The basic idea for this essay is the same as for the previous one: How well, or not, do you think the movie—in this case “Agora”—does in capturing the essence of the time-period and place depicted? That is the basic question that your whole essay needs to be focused on.
In the case of the history we’re dealing with in this unit, we’re in a slightly different position from the one we were in with the Spartans and Persinas. On the one hand, we’ve got a lot of general documentation, and from a great variety of different sorts of sources–political, historical, economic, social. On the other hand, we actually have very little direct evidence dealing with the specific events depicted in this film (the sacking of the Serapeum, Hypatia’s murder) than we did in the previous couple cases. So, while we are in the happy position of being able to paint a fairly full and detailed portrait of that society at that time in general, we cannot be too sure about the specific people and events. This means that, even more than was the case in the previous units, you will need to focus on the “flavor” of the society–its general shape and constitution, its basic values and mentalities, types of social groups and their relationships, etc. The facts, individual persons and events can certainly be a part of your argument about the film, as much as possible. But you will need to go beyond that to make your judgment.
So to start with, think back to the film: beyond the concrete events, what is the “story” here? What is the film saying, whether intentionally or not, about what Rome was like in this period? In class we identified several things as being key parts to the film’s story: the idea of a clash between Reason and Faith (blind, ignorant faith, superstition); Questioning vs. Obedience; the Elite vs. the Mob; etc. In your essay, you will need to establish for your reader what kind of a story the film is telling, and then compare that story and its details to what you have discovered in the documents. (You could certainly do it the other way around, as well: first analyze the documents to get an understanding of the era, then show how the film either fits that, or doesn’t. Personally, I think it would be easier to first discuss the film, since the film’s story is necessarily more narrowly focused than the readings. That way you’ll have much more focus for going to the documents which, for this unit, are all over the place.)
In general, I would suggest the following issues to think about.
what is the nature of the two (or 3) religions? What do they each believe, theologically, yes, but beyond that, and even more importantly, what are their values; what do they consider important, and what do they fear? What kind of people are they (elites, lower classes, educated, uneducated, etc.)? The documents won’t always give direct evidence for such things, but they will always give you enough to do at least do some speculating, make some educated guesses.
how do they feel about each other: what is their self-identity (as Pagans, as Christians), and how do they view “the others”? Do they hate each other? fear each other? or just find the others quaint and ridiculous?
even more importantly, what is the relationship of the different religious communities to the state, and to the idea of state power? Does either community seem to identify with the state and feel it is “theirs”? Do they care about the state? Do they want anything from the state? And how does the state feel about the religions? How does the state use religion, and why?
lastly, what about the role of women in that society? What kinds of attitudes prevail about women? What is their legal situation? What opportunities do they have? And does any of that have anything to do, do you think, with Hypatia’s murder? Do the documents suggest that she was killed in a clash between Reason and Fanatical Religion? Or because she was a woman? Or something else?
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