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"Agora" or the manipulation of History in movies

Translated from "Il Timone", November 2009.

A petition was started on the Web to grant the distribution of a film directed by Alejandro Amenabar, Agora, which the underhand Church censorship reportedly wants to forbid Italians from watching. That's right. The movie deals with the fascinating pagan philosopher Hypatia of Alexandria, killed by Christians on orders from the bishop Cyril.

Professional hunters of skeletons in the Christian cupboard rediscover the episode every now and then and, obviously, they fit it into the politically correct fashion of the day. Up until the Enlightement no one even knew who Hypatia was. Then, Pantheist John Toland in 1720 and Voltaire, as usual, in 1736 opened the dispute on the liberal Hypatia killed by clerical obscurantism. In 1776 Edward Gibbon reinforced lore in his well-known work dealing with the fall (caused by the Christendom) of the Roman Empire. In the following century it was the turn of Romantics: Hypatia was depicted as a beautiful woman and as the last representative of the ancient world (imagined as an Arcadia with plenty of nymphs, zephyrs, shepherds and satyrs) slaughtered by papist fanaticism. Of course, in the 20th Century Hypatia, a veteran feminist, became a prey to Catholic misogyny. The only slightly discordant voice was Mario Luzi's who based a play on her life in 1978. And now it is the turn of a movie, (and of the "total art" of cinema, which can leave a mark in the human mind with a strength that literature cannot even dream to match): science versus religion, tolerance versus fideism. Just guess who the "good guys" and the "bad guys" are. Pure Odifreddi-like stuff. So we have to resign ourselves to the politically correct mumbo jumbo. And don't count on opposite cinema because it is non-existent: Renzo Martinelli and his "Barbarossa" movie were labeled as "pro-Lega" by all mass-media, so that the public deserted theatres.

With our limited instruments we'll tell the truth on the "Hypatia case". First of all, she might have been beautiful in her youth, since in 415 AD she was in her sixties (in an era when very few people could boast any teeth in their mouths by age 40). Hers was a political murder and religion played no part in it.

Hypatia, the daughter of a philosopher very familiar with Hermeticism and Orphism - Theon - was a Neo-Platonist philosopher who taught in Alexandria. Hers was just one school among the many populating that capital of ancient culture. However, don't be fooled by the word "school": they were circles for highly selected followers. She did not leave any written work behind. Whatever is known about her was transmitted by her disciples, among which there were many Christians. One of them, Synesius of Caesarea, would later become a bishop.

According to the Platonic method (which in turn originated from the Pythagorean one) the disciples learned about "mysteries" which did not have to be disclosed to the public, because not everybody would be capable of understanding them. Hypatia was not a "pagan" intended as a worshipper of Jupiter, Juno and Mercury; in fact, as a Neo-Platonist, she was closer to Christendom than to Paganism. Indeed, she praised virtues such as virginity (she never married) and modesty in dress. But like all Neo-Platonists and Pythagoreans she maintained that philosophers, being the wisest among people, had to politicize. As a matter of fact, Orestes, the Christian prefect of Alexandria, frequently relied on her advice.

Orestes, as any Byzantine civil servant of the time, had the typical caesaropapist view of relationships with religious authorities, while Cyril the Patriarch strove to safeguard the Church's independence from the secular power. In 414 AD their confrontation became open: Cyril sought a compromise but Orestes kept his stance. As usual, two parties were formed (something customary in ancient times; St. Ambrose from Milan knew it pretty well). Among the patriarch's supporters, however, there were the so-called parabolani, Christians whose deeds smacked of heresy because of their fanatical search for martyrdom: they consecrated themselves by oath to undertake the care of the plagued, hoping to die for Christ this way. They were named after the ancient gladiators (abolished by Theodosius) who engaged in lion-fighting in the arena. Cyril tried to keep them under control but the city was in turmoil: in 361 AD a bishop imposed by Constantinople, George of Cappadocia, had been lynched; seven years after Hypatia's death a new prefect was killed; in 457 another bishop appointed by the Emperor, Proterius, was also killed in a popular revolt.

In this environment and in this atmosphere, the blame for Orestes' intransigence was laid on Hypatia and her advice. Rumors were spread that the "mysteries" of her school concerned magic and necromancy. She was assaulted by a mob while her slaves were carrying her on a litter, dragged down and killed. Orestes and Cyril, presented with the fait accompli and shocked by the turn that their controversy had taken, reconciled with one another. The prefect left Alexandria, perhaps to report to the Emperor. Maybe he was replaced. At any rate, he never came back.

One more thing to make clear is that Cyril had nothing against paganism, both because it was being professed by a minority and by then it was practically uninfluential, and because his main concern were Christian heresies which, at the time, sprang up at a ratio of nearly one a day. It was only years later, at the time of the rise of Julian the Apostate into power, that he took up writing again to confront the Emperor's attempt to reinstate the ancient Roman civil religion. Neo-Platonism, with its desire to reach God through philosophy and the exercise of virtues, continued to have Alexandria as its capital up until the Islamic invasion which, by the way, was made much easier by the resentment that Roman cities in North Africa bore against the Byzantine Empire for their heavy taxation - partially justified by near-continuous wars against Persians, European Avars and Arabs - and their policy to crack down hard on heresies (which always found a fertile terrain in those areas).

Of course all this is of no interest to the heralds of political correctness (which, as we have seen, varies from an era to another). So the pagan world is depicted as a "golden age" of science and tolerance, where people lived in harmony with nature. A world destroyed by monotheistic religions and in particular by the much hated Christendom. Actually, that was a desperate world which thrived at the expense of millions of slaves and that was continuously upset by wars initiated by the personal ambition of one individual. That world, which welcomed with solace the religion of love for the next and of human dignity, never existed for all those intellectuals, artists, film directors and writers that, as soon as they see which way the wind blows, align themselves supinely to the Power of the day.

What about the millions of Christian martyrs? They were just looking for trouble, and they still are. Christians are bad because they killed Hypatia, just like Yankees are loathsome because they killed Sitting Bull. In fact Stalin and Hitler were christened, it is undeniable. And Robespierre too. Strangely they are not yet among the skeletons in the Catholic Church's cupboard. Oh, the Pope should plead for forgiveness... Non riesco a connettermi