Last fall, my husband and I made the trek down to San Francisco’s Atheist Film Festival. We didn’t set aside much time to watch the films, but I knew I wanted to see one: Agora, directed by Alejandro Amenábar and starring Rachel Weisz, Max Minghella and Oscar Isaac. I wrote about my reaction to the film here. The story is inspired by historical events surrounding the death of Hypatia, a 4th century AD scholar. I very much recommend you watch the film. Though it is not historically accurate, it is an incredibly well done movie that will have you in tears.
After posting my review of the movie, a very nice lady, and a great historian and writer, stopped by my blog. Her name is Faith L. Justice. In her own words, she is “a history junkie and science geek who writes historical novels and SF/F short stories.” How delightful! And she happened to have recently wrote about a young woman in Hypatia’s world. It took me awhile to get to it, but I just finished Selene of Alexandria, Ms. Justice’s debut novel.
First, let me recap the story. Selene of Alexandria is about a fictional character named Selene, a young well-to-do lady living in tumultuous Alexandria in 400 AD. She is on the cusp of womanhood, debating whether marriage will be thrust upon her or if she will follow her heart’s dream of becoming a physician. Through her story to reach that goal, Selene, as well as the reader, are buffeted against the large changes occurring in the city and throughout the region. The author weaves real, historical events into Selene’s fictional life, showing us just how people were affected by power and ambition, and the fight for religious souls.
I’m not a detailed sort of reviewer, so if you want to know more about the story specifics – read the book! It’s a great read.
So, what did I think of Ms. Justice’s book? As I said before, Selene of Alexandria is a great read. The author immerses the reader in the details of Alexandria at a very specific time and place. I felt like I was walking along the broad avenues, sampling the wares at the street markets, and running with Selene in the dangerous, narrow alleys. I found the historic detail well integrated into the story and the complexity of the city politics was never confusing. I had a clear grasp of the problems Orestes, the Roman Prefect in charge of the peace in the city, faced; the way a beloved scholar might be blind to the tides of change; and how religious zealots like Cyril, Hierex, and Ammonius could so easily do evil in the name of God and country. The author did an excellent job of bringing all these people and issues to life in a compelling story about a young woman who just wants to be herself.
As this is an Atheist’s Quill review, I can’t end this review without talking about religion. The backdrop of Selene of Alexandria is religion, in all the forms it might have occurred in Alexandria in 400 AD and then some. Selene’s family were former pagan’s, who had worshiped a mix of Greek, Roman, and Egyptian gods; most of the populace were Christians, or said they were Christians, as that was the official Roman Empire religion at the time; moderately sized Jewish enclaves were present in the city; and so were a number of other religions like Mithras. The author took pains to show the reader that just about every religion was represented in Alexandria – which is something that is true of all great, port cities in the past or today. It is hard to be at a crossroads, and not have every religion traipse by. And so it was in Alexandria.
The main character, Selene, is also at a crossroads. She is at an age (late teens) where her life will change one way or another. Her father is aging, but is also going through financial difficulty. She can either be married, but will little of a dowry to attract a good suitor, or follow her dream to be a doctor. But societal norms and religions notions frown upon a woman of status learning and participating in a profession. Throughout the novel as Selene attempts to pursue her dreams of being a doctor, men and women challenge, not only her moral beliefs, but her religious ones as well. One thing I definitely felt the author drove home well was how pervasive religion was (or is?) in the very minutiae of life. It seemed every aspect of Selene’s thoughts were governed by some religious or superstitious belief, as it must have been for every person of that time. For the people of Alexandria, religion defined who you were and what you did.
Reading Selene of Alexandria made me realize two things:
- I’m glad to be have been born in a relatively tolerate time where one can freely believe in no god, and
- Hypatia was no different from the rest of those religious zealots.
To be fair, Hypatia’s philosophy probably best matches my own personal philosophy better than any other religious person I know, alive or dead. However, as the author portrayed her in this book, Hypatia’s search for knowledge and understanding did not necessarily include the option of a world with no god. In this regard, I think the great scholar did herself an injustice.
Of course, that wouldn’t have saved her either. In the end, regardless of what Hypatia believed, it was not as those in power wanted her to believe and so she was used as a scapegoat in a move to consolidate people and power. What is the lesson for us non-believers, here and now?
We can’t control the zealots out there bent on spreading ignorance and religion, rather the best we can do is defend science and pursue a life dedicated to reason, charity, and tolerance.