Monday, June 7, 2010


This afternoon, I saw the new Alejandro Amenábar film, an English-language Spanish production, set in a vividly depicted late 4th-early 5th century Alexandria, as the classical world was finally coming to an end. It tells the famous story of Hypatia, the celebrated female Philosopher-Mathematician, who devoted her life to study and teaching in Alexandria’s legendary library at the Temple of Serapis. Alexandria at that time was a truly turbulent place, where Christians, Jews, and Pagans all lived and interacted. By then, the Empire had a Christian emperor, and the Christians were rapidly growing in numbers and in political power, while the previously powerful pagans were correspondingly in decline. The film powerfully portrays this ongoing tension and the rising conflict among the three groups, all of which are depicted as increasingly “intolerant” (by today’s standards). It dramatically tells the story of how pagan intolerance of Christianity contributed to and was in turn succeeded (and defeated) by Christian intolerance of paganism.

Christians (among them the future bishop Synesius) as well as pagan students attended Hypatia’s erudite classes, until a pagan-initiated street brawl ended in a Christian takeover of the library (c. 391), transforming its temple into a church. Having salvaged what scrolls she could, Hypatia continued her speculative studies in her home, until her purported influence on the Roman Prefect of the city (her former student Orestes) caused her to be murdered by a Christian mob.

The younger Orestes had also earlier aspired to be Hypatia’s suitor. The neo-Platonist Hypatia, however, had no interest in such love and dramatically displayed her disdain for physical sexuality. Meanwhile her family slave Davus both falls in love with Hypatia and becomes a Christian. The story of Davus, which I presume is a cinematic fiction, gives the film a personal, emotional, and erotic edge it would otherwise lack.

As historian H.A. Drake has shown in Constantine and the Bishops (Johns Hopkins U. Pr., 2000), the first Christian Emperor pursued a religious policy aimed at imperial stability and social cohesion, in which Christians and pagans could coexist in civic harmony. Had the political situation not developed differently, how might the relationship among the empire’s religions have sorted itself out? Might the mutual respect among Hypatia, Orestes, and Synesius have provided an alternative model for a society in transition?

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