Agora appears on the surface to be a routine sword and sandals epic but as Roger Ebert points out is actually a film of ideas centred around the tragic, true story of Hypatia a female philosopher in late Roman Alexandria who fell foul of the Christian mob.
The ascendant Christians are convincingly portrayed as fundamentalists, but the faults too of the civilised “pagan” world are also evident. The film implies the response of the mob springs from their experience of slavery and poverty, their ignorance worn almost as a badge of pride in contrast to the hypocrisy of those who enslaved them.
A caption at the end of the film states it took humankind another 1200 years to build upon Hypatia's work. It leaves one meditating upon what was lost – certainly the habit is to see the period between the fall of the Rome and the Renaissance as the “dark” ages, a huge step backwards. But I’m not so sure.
I wonder if civilisations really reach a kind of comfort zone. Hypatia's work may well have added to mathematics, but would it have resulted in the internal combustion engine? The Chinese broke up their massive ships, said to have reached Africa and Australia, in the second century BC because they were concerned they ran contrary to the Tao. Technology did not necessarily equal progress for either Romans or Chinese – it was a means to an end, not an end in itself. They were quite happy where they were, thank you.
Christianity may have led to ultimately greater scientific and philosophical understanding in part because of its lack of ease.
We tend to forget how incredibly revolutionary Christianity was – how it shifted conscience from the ethical to the spiritual realm. In his Byzantium series, John Julius Norwich identifies as a turning point the Emperor who crawled to the Coliseum praying for forgiveness for some despicable act. It didn’t stop further wickedness of course, but it transformed the perception of it.
Man's dreams too. Christian utopianism can be found in many of the triumphs and tragedies of the modern world – the French Revolution, Marxism, the European Union are all examples attempts to build a kind of heaven upon earth, even as their architects invariably deny any association with the religious tradition that provided its impulse.
We mourn the loss of the Classical World, but it wasn’t all sunshine. If it had not moved forward in its first thousand years, there is little reason to suggest it would in its second.
The irony is that it was not a Reason but faith-based culture – one that transformed God in to human form – that may have created the conditions for the extraordinary developments of the last few centuries.
Perhaps we should not be surprised therefore that the single glaring inaccuracy of Agora is it was not a Christian mob but actually Julius Caesar who, albeit inadvertently, appears to have burned the contents of the Great Library.
Centuries later the Christians did indeed storm the building, but the books had long since gone up in smoke.