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Claudius Ptolemy whose works on geography and astronomy were only superseded in the Renaissance, some 12 centuries after his death, lived and worked in Alexandria.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.
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.
About the Movie
One of the themes in this film is a criticism of intolerance and the tit for tat retaliation often involved in ethnic and religious strife. The movie shows intolerance of Christians by Pagans and intolerance of Pagans by Christians. Alexandria had a very large Jewish community. The film shows Christians persecuting Jews, Jews retaliating, and Christians taking retribution for that retaliation.
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.