Scholarly woman of history

Orestes (Oscar Isaac) and Hypatia (Rachel Weisz) try to avoid a mob scene in “Agora.”

She was, by most accounts, the most accomplished woman of the ancient world.

Mathematician, astronomer and head of the School of Neo-Platonic Thought at the Library of Alexandria, Hypatia was a scientist and intellectual for all seasons. And one largely regarded by male peers as an equal, if not more, in an era when the majority of women were little more than chattel.

Though a body of myth has grown up around this historical figure, cloaking her in romantic speculation, and politically motivated reinterpretation of texts has kidnapped her legacy for its own ends, Hypatia (born between 350 and 370 A.D., died 415 A.D.) was a Greek scholar in the finest classical tradition. And, perhaps, a tragic figure in the tradition of Greek theater.

In writer-director Alejandro Amenabar's period film "Agora," now playing in major markets, Hypatia is played by Oscar-winning actress Rachel Weisz, a decided step up from the cavortings of Weisz's last trip to the desert ("The Mummy").

Alexandria, Egypt, was the epicenter of reason and scientific inquiry of its time, a repository of the world's knowledge and thought unlike any that had come before. The Royal Library of Alexandria was the largest in the world, thought to have been established early in the 3rd century B.C. At its apex, it is believed to have harbored 400,000 to 700,000 scrolls.

But few events in ancient history are as controversial as the ultimate destruction of the library. The historical record is contradictory and incomplete. Taking its title from the Greek word for the public square or marketplace where ideas were debated and exchanged, "Agora" chooses to place the final fall in Hypatia's time, and cherry-picks one of many possible outcomes.

One of the most commonly chronicled (and questionable) stories, which "Agora" employs to some degree, holds that early Christian zealots angry at Hypatia's association with the "pagan" Roman governor stoned her to death on the library's steps, after which they set fire to the library, setting human thought back a thousand years. This is the story reiterated by the late Carl Sagan in his generally factual 1980 PBS documentary series "Cosmos."

Sadly, both traditions are echoed in the present day, with the destruction of priceless treasures of antiquity by Islamic fundamentalists in Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan on the one hand; the tension between science and religious doctrine on the other.

Other historians, by contrast, suggest Hypatia was well-respected by some Christians, that there were those of the faith among her pupils. Years later, revisionist Christian authors revered her as a symbol of virtue.

What is certain is that Hypatia was one of Alexandria's leading lights, and a champion of classical Athenian values: discourse over violence, tolerance over bigotry, secular authority over religious authority. That said, she also owned slaves, as did most patricians of the time.

Considered the first notable woman in mathematics, she also taught philosophy and astronomy, and is credited by some as the inventor of such measuring and position-finding devices as the hydrometer and the plane astrolabe. She discouraged reliance on empirical (observational and experiential) inquiry and encouraged logical and mathematical studies.

Some historians assert that her murder not only robbed the world of one of its greatest minds, but signaled the close of Classical civilization and paved the path to the Dark Ages. The latter is a bit of an exaggeration, as Hellenistic philosophy continued to flourish into the sixth century.

But the former? There's no doubt of it. In the film, as in life, Hypatia fights to save the wisdom of the ancient world.

Depictions of Hypatia invariably portray her as a great beauty, and so she may have been, which would explain some of the jealousy directed at her. Hollywood certainly prefers this be the case, offering two male characters as competitors for her love: the urbane imperial prefect Orestes (Oscar Isaac) and Davus (Max Minghella), Hypatia's young slave, torn between his feelings for her and the freedom offered by the mounting tide of Christianity.

Director Amenabar's last outing, 2004's celebrated "The Sea Inside" with Javier Bardem, was based on the true story of a Spanish quadriplegic who fought to end his life on his own terms. Hypatia is no less a willful, committed character, and a memorable one to bring to the screen.

For more on this remarkable woman, one book is "Hypatia of Alexandria" by Maria Dzielska (Harvard University Press, 1995).

Ponder her.

Reach Bill Thompson at bthompson@postandcourier.com or 937-5707.