June 3, 2020

Review: Agora

This week, I thought I’d give a quick Astroguyz shout-out to a historical astronomy movie that recently graced our Netflix inbox. Agora tells the tale of the astronomer and mathematician Hypatia and the last days of the library of Alexandria. The movie quietly came and went earlier this year, but it tells a tale that’s as timely as ever.

The life and untimely death of Hypatia at the hands of religious fanatics represented a historical turning point, the death of classical inquiry and wisdom and the dawn of the dark ages. True, the library and the learning that it had represented had been on the decline for some time, but this movie serves as a dramatic snapshot of the end. This was filmed in a broad cinematic style that would make the tradition of such films as Gladiator proud. Hypatia was the final purveyor of mathematics and reason that ancient Alexandria would witness. A translator and creator of astronomical tables, Hypatia also translated Ptolemy’s The Almagest and was pivotal in preserving and transmitting much of the astronomical knowledge of the ancient Greeks to our present day. By some accounts, she was even the inventor of the astrolabe, the instrument of choice by astronomers for measuring the position of the stars and planets right up until Galileo’s day. Thanks largely to her efforts, we know that such philosophers as Hipparchus and Aristarchus of Samos knew of the heliocentric theory and even measured the Earth-Moon distance. Such hard won knowledge had to wait for the renaissance to be re-discovered.

The movie, while largely historically accurate, does speculate on the discoveries of the ancient Greeks, showing them on the cusp of making such breakthroughs as Kepler and Newton’s laws of motion. Such assertions are of course highly speculative and ungrounded in historical fact, but serve to underline the logical extension of what the founders of the Library might have been capable of. All of this is juxtaposed against the religious fervor that was about to engulf western civilization for over a millennia.

Do make an effort to track down Agora, both for a fascinating look at the end of the classical world and as a warning against heeding the siren call of superstition. Just think, if the technology of the Ancient Greeks has proceeded in a linear fashion, would we have teleporters and holodecks by now?


  1. FLJustice says:

    I was sorry this movie came and went so fast. I saw Agora when it first came out in NYC and loved Weisz’ performance. You’re right that Amenabar played a little fast and loose with the history and science, but that’s what artists do. I go to movies for entertainment and look up what is suspect later. Have you read Maria Dzielska’s biography ? It does a pretty good job or sorting through the myths and putting what few historical primary sources we have on Hypatia’s life in context. I also have a series of posts on the history behind the events and characters in Agora on my blog–not a review, but more of a “reel vs. real” discussion. Thanks for the review!

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