Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Weisz Is Hypatia

The absurdly beautiful Rachel Weisz is playing the famous atheist and feminist icon, the late 4th century pagan philosopher Hypatia of Alexandria, in the epic film Agora by Alejandro Amenábar, which is projected to release in December, just before Christmas. According to Rueters, the film sounds like an interesting pro-atheist myth, exaggerating certain realities to convey a pro-science message against maniacal religious fundamentalism. Reviewers who have seen early edits give the impression that Hypatia is depicted as an atheist, and as an active scientific investigator on the verge of proving heliocentrism. An intriguing, perhaps inspiring idea. But fiction surely.

The best scholarly account of the facts can be found in Maria Dzielska's Hypatia of Alexandria (Harvard University: 1995). Hypatia was by all accounts a Neoplatonic theist, although the difference would be mild to most modern imaginations. Neoplatonists did not accept the notion of sacred scripture or revealed dogmas, and were far more liberal minded (and arguably even more principled) than most Christian leaders of the day, but they were still mystics and believers. Likewise,
though the real Hypatia was indeed a brilliant mathematician, a talented astronomer, and a renowned philosophy professor (and yes, beautiful), she like many of her generation was more a compiler and commentator on past scientific glories, who attempted nothing original and certainly would not have been pursuing heliocentric theory. By all indications, that pursuit had been abandoned by then. Nor did she invent any scientific instruments as Wikipedia claims, although she was a master of many, an actual go-to girl for how to make them in her time (from astrolabes to hydrometers to monochords).

It also sounds like the film has her "trapped in the legendary Library of Alexandria" in the midst of Christian riots in the end, which suggests she is burned with the library, when in fact those riots burned the library's annex, the Serapeum. A great loss to the ancient written record to be sure (tens of thousands of books were destroyed), nevertheless the Great Library itself was far larger (hundreds of thousands of books) and probably survived this occasion (in any case, it would have been situated on the other side of the city). I worry the film might perpetuate this slight error, confusing one library for the other. I know there is a tendency to go for the better story rather than the truer one. And though many pagan intellectuals may have been killed in the Serapeum (the Christians destroyed it specifically to crush the cult--burning the books was not their object), Hypatia was not. She was killed far more hideously elsewhere in the city (and decades later). By at least one account she died as a result of a Christian mob "scraping her skin off with tiles and bits of shell." And not in a library, but inside a Christian Church--to which she was dragged naked through the streets. (Damn, I want to see Rachel Weisz naked as much as the next guy, but not like this!).

Historical worries aside (I haven't seen it yet, so some or all of my concerns may be unfounded), this could still be well worth seeing, as idealistic fiction if not history. I'll be eager to see it either way, and I'll report more fully when I do. In any case, since I'd like to see more films set in ancient Greece and Rome, it can't hurt to plug the ones there are. And though I can't vouch for anyone else involved, Weisz is certainly a talented actress.

27 comments:

David Fitzgerald said...

Can't wait, even with though I'm with you on the caveats!

UnBeguiled said...

I really enjoyed Gladiator and Troy, I'm embarrassed to admit. I'll definitely see this movie. Thanks for the history lessons.

The only thing I knew about Hypatia was what I learned from Sagan in Cosmos. Seems like that was mostly myth.

Loren said...

Hypatia was lynched by those monks because she supposedly kept the provincial governor and the archbishop from getting along with each other. It wasn't because of her philosophical / mathematical / scientific studies, though it was still an extremely dumb reason.

It was a bit like Lavoisier getting guillotined by the French revolutionaries. Lavoisier's researches did not interest them, like his debunking of phlogiston. It was his being a tax collector that they objected to, though Jean-Paul Marat may have had a more personal grudge. That Lavoisier had rejected his application to the French Academy on the ground that some of his papers were worthless.

She was evidently much more geek than glamorous, though even very geeky women can look nice. :D

I didn't see either Gladiator or Troy, and I won't be seeing Agora. No Hollywood pseudohistory for me. :p

WAR_ON_ERROR said...

Rick,

Thanks for this. I was planning on seeing the movie.

I think I've had the idea of a romanticized history of science/skepticism and humanistic values ever since reading about Josiah in "The Bible Unearthed." If ancient theologians can bring together a collection of disparate and unrelated stories to suit what they would like to believe, then why not do our own honest version (i.e. honestly fiction) based on something like your forthcoming book, "The Scientist in the Early Roman Empire?" I think a dramatized version could be very interesting and edifying with creative license in addition to the factual version.

Ben

Humphrey said...

http://armariummagnus.blogspot.com/2009/05/agora-and-hypatia-hollywood-strikes.html

Loren said...

WAR_ON_ERROR, how might one make a dramatic story out of what Richard Carrier will be discussing?

The closest I can think of is reactions to eclipses and the contrast between educated people, who knew that eclipses were predictable shadowing effects, and the common people, who often believed that eclipses were omens or the result of sorcerers' efforts. And even that would be difficult.

Richard Carrier did his master's thesis on that subject: Cultural History of the Lunar and Solar Eclipse in the Early Roman Empire so you can read it for yourself. How might one dramatize parts of what he discusses?

WAR_ON_ERROR said...

I dunno. Maybe "Inherit the Wind" style, possibly? Anything contentious has the potential for decent drama. I've listened to lots of Rick's talks on various ancient debates and scientific disputes that few people seem to know about and I don't see why someone could weave an interesting embellished story around those basic elements. Hell, make it a musical for all I care. As long as it's entertaining and at least somewhat informative. Granted, if I were writing it, I'd cram as much genuine stuff in as I could, but I wouldn't shun sweetening it up a bit. Humans have been doing that kind of thing since the dawn of time, so it seems almost a shame to pretend like we don't want to remember things as more favorable to our values than they necessarily were. Sometimes you just want to be inspired without all the petty details that make it all too mundane and human. I can see from your first comment that you probably disagree, but there's room for controlled nonsense in my world. :D

Ben

Loren said...

WAR_ON_ERROR, I suggest that you read RC's thesis on eclipses, and see if you can find anything that could be dramatized. RC chose that subject because it was a clear triumph of premodern science.

It's a pity that we don't have much on Aglaonike, a woman who lived in 2nd-cy-BCE Thessaly and who was reputed to be able to cause lunar eclipses with sorcery.

She was most likely able to predict them, and that got misunderstood into her causing them. But she may have advertised a pretense of causing eclipses that she had predicted, sort of like what Christopher Columbus had once done.

Andrew said...

Ah, come on, Richard!
"Exagerating certain realities"? "Idealistic fiction"? Its called PROPAGANDA.
Just because it is for atheism doesn't change the name.

WAR_ON_ERROR said...

Loren,

I will try to do that when I get some time.

Ben

Tim O'Neill said...

"tens of thousands of books were destroyed"

Really? So why does no account of the destruction of the Serapeum mention this? Why doesn't the anti-Christian eyewitness, Eunapius of Sardis, mention this? Why does Ammianus talk of the Serapeum as having housed a library in the past tense?

It's sad that a supposedly trained Classicist peddles pseudo historical myths. We rationalists should be above that kind of thing.

Loren said...

Good, WAR_ON_ERROR. As to making a dramatized version, one ought to do what a historical novelist version would do -- create fictional characters and dialogue and actions that are plausible for that place and time. And for working out what is plausible, you need to research the place and time, which is why I proposed reading RC's paper on eclipses in the Roman Empire.

One ought not to stoop to the level of glurge writers and fake-deathbed-confession writers and Jack Chick.

I'd like to see a movie version of Galileo's life that shows how he made his discoveries and shows him trying to convince the Church that the Bible tells us how to go heaven, not how the heavens go. Like showing him looking at the sky with his telescope and then cutting to what he would have seen. And him making drawings and diagrams to try to interpret what he had seen. Also showing diagram versions of objections, like Francesco Sizzi's and Ludovico delle Colombe's infamous ones and Galileo's responses to some of them.

madeline said...

It's been over a month since this post Rick. You ought to write somethng new. Tell us how "On the Historicity" is coming.

Richard Carrier said...

UnBeguiled said... I really enjoyed Gladiator and Troy, I'm embarrassed to admit.

Actually, those are very good films. Unrealistic as hell, but I'm not a stickler for that sort of thing. As long as the film maintains its own internal coherence and is artistically exceptional in the usual ways, I'll enjoy it. The ancients would retell stories in wildly different ways and throw historical realism to the wind, so I don't fault filmmakers for doing the same, as long as they don't try to sell their work as realistic or factual. But still, of course, to anyone who asks I'll tell what's historically inaccurate about them.

Andrew said... Its called PROPAGANDA. Just because it is for atheism doesn't change the name.

I don't consider mere art to be propaganda. Now, if they were selling this as factual, that would be propaganda.

Unless you mean all art and communication aimed at conveying values and ideals is propaganda, but that pretty much deflates the word of its deprecating value. And that's lame.

Loren said... ...how might one make a dramatic story out of what Richard Carrier will be discussing?

Actually my book (that is, my dissertation, which I'm working up into a book) is full of great stories. A history of ancient science could be fully dramatized (without lame educational narrative even) and would totally rock. It would be largely a reproduction of legends and myths, of course. But those are still exciting, if you accept them for what they are. A biopic of Archimedes alone, or Galen, would be entirely entertaining, done well that is. You'd have to fictionalize a lot, a la I Claudius, indeed their stories would be filled with more humor and down-to-earth fun than politics and murder. We actually have enough material for both to structure an entire movie around each (indeed, we might have enough from Galen for two!).

Madeline said... Tell us how "On the Historicity" is coming.

Donors will get a look at chapters as I get drafts finished I'm happy with. There isn't anything else to report until the book is published.

Richard Carrier said...

Humphrey: Thanks for the link (to Tim O'Neill's "Agora" and Hypatia - Hollywood Strikes Again). Reiterates some of my concerns. But there are still concerns. Some of what he says there is as faulty, questionable, or untrue as the errors he aims to combat. But a lot is correct. So use with caution.

She was evidently much more geek than glamorous, though even very geeky women can look nice.

I've always wondered--the only accounts we have of her beauty are fawning, but then that could just be flattery. Cleopatra we at least have actual portraits of--some are prettied-up to make her look like a goddess (busts), but others are true portraits serving the practical aim of informing the public of what their queen looked like (coins), and the latter do not exactly depict what we would call a beautiful woman. Yet of course her beauty was widely praised. Notably, like Hypatia, Cleopatra was intellectually brilliant, by one account fluent in dozens of languages and the first of her ruling line to learn the native language of her non-Greek subjects, and by all accounts a superb politician and strategist, fantastic conversationalist, and avidly interested in the company of scientists and philosophers. She probably won a ton of sexy points just for all that.

I love O'Neill's point, though, that by all accounts Hypatia would have been 65 at her death and thus would more realistically be played by Hellen Mirren than Rachel Weisz.

Loren said... Hypatia was lynched by those monks because she supposedly kept the provincial governor and the archbishop from getting along with each other.

I suspect that's an oversimplification. Mobs don't riot over trivia like that. They riot over deep biggotries and existential fears and ideologies. The earlier riots against the Serapeum and all the other pagan temples, in Alexandria and Canopus especially, just after a law was passed against them, reveals the religious motivation was paramount. I suspect a major reality on the ground was that she and others were defying the will of the emperors that all "hurry to observe the Catholic rites" (as recent law demanded), which would have been as enraging as living in Iran and refusing to become Muslim. A match is all that powderkeg needs.

But as O'Neill rightly notes, not all Christian factions there were that hostile or violent or approving of those that were. I would say it was a lot like modern Muslim countries, where most are moderates and actually fearful of or disgusted by the extremists, but the extremists dominate because they are brutal with their use of violence to intimidate and punish, and there is no law stopping them. Alexandria appears to have been the same (as evidenced by treatment of Jews there, not just pagans).

Richard Carrier said...

Tim O'Neill said... "tens of thousands of books were destroyed" Really? So why does no account of the destruction of the Serapeum mention this?

Why do you expect they would? The Serapeum wasn't targeted as a library, and the accounts of its fate are very brief, and don't enumerate what was in it. The longest account of its contents focuses solely on its pagan machinery and statues (as the scandal they were) and is directed at the religious abomination, and books were not such a thing.

An argument from silence requires a certain logical soundness that is not to be had in this instance (see my methodological discussion here). We know it was specifically built to house tens of thousands of books, and there is no reason to believe it had ever been emptied (and by still standing, it clearly had never been burned before this).

Why doesn't the anti-Christian eyewitness, Eunapius of Sardis, mention this?

Why do you expect him to? Again, his account is too brief. All he describes is the raid on its pagan statues, and some vague looting otherwise. His concern is clearly with the offense to the gods. He doesn't discuss any other details of its destruction other than to simply say it was destroyed. I'm also not sure where the idea comes that he was an eyewitness. I don't get that impression from his text.

Why does Ammianus talk of the Serapeum as having housed a library in the past tense?

Because he doesn't know what he is talking about. His text on this is a quotation almost verbatim of the 2nd century Aulus Gellius, and when we look at that source, we can see Marcellinus has garbled his facts badly (and thus evidently had no direct knowledge, since he was using an ancient source, and not even getting that right).

Tim O'Neill said...

Richard Carrier said...

Tim O'Neill said... "tens of thousands of books were destroyed" Really? So why does no account of the destruction of the Serapeum mention this?

Why do you expect they would?


Because other accounts of Christian mobs "cleansing" pagan sites gleefully highlight the burning or destruction of pagan books - see Mark the Deacon's account of Porphyry's destruction of the Marneion in Gaza, for just one example. The destruction of pagan books was not an incidental detail in this kind of account, yet none of the FIVE accounts we have of the destruction of the Serapeum mentions any library or any books being destroyed.

The Serapeum wasn't targeted as a library, and the accounts of its fate are very brief, and don't enumerate what was in it. The longest account of its contents focuses solely on its pagan machinery and statues (as the scandal they were) and is directed at the religious abomination, and books were not such a thing.

Wrong - see above. Books were much much "such a thing" and feature prominently in other accounts of Christians' attacks on paganism in this period. And the accounts are certainly long enough to mention the destruction of books, given that they are no more "brief" than other such accounts that do mention book burning etc.

We know it was specifically built to house tens of thousands of books, and there is no reason to believe it had ever been emptied (and by still standing, it clearly had never been burned before this).

We "know" nothing of the sort. We know that it was built as a temple and, by piecing together bits of the evidence, it's most likely that it also housed a library from at least the Second Century rebuilding onwards. But we have plenty of reason to believe it had been emptied and that it had suffered at least one if not two major fires - one in 172 AD and another (or the same) referred to by Clement of Alexandria. And Socrates Scholasticus mentions an earlier ransacking of the Serapeum at the hands of the prefect Artemius and George of Cappodocia. So it seems you aren't very clear on the details here - it had suffered previous disasters and we do have reason to believe it was far from unscathed in 391 AD.

Why doesn't the anti-Christian eyewitness, Eunapius of Sardis, mention this?

Why do you expect him to? Again, his account is too brief.

Yet not so brief as to leave out the destruction of statues and to heap derision on the Christian mob. And we'd expect him to because he was vehemently anti-Christian and a scholar. So, as with the silence of the four Christian accounts, his total silence on any supposed destroyed library is rather weird.

Tim O'Neill said...

(Continued)

Why does Ammianus talk of the Serapeum as having housed a library in the past tense?

Because he doesn't know what he is talking about. His text on this is a quotation almost verbatim of the 2nd century Aulus Gellius, and when we look at that source, we can see Marcellinus has garbled his facts badly (and thus evidently had no direct knowledge, since he was using an ancient source, and not even getting that right).

But he did have "direct knowledge" because he visited Alexandria himself and had been to the Serapeum. Yes, he does use Aulus Gellius as his source for WHY the Serapeum no longer contained any library at the time of his visit and yes his use of Gellius is confused. But the point is that he went there and saw no library.

Which fits with all the rest of our evidence - (i) accounts of fires in the Second Century, (ii) the account of an earlier ransacking in c. 360 AD and (iii) the odd silence of all five of our post 391 AD accounts on the matter of any books or libraries.

The very first time anyone ever mentions a library being involved in the 391 AD sacking was Edward Gibbon. There is no evidence that any library still existed in the Serapeum in 391 AD, good evidence that an earlier library was no longer there when Amminaqus visited in c. 363 AD and evidence of earlier sackings and fires that explain the library's disappearance.

You, on the other hand, ignore Ammianus on spurious grounds, appear to be ignorant of the earlier fires and sackings and simply assume all five accounts of the 391 AD sack simply forget to mention that a vast library was destroyed there as well.

It seems it suits your polemical purposes to have a Christian mob sacking this supposed library. But you purport to be an historian. Perhaps you should make up your mind whether you're going to be an anti-Christian polemicist or a proper, objective historian.

Humphrey said...

Hi Richard

I forgot I had posted the link to Tim’s article but I see he has picked up on your comments. I think this is something we can debate endlessly without much consensus (the limited sources we have can always be disputed). Just going on Roger S Bagnall’s treatment of this in ‘Hellenistic and Roman Egypt’, it seems archaeological work at the Serapuem has shown that there were colonnaded spaces along the side of the temenos which could have held books (although M Rodziewicz points out that these were destroyed in the ‘early Roman period’). Caesar’s fire and Aurelian’s destruction of the palace area might not have necessarily have affected the daughter library at the Serapeum (although I follow Tim’s view on what the sources tell us).

The important point however is that while papyrus can last for hundreds of years under good conditions, the climate in Alexandria was far from ideal (Mediterranean conditions with high humidity). Combine that with the vagaries of mice, insects, fires and continual use and the upper limit for the survival of papyrus scrolls is about two to three hundred years. Hence ‘the likelihood is that by the reign of Tiberius, relatively little of what had been collected under the first three Ptolemies was still usable’. Bagnall concludes ‘even without hostile action, then, the library or libraries of Alexandria would not have survived antiquity. Indeed any library almost certainly would have been a sorry remnant well before late antiquity unless its books were constantly replaced by new copies’. There is no evidence that such replacement was going on in Alexandria, indeed to maintain such a large number of scrolls would have required an immense budget provided by the authorities. Hence I think the blame for the disappearance of the library lies both in the destruction exacted in Alexandria by Caesar, Caracalla, Aurelian and Diocletian and the more mundane (but no less important) lack of ‘sustained maintenance and management’ which would have halted the decay. Of course, the aforementioned political turmoil would have been little help in maintaining the impetus and continuing interest needed to keep the collection going. I doubt there was much left by 391AD which explains the silence.

Richard Carrier said...

Tim O'Neill said... Because other accounts of Christian mobs "cleansing" pagan sites gleefully highlight the burning or destruction of pagan books - see Mark the Deacon's account of Porphyry's destruction of the Marneion in Gaza, for just one example.

That's a Christian author, not a pagan one, writing about the deliberate destruction of books of malevolent sorcery (see Life of Porphyry). No parallel at all. That's a fallacy of false analogy. This text also never mentions any books being in the Marneion (they are rooted out from private homes, as a specific target of the search), so I don't know where you are getting that notion.

Tim O'Neill said... The destruction of pagan books was not an incidental detail in this kind of account

Actually, it clearly is--it's a single throwaway clause (it doesn't even get a whole sentence). And again, the whole circumstances are entirely different (unlike the sack of the Serapeum, at Gaza the books are a deliberate target, and only books of witchcraft are targeted).

Tim O'Neill said... Books were much much "such a thing" and feature prominently in other accounts of Christians' attacks on paganism in this period.

The plural has yet to be justified. You gave only one example, which I just proved invalid. Perhaps you can point me to the others you have in mind?

Tim O'Neill said... We know [only] that [the Serapeum] was built as a temple and, by piecing together bits of the evidence, it's most likely that it also housed a library from at least the Second Century rebuilding onwards.

Ancient sources specifically state it housed many books (quoting or paraphrasing earlier sources: Tzetzes and Epiphanius; as eye-witness to the fact: Aphthonius and Tertullian, the former writing only years before the Serapeum was destroyed).

Tim O'Neill said... But we have plenty of reason to believe it had been emptied and that it had suffered at least one if not two major fires - one in 172 AD and another (or the same) referred to by Clement of Alexandria. And Socrates Scholasticus mentions an earlier ransacking of the Serapeum at the hands of the prefect Artemius and George of Cappodocia.

Sources please.

You haven't been doing too well with your sources so far, so I need specific citations to check what you are reading.

Tim O'Neill said... ...we'd expect [Eunapius] to [mention destruction of the books] because he was vehemently anti-Christian and a scholar.

That doesn't follow. Look at his account: it is far too brief and vague. Your expectations are unreasonable.

Tim O'Neill said... So, as with the silence of the four Christian accounts, his total silence on any supposed destroyed library is rather weird.

Not really. When you look at the actual accounts in context, that they don't mention various things that interest us (but were not of primary interest to them) is typical, not weird.

Tim O'Neill said... But [Ammianus] did have "direct knowledge" because he visited Alexandria himself and had been to the Serapeum.

Oh? Where does he say that?

Do you even read these sources?

Tim O'Neill said... It seems it suits your polemical purposes to have a Christian mob sacking this supposed library.

Since I repeatedly debunk claims that Christians destroyed the Great Library, and the claim that Christians deliberately sought to destroy libraries at all, clearly I have no polemical stake in either conclusion. I just go where the facts lead. You seem to be the one polemically hell bent on getting Christians completely off the hook for this. I don't know why.

Richard Carrier said...

Humphrey said... Hence ‘the likelihood is that by the reign of Tiberius, relatively little of what had been collected under the first three Ptolemies was still usable’.

With all due respect to my former professor, Bagnall is committing a slight non sequitur here (slight only because he properly qualifies himself in the next sentence).

Libraries certainly employed a constant effort of maintenance and replacement, as part of their very function and purpose. You don't launch or keep a library without providing for such maintenance. We have direct epigraphic evidence of this from Athens and elsewhere, and textual evidence of this being the case at Rome (when Domitian replaced a lost library by sending staff to copy books from the Library at Alexandria). We also know libraries were typically established with endowments (as at Athens and Ephesus) that ensured a permanent replacement and acquisitions budget, endowments which emperors would supplement or replace to maintain a city's prestige (and curry good will). This is why decline may have begun in the 3rd century A.D. when many of these endowments were lost in the Roman Depression. Unless later emperors and philanthropists renewed those endowments (which is possible--and at least seems likely for wealthy, scholar-centric cities like Alexandria), the clock of decay would have begun ticking mid-3rd A.D. But that still only gets us to a complete loss in the 6th century, and that's assuming no books were ever added or replaced for three whole centuries.

Thus, although the original scrolls would have been garbage, the texts would most likely have been replaced (and for precisely the reason of their decay), as always happens (and is thus always provided for) in any other library, then and now. Only when money and interest in maintaining such a process vanished would the effect be the slow, permanent loss of the collection, so the question becomes one of finding direct evidence of such decline. There is none before the 3rd century, and even then the evidence is undecisive.

Humphrey said... There is no evidence that such replacement was going on in Alexandria

This is an invalid Argument from Silence. You need to point to a surviving document that would contain this evidence (but does not) before you can argue it wasn't being done. Otherwise, doing this was the very function and purpose of libraries, as the general evidence confirms, so the presumption must be that it was done at Alexandria, especially given the city's wealth and prestige, and direct evidence of imperial expenditures and interest--e.g. the President of the Museum was appointed by the emperor, which entailed funding, and we have surviving examples of certificates of membership in the Library of Alexandria from the imperial period, which likewise entails the same, etc.

Richard Carrier said...

Humphrey said... Caesar’s fire and Aurelian’s destruction of the palace area might not have necessarily have affected the daughter library at the Serapeum...

The Serapeum was on the Acropolis a full quarter mile from the docks and palace (entirely on the other side of the city and further separated by a wide avenue). So, no.

There is actually no evidence Aurelian "destroyed" the palace area, BTW. Actually read the texts cited for this and you'll see what I mean: the walls separating the district were removed, thus the district was "lost," i.e. re-assigned, not destroyed. And analysis shows Caesar's fire only destroyed the docks, not the palace (the confusion only arose centuries later).

Humphrey said... The important point however is that while papyrus can last for hundreds of years under good conditions, the climate in Alexandria was far from ideal...[plus] mice, insects, fires and continual use and the upper limit for the survival of papyrus scrolls is about two to three hundred years.

I fully agree. You have to maintain the library by constant repair and copying to replace holdings. This is still true today, e.g. modern university libraries have considerable conservation departments and replacement budgets. Which requires considerable expense, which requires both good economic conditions and state support for preserving libraries.

Both factors were strong up to the dawn of the 3rd century (before then even burned libraries were replaced at imperial expense). Both factors were generally in decline thereafter, but by all accounts Alexandria was still ahead of the curve. It is actually difficult to identify a period when Alexandria lacked the funds and interests to maintain its libraries. Legend pegs the Muslim conquest, which may be more true than is usually credited, but even then, within two centuries Muslims experienced a Renaissance of interest in texts and libraries. So if you discount the legend, we're left with no clear period in which preserving the library would be unexpected.

The means were always available, so we need evidence of disinterest in expending those means to the task. Perhaps disinterest set in at some point not recorded, but that seems unlikely before the late 4th century. So what happened remains an uncertain mystery. If you discount the legend of the Muslim sack, we have no record at all, which leaves us with prior probability. And economic decline combined with increasing disinterest and unrecorded accidental fires is the cause that has the highest prior probability. A centuries-long fizzle would help explain the silence of the sources, as such slow deaths tend not to be spectacular enough to be noticed or recorded.

Humphrey said... ...the destruction exacted in Alexandria by Caesar, Caracalla, Aurelian and Diocletian and the more mundane (but no less important) lack of ‘sustained maintenance and management’ which would have halted the decay.

You have no evidence there was a lack of sustained maintenance and management, there is no evidence Diocletian did anything to the library (a siege does not entail destroying libraries), nor Aurelian or Caesar for that matter (per above), nor even Caracalla (the claim that he wanted to burn the books of Aristotle comes from a fictional biography, not a real source, and in any case has nothing to do with libraries). We just don't have any evidence of what happened to the library. It was probably there between the 1st and 6th centuries, given papyrus and textual evidence, although in what state cannot be thus discerned--e.g. the Museum was still there and had presidents in its charge and salaried professors even as late as the 6th century, and such a Museum entails some library must have been attached, although of what size and state would depend on the means and interest of the political and economic elite of Alexandria (and to what extent prior endowments survived, etc.).

The Nerd said...

I just watched this last night. It was a rather enjoyable movie, one that I suspect will not go over very well in the United States. (It is being released in select New York and LA theaters this week, finally!)

You'll be pleased to know that they did not portray her as being burned in the library, but rather did have her dragged into a Church to be killed decades later.

I believe that there was also a disclaimer at the end which says that none of her writings actually survived to this day. But my Spanish is rusty, so I could be wrong.

Richard Carrier said...

The Nerd said... I just watched this last night. It was a rather enjoyable movie, one that I suspect will not go over very well in the United States. (It is being released in select New York and LA theaters this week, finally!)

Let me know if you ever find out it's available on DVD or hits general release in U.S. theaters.

You'll be pleased to know that they did not portray her as being burned in the library, but rather did have her dragged into a Church to be killed decades later.

I am pleased. That means they are being at least chronologically accurate (and if they don't specify exactly which library is destroyed, or if they even specify it as the Serapeum, they will have been geographically accurate as well).

I believe that there was also a disclaimer at the end which says that none of her writings actually survived to this day. But my Spanish is rusty, so I could be wrong.

That would be basically true. Nothing explicitly by her survives, although scholars suspect some extant editions of other works, such as by Euclid and Ptolemy, are based on her editions (i.e. she edited them, not wrote them).

Richard Carrier said...

Update: I have since actually seen the film myself, and many reviews have been inaccurate. The film is excellent and largely correct. See my own review here. I have also responded to a medievalist who inaccurately portrayed ancient science in respect to the film in Killings Hypatia.

Valjean said...

s I've already told you by e-mail, Tim O'Neill was claiming on the IMDB Agora forum that you had deleted one of his comments to this post when he caught you out on some fact.

You've already e-mailed me a response which I've posted on the board showing he far from caught you out. However to prove the point, I will post his argument here so we can see whether you delete it or not.

Tim O'Neill wrote on the IMDB Agora forum :-

Here are the relevant passages from Ammianus and Gellius, both in Latin and translation. Anyone can see that Carrier's claim that Ammianus' is an "almost verbatim" copy of Gellius' passage is a lie:

His accedunt altis sufflata fastigiis templa. Inter quae eminet Serapeum, quod licet minuatur exilitate verborum, atriis tamen columnariis amplissimis et spirantibus signorum figmentis et reliqua operum multitudine ita est exornatum, ut post Capitolium, quo se venerabilis Roma in aeternum attollit, nihil orbis terrarum ambitiosius cernat. In quo bybliothecae fuerunt inaestimabiles: et loquitur monumentorum veterum concinens fides septingenta voluminum milia, Ptolomaeis regibus vigiliis intentis conposita bello Alexandrino, dum diripitur civitas sub dictatore Caesare, conflagrasse.

"There are besides in the city temples pompous with lofty roofs, conspicuous among them the Serapeum, which, though feeble words merely belittle it, yet is so adorned with extensive columned halls, with almost breathing statues, and a great number of other works of art, that next to the Capitolium, with which revered Rome elevates herself to eternity, the whole world beholds nothing more magnificent. 13 In this were invaluable libraries, and the unanimous testimony of ancient records declares that 700,000 books, brought together by the unremitting energy of the Ptolemaïc kings, were burned in the Alexandrine war, when the city was sacked under the dictator Caesar."
(Res gestae, XII,.16.12-13)

Ingens postea numerus librorum in Aegypto ab Ptolemaeis regibus vel conquisitus vel confectus est ad milia ferme voluminum septingenta; sed ea omnia bello priore Alexandrino, dum diripitur ea civitas, non sponte neque opera consulta, sed a militibus forte auxiliaris incensa sunt.

"At a later time an enormous quantity of books, nearly seven hundred thousand volumes, was either acquired or written in Egypt under the kings known as Ptolemies; but these were all burned during the sack of the city in our first war with Alexandria, not intentionally or by anyone's order, but accidentally by the auxiliary soldiers."
(Noctium Atticarum, VII. 17.3)

Richard Carrier said...

Thank you. Yes, to which I replied by quoting my Berkeley conference talk on this subject:

"The problem is that Marcellinus does not appear to know what he is talking about. Just before this he wrongly said that the 'libraries' of Alexandria were in the Serapeum (nowhere near the Bruchion),1 and that they were destroyed by Julius Caesar, the same mistake noted above [in my discussion of Canfora and Livy vs. Gellius], here further compounded by his placing the fire in the Serapeum, which is nowhere near the docks (like the Bruchion is). Thus, his information was apparently based on late and faulty literary sources, not first-hand information from Alexandria itself or its scholars, who would not have been mistaken about such things. A good proof of this is the fact that, although he claims "the confident agreement of old histories says" what he reports, the text of Ammianus matches that of just one source, Aulus Gellius, and too closely to be a coincidence: not only is the number of books identical in both sources [and yet we know from Livy that that number was an error], but the Latin is nearly identical, e.g. only the following bracketed words are absent from Ammianus: bello [priore] Alexandrino dum diripitur [ea] civitas (Attic Nights 7.17.3). A second problem is that the Bruchion was the palace area, crowded with major architectural works, that stood a good distance from the city walls (as any citadel did). It is thus hard to understand how a later tearing down of the walls could result in the total destruction of the city’s entire capitol. At any rate, Marcellinus goes on to say scholarship continued to flourish in Alexandria nonetheless."

[1 The received text does not say ‘two libraries’ as modern critical editions claim, but only ‘priceless libraries’. A smaller library was in the Serapeum, about a tenth the size of the famous library, but Marcellinus seems unaware of any such distinction. Cf. J. den Boeft, et al., Philological and Historical Commentary on Ammianus Marcellinus XXII (Groningen: Egbert Forsten), 1995: §16.12-22.]

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Also, O'Neill flagrantly lied about me in claiming I had grossly misspelled the words he quotes (even indicating this with "sic"), yet his own prior quotation of me proves he knew full well I had not misspelled them (compare my post with his quotation of it). That pretty much establishes him as a big fat liar. I don't see any need to attend to anything else he says.