Mice on a Galley: A review of Agora

Author’s Note: This is the second in a series of posts. Though they can be read independently, they were written with this order in mind: The Rape of CassandraMice on a Galley: A Review of AgoraHypatia Miscellanea

“Master,” said he, “we come to beg you to tell why so strange an animal as man was made.”

–Voltaire, Candide

Conspicuously absent from most math classes are the mathematicians. Amidst the problems, exercises, theorems, laws, and rules of thumb, there is little sign of those that pioneered them. This is part of the nature of mathematics. Its study has been a collective work throughout human history, with each generation adding to, enhancing and mending the efforts of its predecessors. By this process, math evolves. Its vocabulary becomes more precise, its symbols more elegant, its methods more efficient, its philosophy more sophisticated, and it becomes purer, its foundations sturdier and its frontiers better defined. It is an edifying, ongoing enterprise. The present works with the past with reverence instead of disdain and neighbors share rather than pillage. As a discipline it moves towards crystalline perfection, but the constant polishing tends to rub smooth idiosyncrasies left by its practitioners. The individual mathematician irons the wrinkles from this area or charts the boundaries of that one and then steps back into shadow, the work taking center stage. In this way mathematics is gloriously indifferent to the mathematicians and the mathematicians respect this. More than respect, many mathematicians find this transcendental, for they are participating in something greater than the individual, greater than the present, and for some, greater than man. As Bertrand Russell remarked, “I like mathematics because it is not human and has nothing particular to do with this planet or the whole accidental universe- because like Spinoza’s God, it won’t love us in return.”

An unfortunate, inevitable effect of this aspect of its nature is that the mathematicians are left out of the classroom, or if they are included, they are relegated to the margins or the footnotes. Their absence, the intentional divorce of mathematics from the physical and temporal world, and the strict formality of its structure mislead many students to the conclusion that math is antagonistic towards them and everyday life. For instance, without proper context Russell’s statement can seem misanthropic. To understand it, it is important to know that Spinoza’s God is benign if not beneficent, and that its presence is something to inspire rather than to fear.

Unfortunately, context is what the novice lacks. To the insider, the absence of the mathematicians may seem something like selfless nobility, to the outsider, it may seem barren. The separation of the math from the mathematician erodes some of the footholds other subjects provide their students. When studying the arts, it is customary to review the biographies of the authors and artists, and understand their times. In the sciences, the students are placed in the laboratory, and constantly reminded of the human beings who conducted the experiments before them. In history, there are only the personalities. But in math, the pioneers have mostly been excised from the curriculum.

The School of Athens, Raphael (1509-1510)

Math’s masterpieces also in some sense marginalize their makers. Anyone can view Raphael’s work and appreciate its beauty his genius and uniqueness. It is tangible and recognizable as an accomplishment. By its very physicality it imprints itself on us; viewing it is a sensation- it is literally impressive. Furthermore, we are always aware that it has an author. It is signed of course, and it shows all the characteristics of Raphael’s style, but more fundamentally, it is simply necessary that it was made by a person. Gazing at it affirms our convictions in human potential. We feel that we can hold it up as an example of achievement, and we are right. Similarly, with literature we can point to the tome or recite the lines and say, “that is a masterwork.” These things are inarguably awesome. To see how math differs, compare The School of Athens to one of math’s greatest masterpieces:

Euler's Identity, Leonhard Euler (1710)

It appeals equally to the mystic, the scientist, the mathematician.

-James Newman & Edward Kasner

I can assure you that this is as beautiful as anything else humanity has or will ever achieve. Look at the disparity between the two works. Raphael’s school can be appreciated by the non-painter, it is inherently arresting. However Euler’s (pronounced “Oiler”) arrangement of seven symbols is not. It is absolutely opaque to the untrained eye. It remains mostly opaque to the mathematician’s eye as well: As the mathematician Benjamin Price said of this formula, “…it is absolutely paradoxical; we cannot understand it, and we don’t know what it means, but we have proved it and therefore we know it must be true.” However, even an incomplete understanding is enough to allow us to recognize that it is immensely wondrous. I would conjecture that for many mathematicians the fact that this formula is true serves as the best argument for the existence of a deity. Indeed, it has been called “God’s Formula.” Yet even with this praise and recognition, Euler’s work denies him for it refuses to be biographical. Most human achievements tell us something about their creators, but math stands alone.

Their absence doesn’t indicate their non-existence though, and math has been host to many fiery passions, however unheralded they may be. The allure of mathematics can easily be missed if it is treated only as a tool of the sciences rather than a human pursuit in and of itself. Unfortunately this distinction is not often made explicit to the student, and the inconsistent and sometimes conflicted curriculum of lower level mathematics conflates application and theory delivering a bland stew palatable to many but satiating to few. This can lead to a profoundly poor conception and impression of mathematics for some students. Occasionally when I encounter a student who has a distaste for mathematics, I will try to place the math in a more humanistic frame: I will remind the student that there were people who spent their lives developing what he is studying, sometimes at the expense of all else, sometimes at the expense of their lives, and this fact informs us that there is something important and captivating in the formula, that there is something worth dying for between the symbols, and perhaps we should stay with them a little longer, perhaps we should examine them a little closer.

I have personally found this mode of thinking very stimulating, and from the conception of this site, it has been one of my goals to express this. It has been one of my goals to put a human face on mathematics and to inspire an interest in mathematics not just through its product, but through its producers. Hypatia’s story and my interpretation of its meaning was my first attempt at this, and I intend it to be the first of a series of miniature biographies. Towards the same goal, I want to investigate the intersection of art and math, and to this end I have tried to include works of visual and literary art in my discussions. With this mission in mind, I would like to spend the rest of this post discussing Alejandro Amenabar’s (Chilean director of Abre los Ojos, The Others, and 2005 foreign language Oscar winner The Sea Within) 2009 film Agora. This is very much connected to my previous post, The Rape of Cassandra, and if you haven’t read that, I would advise you to before continuing.

Agora is Amenabar’s vision of Alexandria in the period beginning with the Serapeum’s destruction in 391 and ending with Hypatia’s assassination in 416. It is noteworthy and deserves are attention for it is surprisingly the only film to ever tell Hypatia’s tale.  But while the tragedy is at its heart, Amenabar and his cowriter and frequent collaborator, Mateo Gil, spend as much time on the social and political history of Alexandria as they do on her biography. The parallels between the turmoil, bigotry, and zealotry of the 4th century and those of our time are the clear focus of the film. This is an ambitious goal, and it is an ambitious film that attempts to recreate the physical reality, thought, and culture of Hypatia’s time. In its reconstruction of Alexandria, it is strikingly successful.

The most impressive aspect of the film is its meticulous attention to detail. In interviews, the cast and crew have repeatedly stressed the amount of research they undertook, and it is apparent. The movie exudes authenticity. Alexandria was a city of landmarks, and several are particularly well rendered: The Serapeum, Hypatia’s classroom, and the small library at the Serapeum are beautifully constructed and filmed. They feel like an amalgamation of ancient Greek and Egyptian sensibilities, and that is perfect for that is exactly what they would have been. The film’s library looks as if it had been lifted from one of the many paintings that have depicted it.

Alexandria is in its twilight during the events of the film, but it had been a jewel during its apex and home to a bustling economy and culture. We see this legacy in the film through fully realized theaters, marketplaces and religious sights. Particularly striking is the Canopic Way, a long avenue of street vendors in the shade of multitudinous cloth canopies stretching between the buildings. Finally, one of the marvels of the ancient world is depicted, The Lighthouse of Alexandria. It is as grand and impressive as it should be, but shot in such a casual style that it never seems forced into the film- We see it when the characters do, and it orients the city. It is treated as part of the city’s skyline, and in doing so it furthers the illusion that this was really filmed in 4th century Alexandria.

Amenabar was insistent that the film be shot on actual sets instead of using green screens, and production designer Guy Dyas (Inception) and his team are to be commended for accomplishing this. Agora is an impressive production, the largest undertaken by Amenabar, and apparently the largest film ever shot on the Island of Malta where most of the photography took place. Impressively it feels like it was shot at location rather than on set. The locations of the film have a sense of weight, age, and physicality that are impressive. Adding to this impression is their dynamism- they feel solid and interactive as if they were really made out of stone and wood rather than simulated. Noteworthy is the artistry of the statues and engravings that adorn the Serapeum and liter Alexandria. It must be an intimidating assignment to emulate the style and craftsmanship of another culture’s art, especially classical art, but the production designers of Agora accomplish this as well as or better than any other film I’ve seen. Accurate costume design completes the recreation of the material culture.

This world is fully populated as well. Legions of extras crowd the scenes. Cultural events are represented well and it is interesting to note that the film features festivals of all three major religions present in Alexandria at this time (Greek pantheism, Judaism, and Christianity). I was especially impressed by the classic Greek theater portrayed in the film for it serves a variety of functions: It is historically accurate as an important part of the ancient Greek religion, it is something of a play within a play for the movie, its gaiety provides a contrast to the piety of the more modern Christianity, and it illustrates class inequality in Alexandria (slaves and the poor are only allowed to watch the theater from behind metal gates rather than join the elite in the auditorium). However, this was not a peaceful time, and the movie never fails to remind us of this. Riots (important to the film’s plot and as a historic detail) are chaotic, violent, and dense. It is a testament to Amenabar that the crowds are so well choreographed and organic.

They are expertly photographed as well. The camera’s movement throughout the film is novel, but it is especially noticeable when capturing the street level chaos. An exceptionally interesting shot occurs during the destruction of the library when the camera is inverted and the world literally turns upside down. The director of photography, Xavi Gimenez (The Machinist), elegantly involves us in Alexandria’s turmoil.

Freedom, Rachel Weisz as Hypatia

The acting is as immaculately accomplished as the setting. Rachel Weisz (Best Supporting Actress The Constant Gardner, The Fountain, The Mummy) plays Hypatia with an intensity and energy that both convinces us of and legitimizes her devotion to her studies and her students. She is eloquent, intelligent, confident, and thoroughly convincing. Her most famous students are present and both are complexly written and well performed. Orestes portrayed by Oscar Isaac (Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood) and Synesius portrayed by Rupert Evans (Hellboy) are both dynamic, compelling characters.

Power, Oscar Isaac as Orestes

Orestes, the prefect of Alexandria at the time of Hypatia’s assassination, is perhaps apocryphally depicted as an enamored student of Hypatia during the film’s first act, but this ahistorical characterization serves the plot and cleverly allows the film to depict more historical events without the cast of characters becoming bloated. We see his development from student to leader, from pagan to Christian, and from naïve to world-weary. When he finally assumes power he is a sympathetic if ineffective and outmaneuvered politician. Isaacs’ performance is seamless throughout this metamorphosis and you never doubt the emotional depth behind his actions. Syenesius plays a smaller but no less important role. Historically he is our best link to Hypatia, and I would have liked to see his reverence for her more fully developed, but what is shown of the character is intelligently and sensitively conveyed by Evans. One of the films best scenes occurs early on when a religious dispute between Orestes (a pagan) and Synesius (a Christian) is mediated by Hypatia through an extraordinarily clever use of Euclid’s First Common Notion: “Things which are equal to the same thing are also equal to one another.” In the scene, the two things are ‘a pagan’ and ‘a Christian’ and the third thing is ‘an atheist.’ It is a surprisingly effective scene that supports the film’s theological theme and allows for mention of classical mathematics

Ambition, Sami Samir as Cyril

Finally Hypatia’s enemies are sympathetic and well developed. Sami Samir (Munich) plays Cyril sincerely and though we must condemn his actions, Samir’s intelligent portrayal of his devotion and confidence forces us to admit that we can understand him. Ammonius, the monk who injured Orestes, is played by Ashraf Barhom, an actor I hadn’t previously seen. Ammonius is given a surprisingly large role in the film and Barhom fills him with such zealotry and conviction that the comparison between Ammonius and present day fundamentalism is inescapable; this is precisely what the filmmakers intend.

Whenever the film adheres to history, it is enormously successful. When it embellishes or changes history however, it falters. There are two characters who I feel detract from the film due to being contrivances of the filmmakers rather than true depictions of historic figures. This is no fault of the actors. Michael Lonsdale, known only to me as Hugo Drax in Moonraker, plays Hypatia’s father, Theon. He is clearly a capable actor, and with the writers he creates a realistic character. However this character is incompatible with my conception of the man. On the film’s official site, Amenabar explains his depiction of Theon: “In the film we portray Theon to be somewhat distracted, an old man reaching the end of his life who sees things happening much too quickly around him.” This is an understandable person, but it hardly seems in character for the man who radically defied society in his mission to liberate his daughter to react to the world in such a docile, futile, and confused manner.

Passion, Max Minghella as Davus

The film’s greatest weakness is an invented character, Davus. Max Minghella (Art School Confidential) who plays Davus shares top billing with Rachel Weisz deservedly. His character is the most compelling character in the film. This is unfortunate. In the film Davus is a slave of Theon’s family and an assistant to Hypatia in her classroom. He is an intelligent, emotional young man who has come to appreciate Hypatia’s teachings and fallen in love with her. However, Christianity appeals to him in its inclusion of slaves and the lower class, and he cannot reconcile the teachings of Hypatia with the orthodoxy of Christianity. As a conflicted character he is naturally compelling, and as an invented character he allows Amenabar and Gil the greatest latitude to invent interesting scenarios and investigate aspects of Alexandria during a time of social and theological revolution. Unfortunately he proves to be the most compelling character of the film and he steals the focus from Hypatia. His story is so inherently interesting and he is such a well-developed character that The Internet Movie Database’s entry for Agora mistakenly summarizes the plot as a “historical drama set in Roman Egypt, concerning a slave who turns to the rising tide of Christianity in the hopes of pursuing freedom while also falling in love with his master, the famous female philosophy professor and atheist, Hypatia of Alexandria.”

Whenever the film invents or changes history it detracts from the actual events. A minor, illogical modification is with the nature of the Christian Church’s encroachment into Alexandria. In reality Christianity was implemented by imperial decree. In the film Christianity is shown developing through proselytization of the lower classes. This change is obviously intended to allow the contrast of different social strata, and depict a more contemporary and familiar form of Chrisitianity, but I think the theocratic nature of the Roman Empire and Christianity’s status as its state religion is an important aspect of the western world’s history.

Ammonius’s story is mostly invented. History records him only as the monk who injured Orestes. In the film he is the leader of Alexandria’s Parabolani. Historically, the Parabolani were a lower class sect of monks that worked almost exclusively with the sick and at times served as bodyguards for bishops. The film does show this aspect, but it also portrays them as violent extremists used as a terrorist group by Cyril. They carry stones and clubs and are shown brutalizing the Jews. In the film it is this group that kills Hypatia. While this is internally logical, and it calls to mind contemporary religious strife, I can find no evidence that the Parabolani were really used in this way.

It is when Hypatia’s biography is modified that the film is most diluted. Amenabar first became aware of Hypatia while studying the history of cosmology, and as such she is principally an astronomer to him. Her discussions of ancient cosmological models are a highlight of the film. I was ecstatic when she discussed Ptolemy and Aristarchus. These geometric models of the universe are bolstered by mention of Appolonius, Euclid, and conic sections – this is great. Hypatia’s journey in the film is an intellectual one as she analyzes these systems and tries to fit them into her Platonic world view. This is a clever choice for it involves her math, science, and philosophy. However, the evolution of cosmological models is Amenabar’s first love and he forces it into the film. Agora’s Hypatia rejects geocentricism and Ptolemy’s model in favor of Aristarchus’s heliocentric model. In pivotal scenes she makes Galileo’s discovery of inertia and Kepler’s discovery of elliptical orbits allowing her to realize the Copernican heliocentric model. This is ahistorical obviously, but worse it confuses the tragedy of her assassination. Heliocentrism was of course a heresy during this time, and her connection to it diminishes the significance of her far more fundamental heresy of being an educated, bold woman.

Hypatia’s death is also significantly altered in a way that I feel diminishes its impact. She is not dragged through the streets to the cathedral, but walked by a Parabolani escort to the abandoned Serapeum. There they intend to skin her, but Davus (who has been freed from slavery, converted to Christianity, and become a Parabolani) convinces his brothers that a more religiously clean execution would be to stone her. Davus cannot bear to see his former teacher and owner, who he loves, die in such a painful way, and to prevent her suffering he suffocates her while the other Parabolani gather stones. He explains to the others that she has fainted from fright, and as they rain stones on her corpse, we follow Davus’s exit. Thus ends the film. This death is obviously more filmable and palpable than the grisly death actually suffered by Hypatia, but its key involvement of Davus again confuses the film’s focus.

Each addition or change is well written and clever, but ultimately serves to undermine the impact of the film. It is already a complicated story that touches on class struggle, religious extremism, intolerance, fanaticism, math, science, philosophy, history, misogyny and sexism, and the filmmakers insistence to involve more concepts and make more parallels between the 4th century and the present ends up creating a less moving, less convincing movie. It is certainly not a bad film; I simply do not think it is as successful as it could have been without the contrivances. Despite these faults, it is a very accomplished production that was rightfully allowed to premiere at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival, and was later recognized in Spain with 13 Goya (Spanish Academy Awards) nominations and 7 wins including well deserved Best Cinematography, Best Screenplay and Best Production Design awards.

Though the film’s potency is diluted by its complexity, its most striking error is one of simplification. Agora is a linguistic anomaly. It is an English language film from a Spanish production company, shot in Malta, with a Greek title, about Egyptians. With such multicultural and multilingual origins and with themes criticizing bigotry and stereotypes one would hope that the film would be free from stereotypes and bigotry itself. Sadly, this is not the case. The film follows an unfortunate trend that seems endemic to historical motion pictures: The protagonists are all played by Caucasians with accents from the British Isles, while the antagonists are portrayed by middle-easterners. This feels glaringly hypocritical of a movie that criticizes such typecasting. Worse, it is unmistakably not accidental. Rachel Weisz (Hypatia), Max Minghella (Davus), and Rupert Evans (Synesius) all hail from Great Britain. Michael Lonsdale (Theon) is French. Oscar Isaac (Orestes) is Guatemalan; however he is affecting a British accent in this film. The clearest antagonists, Cyril and Ammonius are played by an Egyptian (Sami Samir), and an Israeli Muslim (Ashraf Barhom) respectively. Both Samir and Barhom speak with their native ascents.  The obvious reason for this discrepancy are the differences in education level between those educated in the Greek style (Hypatia, Davus, Syensius, Orestes, Theon), and those that are either illiterate (Ammonius) or less educated (Cyril). However, even if this is the rationalization for these casting choices, the educated should be affecting Greek rather than British accents. If the choice was made because the filmmakers and production company did not think the audience would be able to accept or enjoy eloquent, reasonable, and sensitive middle-eastern protagonists, then it is an indictment of us all. Furthermore, if that was the case, it seems that it should have been the responsibility of Ammenabar to challenge that notion as he does other ignorant beliefs in Agora. That the film reinforces such damaging stereotypes diminishes all of its messages because it feels empty in its bigotry. When watching this film remember that all these characters should be middle-eastern and that history owes them a great debt, a debt this film and most films ignore.

Still it is a unique, challenging film with themes that most films do not dare approach. It is a testament to Telecino Cinema and Spain that the film was allowed to be produced and became a Spanish commercial and critical success. However America appears to be too immature and squeamish for this film. Focus Features and Newmarket Films, Agora’s US distributors, achieved only a very small release and did not succeed in adequately publicizing or advertising the film. When Borat’s Sacha Baron Cohen read the screenplay after being approached to appear in the film, he turned down the opportunity  explaining that the story was “too prickly, and would lift sores.” This comment both nullifies any respect I had had for Cohen’s artistic integrity and summarizes Agora’s failure in the US – we may be too reserved and bigoted to accept such a challenging film. Lionsgate, the film’s US DVD distributor, perhaps best illustrates America’s inability to handle the film with the unimaginably juvenile tagline chosen for the DVD: “A Holy War Becomes Hell on Earth.” Bravo, Lionsgate, bravo.

In the end, while I respect the film for its complexity, boldness, and uniqueness, I do not feel that it is successful. It fails to have the emotional resonance that great films do. This is not a failure on behalf of its director, writers, or actors. Neither is this due to the historical inventions or questionable stereotyping. It is ironically due to an artistic decision that proves too successful. Throughout the film, Amenabar uses aerial shots and views of the planet Earth from space for transitions. We are forced to see humans as small, as ant-like. Occasionally the comparison is made explicit through shots of insects. This is a definite artistic decision as explained by Amenabar:

The Agora is the story of a woman, of a city, of a civilization and of a planet. The Agora is the planet upon which we must all live together. We tried to show the human reality within the context of all the species of the Earth, and the Earth within the context of the universe- seeing human beings as ants, and the Earth as just another little ball, spinning beside many other stars.

This is exactly what the film achieves, however with each expansion of focus- going from woman, to city, to civilization, to planet- we become more and more distant from the individuals, we become forcibly divorced from their emotions, and the film loses the intimacy and passion that it needs to truly be effective. And again the mathematician is lost.

Agora (noun): A public meeting place for open discussion. – Root of agoraphobia.

Apollo 17 Anniversary, NASA (2002)

“Master,” said he, “we come to beg you to tell why so strange an animal as man was made.”

“With what meddlest thou?” said the Dervish; “is it thy business?”

“But reverend father,” said Candide, “there is horrible evil in this world.”

“What signifies it,” said the Dervish, “whether there be evil or good? When his highness sends a ship to Egypt does he trouble his hand whether the mice on board are at ease or not?”

-Voltaire, Candide

Hope, George Frederick Watts (1885)

Bibliography

“Agora (2009).” The Internet Movie Database (IMDb). Accessed October 12, 2010. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1186830/.

Agora. Directed by Alejandro Amenábar. By Alejandro Amenábar and Mateo Gil. Performed by Rachel Weisz, Max Minghella. Madrid, Spain: Telecinco Cinema, 2009. DVD.

“Alejandro Amenabar(Agora).” Interview by Tribute Movies. Tribute Movies. Accessed October 12, 2010. http://www.tributemovies.com/interviews/Alejandro+Amenabar+%28Agora%29/Director/20465.

Billington, Alex. “Cannes Interview: Agora Director Alejandro Amenábar.” FirstShowing.net. May 26, 2009. Accessed October 12, 2010. http://www.firstshowing.net/2009/05/26/cannes-interview-agora-director-alejandro-amenabar/.

Fine, Marshall. “Rachel Weisz and Agora.” The Huffington Post. June 1, 2010. Accessed October 12, 2010. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/marshall-fine/huffpost-interview-rachel_b_595763.html.

Ágora, La Película. Accessed October 12, 2010. http://www.agorathemovie.com/.

Healy, Patrick J. “Parabolani.” Original Catholic Encyclopedia. Accessed October 12, 2010. http://oce.catholic.com/index.php?title=Parabolani.

Holleran, Scott. “Alejandro Amenabar on Agora.” Scott Holleran: Freelance Writer. 2010. Accessed October 12, 2010. http://www.scottholleran.com/interviews/alejandro-amenabar.htm.

Messer, Ron. “Rachel Weisz Interview AGORA.” Collider. May 28, 2010. Accessed October 12, 2010. http://www.collider.com/2010/05/28/rachel-weisz-interview-agora-face-value-the-invisible-x/.

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About Webster

Transitionally, I’m a math student and tutor en route to becoming a math professor. Permanently, I’m a mathematics enthusiast. I study mathematics professionally, and as a leisure activity. At the time of writing this, I’m a generalist. I have let to reach the depth of understanding that requires specialization. Though I eagerly await that time, I do enjoy the ‘now’ and find there is bountiful food for thought at any level.
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5 Responses to Mice on a Galley: A review of Agora

  1. Pingback: Hypatia Miscellanea | Spherical Cow

  2. Pingback: The Rape of Cassandra | Spherical Cow

  3. Anonymous says:

    This is an excellent post, but you have made a small typographical error:

    “It is noteworthy and deserves are attention for it is surprisingly the only film to ever tell Hypatia’s tale.”

    “Are” should read “our.”

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  5. Heather T says:

    Excellent review and analysis. I saw the film for the first time today, and was compelled to learn more. Your link was the first I clicked on, and I really appreciated how you addressed some of my questions (as if by magic! jk jk) and echoed some of my own conclusions regarding the use of imagery to convey wordless concepts. Speaking of wordless concepts, I definitely will be looking into your mention of a perspective of reality that is difficult to describe with the use of language (did I phrase that correctly?) because that twigged something in me that I’ve always kinda sensed.

    I’d not even heard of Hypatia until last night, while watching a documentary on Alexandria, which led me to your post, which led me to watching “Agora” via YouTube, which led me to finishing your review and enjoying every minute, which will now lead me to branching out into a few other areas…all thanks to Hypathia lighting a fire in my belly.

    And you’ve been a big help. Thanks.

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