Using the Movie in Class:
3. Teacher's Introduction to be given immediately before the film is shown:
A. Watch the film and decide whether to use the first 71 minutes 11 seconds only, or the entire movie. If you decide to use the entire film, click here**.
B. Decide how to present the pre-viewing materials. If student reports will be used, see Step #2 below, assign report topics in advance of the screening.
D. To segue into a study of later times, after the film clip is finished, introduce the class to the urgent effort in the 1300 and 1400s to find and copy the last remaining masterworks that had survived a millenia of destruction, mold and bookworms. IWM suggests that a report focused on Poggio Bracciolini will accomplish this task. The student or students assigned to report on Poggio should be assigned read the relevant portions of the book The Swerve: How the World Became Modern by Stephen Greenblatt. This is the best work we've found on this important figure and the effort to save the last volumes of classical ancient literatue that were fast disappearing.
Step by Step
1. The following introduction can be given by the teacher or printed and given to the class to read.
Introduction to the Movie:
The City of Alexandria was the third great city of the ancient world, outdistancinging Athens and Rome in scholarship, learning, and artistic achievement. It had a renowned market and at times, militarily, it rivalled Rome. Like so many cities near the Mediteranean during ancient times the the elite and the scholars were Hellenized and they considered themselves to be culturally Greek. For about seven hundred years, from the third century BCE to the Fourth century CE the heart of Alexandria was its library/museum and its resident scholars who were among the intellectual leaders of the Hellenized world. These included:
Euclid who set out the parameters of geometry for the next 20 centuries; Euclid is still read today.
Claudius Ptolemy whose works of geography and astronomy were only superceded in the Renaissance some 12 centuries after his death. Many aspects of Ptolemy's work in geography, including the concept of a spherical earth measured by lattitude and longitude, are still in use today.
Archimedes who did most of his work in Syracuse, 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, the author of Jason and the Argonaughts.
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 in mathematics, mechanics, physics and pneumatics. He was also one of the ancient world's greatest inventors, creating, for example, automotans 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 is was found in 1896, more than 1800 years after it was written.
Hypatia was the greatest female mathematician, astronomer, philosopher and educator of the ancient world. None of Hypatia's work has survived but the following description is echoed by many 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 very popular in 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, and she was brutally murdered in 415 CE by Cyril's supporters with his encouragement, direct or indirect.
There were many, many more, scholars not as famous or accomplished as these superstars, but they were scholars in the Hellenic tradition who made valuable contributions to the advance of knowledge and who educated the elites of their time.
And all of this was by design. Ptolemy I Soter (ruled from 323–283 B.C.E.) was the second Hellenistic ruler of Egypt; Alexander the Great had been the first. Ptolemy I Soter (no relation to Claudius Ptolemy, the great astronomer and geographer) had been a boyhood friend of Alexander and one of his most trusted generals. Ptolemy I was one of the small group of boys at the Macedonian court who were schooled along with Alexander by Aristotle. Alexander, who called Aristotle his second father, and Ptolemy as well as most of the Western world, until the Renaissance, revered Aristotle and considered him to be the most authoritative scientist and philosopher who ever lived. Aristotle taught that facts can only be established by observation and that theories were valid only if they were supported by carefully observed facts.
When Alexander died, his generals divided the Macedonian Empire. Ptolemy seized Egypt, which due to the annual floods of the Nile river was the richest province of the Empire. Following the precepts of Aristotle, Ptolemy wanted his newly acquired domain to benefit from the best knowledge available in the world and he (or perhaps his son Ptolemy II) established the library/museum of Alexandria and its surrounding community of scholars to foster the knowledge that would bring prosperity to Egypt. Scribes from the library borrowed books from all over the Ancient world and copied them. The library was founded in the third century B.C., was destroyed and rebuilt several times and lasted until about the 4th century C.E., with a daughter library located in a temple complex called the Serapeum until 391 C.E. when that was destroyed. The community of scholars lasted somewhat longer, into the 5th century C.E. receiving its mortal blow with the murder of Hypatia by Christan monks in about 415 C.E.
[End of Introduction]
2. Before showing the film and unless the class has already covered these topics, have students research and present five minute reports on the following topics. The points to be made that are important to a full appreciation of the movie or the historical context are set out in brackets below the topic. If the report does not include this information, the teacher should supply it to the class via direct instruction, as well as any other insights that the teacher feels are important based on the curriculum to be taught. In the alternative, teachers can provide this background in a lecture using the material in brackets as lecture notes, again supplement by any additional material that the teacher may want to add.
The Spread of Hellenistic civilization
[Greek civilizaion was spread around the Mediteranean, Adriatic and Black seas by traders and then by colonization extending as far back as about 750 BCE. There were hundred of Greek colonies. Greek civilization was later spread by the military conquests of Alexander the Great 336 - 323 BCE. Often, as in Egypt, the Greek civilization combined with the local cultures but sometimes the Greeks in foreign lands kept apart from the indiginous people. Since Rome adopted much of Greek civilization, it can also be said that the Roman era continued and expanded the influence of the Greeks.]
Ptolemy I Soter including his theft of the body of Alexander the Great
[If the introduction is not given, then this presentation should include the information about Ptolemy I Soter in the introduction. The mumified body of Alexander in a beautifully made golden sarcophagus was being sent to Macedonia to be interred in the plot set aside for Macedonian kings. Ptolemy hijacked it and took it to Egypt, where the people believed that Alexander was the son of the Egyptian Gods. Ptolemy's possession of the body of Alexander helped give Ptolemy credibility as their ruler in the eyes of the Egyptians. Another way in which Ptolemy curried favor with the Egyptians was to venerate the Apis bull, who the Egyptians believed was sacred to one of their gods. Ptolemy I Soter was a strong king and ruled Egypt for 40 years, from 323–283, establishing a line of rulers that lasted until Cleopatra VII Philopator, a direct descendant, committed suicide in 30 BCE shortly after the assassination of her consort,the Roman general Mark Antony.]
Creation of the City of Alexandria
[In the third century BCE, Alexander the Great invaded Egypt, at that time ruled by the Persian Empire. The country capitulated, virtually without a fight and Alexander spent six months there learning about and absorbing Egyptian culture and religion. He was pronounced son of the Gods by the priests of the oracle at Silwa. Alexander wanted to shift the focus of Egypt from the Nile to the Mediteranean and chose the location of a new city to be named Alexandria, which had a good harbor. It was to be a trading center and the capital of a Hellenized Egypt. Alexander mapped out its main streets and temples. He then left Egypt and soon died in Babylon. After the collapse of Alexander's empire, Ptolemy I Soter determined to complete the design, to construct the city, and to make it his capital and the intellectual center of the Ancient World. He and the Ptolemaic Pharoes who followed him succeeded admirably, establishing the great Library/Museum of Alexandria and the community of scholars who culminated with Hypatia.]
The Library/Museum at Alexandria
[The Library/Museum was the center of learning for a large group of scholars and also a Pagan religious center. The Library/Musuem attracted scholars and functioned as a center of learning for all areas of knowledge; in could be said that the ancient City of Alexandria was the first university of Western civilization. Only about 1% of the books and scrolls that were in the library are thought to have survived.]
Serapis and the Serapium at Alexandria
[When Ptolemy I Soter sought to rule Egypt he knew that it was important to respect the Egyptian gods, but he also needed to retain the loyalty of his Greek troops and the population that had been Hellenized. One of the ways that he did this was to elevate and change what had been a minor god, Serapis. This god was given attributes of both Egyptian and Greek gods and a large statue of him was created by a master of Greek sculpyo. It was housed in the Serapium, a larger temple complex that included the "daughter library" in which a major portion of the overflow or perhaps the remnants of the great library were stored. The Serapium and the daughter library were destroyed in 391 CE in the following circumstances. After a group of Pagans attacked Christians they took refuge in the Serapium which was essentially besieged by the Christians. A standoff ensued. The parties submitted the dispute to the Emperor, himself a Christian, who eventually ordered that the lives of the Pagans would be spared but the Christians could do what they wanted with the Serapium. The Christian Bishop of Alexandria, Theophilus, ordered that that the Serapium, incuding the daughter library be destroyed.]
[The greatest female mathematician, astronomer, and scholar of the Ancient World, Hypatia was born C.E. 350–370 and died in 415 C.E. She is one of a very few women in the ancient world who were allowed to pursue mathematics, philosophy and learning as a profession. She conducted a school for aristocrats and the wealthy in which she taught Neoplatonist philosophy, math and science. Her students included students from the three large segments of Alexandria's population: Pagans, Christians and Jews. Hypatia's students called themselves her disciples and called eachother "brother". This is the most complete but, not unchallenged, account of Hypatia by Socrates Scholasticus, a Christian church historian, written about 40 years after her death.
The Lighthouse at Alexandria
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 [the Roman prefect of Alexandria], 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)]
[Built between 280 and 247 BCE, begun by Ptolemy I Soter, and completed by his son, Ptolemy II, the Lighthouse at Alexandria rose by some estimates to 450 ft (140 m). It was one of the tallest man-made structures on Earth for 16 centuries. It was constructed of stone and was deactivated only in the 14th century after it was damaged by a series of earthquakes. The Lighthouse at Alexandria was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.]
The Roman Empire in the 5th Century, CE
The turn of the 5th century C.E. saw a Roman Empire in the process of collapse. In many cities, such as Alexandria, there was conflict between the Pagans and the Christians, who were becoming stronger every day.
Cyril, Patriarch of Alexandria
[Patriarch of the Christian church in Alexandria from 412 to 444. He is one of the most influential theologians of the early Christian church. He ruled during a time of increasingly violent conflict between the City's Pagan, Jewish, and Christian inhabitants. He ordered the expulsion of the Jews from Alexandria. In a political struggle he wrested political power from Orestes, the Roman governor.]
In the fourth and fifth centuries, the Parabalani were a Christian clerical brotherhood, made of up men from the lower classes who voluntarily undertook the care of the sick and the burial of the dead, a hazardous occupation because of the risk of contracting diseases. In this way the Parabalani hoped to die for Christ. They were also used as bodyguards for church officials and in violent clashes with the opponents of the Church. The Parabalani were implicated in the murder of Hypatia and afterwards their numbers and activities were restricted by Imperial decree.
Slavery in the Roman Empire
[During antiquity, slavery flourished in Rome and Greece. In Rome, approximately 30% of the people were slaves. The economy of ancient Rome depended so heavily on slaves that it was called a "slave societies&. The Christian religion with its focus on equality of all souls was particularly popular among slaves. Roman slaves could save money to purchase their own freedom and they would then be admitted as citizens. However, only the most talented or skilled slaves had any chance to elevate themselves.]
Jews in Ancient Alexandria and in the Roman Empire
[Large Jewish communities, chiefly of traders, lived in many cities of the Roman Empire, with a particularly large community in Alexandria. There were periodic revolts by Jews against the Romans, none of which were successful. The Great Revolt in 66 - 70 CE lead to the death or enslavement of an estimated one million Jews and the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem.]
The Geocentric Astronomy of the Ancients, especially, Aristotle and Ptolemy – and the problem of the wanderers.
[The circle was considered the perfect form and the Ancients believed that all planets, as part of the perfect heavens, necessarily moved in circles around the Earth. There are many common sense arguments for a geocentric Solar System. The Earth is at our feet and seems solid and immovable. The Sun and the stars seemed to revolve around the Earth in what appear to be perfectly circular routes, except that every once in a while the planets would "wander" off course for a short time. "Planet" derives from the Greek word for "wanderer". Without an understanding of gravity and inertia it is logical to think that if the Earth were not the center of the Universe, people and objects would fall off the sides and that the winds from any rotation of the Earth would constantly blow in a uniform direction.]
The philosophy of Aristarchus of Samos
[He developed the first known model of the Solar System with the Sun at its center. He arranged the planets in their proper order in terms of distance from the sun. His work has been lost but we know it from a surviving book by Archimedes called The Sand Reckoner. Copernicus knew that the theory of a heliocentric universe had been developed by Aristarchus. See ANCIENT GREEKS AND MODERN SCIENCE: Who Discovered the Heliocentric System? by Leonidas Petrakis, Ph.D.]
Aulos - musical instrument
[The sound was like a modern day bag pipe. It was described as "penetrating, insisting and exciting" (The History of Musical Instruments, Curt Sachs, 1940.) At times aristocrats would play it, like the lyre. Some pictures should be shown, see, e.g., **. ]
One of the themes in this movie is a criticism of intolerance. The film shows intolerance of Christians by Pagans, of Pagans by Christians, and of Jews by Christians. As you watch the film, look for these scenes.
This film is historical fiction: entertainment set in a time and place in the past about people who actually lived and situations that actually occurred. But since it is entertainment, there is always a tension between describing what occurred and telling a good story.
Most of the incidents shown in this movie are reported in the sketchy historical materials that mention the times and the life of Hypatia. The movie shows the film-maker's vision of these incidents. All of the major characters, except for the slaves, are depictions of people who lived in Alexandria, Egypt in about 400 C.E. 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, 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 is described in the historical literature.
After Watching the Movie
4. After the showing of the film or during the film after the Serapeum has been sacked, teachers should tell the class the following:
It is estimated that only 1% of the books in the Great Library at Alexandria and the daughter library at the Serapeum survived. Agora's director/screenwriter for Agora, Alejandro Amenábar, who studied the history of the times before 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.
5. Have the student assigned to give the class the report on Poggio Bracciolini and his efforts and those of others to find and preserve ancient manuscripts. The minial information that the report should reveal is set out below.
[Poggio was a scribe with beautiful handwriting and that skill allowed him entrance to the Roman Curia for which he worked for 50 years. He rose to the position of apostolic secretary, personal secretary to the pope. Poggio was well aware that many ancient manuscripts had been lost but that one or two copies could still be found in the libraries of monasteries. Pogio and many of this fellow book hunters were also aware that because of accidents, wars, mold and bookworms, these manuscripts were disapearing at a quick rate. Poggio's spent many days and months searching the libraries of monasteries, mostly in Germany, England 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. These were copied again and again and thus preserved. The books found by Pogggio and others, were fuel for the early Renasissance, which was born of a new appreciation for the scholarship and learning of the Ancient Hellenized civilization.]
6. After the report is completed tell the class that some ancient manuscripts have been discovered relatively recently, including a mathematical work by Hero in 1896 (see introduction) in and the Dead Sea Scrolls which were found on the West Bank of the Jordan river from 1946 to 1956.
After the film has been watched, engage the class in a discussion about the movie.
1. There are many reasons for the loss of the traditions of philosophy and the knowledge of the ancient 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 the 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 of the break-up of the Roman Empire. There were many others. [Teachers should add those which are stressed in the curriculum which they teach.]
2. [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 anthopoligists believe that in prehistoric hunter-gatherer societies men and women were treated basically as equals. Patriarchy is a society in which the positions of power and prestige are held by men and women are confined to the home or working in the fields. It appears that patriarchal social structures first developed after social and technological innovations such as dometication of animals and agriculture, such as the hearding when all a family's wealth could be ruined overnight unless the warriors in the family, primarily make, 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 household were really theirs 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 warring on eachother. All of these theories can have some truth in them and patriarchy could have developed from a combination of factors. For whatever reason women were restricted to the sphere of home and to serving their men.
In the modern world something has changed and women are being treated in mosts instances as equals to men. What changes in society do you think has caused women to be treated more equally?
Suggested Response: There is no one correct response, but a strong response will include the following: scientific research has shown us 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 women who can be more talended and more accomplished that almost all men in almost all types and levels of endeavors ; society in evaluating people now focuses on the individual and thus individual women who can perform in any occupation are given more chances than previously; 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; 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.
3. One of the themes in this movie is a criticism of intolerance of others with different beliefs. The film shows intolerance of Christians by Pagans, intolerance of Pagans by Christians, and intolerace of Jews by Christians. Which scenes 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 Pagans; destruction of the Serapeum and daughter library
4. What is the message of the film regarding intolerance? Suggested Response: Intolerance causes death, injury and the loss of important knowledge.
5. Describe any aspect of the film that showed something you hadn't seen before, caused you to think in a new way, or helped you understand something more thoroughly than before. In addition, describe how it changed your thinking. Suggested Response: There is no one correct response to this question.
Any of the discussion questions can serve as a writing prompt. Additional assignments include:
1. Research the life of Hypatia using both books and the Internet and write an essay containing you findings. In your essay based on your research and knowledge of history, would you classify Hypatia as one of the ten most accomplished women in history? Defend your position.
2. Compare the life and work 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.]]
2. Write a critique of the historical accuracy of the film.
See also Additional Assignments for Use With any Film that is a Work of Fiction.
This film has been improperly criticized by some as being anti-Christian. Actually, the film is against intolerant fundamentalism - that of the Pagans who started the fight shown in the Serapeum, as well as Cyril whose bitter approach, according to historians, "fomented the pervading atmosphere of hostility which led to Hypatia's death." TWM agrees with that "[Agora] is not against Christians and most certainly not against the Christians of today" Independent Catholic News - Article on Agora Monday, May 10, 2010.
Note - colors of the different types of people (Christian's black; Pagans light colors; Jews **) an invention of film makers to allow us to easily tell them apart. See Sinesius Letter to Hypatia #154 at note 1.
When Cyril reads from St. Paul he is reading and excerpt from the King James Version 1 Timothy 2:8 - 2:12
Parenting Points: Watch the first 70 minutes 11 seconds of the movie, with your child. Read the introduction and ** sections of the Lesson Plan and find interesting facts to share 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.
Links to the Internet
The web pages refferred to in this Guide and the following books:
Hypatia of Alexandria — Mathematician and Martyr by Michael A.B. Deakin, Prometheus Books, 2007.
Awards: Agora was nominated for 13 Goya Awards, winning 7. The film won the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Feature Film Prize ($25,000.00 USD) in 2009 at the Hamptons International Film Festival.
The Rise and Fall of Alexandria - Birthplace of the Modern Mind by Justin Pollard and Howard Reid, Viking, 2006. (Mr. Pollard was the historical advisor for the movie.)
Hypatia of Alexandria by Maria Dzielska, translated by F. Lyra, Harvard University Press, 1995
The Swerve: How the World Became Modern by Stephen Greenblatt, W.W. Norton and Company, 2011
Images for Classroom Use
Bust of Serapis
from Carthage, Tunisia, Third Century, CE.
Reconstruction by Emad Victor Shenouda
Excavation of lecture Hall
Lecturer stood on raised stone at center.
Interesting Historical Notes
Hypatia's disciples were devoted all of their lives. For example, Synesius, Christian Bishop of Sirene, sent her books that he wrote to review and vowed not to published them if she didn't think them worthy. See Sinesius Letter to Hypatia #154M