I must admit, I was leery when I first saw the cover of Agora on Netflix. It showed the back of a young man with an unsheathed gladius dripping blood. I was immediately reminded of the many recent disappointments in terms of historical movies or TV series set in antiquity, namely Centurion, Clash of the Titans, and STARZ’s Spartacus series – plenty of nudity, violence, and gore, but not much beyond that.
Set in Alexandria, in the Roman province of Egypt, in the late 4th century C.E., Agora recounts the story of the philosopher and mathematics teacher Hypatia of Alexandria, played by Rachel Weisz (Enemy at the Gates), as she gets caught up in the currents of the struggle between the Christians, who had been enjoying a new age of prosperity ever since Constantine the Great adopted Christianity as the Empire’s
official faith, and the traditional pagans, who were pushed more and more to the fringes of society.
Whilst these tidal waves of religious struggle engulf the city, Hypatia desires nothing more than to be left alone from either faith and to pursue philosophy. At the same time, she has to cope with her slave, Davus, a reformed Christian in love with her, and Orestes, a former pupil of hers now prefect of the city, (which, as a side note, is historically inaccurate as only Rome and Constantinople had prefects of the city), who is also in love with her – what would antiquity be without all the romances?
Besides the fact that the religious struggle of late antiquity has to date been left untouched by filmmakers, Spanish director Alejandro Amenábar attempts to not only cover it in his movie, but even to contrast it with an individual, in this case a Neo-Platonist, that stands outside the religious major religious groups of the time, a proponent of the study of science detached from any single religion.
One disclaimer though: while Hypatia was a real person who lived in the 4th century C.E., she can only be considered as a character used to represent the intellectual or academic perspective of the times, while the world around her descends into blatant denial of anything but the written word. Ironically, even though she was condemned and killed by the church, most of the little information we have about has survived in her correspondence with Bishop Synesius, who actually defended her scientific studies.
The movie has, as every movie, some flaws: most prominently, there is a plethora of anachronisms, ranging from details, such as the armor of Roman soldiers that was in used about 200 year prior to the events of the movie, to the statue of the she-wolf suckling Romulus and Remus, a modern-day symbol of ancient Rome that may or may not have been made initially in ancient times, but regardless certainly did not feature the two boys, which were a baroque addition. Moreover, a bird’s eye view of the city and the surrounding country shows not only the Suez-Canal, but also the Assuan-Dam, which were built in the 19th and 20th centuries, respectively, and had not even been imagined in antiquity. And neither is the discovery of the elliptical nature of planetary orbits hers, but rather that of Johannes Kepler more than a millennium later.
Lastly, there is the necessary ridiculousness that is common to all but few war movies from the 20th century: in preparation of the uprising against the Christians, the pagan chief priest makes a long speech in the public courtyard in front of the Serapeum, inciting the people to attack the Christians who stand in the agora listening to a sermon from the Bishop. Not only is suddenly half the city in the temple courtyard, but apparently Serapis has the power to make barrels of swords appear! As if that was not enough, the pagans (all dressed in shining, white togas) leave the Serapeum with swords openly at their side (what happened to the stealth recommended by the priest just minutes before?) and surround the Christians (all wearing black cloaks) using two pathways conveniently left open by the Christian crowd. Needless to say, none of the Christians in the courtyard realize the assault until the first blood is drawn.
Overall, I have to say that I was positively surprised by Agora. Among its colleagues mentioned in the first paragraph, it recommends itself both by its choice of topic and message it promotes (which does not follow the usual antiquity = sex and violence pattern). The movie succeeds in showing, albeit being quite over the top at times, the religious struggle during late antiquity while weaving into it the call for science and research free from religious constraints (notice religious, not moral) and the importance of the preservation of knowledge – I was positively distraught when the movie showed the sacking of the great library in the Serapeum by the Christian mob, though that might just have been the classicist and book-lover inside me wincing at all the sources and great works of antiquity lost in an instant of wanton destruction.
Lukas Lemcke grew up in Germany but moved to Canada in 2006. He graduated in 2012 with a BA in Classical Studies and Arts & Business from the University of Waterloo, and in the fall of 2012, will be beginning his MA in Classical Studies there. Among others, his areas of expertise and research interest lie in the communication and logistic infrastructure of the Roman Empire.
Aside from researching, writing his own papers, and reading those of others, Lukas has worked as freelance translator and technical writer for several clients in Germany since 2009. In connected with this, Lukas intends to focus increasingly on this line of work and intends to add a MA in translating in Germany following the completion of his MA at the University of Waterloo.