...

Hey Thiudareiks,

It's Louis XI from TWC here. Where have you been?

Anyway, I made a post at another fora regarding this very issue. It was pointing to your blog as a way to demonstrate, amidst a discussion of the film in question with the usual posh, that her depiction in it was completely mythological.

The only reply that interested me was an attempt at rebuttal. It has been quite a long time since this has been made, and I had been planning to forward this to you back then but got embroilered in other subjects. It's basically like this:

" Originally Posted by Abdul Goatherd
Um...he's wrong.

There is reason to presume there was a library at the Serapeum in operation. Epiphanius of Salamis (4th C.) mentions it and Aphthonius of Antioch (a late visitor) does mention not only the bookshelves, but that the books were available. Maybe not good enough by modern standards of evidence, but good enough for the 4th C.

He quotes Ammianus Marcellinus completely erroneously. He never asserts 'two libraries', he asserts only one library, which he identifies as the 'Serapeum' and goes on to refer in the past-tense to the destruction of its 700,000 books by Julius Caesar! Ammianus is completely confusing the Serapeum with the Brucheion!

(And apparently the writer of the review failed to see that - even though he goes on to pompously admonish the director for not pointing it out.)

That said, we know there was certainly a library at the Serapeum at some point and we have zero evidence that it was ever shut down or moved or dispersed. And really no good reason to presume it would be. The Serapeum was a freakin' teaching college - we know, Hypatia was there. If there were any books at all in Alexandria, that's where they'd be.

If the writer thinks the evidence for the existence of the library is weak, the evidence for its non-existence is weaker.

He is asserting something with far more confidence than the evidence allows.

(And, P.S. - we also have testimonials from contemporary Christians themselves that trashing libraries in pagan temples was pretty routine, e.g. Paulus Orosius "Today there exist in temples book chests which we ourselves have seen, and, when these temples were plundered, theese, we are told, were emptied by our own men in our time, which, indeed, is a true statement" (Historiae adversum paganos)

The rest of his review is pretty worthless - trying to accuse the director of fabricating impressions which at least I, as one audience member, did not have. The reviewer seems to assume the audience is largely stupid (except for himself, of course).

The rest of his points at largely ignorable ('they destroyed the temple, not just knocked a few statues!', etc. )

Anyway, this review is bullshit, writer is a slimeball. He's got a couple of minor good points (I also cringed at the scripture scene ), but they are kinda obscured by the overrall sleaziness of the review."

I would be quite interested in knowing your answer to such a claim.

Louis

Tim O'Neill said...

Hello Louis.

I haven’t been around on TWC for a while mainly so I can concentrate on more productive pursuits than having the same conversations over and over. You can only debunk Siggy’s hysterical anti-Medieval screeds two or three dozen times before you start to think “Perhaps I could be spending this time doing something more useful …”

Re your friend on the other forum:

There is reason to presume there was a library at the Serapeum in operation.

That the Serapeum had a library in the early Fourth Century at least is not in dispute, and Epiphanius of Salamis and Aphthonius are testament to this. But that doesn’t mean that it was still in existence when the Serapeum was destroyed. Ancient libraries were expensive to maintain and the Fourth Century was the one in which the rich patronage and generous civic donations that kept temples and their attendant functions going began to seriously dry up as it diverted to the emperors’ new faith.

He quotes Ammianus Marcellinus completely erroneously. He never asserts 'two libraries', he asserts only one library, which he identifies as the 'Serapeum' and goes on to refer in the past-tense to the destruction of its 700,000 books by Julius Caesar! Ammianus is completely confusing the Serapeum with the Brucheion!

Translations of “in quo bybliothecae fuerunt inaestimabiles” vary, with a couple of prominent ones (including the Loeb edition, IIRC) translating it as “in (the Serapeum) have been two priceless libraries”. But it is also often translated as “in it have been libraries of inestimable value”. But he speaks in the present tense about the Serapeum and in the past tense about the its libraries. Then he clearly does confuse things with the Brucheion when he turns to why these “priceless libraries” are no longer there. Your friend seems to think this means he’s also therefore confused about the absence of the Serapeum’s libraries, which doesn’t follow at all. And if, as it seems he did, Ammianus visited Egypt himself in the 360s this makes it even less likely that he would have been confused about the fact that the building he describes in such glowing terms no longer contained any libraries.

Which also fits with the fact that not one, not two, not even three or four but FIVE accounts of the destruction of the Serapeum make no mention of these “priceless libraries”. Why? Well, if they were no longer there, this makes sense. If they were there, however, that’s five very strange silences.

The Serapeum was a freakin' teaching college - we know, Hypatia was there.

We do? This must be some newly uncovered evidence that your friend has discovered in recent months, because there is no evidence that connects Hypatia to the Serapeum in any way. It’s remarkable how the defenders of this film have a talent for making proclaimations like this one – ones based on … fantasy. Though it’s topped by this powerful academic argument:

Anyway, this review is bullshit, writer is a slimeball.

Sounds like someone doesn’t like having their pseudo-historical parade rained on. Nice to hear from you Louis.

Anonymous said...

'The Reformation, of course, was a reaction to the material excesses of the Renaissance'. Tim O'Neill.
I was browsing through this discussion and caught this earlier comment that really surprised me. Surely, the Reformation took place in the areas furthest from the Renaissance and did not take place in Italy where the Renaissance (if you are talking of the Italian Renaissance of the fifteenth century)took place. Again one does not equate the Renaissance primarily with 'material excess'. The Catholic church was remarkable successful in the fifteenth century in integrating Renaissance ideas into its theology which is one reason why educated Italians stayed with the church. In the SIXTEENTH century, with the placing of all the works of the Catholic humanist Erasmus on the Papal Index, etc., things were different , but that was part of the Counter-Reformation and saw a steady closing down of intellectual creativity in Italy.

Anonymous said...

I am sorry, the comment about 'material excess of the Reniassance' was from Brian Schapiro, not Tim.

Tim O'Neill said...

Anony-mouse realised:

I am sorry, the comment about 'material excess of the Reniassance' was from Brian Schapiro, not Tim.

Er, quite.

Anonymous said...

Hi Thiudareiks,

Thank you for your reply!

As for Siggy, I recommended him one of my favourite documentaries on the subject, "Weapons that Made Britain". I didn't know if he watched it or not, but despite everything I think he has opened his mind a bit to the subject. Who knows where that will lead :P?

Louis

Jason said...

Thank you again for a very thoughtful post.

Len Bullard said...

Since the DVD has only become available recently and the film had such as stunted run in the US, for anyone seeing it here in the US, it was excusable to watch parts on YouTube even though that is not koscher per se. Now, get the DVD because a) it is spectacular cinematography which Flash can't reproduce and b) it has a features section which refutes some of the claims made by the author of this blog and some of the commenters and affirms others. It is a work of fiction and that is made clear.

That said, I appreciate the time taken by some to delve into the fictional aspects of the film. Given the fictionalization of much of what we accept as gospel about many religious figures of antiquity including Jesus of Nazareth, one should be better informed.

What cannot be disputed is the impact of the film in the time for which it was made: now. I do not see it as a hit piece on Christianity and I am reasonably informed about the sources having first become interested in the main character in the 1960s. I see it as a parable on the politicization of religion for purely political purposes in a time of rage, when rage machines can be used to activate mobs who will thoughtlessly even if earnestly do the bidding of the rage masters.

As such, this is possibly the most important film of this decade. It should be viewed widely and with as much commentary as can be mustered on the messages it very ably sends. Even if the parable is fictional, the messages are not.

TheOFloinn said...

Nah, it was a hit piece on history. Moderns always have a tendency to reduce the complexities of the past to fables of Good and Bad. One day, there will be a movies that challenges the received myths with facts; but that day is not this day.

Greg G said...

Parable? Please.

The filmaker watched "Cosmos" while on holiday after his last film. He wanted to make a version of Sagan's version of the story of Hypatia.

It's obvious that he then did research into the sources but, when confronted with the discovery that Sagan knew not of what he spoke, decided to bend them to fit the Sagan story.

No-one really knows where Sagan came up with all his bullshit about Hypatia, but it really only continues as a myth because of people's regard for the man's other work. But it was, and remains, bullshit.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for you insightful analysis.

Talal said...

Thanks for these very interesting comments and discussion. It is rare to see a debate so historically well-informed. Hoping to benefit from this pool of expertise, I venture a different question. On debates about why Hypatia was killed -- religion seems not to have been the problem, but rather politics, yet her gender may have mattered as well, although not learning per se -- is there any insight to be taken from *how* she was killed? Flaying someone alive (as one account implies) is a particularly gruesome method of death. Possibly it echoed the torture of the monk, whose nature does not seem to have been specified by historians at the time. But generally, was this method of killing someone fairly common or was it unusual or unique? I would think so savage a physical maiming would be an expression of particular hatred for the body of the person and therefore might suggest that misogyny (possibly plus learning) had a greater role than has been explored in this discussion.

TheOFloinn said...

was this method of killing someone fairly common or was it unusual or unique?

In the account of the murder of the Patriarch Proterius by Monophysites, it is written that they did not refrain from tasting his flesh. The usual procedure was to drag the person through the streets until his limbs separated -- like that poor guy in Texas a few years ago. Then to burn his remains (so there would be no relics for a church to be built) then scattering the ashes into the sea. Not every account of a riot gives every detail of the lynching.

Nor was it unusual to dig up the dead and burn them. "Dig up his bones!" was a common enough cry in Egypt.

Keep in mind that the female Neoplatonist philosopher Aedesia taught in Alexandria the generation after Hypatia and no one said or did anything against her.

Tim O'Neill said...

I've regularly pointed out Aedesia to those who cling to the Gibbonian myths about Hypatia and asked why one female neo-Platonic pagan was murdered and the other not touched. After all, if philosophy and/or paganism and/or female scholars were the issue, surely both would have been torn apart by swarthy, Taliban-like Christians with dodgy accents.

The difference, of course, is that Hypatia dabbled in Alexandria's notoriously violent city politics and Aedesia ... didn't.

But that doesn't fit the myths.

Rick Reeder said...

Tim - great job, thanks.
I watched the film AGORA last night - due to a misunderstanding since it was thought to be about Alexandria by someone who spent a lot of time there some years ago. My impression was it was Hollywood historical crap but big and impressive. But I knew nothing of Hypatia and decided to check. That led me to your older blog on the subject and film and other info. I now know a lot more and can conclude:
- the film is not that bad and about as accurate as Hollywood gets with ancient history (even though the Hollywood connection here is via Spain).
- Hypatia was quite amazing in real life.
- there is a lot more known about that ancient history, and from original sources, than we/I generally think
- plain facts will never stop a true believer in something else
- your comments and analyses are usually very good, you are on the right track, stick with it, and thank you.

Historyscientist said...

I haven't had the energy to read all 93 comments so apologies if I am repeating anything.

I first heard about Hypatia in the seventies at a science meeting which talked about the possibility that she had hit on the elliptical orbits idea. Although I watched some of Cosmos which was airing at the time, I hadn't realised it was covered in that and I thought that it was the idea of the speaker. I am obviously remembering back over 30 years but it was pretty convincing at the time. Thanks to the posters who have allowed me to join some dots in my mind.

On the point of the destruction of the library - arguing over the details in a film like this one does seem to me to be nit-picking. That the early Church systematically destroyed learning it didn't like seems to me to be obvious. Even a relatively civilised Christian like St Clement is contemptuous of Greek philosophy.

The Christians did destroy ancient pagan monuments. We know that from accounts at the time and that the monuments aren't there any more. Surely they would have destroyed books as well? It may be that they didn't happen to destroy any in the particular year and the particular place this particular film is set. But the fact is we still have Bibles, lives of saints, theological works aplenty from this time. We don't have much in the way of science.

Tim O'Neill said...

On the point of the destruction of the library - arguing over the details in a film like this one does seem to me to be nit-picking.

Given that (i) the movie presents this as historical, (ii) reviewers and others are clearly accepting it as such and (iii) it bolsters a persistent myth, noting that it isn't historical is not "nitpicking". Noting that they get the soldiers' armour wrong is nitpicking. Noting that they wilfully distort history for polemical purposes isn't. Surely you can see the difference.

That the early Church systematically destroyed learning it didn't like seems to me to be obvious.

Yes, it seems "obvious" to many people, despite a complete lack of evidence. If the Church "systematically destroyed learning" then it's amazing that it did so without leaving the faintest trace of this destruction in the historical record. Given that we have hostile pagan commentators like Ammianus and Eunapius of Antioch criticising the Church for other things but failing to mention this "systematic destruction" this total absence of evidence is very odd. How do you account for it?

Even a relatively civilised Christian like St Clement is contemptuous of Greek philosophy.

Which Clement would that be? Not Clement of Alexandria I assume, since he wrote:

"We shall not err in allegeing all this necessary and profitable for life came to us from God, and that philosophy more especially was given to the Greeks as a covenant peculiar to them"

Clement was one of the first in a long line of early Christian writers who encouraged the idea that Greek learning was a gift from God and to be used along with the revelation which was a gift to the Jews. Even though there were others who argued that there was no value in pagan thought, they lost the debate and Clement's perception predominated. You don't seem to have a very good grasp of the relevant material.

The Christians did destroy ancient pagan monuments. .... Surely they would have destroyed books as well?

Nice non sequitur. They actually converted far more pagan temples etc in to churches than they ever destroyed. But they did destroy or ignore what they considered valueless (eg pagan works of divination and magic) but preserved what they considered valuable (eg works of philosophy and science).

But the fact is we still have Bibles, lives of saints, theological works aplenty from this time. We don't have much in the way of science.

We have the Bibles etc "aplenty" because there was a large audience for them. We have far fewer works of science because there was a smaller audience for them. But there always had been. By the Second to Third Centuries science had become an eccentric hobby for a few noblemen. It was always a minority study. So of course we have fewer books of science. In pre-Christian times there were vastly more copies of books on magic and divination and oracles from pagan sybils than there were ever copies of Archimedes. Nothing changed.

And if you can read a work of ancient science at all, you have a Christian monk to thank. Without them preserving that work (while ignoring all the pagan junk on magic and incantations) you wouldn't be able to read them at all.

So, what were you saying again?

TheOFloinn said...

@historyscientist [sic]
That the early Church systematically destroyed learning it didn't like seems to me to be obvious.

It may seem obvious to you only because it is compatible with preconceived beliefs. Some of us prefer empirical evidence.

But the fact is we still have Bibles, lives of saints, theological works aplenty from this time. We don't have much in the way of science.

Except Aristotle, Ptolemy, Galen, Strabo, Heiron, Archimedes, etc. Don't forget, there wasn't that much in the way of "science" back then; at least not in the modern meaning of the term. But so far as writings about the natural world, it was the single largest category copied by the medievals.

Granted: The process of copying scrolls by hand was laborious enough that choices always had to be made. The media decayed faster than they could be re-copied. So we have Strabo's Geography, but not Eratosthrenes Geography. Why? Because Strabo had made the latter obsolete, not because there was some weird animus against his Geography.

Why are folks so reluctant to suppose entirely natural, material causes?

Tim O'Neill said...

On the point of the destruction of the library - arguing over the details in a film like this one does seem to me to be nit-picking.

Given that (i) the movie presents this as historical, (ii) reviewers and others are clearly accepting it as such and (iii) it bolsters a persistent myth, noting that it isn't historical is not "nitpicking". Noting that they get the soldiers' armour wrong is nitpicking. Noting that they wilfully distort history for polemical purposes isn't. Surely you can see the difference.

That the early Church systematically destroyed learning it didn't like seems to me to be obvious.
Yes, it seems "obvious" to many people, despite a complete lack of evidence. If the Church "systematically destroyed learning" then it's amazing that it did so without leaving the faintest trace of this destruction in the historical record. Given that we have hostile pagan commentators like Ammianus and Eunapius of Antioch criticising the Church for other things but failing to mention this "systematic destruction" this total absence of evidence is very odd. How do you account for it?

Even a relatively civilised Christian like St Clement is contemptuous of Greek philosophy.

Which Clement would that be? Not Clement of Alexandria I assume, since he wrote:

"We shall not err in allegeing all this necessary and profitable for life came to us from God, and that philosophy more especially was given to the Greeks as a covenant peculiar to them"

Clement was one of the first in a long line of early Christian writers who encouraged the idea that Greek learning was a gift from God and to be used along with the revelation which was a gift to the Jews. Even though there were others who argued that there was no value in pagan thought, they lost the debate and Clement's perception predominated. You don't seem to have a very good grasp of the relevant material.

The Christians did destroy ancient pagan monuments. .... Surely they would have destroyed books as well?

Nice non sequitur. They actually converted far more pagan temples etc in to churches than they ever destroyed. But they did destroy or ignore what they considered valueless (eg pagan works of divination and magic) but preserved what they considered valuable (eg works of philosophy and science).

But the fact is we still have Bibles, lives of saints, theological works aplenty from this time. We don't have much in the way of science.

We have the Bibles etc "aplenty" because there was a large audience for them. We have far fewer works of science because there was a smaller audience for them. But there always had been. By the Second to Third Centuries science had become an eccentric hobby for a few noblemen. It was always a minority study. So of course we have fewer books of science. In pre-Christian times there were vastly more copies of books on magic and divination and oracles from pagan sybils than there were ever copies of Archimedes. Nothing changed.

And if you can read a work of ancient science at all, you have a Christian monk to thank. Without them preserving that work (while ignoring all the pagan junk on magic and incantations) you wouldn't be able to read them at all.

So, what were you saying again?

Anonymous said...

"The Christians did destroy ancient pagan monuments. We know that from accounts at the time and that the monuments aren't there any more."

There's no denying that the monuments are gone, but I think it's probably safe to say that most of them fell prey to earthquakes, warfare and other calamities, which have nothing to do with your stereotypical Christian mobs. Only last week, I visited the excavation-site of ancient Scythopolis and it was quite an instructive example of the role big earthquakes (and a subsequent lack of re-building) played in the "downfall" of antiquity. In any case, let's insist on evidence instead of repeating tired old myths without sufficient fact-checking.

Historyscientist said...

This was the passage I was thinking of from St Clement.

"And if any one ruler whatever prohibit the Greek philosophy, it vanishes forthwith. But our doctrine on its very first proclamation was prohibited by kings and tyrants together, as well as particular rulers and governors, with all their mercenaries, and in addition by innumerable men, warring against us, and endeavouring as far as they could to exterminate it. But it flourishes the more. For it dies not, as human doctrine dies, nor fades as a fragile gift. For no gift of God is fragile. But it remains unchecked, though prophesied as destined to be persecuted to the end. (St. Clement of Alexandria, The Stromata, 6.18)"

As you say St Clement is on the pro-philosophy wing of the Church, but even he is well, philosophical about the total destruction of Greek philosophy. He can obviously conceive it as a project, and one that has a reasonable chance of success.

With regards to the monuments, the temple of Diana at Ephesus - one of the wonders of the ancient world - was destroyed in 401 at the instigation of St John Chrystotum who I think it is fair to say was certainly a Christian and not an earthquake.

And I have sufficient facts to back up my belief that the Church is anti-learning by instinct. To give just one that is beyond dispute, I am old enough to remember Galileo's Starry Messenger finally came off the Church's banned list. I think it was 1976. So if that was what they were capable of in the twentieth century I think we can be reasonably well justified in not giving them the benefit of the doubt in the fourth.

Andrew Brew said...

Historyscientist,

You represent the quote from Clement as demonstrating that he is hostile to, or at least careless of, Greek philosophy:
"He can obviously conceive it [prohibition of philosophy] as a project, and one that has a reasonable chance of success."
Well, yes, he can. Can't you? It was a project that was undertaken from time to time (not necessarily by Christians) with great success. Consider the execution of Socrates in 399 BC or the destruction of the Academy and Lyceum by Sulla in 88 BC, for a couple of obvious examples of suppression of philosophy by pagans.

Clement was clearly remarking on the observable fact that in the ancient world, where schools of philosophy were shut down, they died, being as Tim noted essentially a pastime for a tiny minority (and typically one with no political power). Persecuting Christians, on the other hand, did not have the desired effect of wiping them out. On the contrary they thrived.

His point is not that philosophy can and should be exterminated, but that the message of God is far more robust than human pastimes. You may disagree with him (although the historical facts remain, I think, on his side). But do read what he wrote first, rather than substituting what you assume that sort of person would have written.

TheOFloinn said...

This was the passage I was thinking of from St Clement.

"And if any one ruler whatever prohibit the Greek philosophy, it vanishes forthwith. etc.


He was making a simple statement of fact: that the will of an emperor would have been quite sufficient to eliminate Stoicism or Epicurianism but despite the efforts of multiple emperors and governors over many generations, no such thing happened to the suppression of Christianity and Christian philosophy.

And ask yourself why Galileo is the only name anyone ever comes up with in two thousand years.

The temple of Artemis was destroyed by the Goths in AD 260. Not clear that it would have been rebuilt at all, since Ephesus was by then a couple miles from the sea, due to silting of its once-famous harbor and the whole area was turning into swamp. If you have a source for the allegation that it was rebuilt and redestroyed in AD 401, we would appreciate a cite.

Tim O'Neill said...

If you have a source for the allegation that it was rebuilt and redestroyed in AD 401, we would appreciate a cite.

James Hannam discussed the myth that the Temple of Artemis was "destroyed by a mob led by John Chrysostom. Surprise, surprise - it's something else that gets passed on (by the usual suspects such as Charlie Freeman, of course) but which has no basis in fact:

http://bedejournal.blogspot.com/2010/06/destruction-of-temple-of-artemis.html

It also features prominently in the Wikipedia entries on the Temple and the Seven Wonders, but the footnote is to some generalist secondary history book which, according to the "Talk" page gives no primary source. Hannam's blogpost shows why.

Freeman also tried this tactic of shifting the goalposts from "they destroyed learning" to "they burned down (some) temples" when he failed to deal with my crtitique of his work. I think we're seeing a pattern here.

Historyscientist said...

Okay fair enough, I got the St John Chyrstotum thing from Wikipedia. The temple of Diana was the first thing I thought of and lo and behold there was a confirmation of what I was expecting. I cannot find a more authoritative reference so I will conceed that the most famous temple of the ancient world was never rebuilt after 260 and therefore there was no need for Christians to destroy it.

To the point that people only talk about Galileo - well he was one of the greatest scientists of all time so when you have the Church torturing him and stopping him working it does stick in the mind. I am not sure it can be so easily dismissed as a one off aberation. In any case just off the top of my head I can think of Giordano Bruno and Francis Bacon. There is also the indisputable fact that no new ideas in science occured in the part of the world under the control of the Christian church between the time of Hypatia and Copernicus- some 1200 years.

Having conceded the point on the temple, I claim one on the statement that we only have literature from the ancient world via monkish scribes. That is my issue. The Church controlled learning and what it didn't like didn't get through.

Its good to challenge preconceived ideas, but you are going to need a lot stronger arguments to displace the notion that the Church controlled and held back learning in the Middle Ages.

Hans-Georg Lundahl said...

Was Galileo really that bright as a scientist now?

Do the moons of Jupiter prove heliocentrism to you? To me they prove only Ptolemy (or whoever) was wrong about an argumlent against heliocentrism.

He was not tortured, since he was too old (past 60), only threatened with torture. But if he was right - I do not think so anyway - it seems a bit of a fluke.

Greg G said...

Francis Bacon a victim of Christianity? In what way?

Anonymous said...

PS: I too am highly curious to know more about Francis Bacon's alleged persecution by the Church.
I would also like to inquire what scientific discovery (or argument) Giordano Bruno can lay claim to. From all I know about him, he was not the kind of guy proponents of scientific empiricism would want to hang around with.

Anonymous said...

An unrelated point:
Vol. 51,2 (2010) of "Astronomy & Geophysics", a well-known scientific journal, published on behalf of the Royal Astronomical Society, contains a (non-peer reviewed) article on Hypatia, which basically claims that she was murdered because she tried to change the date of Easter.
Needless to say, the theory is complete nonsense and the article is replete with errors, but since this post has become a kind of repository for facts about Hypatia, I thought I might share it with you. So, if you have access to A&G, I suggest you check it out.

http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1468-4004.2010.51209.x/pdf

Regards to everyone,

Baerista.

Tim O'Neill said...

HIstoryscientist seems to be a walking advertisement for the "Conflict Thesis".

Galileo - well he was one of the greatest scientists of all time so when you have the Church torturing him

The Church tortured Galileo? Do you have an erroneous Wiki source for that as well?

I can think of Giordano Bruno ...

Bruno was a Heremetic mystic, not a scientist. He was about as much a scientist as a modern New Age kook who tries to refer vaguely to quantum mechanics is a physicist. And his execution was purely because of his religious ideas - eg denying the incarnation of Christ and the virginity of Mary. So what has Bruno got to do with science?

... and Francis Bacon.

Was he "tortured" too? I'll add my voice to those amazed at the revelation that Bacon, himself a Christian, was somehow persecuted by the Church. I'm assuming this was some Protestant church, since Bacon lived far from the reach of Rome.

The Church controlled learning and what it didn't like didn't get through.

Wrong again. The Church adopted the "gold of the Egyptians" argument from your pal Clement. Just as the Israelites carried off and used the gold of the Pharoahs, so it was appropriate for Christians to use the learning of the Greeks. That meant they studied, copied and discussed some things that didn't conform to Christian doctrine. They didn't censor it, they just wrote long books about how it was wrong. You don't seem to have any detailed knowledge of what was going on in Medieval universities from the 12th Century. They *devoured* this stuff, they didn't censor it.

Unless you have evidence of something they "didn't like" not "making it through"?

no new ideas in science occured in the part of the world under the control of the Christian church between the time of Hypatia and Copernicus- some 1200 years.

Really? You mean apart from the revolution in anatomy when Medieval scholars finally overturned the irrational Greco-Roman taboo against human dissection and discovered Galen's many mistakes? Or Jean Buridan's rejection of Aristotle's physics of motion and development of the concept of impetus, laying the foundations of the later idea of inertia? Or Thomas Bradwardine and the Oxford Calculators development of the Mean Speed Theorem? Or the various developments in the science of optics which, amongst other things, gave us the Medieval invention of eye glasses? Nothing, eh?

Have you considered actually doing some reading on Medieval science instead of repeating these high school level myths?

TheOFloinn said...

...people only talk about Galileo - well he was one of the greatest scientists of all time

Some comments by an historian of science: http://thonyc.wordpress.com/2010/06/02/extracting-the-stopper/

"The inflation of his image was a result of Galileo being declared the main scientific martyr in the greatest myth of the history of science, the totally fictitious ‘War Against Science’. Galileo’s inflated image is largely a product of the 19th century and the perception that he had been sacrificed on the altar of religion."
* * *
so when you have the Church torturing him

He was never tortured, nor any possibility of torture. It was against the rules.

and stopping him working

He spent the six months after the trial in the palace of his friend, Cardinal Piccolomini of Siena, working on his next book, with the cardinal's enthusiastic help. He himself wrote to Peiresc about the "true motives" in the trial that lay behind the "mask of religion."

If only he had not written his dishonest Dialogo! It pretended that the Ptolemaic system and the incorrect Copernican system were the only contenders and totally ignored the Tychonic/Ursine system and the Keplerian system. And in it he needlessly offended his old friend, the Pope.

In another letter: Had he stayed friends with the Jesuits, he would have had no problems. They had been enthusiastic supporters, but he had wantonly alienated them with his attacks on Fr. Grassi over the Comets of 1618. Grassi (who had meticulously observed them) said the comets came from beyond the moon; Galileo (who had been ill and had not observed them) claimed comets were emanations of the Earth's atmosphere - and ridiculed Fr. Grassi.

History is always particular and local. The use of broad, mythic theories will seriously distort your understanding.
+ + +
just off the top of my head I can think of Giordano Bruno and Francis Bacon.

Neither one was a scientist; neither was put on trial for scientific conclusions. Bruno was a woo-woo mystic prosecuted for heresy. Read his Ash Wednesday Supper, for example.

F. Bacon was put on trial for political corruption and was accused of sodomy and pederasty, but not by the Church (which had by then been broken) and not for his philosophical writings. He did set the tone for Modern Science by re-imagining it not as knowledge for its own sake, but as knowledge subordinated to engineering and industry as a source of useful products. Oh, and it was also a masculine endeavor to subordinate female nature and chain her in slavery to man's domination of the universe.
* * *

TheOFloinn said...

Part II
no new ideas in science occured in the part of the world under the control of the Christian church between the time of Hypatia and Copernicus...

No such new ideas occurred anywhere else in the world, or even during the whole Roman period. Certainly, Hypatia herself had none. By Late Antiquity, "science" was a moribund pursuit by a few wealthy hobbyists.

In the Middle Ages, Theordoric of Fribourg explained the rainbow; Jean Buridan explicated Newton's first law; Albert of Saxony reasoned that bodies of unequal weight would fall at the same rate; Nicole d'Oresme proved the mean speed theorem. There was also a lot of groundwork laid in institutionalizing natural philosophy through the University system, in Grosseteste's inductive method, in the application of mathematics to the physics, in the idea that temperature, wetness, color, and other attributes were in principle measurable (even if no one had yet invented the devices).

See Toby Huff's book on The Rise of Early Modern Science or Grant's Foundations of Modern Science in the Middle Ages for helpful references.
+ + +
we only have literature from the ancient world via monkish scribes. That is my issue. The Church controlled learning and what it didn't like didn't get through.

It apparently liked material on logic, reason, natural philosophy, medicine, and law, since those comprised the bulk of what was translated. The more secular Renaissance focused on plays, poems, and histories.
* * *
Its good to challenge preconceived ideas

Yes. Try it sometime. I once believed as you do.
* * *

But we digress from the topic of the post into the more general topic of Early Modern myths about the Middle Ages.

Anonymous said...

The Latin middle ages also saw the invention of technical chronology, as will be argued in a book of mine that I'm currently working on.

Tim O'Neill said...

Thanks for the link that that blog (who is that guy by the way). I think I'll be adding it to my blogroll.

Incidently, this post from it is a nice riposte to the lumbering, Nineteenth Century myths about "the Church killing science":

http://thonyc.wordpress.com/2009/06/29/science-and-religion-in-the-early-middle-ages/

Nice to see another historian who happens to be an atheist talking sense on this issue. But it seems most non-believers just want to cling like fundamentalists to their cosy myths. Yet the call themselves "rationalists"? Depressing really.

Historyscientist said...

I posted a bit earlier saying I meant Roger rather than Francis Bacon. It might still be in the moderation list so it might appear.

@Tim

I will admit that I haven't read up on European Medieval Science that much, though I may do now you have suggested it. It won't take very long after all. Compared to the Classical period between 500BC and 400AD and the Renaissance and later period it is pretty slim pickings as is proved by your tawdry list. These Oxford calculator people sound interesting but they are hardly household names are they?

As for Bruno being a heretic, does that justify burning him at the stake? The Church has obfuscated the issue as much as it can, but he did suggest that the stars are other suns in direct contradiction of Genesis and that was on the charge sheet. If that wasn't an act of terror to frighten people off challenging the Church's monopoly of knowledge I don't know what would be.

I am actually a chemist. You'll no doubt be aware that the very name chemistry comes from Arabic. And you will no doubt know why. A lot of the texts that we have from the Classical period only survived because the Arabs looked after them, and that was the source of the stuff that was being devoured in the universities of the LATE Medieval period.

I'd probably agree that the Dark Ages may not have been quite as dark as they have sometimes been portrayed. But get a sense of perspective.

Historyscientist said...

@The O'Floin

That blogpost about Galileo was entertaining and well written. But there is a lot of stuff about Galileo. You can find any opinion you like if you look for long enough. What you couldn't do was read his book until 350 years after he wrote it if you were a Catholic who followed the Church's instructions.

Andrew Brew said...

That the Oxford Calculators (along with Buridan, Oresme, and a host of others) are not household names is nothing to do with the stature of their achievement, and everything to do with modern propaganda. The first wave of such propaganda started in the sixteenth century, with Italian humanism, and the second wave in the late eighteenth, with the so-called enlightenment. That wave continues to rise, carrying many uninformed people with it.

Fortunately, the wave crashed and broke a century ago in respectable circles.

As for the preservation of Greek texts... Yes, the Arabs preserved them. So did the Greeks and the Syriacs. That the Latin west did not is not because they were using their copies of Aristotle to light cigars and stuff footballs, but because they didn't have such copies. They saved what they could in the early sixth century by translating whole works or summaries of the important bits into Latin, since knowledge of Green in the west had been declining steadily since the second century (look up Isadore, Cassiodorus, and Boethius in particular. In fact, just look up Boethius). The moment the Latins could get their hands on Greek texts again (11th century, before the crusades per se started) they couldn't get enough of them.

Meantime, in the Greek world, John Philoponus in Alexandria was criticising Aristotle in the seventh century, demonstrating things usually attributed to your mate Galileo a thousand years later. Why are they attributed to Galileo, you ask? Because he stole Philoponus' work without attribution is why.

The fall of Alexandria to the Arabs in 642 put a stop to such activity under Muslim auspices until the 9th century, when Haroun Al-Rashid set up his House of Wisdom in Baghdad. He was able to do so because the Greek texts of interest had been preserved (and translated, commented upon etc.) by his Syriac-speaking Christian subjects, from whom were drawn the seed faculty staff for the new institution.

Speaking of Galileo, I daresay you are right that you can find all sorts of opinions about him. You can pick the one you like... or you can pick the one that demonstrates sound knowledge of the subject. Which is more intellectually honest?

Tim O'Neill said...

I will admit that I haven't read up on European Medieval Science that much, though I may do now you have suggested it. It won't take very long after all.

It sounds like you haven’t read up on it at all. You could start with an easy introduction to the subject with James Hannam’s excellent God’s Philosophers, which was shortlisted for the Royal Society Award for Science Writing. That will not only add substantially to my “tawdry list” and open your eyes to how the later Middle Ages saw the greatest flowering of western science since the Greeks but will also give you an excellent overview of how the myths of the Middle Ages as a “dark age” arose in the first place. Then you could move on to Edward Grant’s God and Reason in the Middle Ages, which will explain to you how the Greek influence on Medieval thought enshrined reason and logic at the heart of all scholarly thinking in the period and how they were integral to that other Medieval contribution to the west: the university. Then you’d be ready for Grant’s The Foundations of Modern Science in the Middle Ages (the title should give you some hints as to what that one’s about) and David C. Lindberg’s superb The Beginnings of Western Science: The European Scientific Tradition in Philosophical, Religious, and Institutional Context, Prehistory to A.D. 1450. Then you might be beginning to know what you’re talking about.

If you think all that “won’t take very long” then you must be a remarkably quick speed reader.

Compared to the Classical period between 500BC and 400AD and the Renaissance and later period it is pretty slim pickings as is proved by your tawdry list.

Notice how you keep shifting ground? In the space of one post you’ve scrambled from “no new ideas in science occurred” to declaring some highly significant developments in science to be not much. And you’re also skipping over the fact that while the Greek and Hellenistic period saw a remarkable amount of innovative science, it faltered to mere compilation and encyclopaedia entries by the Roman period. This was long before the wicked old Church came along, so what was “suppressing” science then? My “tawdry list” comes from a mere two centuries – the Thirteenth and Fourteenth. Can you give us a similar “tawdry list” from, say, the Second and Third Centuries?
(cont.)

Tim O'Neill said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Tim O'Neill said...

(cont.)

These Oxford calculator people sound interesting but they are hardly household names are they?

No. And they should be. The Nineteenth Century clichés about the Middle Ages being a scientific wasteland are so entrenched in the popular mind that the idea that there were any scientists of note in this period strikes people as odd, so it’s hardly surprising that these remarkable men are unknown. That says nothing about whether they should be known. Not only did they marry mathematics to the study of physics in a way that had NEVER been done before but they also recognised that this was the key to far greater knowledge of the world. As Bardwardine wrote:

(Mathematics) is the revealer of every genuine truth ... whoever then has the effrontery to pursue physics while neglecting mathematics should know from the start that he will never make his entry through the portals of wisdom.

That should be one of the best known quotes from early science. Perhaps you need to ask yourself why you’d never heard of these remarkable innovators before I mentioned them to you.

Beginning to get the picture yet?

As for Bruno being a heretic, does that justify burning him at the stake?

No, it just disqualifies him as a martyr for science.

You'll no doubt be aware that the very name chemistry comes from Arabic. And you will no doubt know why. A lot of the texts that we have from the Classical period only survived because the Arabs looked after them, and that was the source of the stuff that was being devoured in the universities of the LATE Medieval period.

Of course they got most of their Greek science via the Arabs. Now, ask yourself this: where did the Arabs get it from? Did it descend from heaven? Did they find a cache of scrolls from Aristotle’s time? Or did they get it from the diligent work of Byzantine and Nestorian monks?

I'd probably agree that the Dark Ages may not have been quite as dark as they have sometimes been portrayed. But get a sense of perspective.

I have a sense of perspective thanks – one informed by 25+ years of studying ancient and medieval science. I also know bias and ideologically driven nonsense when I see it. I cane Christian apologists when they distort history to suit their ends but I have no problem with doing the same to my fellow atheists when they do the same. This Nineteenth Century idea of the Church suppressing science is garbage. It is simply WRONG. It has also been totally rejected by modern historians of science. If you still don’t believe me, do the reading I suggest above. Or contemplate why you have been shown to be mistaken, working from biased material or plain old wrong at every turn in this discussion. Surely this is telling you something.

PS Roger Bacon wasn’t persecuted for his science either – something else you’ve got wrong. You have a lot of work to do. IF, that is, you actually have an open mind like a true rationalist and don’t want to simply cling to comforting myths like a fundamentalist.

Anonymous said...

@historyscientist

I already suspected you meant Roger Bacon. The problem is that he hardly qualifies as a martyr for science. His most famous work, the "Opus majus", was written at the instigation of Pope Clement IV. There is a fourteenth-century source claiming that he was condemned and placed under house arrest towards the end of his life, but historical research ever since Lynn Thorndike (who debunked all the nineteenth-century hyperbole about Bacon) has come up with three explanations for this:
a) the account is unreliable and the condemnation never happened
b) it had to do with his astrological views (unlikely imho because his views on the subject do not seem to differ wildly from that of other contemporary authors)
c) Bacon belonged to a radical wing of the Franciscans which brought him into conflict with the authorities within his own order

None of the three scenarios does anything to bolster the claim that he was persecuted for his science (astrology not being science by our standards).

Anonymous said...

It seems that you're also not quite correct about the censorship of Galileo's books. If I'm not mistaken, "Starry Messenger" wasn't on the index, it was the "Dialogo" and it was taken off early in the nineteenth-century (certainly not in your lifetime). Also, if you read John Heilbron's "The Sun in the Church", you will learn that the early modern Church was supportive of astronomy and that Catholic scholars had returned to discussing heliocentrism long before that ban was officially lifted.

TheOFloinn said...

I meant Roger rather than Francis Bacon.

When was Friar Roger put on trial for scientific ideas? The Franciscans had a problem with theological tracts circulating without peer review, and Roger got caught up in it, but it was about science.
* * *
I will admit that I haven't read up on European Medieval Science that much

That much, or at all? In addition to the Huff and Grant books mentioned earlier, try Lindberg's The Beginnings of Western Science and Science in the Middle Ages. Also Crombie's Medieval and Early Modern Science. There are also books on medieval technology by White, Gimpel, and the Gieses. Many confuse tech with science.

There was far more continuity between the ancient, medieval, and modern than "Enlightenment" polemicists wanted people to think.

Compared to the Classical period between 500BC and 400AD

What great scientific advances were these? Don't suppose that Pythagorean mystics who placed fire in the center because fire was "nobler" than earth were doing science. Or that "atoms" were anything but an a priori assumption. Both were rejected by the ancients.
Not much happened for long periods and after Galen, Ptolemy, etc. A lot of it was math, not science, anyway. Hypatia wrote commentaries on older works-not original discoveries.

The Renaissance was a sleepy time, too. Little happened scientifically because everyone was going ape over classical sculpture and architecture. (Didn't stop, though, any more than it stopped in the middle ages.)

TheOFloinn said...

does [Bruno being a heretic] justify burning him at the stake?

Depends on your attitude toward the death penalty and the rule of law. Folks today balk at executing serial killers. (Bruno was accused on only one murder.) He was kicked out by Lutherans and Calvinists, and expelled by Oxford. Even so, the Venetian, then the Roman Inquisition held him for seven years trying to talk him down before they gave up.

he did suggest that the stars are other suns in direct contradiction of Genesis and that was on the charge sheet.

Do you also credit Jonathan Swift with discovering the moons of Mars? How does a hermitical suggestion unsupported by facts qualify as science?

In 1277, the Bishop of Paris condemned the (ancient Greek/Aristotelian) proposition that there could not be other worlds. So you will have to study the charges more carefully.
* * *
to frighten people off challenging the Church's monopoly of knowledge

What monopoly? The universities were independently chartered, self-governing corporate persons with full control over their curricula (save only the graduate school of theology). Political independence was guaranteed by papal bull Parens scientiarum.

A lot of the texts that we have from the Classical period only survived because the Arabs looked after them

Not quite. They were first copied and recopied by the Byzantine Greeks for hundreds of years and by the Syriac Christians. The House of Wisdom in Baghdad was run by Christians (Hunayn ibn Ishaq and his nephews). [The bulk of the population continued Christian down to the Crusades, when Egypt was still about 50% Christian.] Muslims called it "Greek studies" or "foreign studies" and it while it was not outright forbidden, it was not taught publicly. Natural philosophers-the faylasuf-oft ran afoul of the authorities. Al-Kindi was publicly flogged and his library confiscated. Ibn Rushd was stripped of all offices and forced to flee al-Andalus.

Al-Ghazali's influential Incoherence of Philosophy denied the whole idea of secondary causation; and after his time, science in the House of Submission faded.

Translations from Greek to Syriac to Arabic accumulated errors; but when the jihad ebbed, Europeans gained access to original Greek copies in Sicily and elsewhere. Even before that, Jacques of Venice had brought Byzantine copies of Aristotle into France and translated them independently of Arabic sources.

You need a sense of perspective: History is not composed of Good Guys and Bad Guys wearing white and black hats. It is not something deduced from an all-explaining Theory of Everything.

Historyscientist said...

@Baerista

I am obviously talking about a long time ago so I may have got some details amiss, but it was front page news on the Guardian. I had a paper round at the time (i.e., I used to deliver newspapers before I went to school). It must have been between 1975 and 1977. The story was picked up on at school by my physics teacher who explained the background to it. I think that was where I got the idea that Galileo had actually been tortured from. I have certainly believed it for a long time. It was a reasonably big news story at the time and I think was covered on the main news and there was at least one programme on television. I don't think I could have imagined all that.

While we are on the subject of everything I believe being wrong, I am under the impression that the hydrometer was invented by Hypatia and the Bain Marie by her near contemporary Maria the Jewess. I always mention these facts when I am showing women around the lab to show that science has plenty of female input. I would really like to think that these are true.

I thank everyone for contributing to a reading list for me. I had better stop posting on here as we have drifted way off the original subject and probably only the 4 of us are still reading. All the best.

Tim O'Neill said...

I am under the impression that the hydrometer was invented by Hypatia

It's often attributed to her on the basis of a letter from her student the Bishop Synesius, who asks her to make one for him. But given that he has to explain to her what a hydrometer is, how it works and how to make it, I really can't see how the idea she invented it makes sense.

"The instrument in question is a cylindrical tube, which has the shape of a flute and is about the same size. It has notches in a perpendicular line, by means of which we are able to test the weight of the waters. A cone forms a lid at one of the extremities, closely fitted to the tube. The cone and the tube have one base only. This is called the baryllium. Whenever you place the tube in water, it remains erect. You can then count the notches at your ease, and in this way ascertain the weight of the water."

That doesn't sound like the description someone who send to the inventor of the instrument.

I thank everyone for contributing to a reading list for me.

If you are interested in the history of science, I heartily suggest you read some of them. Keep in mind that we all accepted the standard myths about science in the Medieval once as well, until we did some research. And thanks for responding so graciously - it makes a nice change from people who, at about this point in the discussion, scream at us that we are all dupes of the Pope and/or Christian apologists. That always makes this atheist secular humanist chuckle.

TheOFloinn said...

I am under the impression that the hydrometer was invented by Hypatia

Synesius writes to Hypatia (Letter 15),

To the Philosopher [Hypatia]

I am in such evil fortune that I need a hydroscope. See that one is cast in brass for me and put together.

The instrument in question is a cylindrical tube, which has the shape of a flute and is about the same size. It has notches in a perpendicular line, by means of which we are able to test the weight of the waters. A cone forms a lid at one of the extremities, closely fitted to the tube. The cone and the tube have one base only. This is called the baryllium. Whenever you place the tube in water, it remains erect. You can then count the notches at your ease, and in this way ascertain the weight of the water.

+ + +

This is the only surviving document linking Hypatia to hydroscopes. It does not say she invented it. That is reading too much into the text.

Hydroscopes were used for water divination (hydromancy), as described by Hephaestion of Thebes. That should be clear from Synesius' stated reason for needing it: not to study buoyancy or something, but because he is in evil fortune. It is not clear what the 'evil fortune' is. Perhaps illness. We know that his wife and all three sons will die soon.

Notice that Synesius is not going to Hypatia as a technical expert in building instruments – he has to tell her how to build it – he just needs her oomph to get the job done.

Sorry.

Andrew Brew said...

Galileo's Dialogue... was taken off the index in 1835, according to all the sources I have seen. This was entirely in accord with Robert Bellarmine's statement to Galileo in 1616 that there would be no problem with teaching heliocentric theory as established truth, once its truth had been established. There were various empirical and theoretical objections to heliocentrism dating back to Aristotle in the 4th C. BC. Most of these had been dealt with in the fourteenth century, but the biggie - stellar parallax - remained.

Bessel's observation of stellar parallax in 1838 provided the necessary evidence - interestingly a few years after Galileo's removal from the index. Actually not all that interesting, since others had made successful, but not properly peer-reviewed parallax observations a little earlier.

Dunno what happened in 1975. Perhaps that's just when the Guardian noticed? Mind you, if you rely on the Guardian for your history of Science and Religion you'll never want for moonshine.

I echo what Tim said about your dignified response to all this. You've been given a right hammering, and have taken it like a man ('though for all I know you are a woman... you know what I mean, yes?)

Anonymous said...

@historyscientist

I appreciate your reply, but your chronology is simply impossible. The Index Librorum Prohibitorum had already been abolished in the wake of the Second Vaticanum (1965/66).

Hans-Georg Lundahl said...

Tim, much as I sympathise with your general trend, do not overdo it.

Unless you have evidence of something they "didn't like" not "making it through"?

Most of Attic Tragedy is lost. My theory was: because it celebrated pagan gods and a sense of "fate". Or maybe even because it was sometimes crude like tragedies by Seneca the elder (Agora would have gone by that criterion). What was kept (seven tragedies by Aischylos and few by others, including Oresteia 1 2 3 - Agamemnon - Grave Offering Carriers - Orestes) was maybe kept to illustrate the point that pagan gods were demons. Oresteia and the two plays on Oidipous (by Sophocles) do it for Apollo, like the passage about the Sibyl in Aeneid VI, while Hippolytos does it for Poseidon and Aphrodite.

Another possibility would be that many tragedies celebrated same themes mainly, and that the tragedies kept were thought of as the best ones.

Much poetry was lost too. Pervigilium Veneris survived by a chance to such an age when a bishop who was curious deemed it unlikely to do harm. As did Catullus. Of Sappho much is lost, maybe the kept piece (Phainetai moi kenos isos theoisin) was kept to explain why.

You mean apart from the revolution in anatomy when Medieval scholars finally overturned the irrational Greco-Roman taboo against human dissection and discovered Galen's many mistakes?

Emperor Frederick the Stauffer's scholars even went on to vivisection. The Church stayed against. Against both vivisection and dissection post mortem. Since body was going to rise again on the last day.

Or Jean Buridan's rejection of Aristotle's physics of motion and development of the concept of impetus, laying the foundations of the later idea of inertia? Or Thomas Bradwardine and the Oxford Calculators development of the Mean Speed Theorem?

Hear, hear! But here a Catholic would be in a kind of "gold of Egypt" situation: Buridan (unless I misremember) and Bradwardine prefigured Calvinist heresies as well as being scientists.

Or the various developments in the science of optics which, amongst other things, gave us the Medieval invention of eye glasses?

Hear, hear (no reserve)!

Hans-Georg Lundahl said...

Jean Buridan explicated Newton's first law

Except that Newton generalised it in a way making it suitable for "uniform motion" as of itself no proof of causation, just the same as inertia. Anyway Philoponos was bot including "uniform motion" as equally un-caused with inertia. I have here discussed a quote from Buridan as not fully explicitly agreeing on that with Newton.

the early modern Church was supportive of astronomy

So much indeed that Gregory XIII went through with a reform of the Calendar (the one we still have is his work) and was banned by the Sigillikon of the Orthodox Patriarchs for that.

and that Catholic scholars had returned to discussing heliocentrism long before that ban was officially lifted.

Due to especially the discovery of parallax 1838, which corroborates the kind of heliocentric universe Giordano Bruno and Isaac Newton believed in, which had become the commonplace version of heliocentrism - and which Galileo never discussed. It equally corroborates a view of Hebrew astronomy, i e that there are angels conducting not only each planet but each star. Pick or chose your explanation. As an atheist you will not find the angelic one convincing. But agree that it accounts as neatly as the heliocentric one of "stellar parallax".

In 1277, the Bishop of Paris condemned the (ancient Greek/Aristotelian) proposition that there could not be other worlds.

Tempier?

You need a sense of perspective: History is not composed of Good Guys and Bad Guys wearing white and black hats. It is not something deduced from an all-explaining Theory of Everything.

I couldn't agree more on that one! Except by disbelieving in the masonic conspiration. Unfortunately I do believe there are such, like the Knights Kadosh in Scottish rite, who believe the bad guys are the ones who burned Jacques Molay with their heritage - and act accordingly. I have personal as well as common place reasons for this. The common place ones include what you say about The Guardian and a little earlier on what you say about High School curricula and text books.

Anonymous said...

"Emperor Frederick the Stauffer's scholars even went on to vivisection. The Church stayed against. Against both vivisection and dissection post mortem. Since body was going to rise again on the last day."

you might want to check out the article on "Anatomy" in "Medieval science, technology, and medicine: an encyclopedia" (ed. Glick, Livesey & Wallis) or Katharine Park's article "That the Church Prohibited Human Dissection" in the collection "Galileo Goes to Jail (and other myths about science and religion)" by Ronald Numbers, which clearly show that this is itself a part of the whole warfare-mythology.

TheOFloinn said...

Due to especially the discovery of parallax 1838, which corroborates the kind of heliocentric universe Giordano Bruno and Isaac Newton believed in, which had become the commonplace version of heliocentrism - and which Galileo never discussed.

It was the very absence of such parallax that convinced Aristotle, Archimedes, the Arabs, and the medievals that the Pythagorean mystics were wrong. Heliocentrism was "falsified" in pure Popperian fashion.

Callandrelli noted parallax in 1806. A rotating earth predicted a Coriolis effect. Guglielmini's 1790's experiments with falling weights found the eastward deflection.

These satisfied Bellarmine's demand by that the hypothesis not be taught as fact until there was empirical evidence that it was... a fact. Settele took the evidence to the Holy Office, and they agreed, and lifted the ban in 1830. Ironically, Callandrelli's observation may have been in error! But Bessel came along soon after.

Bruno was a mystic, not an astronomer and wanted a heliocentric world for mystical reasons. His writings show that he was utterly out of touch with the astronomical community. He did not do any observations or mathematical calculations. One translator puckishly remarked that, had they bothered to read him, the Copernicans themselves would have burned Bruno.

The Church stayed against. Against both vivisection and dissection post mortem. Since body was going to rise again on the last day.

They knew perfectly well that the body decayed. There was no reason to keep the corpse intact. Where is the evidence that they were against the sort of dissections that became common in the universities of the West? Heck, Guy de Chuliac, the Pope's personal doctor, wrote a manual on dissections.

Tim O'Neill said...

Tim, much as I sympathise with your general trend, do not overdo it.

I’m not “overdoing” anything thanks.

Most of Attic Tragedy is lost. My theory was: because it celebrated pagan gods and a sense of "fate".

That “theory” doesn’t fit with the evidence we have of plenty of other Classical material that celebrated pagan gods and a sense of fate that was copied, prized, celebrated and imitated in the Medieval period.

Or maybe even because it was sometimes crude like tragedies by Seneca the elder

Seneca’s tragedies were also preserved in the period, so how does that fit with your “theory”?

What was kept (seven tragedies by Aischylos and few by others, including Oresteia 1 2 3 - Agamemnon - Grave Offering Carriers - Orestes) was maybe kept to illustrate the point that pagan gods were demons.

I’m seeing a lot of “maybes” in your “theory”, based, it seems, on some biased assumptions.

Much poetry was lost too.

And much was preserved. Your “theory” doesn’t explain why some was supposedly censored by the wicked old Church while other similar material was preserved and celebrated. That doesn’t make much sense. The idea that some survived and some didn’t because of the vagaries of manuscript survival in a period where there were few copies of anything fits the evidence far better.

Of Sappho much is lost, maybe the kept piece (Phainetai moi kenos isos theoisin) was kept to explain why.

Since Sappho was written in Aeolic Greek, it was declining in popularity long before the Church came on the scene.

Others have already corrected you about the myth that the Church was against dissection. Buridan and Bradwardine had no heretical ideas that I have ever heard of, so I have no idea what you are talking about there. The Church didn’t interfere in their natural philosophical work at all, so it would be irrelevant to this discussion anyway.

You seem to be the one “overdoing it” by basing your speculations on false assumptions and getting a few other things flatly wrong.

TheOFloinn said...

Most of Attic Tragedy is lost. My theory was: because it celebrated pagan gods and a sense of "fate".

Tim
That "theory" doesn’t fit with the evidence we have of plenty of other Classical material that celebrated pagan gods and a sense of fate that was copied, prized, celebrated and imitated in the Medieval period.


It's the intelligent design theory of history. When things that Moderns consider bad happened, it must be the nefarious actions or neglect by Bad People. Normal material causes are never brought up.

If the effort required to recopy, say, music were expensive and labor intensive, how much effort would Moderns expend on copying disco?

No mystery that in the West knowledge of Greek withered, so little of Greek literature was recopied. Moderns don't seem to realize the labors of hand-made texts. There wasn't enough manpower or material to keep up with the ravages of time.

OTOH, we know that even in the "Dark Age" when sarcens, vikings, and magyars were running about burning everything down, the Latins were copying pagan Roman writers. Hroswitha could hardly have written poetry "in the style of Terence" without access to the poetry of Terence. They had Ovid and Cicero, Boethius, Pliny, et al.

An interesting question: how much of ancient Greek literature was still preserved in Byzantium, prior to its sack by the Fourth Crusade? And what residue perished when the Turks sacked the city later? IOW, that the 18th century couldn't find the stuff, doesn't mean the 13th century could not.

Andrew Brew said...

@Hans-Georg

Just a minor point: The notion that the Olympian gods are demons of the air is not a Christian invention. That's from Plato

HGL said...

I had said: Due to especially the discovery of parallax 1838, which corroborates the kind of heliocentric universe Giordano Bruno and Isaac Newton believed in, which had become the commonplace version of heliocentrism - and which Galileo never discussed.

It was the very absence of such parallax that convinced Aristotle, Archimedes, the Arabs, and the medievals that the Pythagorean mystics were wrong. Heliocentrism was "falsified" in pure Popperian fashion.

Callandrelli noted parallax in 1806. A rotating earth predicted a Coriolis effect. Guglielmini's 1790's experiments with falling weights found the eastward deflection.


Key word: such. The parallax envisaged by St Robert Bellarmine and the parallax discovered - are they at one? Same question other formula: the heliocentric view on "solar system" or "world" along with a view of "many solar systems" (Newton) or "many worlds" (Bruno) - is that the heliocentric theory Galileo was discussing?

Hint: Bruno had been burned on the stake. I have not read Galileo's works, so I do not know if he defended any multiplicity of "worlds" or "solar systems". But I rather think not, and if he did, it was not very much noticed by his judges.

I am not sure when Seneca the Elder's tragedies were lost. But lost they are. And were before Renaissance interest for ancient learning revived interest.

As for tragedies celebrating gods and a sense of fate, as said I think the ones preserved are those that serve an object lesson. Euripides has the famous line "ei theoi ti drosin aischron, ouch eisin theoi".

Tim O'Neill said...

I am not sure when Seneca the Elder's tragedies were lost. But lost they are.

Deeply lost it seems, since I can find no reference to them at all. I also can't work out why these wicked Medieval churchmen would copy and read Seneca the Younger's tragedies but censor or neglect those of his father (the ones I can find no trace of at all).

Hans-Georg Lundahl said...

I said nothing about wicked. I do not consider it wicked to not preserve bad plays (or movies). Especially not if choices have to be made.

But Seneca the Elder is the tragedian, Seneca the Younger the philosopher (the unhappy councillor of Nero, the author of a lot of letters that are preserved). Unless my memory got a total black-out which I think not the case.

If you have a reference of Mediæval Church men commenting on plays by Seneca the Elder (whole plays, not just extract lines like "en servasse, ut essent qui me perderent") give me that please.

Hans-Georg Lundahl said...

Sorry!

I even read Phaedra. My bad.

Tim O'Neill said...

Now that we've worked out which Seneca we're actually talking about ...

"[Seneca's] dramatic interests are represented by nine tragedies treating Greek mythological subjects: Hercules Furens, Troades, Phoenissae, Medea, Phaedra, Oedipus, Agamemnon, Thyestes, and Hercules Oetaeus. In addition, Seneca is the author of Apocolocyntosis (also known as Ludus de morte Claudii), a Menippean satire on the deification of the emperor Claudius. .... Copies of the Naturales quaestiones, like Seneca’s tragedies, were not widely known or disseminated; but in the early fourteenth century his dramatic works gained favor, especially in Padua among the protohumanists and at the papal court at Avignon, and they soon contributed to Seneca’s reputation in the late medieval period.

Dante’s knowledge of Seneca was slight and was probably confined to the philosophical works. In Limbo, Seneca is identified as Seneca morale (“Seneca the moralist,” Inferno, 4.141). Albertino Mussato, however, focused on Seneca’s dramatic works; Albertino’s successful play Ecerinis is clearly modeled on Senecan tragedy. Petrarch was influenced by all of Seneca’s known corpus.
("Seneca" in Medieval Italy: An Encyclopedia, Volume 2, L to Z)

Obviously for the Fourteenth Century writers to get copies of Seneca's tragedies, earlier scribes must have preserved them, even if they weren't widely known prior to the Fourteenth Century. But they were hardly suppressed, particularly if they were popular at the Papal Court.

So another claim of church suppression bites the dust. Seeing a pattern here?

Anonymous said...

These Routledge Encyclopedias of the Middle Ages are the shit, aren't they? ;)

HGL said...

"another claim of church suppression"

I misremembered a part of Jerôme Carcopino or maybe some music historian, who said something that the tragedies of Seneca (the tunes of which were - I think - chromatic or even enharmonic) explain why the ancient theatre was suppressed. But then, the texts themselves were not suppressed.

Mediaeval Italy - is that the "Routledge" series? Who is Routledge?

Either way I recommend R. R. Bolgar: The Classical Heritage and its Beneficiaries.

According to it periods and schools benevolent to classical learning and those hostile to it would altercate both East and West Roman spheres (it does not deal at all with Arabic or Syriac reception, or only incidentally). For instance we learn that scholasticism was a neo-platonic thing before being a Christian one, and that Photius was a scholastic before St Thomas Aquinas was.

Anonymous said...

Just came across your review. Very nice on all counts.

However, something bothers me about the focus on the filmmaker's misstatement of why Hypatia was murdered; it is not entirely convincing to say that she just "got it the middle" of a local power struggle (not your claim, but others'). Why was SHE the target? What was in the mind of the mob? There's no evidence that she was held responsible for the specific wrongs Peter the Reader's monks were avenging, right? What was the basis of their focus on her?

I have been in the middle of such mobs in the third world, and I know they don't need a rational reason; however, there would seem to be more than random rage at play here...?

Tim O'Neill said...

there would seem to be more than random rage at play here

I'm not sure who has said randomness had anything to do with it. The evidence indicates quite clearly that she was deliberately targeted for revenge because she was a prominent political supporter of Orestes.

Fortigurn said...

It was the Greeks (particularly Aristotle and Ptolemy), who first claimed there could be no other life in the universe, because there could be no other worlds but our own. Cutting edge science there guys!

There's a lengthy list of Christians who posited life on other planets in the universe, without once being persecuted for the idea.

* 1277: Étienne Tempier (bishop of Paris), says Aristotle was wrong, that there could be more than one planet with life

* 15th century: Nicholas of Cusa (German cardinal), says that there could be life on the moon and even in the sun (De docta ignorantia, 1439-40)

* 1584: Giordano Bruno (Roman Catholic), proposed that given the size of the universe and the vast number of stars and planets, it was inevitable that life existed elsewhere (De l'Infinito, Universo e Mondi, 1584); even though this was the speculation of a Hermetic mystic, it wasn't what got him into trouble with the Church (he had issues with the trinity, a far more important heresy)

* 17th century: Tommaso Campanella (Dominican priest), proposed that there was alien life on the sun (Civitas Solis, 1602)

* 17th century: Anton Maria Schyrleus of Rheita (Catholic astronomer), suggested that Jupiter had intelligent life analogous to human life on earth (Novem stellae circa Jovem visae, circa Saturnum sex, circa Martem nonnullae, 1643)

* 17th century: Henry More (Christian philosopher), proposes extraterrestrial life (Democritus Platonissans, or an Essay Upon the Infinity of Worlds, 1647)

* 17th century: Bernard le Bovier de Fontenelle (French Catholic), proposes extraterrestrial life (Entretiens sur la pluralité des mondes, 1686)

* 17th century: Christiaan Huygens (Dutch Christian and astronomer), proposes extraterrestrial life (Kosmotheoros, sive de terris coelestibus earumque ornatu conjecturae, 1698)

* 18th century: Richard Blackmore (English physician), proposes extraterrestrial life (The Creation: a Philosophical Poem in Seven Books, 1712)

* 18th-19th centuries: German astronomer William Herschel, English astronomer Richard Proctor (Other Worlds Than Ours: The Plurality of Worlds Studied under the Light of Recent Scientific Researches, 1871), French astronomer Camille Flammarion (La pluralité des mondes habités, 1862), Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli, all propose extraterrestrial life

Ironically, it was shortly after Darwin's work on evolution (and partly because of it), that secular science started becoming skeptical of the idea of extraterrestrial life. Alfred Wallace (a supporter of Darwin), claimed that there couldn't be any life on other planets other than the human life on earth.

He revived the Aristotilean claim that humans occupied a unique position in the universe, and that there were no other inhabited worlds (Man’s Place in the Universe: A Study of the Results of Scientific Research in Relation to the Unity or Plurality of Worlds, 1903). Ooops.

In contrast, here's are a couple of quotes from a 19th century Christian journal which demonstrate a far more sensible attitude, theologically motivated though they are.

The Christadelphian, (35:i-195), 1898:

'ARE THE STARS INHABITED.—“As to whether the stars and planets are the abodes of life, we can, of course, say positively on the one hand that they may be. Plainly the omnipotent Deity can, if He sees fit, organise forms of life suited to any possible conditions, creatures that might flourish in the solar fire, or in nebular fog. On the other hand, there is not the slightest valid evidence that such creatures exist.'

The Christadelphian, (35:i-195), 1898:

'But there may be, and very likely there are, circulating around some of the distant suns, planets not very unlike the earth, and well enough suited for even human life.'

Anonymous said...

I have no scholarship credentials to offer, no MA, MSc, or PhD to boast of, and thus lend my arguments credibility.

But I did see the film a few days ago, at the Centro in Brisbane where one is allowed to take into the theatre the glass of wine one has just bought for the same price as the cinema ticket.
That's very civilised, I thought.

I'm naturally very skeptical of the historical accuracy of any 'dramatic' interpretation of any event, which claims to be based on historical fact.

Drama, fiction, novels, movies etc are entertainment. No critical and intelligent person expects them to be historically accurate.

However, if the director of a film claims such historical accuracy, then he's open to criticism. I therefore find Tim O'Neill's review of this film from his own erudite perspective very illuminating indeed.
Tjis is the most extensive and in-depth review of any film that I've come across. Thanks Tim.

Of course, after seeing the film, I came away with the impression that the film had the hall marks of the hollywood blockbuster.

I checked the internet for comments on its historical accuracy and came across Tim O'Neill's blog, and what a revelation it has been.

I too assumed that the Middle Ages were the Dark Ages. I too was very disturbed at reports when I was at school about 50 years ago, that Galileo was threatened with torture unless he repudiated his ideas on astronomy.

The history of the Spanish Inquisition, and numerous stories of burnings at the stake for heresy, the drowning of witches to demonstrate if they miraculously resisted the drowning and survived, they were confirmed as witches, but confirmed as innocent if they did drown, has tended to give me the impression thaty religion is a form of lunacy.

This film, Agora, confirmed that view. In fact, on the way home in the car, I found myself arguing with my partner, that the current state of Islam is equivalent to the state of Christianity about 400 or more years ago. Intolerant and fundamentalist.

I argued further, that the Christians in our current society are now meek and mild because their political influence has bee smashed. In the Islamic world, this is not the case. Religion and politics seem to be one. There seems to be no separation.

I tend to think this may have been the case in 4th century Alexandria. Therefore, any distinction between politics and religion is a moot point.

The arguments as to whether or not Hypatia was a victim of political intrigue or religious bias, might seem irrelevant in this context.

However, the bottom line for me is an overwhelming sadness, that anyone, Bishop or Christian working man, could possibly justify or reconcile the horrors of violence in this film, which are repeated in modern times because we are so absolutely dumb in learninhg from history, with the gentle words of Jesus to love one's enemies.

The hypocrisy is so mind-boggling, one would have to be an idiot not to see it.

Tim O'Neill said...

I therefore find Tim O'Neill's review of this film from his own erudite perspective very illuminating indeed.

You're welcome. But ...

The history of the Spanish Inquisition, and numerous stories of burnings at the stake for heresy, the drowning of witches to demonstrate if they miraculously resisted the drowning and survived, they were confirmed as witches, but confirmed as innocent if they did drown, has tended to give me the impression thaty religion is a form of lunacy.

Or it gives the impression that if you give humans ANY kind of absolutist ideology - religious or otherwise - some of them will use it to do horrible things to others.

I've also tried many times over the years to find any evidence of the stuff about throwing suspected witches into water etc and come up with zero. There were other equally weird ways of (supposedly) determining if someone was a witch, but you might want to be careful about referring to that one - as far as I can tell it's a myth.


This film, Agora, confirmed that view.


Yes, it was meant to. The fact that (i) that "view" is a vast oversimplification and (ii) the movie warps history to make that point should give you pause.

Religion and politics seem to be one. There seems to be no separation.

I tend to think this may have been the case in 4th century Alexandria. Therefore, any distinction between politics and religion is a moot point.


Sorry, but there is nothing in the evidence to indicate that religion played any part in her murder. Some vague handwaving about how they were often linked in this period won't cut it. If there was a religious aspect to her murder, where is it to be found in the evidence? History is done by interpreting the sources, not by making up neat stories.

Greg G said...

In fact, on the way home in the car, I found myself arguing with my partner, that the current state of Islam is equivalent to the state of Christianity about 400 or more years ago. Intolerant and fundamentalist.

Which type of Islam and in what part of the world?

What type of Christianity and in which country? 400 years ago was 1610 - you've got a few choices. London in 1610 wasn't too bad as long as you had clean water and the high ground.

Seeing history as a progression is a trap. The rise of Wahabism has changed world Islam, creating the fundamentalist states orbiting Saudi Arabia that we see today. Things were vastly different in the Middle East as recently as 100 years ago.

Christianity lost political power due, in part, to there being more than one successful branch (which is why heresy was always treated much more severely that science ever was. cf Catharism). Islam has been gaining political power for the reverse reason. There's nothing inevitable about either.

Hans-Georg Lundahl said...

Rome in 1610 was not too bad either. Nor was Vienna.

Edinburgh and Geneva, now that is another story. And Paris, I think, was just emerging from a war between the twain.

Fortigurn said...

HGL, is that you from CARM?

Hans-Georg Lundahl said...

CARM meaning what?

Fortigurn said...

Ok, maybe not. There was an erudite European atheist I used to debate on the infamous 'Christian Apologetics Research Ministry' forum who went by the initials HGL. I thought you may be him.

Anonymous said...

At least this film has generated discussion. Which is more than you can say for the drivel pumped out by Hollywood. It's had a very limited release, so you Christian apologists needn't worry too much.
If the director had wanted to show Christian brutality, and suppression of reason, he would have been better off dealing with the Crusades (as Ridley Scott did in Kingdom of Heaven) or what happened to Galileo.

Anonymous said...

The part of England I'm from, used to have a thriving Jewish community, up until a few hundred years ago when they were all murdered by their 'Christian' neighbours, under the ridiculous pretext that the Jews were practising child sacrifice. Similar thing happened in ancient Alexandria, and so many other places and times. At least the persecution of the Jews in the film was correct.
If Cyril was just tit-for-tatting with the Jews, why did the Jewish community of Alexandria utterly vanish? Why did other Christians at the time call him a "Monster born to destroy the Church"? Good on Amenabar for exposing this neglected corner of history, even if not all of it is accurate. Christians have demonised Jews and Muslims for so long - good to see someone demonising or Talibanising them for a change.

Fortigurn said...

'I argued further, that the Christians in our current society are now meek and mild because their political influence has bee smashed.'

Yeah, well as a member of one of the peace churches I find that difficult to believe. Churches in the historic peace tradition have consisted of Christians who had access to the same political and violent franchise as others, and chose not to use it. In return we've been trampled by Christian, deist, and atheist like. It took our protests to drag secular governments kicking and screaming to the point that they would recognize conscientious objection against military service. Before that, secular governments imprisoned or killed us just like their fanatical religious counterparts. Thanks for nothing.

Like many in the peace churches, I have always chosen not to exercise my political franchise; I don't vote at local, state, or federal level, and I don't lobby the government. I choose not to inflict my personal ideology on others through the political system, but I understand that the vast majority of Christians, and certainly all atheists, are bent on inflicting theirs on me.

Tim O'Neill said...

Our latest Anony-mouse said:

If the director had wanted to show Christian brutality, and suppression of reason, he would have been better off dealing with the Crusades

I have no idea what the Crusades had to do with "the suppression of reason", but they certainly entailed some "Christian brutality". And equal measures of "Muslim brutality". No-one had a monopoly on brutality in that period.

or what happened to Galileo

It would be good if someone made an accurate account of the detailed and complex matter that was the Galileo affair. Then some people whose grasp of it comes from cartoons and children's books might get an idea that it wasn't as simple as it is usually portrayed. Galileo's opponents were largely scientists and the Church actually had the science of the time on their side.

But, again, that doesn't make for a nice neat little story with goodies and baddies. Some people like to reduce history to those kinds of neat little stories. Smarter people deal with complexity and ambiguity.

Greg G said...

"The part of England I'm from, used to have a thriving Jewish community, up until a few hundred years ago when they were all murdered by their 'Christian' neighbours, under the ridiculous pretext that the Jews were practising child sacrifice."

What does that have to do with the point at hand? No-one has been arguing that the Christian religion had clean hands - especially when it came to other religions. We've been discussing the myth that started in the 20th century that religion and science have been at odds for all time.

In fact you're proving a point I alluded to earlier - the primary foe of religion has always been other religions.

Tim, is this the first time you've been called a Christian apologist?

Tim O'Neill said...

If Cyril was just tit-for-tatting with the Jews, why did the Jewish community of Alexandria utterly vanish?

Really? That's very strange. Because when the Persian general Shahin took the city in AD 617 it was with the help of Alexandria's Jewish community. And the Arab conquest of the city in AD 641 was also with Alexandrine Jewish assistance of the tens of thousands of Jews who lived there, as acknowledged by the Arab general of the time in his letter to the Caliph.

For a community that had "utterly vanished" they were pretty numerous and active. I wonder why the defenders of this silly movie manage to get their facts totally wrong so consistently? It's almost as though they are simply making shit up as they go and don't care about evidence or reality ...

"Rational"?

jeronimus said...

Historical accounts state that the entire Jewish population was expelled from Alexandria. So what if they came back after Cyril died, it doesn't make him a saint. It doesn't excuse the mobs. Why do you try to cover up persecution? The jews have returned to the UK because the Enlightenment brought tolerance, little thanks to Christians.

Anonymous said...

That's nonsense Tim. Cyril led a mob which drove all Jews away from Alexandria in 415, according to both Christian and non-christian sources. They gradually returned after Cyril's death but you seem to be denying that any persecution took place.

Tim O'Neill said...

So what if they came back after Cyril died

So what? It means the Jews of Alexandria didn't "utterly vanish". Which was what you claimed.

... it doesn't make him a saint.

What do I care about Cyril being a "saint" or not? I'm an atheist. In my opinion the guy was an A-grade arsehole. But all I'm interested in is the accurate depiction of history. You can't claim the Jewish community of Alexandria "utterly vanished" if what you actually mean is "some or perhaps most of them were expelled for a while". That's called "bullshit". We have a a low bullshit threshold on this blog.

Alexandria was a city where riots, street violence, mob politics and the odd pogrom and expulsion had been happening for centuries - long before any Christian factions got involved. Check out Mike Flynn's multi-part series on "The Mean Streets of Alexandria" for some context and please get a clue:

http://m-francis.livejournal.com/159500.html

Tim O'Neill said...

Tim, is this the first time you've been called a Christian apologist?

No, but it always makes me laugh. It also usually means they have run out of any other response. These myths about early science are very dear to some people and they find it hard to let them go.

TheOFloinn said...

Christianity never had political power, as such, other than as another Italian State. We read of Popes roughed up by French troops at Anagni; but there is no example of Papal troops invading France and giving the king a beat-down.

The Roman Church did not achieve independence from the Western Emperors until the Hildebrandine reforms. (By thus stripping the kings of ecclesiastical powers, the Western Church created the Secular State.) The Byzantine Church otoh remained a department of the imperial government: though sometimes uppity, the Ecumenical Patriarch was an imperial appointment. The Antiochene and Alexandrine Churches were dhimmi in the House of Submission.

The Western Church lost its separation from the state in the Early Modern Ages, when kings were becoming monarchs and arrogating all powers to the throne. This started with the French Concordat, by which the French Crown asserted the power to name bishops within the kingdom, forbid the reading of papal encyclicals, etc. The Spanish Concordat followed.

Then the German Princes, lacking the throw-weight of metal that France and Spain had, took up Sponsor-a-Heretic as a way of bringing the church within their realms to heel. The English monarch took a third way: they simply nationalized the Church within the realm. Hence, the divine right monarchs and established churches of the Age of Reason.

Christianity had this notion of a separate City of God and City of Man; but Islam is a way of like and there is no "church" per se.

TheOFloinn said...

The part of England I'm from, used to have a thriving Jewish community, up until a few hundred years ago when they were all murdered by their 'Christian' neighbours

IIRC, King John ordered them expelled because he owed them too much money.

If Cyril was just tit-for-tatting with the Jews, why did the Jewish community of Alexandria utterly vanish?

a) Many of them had become Christians long before Cyril's time. (This was one reason why the Jews hated the Christians. They were viewed as renegades.)

b) The same sources tell us why. Socrates Scholasticus tells us that after the Jews had massacred the Christians at St. Alexander's Church, Kyril led a mob that drove them all from the city. Socrates tells us he got the information from one of the Jews thus driven out, who had gone to Constantinople and converted there.

Anonymous said...

Sorry, but there is nothing in the evidence to indicate that religion played any part in her murder. Some vague handwaving about how they were often linked in this period won't cut it. If there was a religious aspect to her murder, where is it to be found in the evidence? History is done by interpreting the sources, not by making up neat stories.

I see your point, Tim, but I also see that you admit that interpretation of the sources is required.

In a sociey in which there is little distinction between political power and religious power, a society in which political power and religious power go hand in hand, one may not expect current commentators on events, such as Socrates Scholasticus, to even try to make a distinction.

On the other hand, if we have frequent accounts of turbulent events from a similar period where such a distinction between political and religious motives is clearly made by the commentators, then the absence of any such distinctiion in the comments of Socrates on this issue, could then have the interpretive meaning you ascribe to them.

Anonymous said...

@Anonymous:

One of the hallmarks of Socrates's account is that he was critical of Cyril (and other churchmen) for interfering too much with secular politics. So he was obviously capable of making the distinction.

Anonymous said...

I thought the film was flawed as history but enjoyable enough as cinematic art. You say the director claims it's historically accurate. I haven't been able to find any statements from him on the net where he claims that he has made an historical document. How could he when scenes like the experiment on the ship are obviously speculative? I think you are conflating art and history. You need to watch some american films for a while to get a sense of reality.

Tim O'Neill said...

You say the director claims it's historically accurate. I haven't been able to find any statements from him on the net where he claims that he has made an historical document.

In his speech at Cannes last year before its screening he claimed that if Hypatia had not been murdered we might now have colonies on Mars. Do you have a way to interpret that whereby the fantasy this silly movie presents isn't meant to be historical?

You need to watch some american films for a while to get a sense of reality.

What precisely is that meant to mean? That the bullshit in this silly movie isn't as much bullshit as in American silly movies? Bullshit is bullshit.

And why do these anonymous anony-mice keep trying to defend this bullshit movie with such crappy arguments?

Hans-Georg Lundahl said...

Beware of anonymous anonymice, Tim!

Merry Christmas!

Anonymous said...

It must be the sentimentalism.

Anyway when are you going to post anything new? Life's got the better off from you?

Ariel Swartz said...

What a crass, shallow interpretation of a truly beautiful, moving and very human story. The phrase 'casting pearls before swine' comes to mind.

Tim O'Neill said...

Anyway when are you going to post anything new?

Several reviews of books I read loast year got lost in a hard-drive crash. But I have a new review almost completed and will post it as soon as I get home from my Christmas holiday.

Tim O'Neill said...

What a crass, shallow interpretation of a truly beautiful, moving and very human story.

The movie was pretty enough. How "moving" it was, however, depends on whether (a) you don't care that the things it claims happened actually didn't or (b) you've convinced yourself that they did happen despite the evidence. Historical movies work that way while movies like, say, Iron Man 2 or Winter's Bone (to choose two extremes) don't.

If you find it "crass" and "shallow" to analyse the (in this case, false) historical claims of a movie that pretends to teach us lessons from history, that's your problem. Exactly what else you expected from a blog devoted to HISTORY I have no idea.

Ariel Swartz said...

True, you have no idea. If your blog is devoted to history why review works of cinematic art. I think your brain must have crashed with your hard drive. Thank God we were spared those 'reviews'. Shakespeare's 'historical' plays are not historically accurate at all but people don't see them for that. Umm, like, If they want history they go to a history textbook. Amenabar may have supposedly said some hyperbolic comment about Hypatia and Mars exploration to spruke his film after a glass of wine, I think we can be fair, and allow him that. I seriously doubt he is that clueless about the contradictory nature of the sources, he just included what he thought would be good drama.

Tim O'Neill said...

If your blog is devoted to history why review works of cinematic art.

Because it makes claims about history. Ones that are highly distorted.

Amenabar may have supposedly said some hyperbolic comment about Hypatia and Mars exploration to spruke his film after a glass of wine, I think we can be fair, and allow him that.

Was he also drunk we he gave an interview on Spanish TV claiming the events in the movie are all historically accurate? Perhaps he needs to go to rehab. What about when the movie's promoters hit the streets of Germany "informing" people that, in fact, Hypatia discovered heliocentrism? Were they drunk too?

And the claims of the director and promoters aside, people are taking it as factual and making solemn comments about the significance of the "history" it depicts. Perhaps they are all drunk as well.

seriously doubt he is that clueless about the contradictory nature of the sources

Pardon? The sources are "contradictory" how, exactly? Details please.

While we wait, imagine if a Christian director made a "beautiful work of cinematic art" that depicted Antoine Lavoisier as a paragon of both scientific endeavour and Catholic faith and then showed the French Revolution's atheistic "Cult of Reason" led by Jaques Hebert plotting to murder him because of his faith. Imagine if it ended with Lavoisier making pious speeches about religion on the scaffold before being beheaded while soaring hymns played in the background.

Given that the death of Lavoiser was nothing like that and this would be as much a distortion of history as Agora, would the fact this movie was "beautiful" make this distortion okay? And if Catholics were holding this movie up as fact and using it to "prove" atheists are murderers and enemies of science would that be okay too?

Greg G said...

" he just included what he thought would be good drama."

NO. We have on record in interviews why he made the film he did.

1) Feeling burnout, he wanted to make a science fiction film.
2) To prepare, he started watching "Cosmos" by Carl Sagan.
3) He fell in love with the story of Hypatia as presented by Sagan.
4) He made Agora based on this version of the story.

Sagan is the Patient Zero of this disease of history. He is beloved by a certain generation - and I certainly have some of his books - but he presented no evidence for his Just-So version of Hypatia's life. Charitably, we must assume that he misremembered the tale and (not being a historian) did not check his facts before broadcast.

Amenabar is in a worse position: it is obvious from the various "outs" he added to Agora that he did research, discovered that Sagan was wrong, then altered his script so that he could bend the facts to fit Sagan's version.

"Shakespeare's 'historical' plays are not historically accurate at all"

Shakespeare did his best - he had maybe half a dozen books of popular history to work from and more importantly he had to churn out plays as quickly as possible while 1) keeping his patron happy 2) making sure each play passed the censorious eye of the Master of the Revels (among others).

Even he - one of the least politically controversial playwrights of the day - ran into trouble from time to time. He had to hurriedly change the name of Sir John Oldcastle to Falstaff after the family started making a racket over the accuracy of his history in Henry IV...

Greg G said...

PS Any comment on the quality of the movie being the director's key motive out to pay attention to metacritic:

http://www.metacritic.com/movie/agora

Anonymous said...

@ Tim: I don't wanna come across as a sycophant, but your Lavoisier-analogy is just beautiful.

I must admit that I hadn't seen any episode of Sagan's "Cosmos" before I stumbled upon "Agora." However, I remember talking about Amenábar's movie to a widely respected American historian of medieval science at a conference last year and when I mentioned Sagan's name, he almost lost his composure. After having watched the episode on the Library of Alexandria, I can see why. It's probably no exaggeration to claim that Sagan's fanbase doesn't consist of many historians of science.

Lydia D said...

@Tim. Two conflicting accounts for the context of the destruction of the Serapeum exist. Check your facts.

Tim O'Neill said...

Two conflicting accounts for the context of the destruction of the Serapeum exist. Check your facts.

I've checked the facts pretty thoroughly thanks. The five accounts of the destruction of the Serapeum all differ to some degree. But what I asked the person above was to justify their implication that their differences somehow allow Amenabar some creative wriggle room and allow him to add the destruction of a library. While the accounts do differ on some points, none of them has anything about a library being destroyed. Clear now?

TheOFloinn said...

An interesting post might be to lay the five accounts out side-by-side and highlight the differences among them.

Anonymous said...

Baerista: Your representation of the German interviews is unfair. First, if the itnerviews are part of an ad, then we can't expect them to be necessarily representative. Second, a number of people explained that the sun went around the earth (and/or some-thing more complicated but also wrong). THAT they did not get from the film (in fact, if this is an ad, maybe the interviews were made before the film came out). most people attributed the heliocentric model or proof thereof to Copernicus and/ or Galileo. Hypatia was hardly mentioned. And what about the historian - He was fantastic, with his explanation of Aristotelian cosmology and his final cut-off: (roughly) 'Why are you asking ME? I'm a historian.

Anonymous said...

@Anonymous.
I don't really see what I am guilty of.
Of course most people interviewed attribute heliocentrism to Copernicus/Galileo. The whole point of the ad is to show that the common view is a misconception. That's why they have the little boy, who's talking about Hypatia, and the insert announcing Agora towards the end - their point is that the movie will set the historical record straight. As for the "historian," he's simply trolling the interviewer by denying that the earth revolves around the sun.
So...what was your point again?

Tim O'Neill said...

After almost a year and 186 comments, I think this discussion has outlived its usefulness. It became clear quite a while ago that some of the Agora defenders and true believers in Gibbon's myths on this subject weren't even bothering to read what has been said before, though given the length of this thread that's not entirely surprising.

Thanks to all who contributed usefully. If the hits on this post and its discussion are anything to go by, it's proving a useful resource and a good antidote to the nonsense being peddled on these topics.

Comments closed.