ANCIENT ALEXANDRIA, HYPATIA, AND THE DECLINE OF GRECO-ROMAN CIVILIZATION Using the Film AGORA
SUBJECTS — World/Ancient Greece, Rome; Egypt; Religions (Christianity
Age: 13+; MPAA Rating -- R for some violence (This rating is undeserved; given the less stringent standards used recently by the MPAA, the violence in Agora is comparable to films given a PG-13 rating); Drama; 2009, 127 minutes; Color. Available from Amazon.com.
Note to Teachers: This film has many historical inaccuracies; however, it provides a compelling visual introduction the glory of ancient Alexandria; the breakdown of the belief system of the Greco-Roman civilization in the 5th century, CE; the sectarian violence that followed the rise of Christianity in Alexandria; and Hypatia, the greatest female mathematician, philosopher, astronomer and teacher of the ancient Greco-Roman civilization. The movie is also an occasion for students to learn about the Great Library/Museum, the city's knowledge industry, and Roman slavery. In addition to the its historical lessons, themes of the film include gender equality and the evils of intolerance and religious strife.
Description: The first 78 minutes of the film (until the view of the Earth after the pogrom) present a reasonable, if sometimes flawed, presentation of the topics described in the note.
The remaining 42 minutes of the film veer far from the historical record. The entire movie should be used only if the misimpressions left by this part of the film receive a very strong correction. See Additional Materials for Using the Whole Film.
Rationale for Using the Movie: Properly introduced, scaffolded and corrected, the film provides a vivid picture of the topics described in the Note above. This knowledge is essential to an understanding of the arc of the history of the West. The movie and the comparison with the historical record can also provide an excellent opportunity for the study of historical fiction, the changes in attitudes toward gender in Western Civilization, and the dangers of intolerance and communal strife.
Cross-Curricular Opportunities: This film can be used to link history with the following areas of instruction: astronomy, women's studies, humanities, and religion. For astronomy, see TWM's Snippet Lesson Plan on the Historical Evolution of Views About the Solar System and the Retrograde Motion of Mars Using Film Clips from Agora and Internet Animations. For women's studies note that Hypatia was probably the most accomplished female mathematician, philosopher, astronomer, and educator in the Greco-Roman World. Consider studying her in depth. (See the Introduction, the minimum information to be included in a student report and the Supplemental Materials for information on Hypatia.) Humanities classes can focus on the city of Alexandria and its library-knowledge industry. The communal strife that roiled Alexandria as the Christians confronted first the Pagans, then Christians with unorthodox beliefs, and then the Jews will provide an added dimension to religion classes.Objectives/Student Outcomes Using this Lesson Plan: Students will retain striking visual images and have increased retention of a pivotal period in Western history and the other subjects of the film described in the Note. They will be exposed to important themes of gender equality and tolerance. Through the correction of the historical inaccuracies in the movie, students will also become involved in the analysis of a work of historical fiction.
Possible Problems: This film has been incorrectly criticized as being anti-Christian. Actually, the movie is against intolerant fundamentalism — that of the Pagans who started the fight that led to the destruction of the Serapeum, as well as Cyril's bitter approach to communal relations which, according to some historians, "fomented the pervading atmosphere of hostility which led to Hypatia's death." The movie was screened by the Vatican before it was released, and the Catholic Church made no objection. TWM agrees with the statement that "[Agora] is not against Christians and most certainly not against the Christians of today." Both quotations from World Catholic Association for Communication — SIGNIS Statement: Agora, April 18, 2010.
LEARNING GUIDE MENU
A. Watch the film and decide whether to use the first 77 minutes 53 seconds only (until the view of the Earth after the pogrom), or the entire movie. If the entire movie will be shown, correct for the two egregiously incorrect scenes. See Additional Materials for Using the Whole Film.
B. Decide how to present the pre-viewing materials (steps 1 & 2 below). If student reports will be used, assign report topics in advance of the screening.
C. Decide upon post-watching activities including which Discussion Questions and/or Assignment to use.
D. Consider adding a report on Poggio Bracciolini, book hunter extraordinaire — Teachers can introduce the class to the urgent effort in the 1300s and 1400s to find copies of the lost works of Greco-Roman literature, science, and philosophy that may have been hidden away in monastic libraries and that were quickly being destroyed by mold, book-worms and other causes. A good way to access this period is to focus on Poggio Bracciolini. A student or a group of students can research his life and present an oral report of their findings to the class. An excellent account of Sr. Bracciolini's achievements can be found in The Swerve: How the World Became Modern by Stephen Greenblatt. This is an excellent work on a pivot point in history. It provides a lengthy description of Sr. Bracciolini and his contribution to the effort to rescue ancient classics from oblivion. The assignment should be given enough in advance to allow students to complete their work and give their report on the day the film is finished. In the alternative, teachers can provide this information through direct instruction.
E. Consider a section on "From Aristotle to Ptolemy to Columbus" — An excellent way to show students the reach of Aristotle's love for learning and Ptolemy I Soter's vision for a library and community of scholars is to read to the class or describe the Preface and the Epilogue to the book, The Rise and Fall of Alexandria by Justin Pollard and Howard Reid. The Preface describes how in 1295 CE Maximos Planudes, an Eastern Orthodox monk, found a treasure hidden in a used book-seller's shop. It was a copy of Geographia, Claudius Ptolemy's book setting out the parameters of the discipline of geography. Written in Alexandria in the second century CE and originally deposited in the Great Library/Museum, it had not been seen for a almost a thousand years and was thought to have been lost when the Library/Museum was destroyed. In this book Ptolemy contends that the world is, in fact, a sphere. In their Epilogue, Pollard and Reid describe how, some 1200 years after it was written, Ptolemy's masterpiece made its way to the hands of a young explorer — Christopher Columbus.
In presenting this information to students, remind them that in the fifteenth century Ptolemy's model of the geocentric universe still held sway — in other words, when Columbus read what Ptolemy had written, the words had the authority of the man who had figured out how the heavens worked . . . or so everyone thought at the time.
Thus, Aristotle's belief in the power of knowledge — transmitted in Macedonia to a young boy who later became Ptolemy I Soter, the ruler of Egypt, leading to the creation of the knowledge industry of Alexandria creating the conditions for Claudius Ptolemy to do his pioneering work in astronomy and geography — helped to inspire Christopher Columbus to undertake the voyage that led to the discovery of a new world.
Presenting this information involves purchasing the book or getting a copy from a colleague or a library. It's well worth the effort or the expense.
Step by Step
1. Student Handout/Lecture: The following introduction can be given by the teacher or printed and given to the class to read. Click here for a version of the Introduction in word processing format suitable to be printed and distributed to students. Teachers giving the introduction themselves, can print and highlight the introduction to serve as notes for the lecture.
Introduction to Agora
The city of Alexandria in Egypt was the third great city of the Greco-Roman world, often surpassing Athens and Rome in scholarship, learning, and artistic achievement. It had a renowned market and the most complete library the world had ever seen. For six centuries from its founding in the 3rd century BCE to the assassination of Hypatia in 415 CE, Alexandria was a Greek city with a Greek tradition of scholarship and philosophical inquiry in which a form of Greek was the language of choice. The Greek influence in the city remained strong for centuries after that, until the Arab conquest of the city in the 642 CE.
A few of the great philosophers, scientists, and mathematicians of ancient Alexandria and their achievements are briefly described below.
Euclid set out the parameters of geometry for the next 20 centuries. Euclid's geometry is still used today, and his book on geometry is still published.
Claudius Ptolemy whose works on geography and astronomy were only superseded in the Renaissance, some 12 centuries after his death, lived and worked in Alexandria. While Ptolemy's astronomy has been discredited, many aspects of his Geographia, including the concept of a spherical earth measured by latitude and longitude, are still in use today.
Archimedes, perhaps the greatest ancient mathematician, did most of his work in Syracuse, but he studied and got his start in Alexandria.
Galen, the great physician and physiologist, learned his trade and worked in Alexandria before being brought to Rome. While in Alexandria, Galen learned about or discovered the circulation of the blood, a finding forgotten in Europe and not rediscovered until 1628.
Appollonius wrote Jason and the Argonauts.
Clement of Alexandria was a great Christian theologian.
Philo was a Jewish scholar and theologian.
Hero, also Heron, was a lecturer at the Great Library/Museum in mathematics, mechanics, physics, and pneumatics. He was also one of the ancient world's greatest inventors, creating, for example, automatons which worked on gravity and hydraulics, an automatic vending machine for holy water, and a wind-powered organ. He also wrote a description of a steam engine. Hero's greatest work of mathematics was lost until it was found in 1896, translated into Arabic.
Hypatia was the greatest female mathematician, astronomer, philosopher, and educator of the Greco-Roman civilization. None of Hypatia's work has survived, but the following description is echoed by several ancient sources:
Revered Hypatia, ornament of learning, stainless star of wise teaching, when I see thee and thy discourse I worship thee, looking on the starry house of the Virgin [Virgo]; for thy business is in heaven. [Palladas, Greek Anthology (XI.400)]
Hypatia was respected by the elites of Alexandria and had extensive moral authority in the city. She supported Orestes, the Roman Prefect, in his political struggle with Cyril, the Patriarch of Alexandria. She was brutally murdered in 415 CE by Cyril's supporters with his encouragement, direct or indirect.
There were in ancient Alexandria many other scholars, not all of them were as famous or accomplished as these superstars, but they were philosophers, scientists, and teachers in the Hellenistic tradition. They made valuable contributions to the advancement of knowledge and educated the elites of their times. (The word "Hellenistic" comes from "Hellas" the Greek word for the country of Greece.)
And all of this was by design! Ptolemy I Soter (ruled from 323–283 BCE) was the second Hellenistic ruler of Egypt; Alexander the Great having been the first. (Alexander got his start as the ruler of Macedonia, a Greek kingdom.) Ptolemy I Soter was the son of a Macedonian aristocrat and one of the small group of boys at the Macedonian court who were schooled along with Alexander by Aristotle. Later, Ptolemy became one of Alexander's most trusted generals.
Alexander the Great called Aristotle his second father. Alexander, Ptolemy, and most of the Western world, at least until the time of the Renaissance, revered Aristotle and considered him to be the most authoritative scientist and philosopher who had ever lived.
When Alexander died, his generals divided up the Macedonian Empire. Ptolemy I seized Egypt, which due to the annual floods of the Nile river, was one of the richest provinces of the Empire. Following the precepts of Aristotle, Ptolemy I wanted his newly acquired domain to benefit from the best knowledge available in the world. He took the first steps to establish the Library/Museum of Alexandria and its surrounding community of scholars. The Library was completed under his son, Ptolemy II.
Scribes from the Library/Museum borrowed scrolls and books from all over the ancient world and copied them. Founded in the third century BCE the Library/Museum grew to 500,000 volumes and the overflow was housed in a "Daughter Library" located in a pagan temple complex called the Serapeum. The great Library/Museum was burned and rebuilt at least once. Julius Caesar was responsible for the first destruction of the library in 48 BCE when, as a military maneuver, he set fire to ships in the harbor, and the flames accidently spread to buildings in the city. There is evidence that the library was rebuilt after that, but historians have not been able to determine how or exactly when the Great Library or the "Daughter Library" were finally destroyed. However, they do know that Theon, Hypatia's father, was the last Trustee of the Library, or whatever was left in the late fourth century CE.
In the 4th and 5th centuries CE, Christianity was a relatively new religion that had only recently gained acceptance in the Roman Empire. For hundreds of years before this time Christians had been killed and persecuted by Pagans who often acted with the authority of the Roman state. While the Roman Emperors were Christian during the times shown in this film, Paganism was not just a harmless discredited mythology, as it is today. It was a genuine threat to Christians, and Pagans did not hesitate to kill Christians. The history of 4th and 5th century Alexandria shows an early Christianity with strong memories of past persecution, feeling the need to rid society of any influence that could challenge the new faith.
The temple complex called the Serapeum was destroyed in 391 CE on the instructions of the bishop of Alexandria. While historians do not know if any scrolls or books of the "Daughter Library" survived to that time, had they existed they would probably have been destroyed along with the buildings and cult objects of the temple. The community of scholars continued without the Library/Museum but was then dealt a significant blow with the assassination of Hypatia in 415 CE. The death of Hypatia was a milestone in the slow de-Hellenization of the city. While Alexandrians continued to make significant contributions to the Neoplatonic philosophy that Hypatia had taught, no mathematician approaching Hypatia's status ever worked in Alexandria again. The city was changing.
In the streets violent religious extremism and an associated rise in ethnic tensions were fanning the flames of [Egyptian] nationalism. Customs were changing, shunning the "foreign" Greek influence of Hypatia's Hellenism, despite the fact that it had been the cornerstone, indeed the very raison d'etre, of the city. [The Rise and Fall of Alexandria, Pollard and Reid, p. 280]
It is estimated that only about 1% of the half-million books and scrolls in the Great Library/Museum of Alexandria survived into the Renaissance and from there into modern times.
Agora is historical fiction: entertainment set in the past with some reference to people and places that actually occurred. But since the filmmakers were not present back in Alexandria in the 4th and 5th centuries and because the historical records are very sparse, much of what is shown on the screen came from educated guesses schooled by the filmmakers' study of the history of the times. In addition, in all historical fiction there is a tension between accurately describing what occurred and telling a good story. This often leads to telescoping events in terms of time, to moving events around on the time-line, and the creation of scenes which are different from but which are intended to represent what actually occurred.
All of the major characters in this movie, except for the slaves, are depictions of people who lived in ancient Alexandria in the 4th and 5th centuries. All of the slaves are fictional. While a man named Orestes was for a short time the Roman Prefect of Egypt and was advised by Hypatia shortly before her death, he was never her student. The young Orestes shown as Hypatia's student is a fictional character, although the incident in which Hypatia discouraged a student who fell in love with her as shown in the movie is described in the historical literature.
The movie shows the destruction by a Christian mob of the Serapeum in 391 BCE, and the moviemakers assumed that the "Daughter Library" had continued to exist and was destroyed along with the temple complex. However, no one knows for sure whether the "Daughter Library" still existed in the Serapeum at the time the temple was destroyed. Historians take different positions on this question. This scene should be seen as a symbol for the general decline in learning as the ancient Greco-Roman civilization crumbled and Medieval times, also called the Dark Ages, began.
This version of the film is in English, but of course, the characters weren't speaking English — but they weren't speaking Egyptian either, or even Latin. As you watch the movie remember that Hypatia, Orestes, Cyril and all the rest were speaking Greek.
[End of Written/Lecture Introduction]
2. Student Reports: After the introduction described in step #1 and before showing the film, have students present short reports on the following topics. This information will help the class get the most out of the movie. The minimal information to be conveyed to students is set out in brackets below the topic. If the report does not include this information, the teacher should supply it to the class along with any other insights that the teacher believes will be helpful in understanding the film. Delete any topics already covered by the class. In the alternative, teachers can provide this background in a lecture using the material in brackets as lecture notes.
Ptolemy I Soter, including his theft of the body of Alexander the Great
Creation of the City of Alexandria
Bust of Serapis
Carthage, Tunisia, Third Century, CE.
Hypatia presided over a school for aristocrats and the wealthy in which she taught mathematics, Neoplatonic philosophy, and astronomy. Her students came from the all segments of Alexandria's population: Pagans, Christians and Jews. Hypatia's students called themselves her "disciples" and called each other "brothers." This is a description of Hypatia by Socrates Scholasticus, a Christian church historian, writing about 40 years after her death.
There was a woman at Alexandria named Hypatia, daughter of the philosopher Theon, who made such attainments in literature and science, as to far surpass all the philosophers of her own time. Having succeeded to the school of Plato and Plotinus, she explained the principles of philosophy to her auditors, many of whom came from a distance to receive her instructions. On account of the self-possession and ease of manner, which she had acquired in consequence of the cultivation of her mind, she not infrequently appeared in public in presence of the magistrates. Neither did she feel abashed in coming to an assembly of men. For all men on account of her extraordinary dignity and virtue admired her the more. Yet even she fell a 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 [Cyril]. Some of them therefore, hurried away by a fierce and bigoted zeal, whose ringleader was a reader named Peter, waylaid her returning home, and dragging her from her carriage, they took her to the church called Caesareum, where they completely stripped her, and then murdered her with tiles [oyster shells]. After tearing her body in pieces, they took her mangled limbs to a place called Cinaron, and there burnt them. This affair brought not the least opprobrium, not only upon Cyril, but also upon the whole Alexandrian church. And surely nothing can be farther from the spirit of Christianity than the allowance of massacres, fights, and transactions of that sort. This happened in the month of March during Lent, in the fourth year of Cyril's episcopate, under the tenth consulate of Honorius, and the sixth of Theodosius [AD 415]. Socrates Scholasticus, Ecclesiastical History (VII.15)]Note that there is more on Hypatia in the Historical Accuracy section of the Supplemental Materials
Reconstruction of the Lighthouse of Alexandria
by Emad Victor Shenouda
The Roman Empire in the 5th Century, CE
Icon of St. Cyril of Alexandria
Mosaic from Casa del Poeta Tragico in Pompeii.
From the Museo Archeologico Nazionale (Naples).
3. After the Serapeum has been sacked stop the movie and tell the class the following. This can also be done after the movie is finished.
[It is not clear that books and scrolls were destroyed in the sack of the Serapeum. However, it is clear that at some point, the Great Library and the Daughter Library and much of the knowledge of the ancient Greco-Roman civilization was destroyed. This scene is meant to show us the loss of this knowledge. Agora's director/screenwriter Alejandro Amenábar, who studied the history of the times when he was making the film, quotes astronomer Carl Sagan as saying that the industrial revolution would have occurred 1,000 years earlier if the knowledge accumulated in Alexandria's library had not been lost. If the Great Library/Museum had not been destroyed, would we be on Mars by now?]
After Watching the Movie
4. Allow time for the report(s) on Poggio Bracciolini and the efforts to preserve ancient manuscripts, or for a lecture on this topic. The minimal information that the report should reveal is set out below. In the alternative, the teacher can provide this information through direct instruction.
[Poggio Bracciolini was a scribe with beautiful handwriting, and that skill as well as a talent for diplomacy and bureaucratic infighting, allowed him to work for the Roman Curia for 50 years. He rose to the position of apostolic secretary, personal secretary to the Pope. Poggio and other educated men were aware that many ancient manuscripts had been lost but that a copy of a few of them might be found in the libraries of monasteries. They were also aware that because of fires, wars, mold, and bookworms, these manuscripts were disappearing. Poggio and several others resolved to try to find and copy them to try to save what was left of the knowledge of the ancients. Poggio spent many days and months searching the libraries of monasteries, mostly in Germany, Switzerland, and France, for the ancient books which had been thought to be lost. He found and copied several important works of ancient philosophy and literature, the most famous being Lucretius' philosophical work, "On the Nature of Things," which sets out a philosophy that defines modernism in many ways. Once found, these works were copied again and again and thus preserved. The books found by Poggio and others, were fuel for the early Renaissance, which arose from a new appreciation for the scholarship and learning of the ancient Greco-Roman civilization.]5. After the report or lecture is completed tell the class that some ancient manuscripts have been discovered relatively recently, including an important mathematical work by Hero in 1896 (see note on Hero in the Introduction) and the Dead Sea Scrolls which were found on the West Bank of the Jordan river from 1946 to 1956, although the latter are not from the Hellenistic tradition.
6. Finally have the class read, or tell them the story told by the Preface and Epilogue of The Rise and Fall of Alexandria. See Preparation Step E, From Aristotle to Ptolemy to Columbus.
In Ancient times, the "agora" was a place of intellectual as well as mercantile exchange.
Parenting Points: Watch the first 77 minutes 53 seconds of the movie, with your child. Read the Introductory sections of the Lesson Plan and share the most interesting facts with your child.
Reminder to Teachers: Obtain all required permissions from your school administration before showing any film.
Teachers who want parental permission to show this movie can use TWM's Movie Permission Slip.
Feel free to stop the film at certain scenes and ask the class what the Director is trying to tell us by this scene. One opportunity is the shot during the siege of the Serapeum that shows ants swarming on the building's wall. The other scenes of note are the pullbacks to show the Earth from space. All of these shots have one purpose and that is to show the conflicts consuming our time and attention are insignificant and to put them into a broader perspective.
After the class has watched the movie, use the following prompts to start discussions.
1. The moviemakers wanted to make several points in this film in addition to introducing Alexandria and Hypatia. What were they, and do you think the points were legitimate? Suggested Response: These include: 1) the repression of women in the Medieval society that was developing out of the ruins of the pagan culture; 2) the loss of knowledge that resulted from the destruction of the Greco-Roman civilization and its books and scrolls; 3) how much the assumption that the circle was the perfect shape and that therefore the celestial bodies had to move in circles, made it difficult to comprehend the true structure of the Solar System; and 4) Christianity was the first Western religion to focus on the poor, the weak and the enslaved.
2. There are many reasons for the loss of the traditions of philosophy and the knowledge of the Greco-Roman civilization. This film highlights several of them. What are they? Suggested Response: These include: (1) the fact that the philosophy and knowledge were seen by Christians as tied to pagan religious beliefs, just as the Library/Museum functioned not only as a repository for books but also as a temple for worship of the pagan gods; and (2) the chaos surrounding the collapse of the Roman Empire. There were many others. [Teachers may want to mention additional reasons.]
3. [It might be best to give students the following question in written form. Click here for the question in a separate word-processing document that can be handed out to the class.] Most anthropologists believe that in prehistoric hunter-gatherer societies men and women functioned as equals. Patriarchy is a way of organizing society so that positions of power and prestige are held by men, while women are confined to the home or to menial work in the fields. One theory holds that patriarchal social structures developed after social and technological innovations such as the domestication of animals like goats and cattle. This led to the development of herding cultures when a family's wealth could be stolen overnight unless the warriors in the family, primarily male, could protect the herd. Another theory claims that about six thousand years ago (4000 BCE), the concept of fatherhood developed and that this initiated the spread of patriarchy. Under this theory men wanted to be sure that the children born to women in their households were their biological heirs and began to restrict the activities of women to assure themselves of this fact. Another theory is that changes in climate around 4000 BCE resulted in increased competition for reduced amounts of food in the Sahara, the Middle East and the Central Asian deserts. Societies became more war-like, developing patriarchal social structures in order to become more successful in fighting for resources. Patriarchy could have developed from a combination of these and other factors. For whatever reason women were restricted to the sphere of home, to menial labor, and to serving their men.
In modern Western society patriarchy has lost ground, and women are being treated in most instances as equal to men. What changes in society have caused women to be treated more equally?
Suggested Response: There is no one correct response, but a strong response will include one or more of the following: (1) scientific research has shown that in most ways, except for sheer physical strength, women are equal to men, and since there is a broad range of talent and ability within the ranks of both men and women, there are some women who are more talented and more accomplished than almost all men in almost all types and levels of endeavor; society, when evaluating people, now focuses on the individual and thus individual women who can perform in any occupation are given more chances than previously; (2) while, on the whole, men are more physically powerful than women, in modern society there is less and less need for physical labor; modern society requires intelligence and education, and women are as talented in those areas as men; (3) there are fewer traditional families than before and women are being required to assume leadership roles in the family and to become the principal wage earners; this translates into the advancement of women in society.
4. One of the themes in this movie is a criticism of communal strife and of intolerance toward others with different beliefs. The film shows intolerance of Christians by Pagans, intolerance of Pagans by Christians, intolerance of Christians by Jews, and intolerance of Jews by Christians. Which scenes in the movie show this? Suggested Response: These include: Theon whipping Davus, the slave who took on the punishment for a slave girl's possession of a cross; pushing the Pagan into the fire, the attack by the Pagans on the Christians, and the response of the Christians leading to the destruction of the Serapeum; the attack by the Jews on the Parabolani; the pogrom, and the assassination of Hypatia.
5. What is the message of the film regarding intolerance? Suggested Response: Intolerance causes great harm including death, injury and the loss of important knowledge.
6. The Parabolani as portrayed in this film bear a striking resemblance to the "morals police" or similar radical Muslim enforcers who operate in places like Iran, Saudi Arabia and Taliban controlled Afghanistan and Pakistan. In addition, the intolerance shown by the character portraying Cyril and his sexist interpretation of the biblical quotation (1 Timothy 2:8 - 2:12), seem to be similar to the intolerance and sexism of some fundamentalist Muslims operating in those areas. The portrayals in the movie were reasonably accurate. Identify some reasons for these similarities or make the case that it is a false analogy. Suggested Response: There is no one correct response to this question. Interesting thoughts include: (1) that the relative tolerance of the West and its rejection of a sexist interpretation of this and other Biblical passages came only after centuries of development; (2) Islam is about 500 years younger than Christianity (Muhammad was born in 570 CE) and intolerance and sexism characterized the Christianity of 500 years ago; (3) some extreme Christian and Jewish sects still have this view of women and some are intolerant; and (4) these are views of a strongly patriarchal society and modern society is moving beyond patriarchy; when that process is complete treatment of women as second class citizens will end.
For several additional discussion questions, click here.
Any of the discussion questions above and in the Supplemental Materials can serve as a writing prompt. Additional assignments include:
1. Research the life of Hypatia using both books and the Internet. Write an essay concerning her historical significance.
2. Compare the life and work and the times in which they lived of two of the following women: Mary Wollstonecraft; Alice Paul, Hypatia, and Marie Curie. [Teachers should feel free to add other accomplished women to this list.]
3. Describe a lesson from this film that viewers can apply to their own lives.
4. The Industrial Revolution started in about 1760 CE, a little more than 250 years ago. Some scientists say that had the knowledge of the Great Library of Alexandria not been lost, the Industrial Revolution would have occurred a thousand years earlier. That's about the year 760 CE. Write up a thought experiment containing ideas about how our lives would have been different and what would have changed in history, if we were living in the thirteenth century after the Industrial Revolution rather than the third.
5. Research and write a critique of the historical accuracy of the film answering the following question: Given the fact that the audience will take away from this film an impression of the historical events and figures portrayed in the movie, do you think that on the whole this film improves the viewer's understanding of the history of the 4th and 5th centuries?
See also Additional Assignments for Use With any Film that is a Work of Fiction.
If the entire film is shown, at least two corrections should be made to what is shown in the film.
The Scene Showing Hypatia Discovering the Heliocentric Solar System with Elliptical Orbits
From 1:41:18 to 1:45:42 there is a fictitious scene in which Hypatia reasons her way to a hypothesis that the Earth moves around the Sun in an elliptical orbit. There is no support for this scene in any contemporaneous writings and it would leave a misimpression because these discoveries were first made by Copernicus and Kepler, some 1200 years later. There are two ways to deal with this scene. For most classes, the teacher can simply tell students that: 1) there is no indication in the historical record of what is shown in this scene; 2) that a heliocentric Solar System with elliptical orbits of planets around the Sun was not demonstrated empirically until Copernicus and Kepler some 1200 years later; and 3) these hypotheses did not come about until after there had been thousands of meticulous observations of the movement of stars, the Sun and the planets.
A second way to deal with this problem will be useful with honors level 11th and 12th grade students and with college classes. It consists of having students prepare a research paper based on the following prompt:
The scene in which Hypatia, a Neoplatonist, reasons her way to a recognition that the Earth moves around the Sun in an elliptical orbit has been criticized by many because it has no support in the historical record. Others say that it is logical to think that Hypatia could have made this discovery on her own and that we would not know it because all of her writings have been lost. Note that Copernicus and Kepler made their discoveries by applying the scientific method, which is an expression of the branch of philosophy called Empiricism. Write an essay evaluating this scene as a piece of historical fiction, i.e., whether there is a reasonable probability that Hypatia would have made this discovery. In your essay describe and comment on Neoplatonist views about observations of physical phenomena as a means of ascertaining truth, the strength of Empiricism in Greco-Roman philosophy and, of course, the writings of Aristarchus and Ptolemy on the subject of the Solar System.The Minimization of the Horror of the Assassination of Hypatia
Tell the class that: Hypatia was not assassinated in the manner shown in the film. First, she was probably 60 years old when she was murdered. Second, she was not strangled before the Parabolani stoned her already dead body. In fact, the Parabolani who killed Hypatia believed Cyril's propaganda that she was a witch and the embodiment of evil. They skinned her alive using oyster shells. Then they burned her remains.
This Learning Guide written by James Frieden and Deborah Elliott and was published on November 27, 2013.
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