History in the Movies: Angels and Demons

Back in the spring of 2006, the impending release of “The Da Vinci Code”, Ron Howard’s film of Dan Brown’s bestseller, set off a storm of controversy. For weeks, the media was filled with Catholic leaders calling for a boycott of the film, outraged by Brown’s disputed historical claims about Church history.

But though Brown’s latest religious thriller—”Angels and Demons” – just opened nationwide, it’s been fairly quiet on the outrage front.  That’s not because the Catholic Church comes off much better here than they did in “The Da Vinci Code”. Both films feature nefarious Church officials doing dastardly deeds.  But to its credit, “Angels and Demons” avoids anything like the most outrageous charge found in The Da Vinci Code. You remember? The one about the Catholic Church engaging in a centuries-long cover-up of the fact that Jesus had a wife and a kid?

Jesus’ marital and parental status may have been avoided in this one, but Dan Brown bashers needn’t fear. Like its predecessor, “Angels and Demons” features plenty of dubious historical details to debunk. Read on for some examples.
Angels and Demons focuses on the Illuminati. Are they a real group?

In the film, Harvard professor Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) solemnly describes the Illuminati as a powerful secret organization, formed in the 1500s, attracting “physicists, mathematicians, astronomers… dedicated to scientific truth.” But, he adds, the Vatican hated them, and so “began to hunt them down and kill them.”

Um, no. This isn’t history; it’s conspiracy theory. Dan Brown is relying on popular myth, which has long portrayed the Illuminati as an enormously influential and secretive group, spanning nations and centuries. Some conspiracy theories have the Illuminati controlling every major world government. In other theories, they are a Satanic cult, preparing the world for the Antichrist. In Brown’s version, the Illuminati are illustrious men of science and reason, waging a centuries-long struggle with a backward and hostile Vatican.  

But none of this is history. In fact, the only Illuminati for which there is historical evidence was a short-lived group founded in 1776 by an irascible Bavarian intellectual named Adam Weishaupt. Using Enlightenment ideas to oppose both the Church and the Bavarian monarchy, Weishaupt’s secretive Illuminati became a fashionable organization for free thinkers and Progressive politicians for the next few years. But infighting, led by Weishaupt himself, weakened the group. And in 1785, after only nine years of existence, the Illuminati were largely stamped out by the Bavarian government in a crackdown on secret societies.  

Yet ironically, just as their actual influence was waning, their myth began to grow, and whispers soon arose of Illuminati attempts at world domination. That myth continues today. Just google ‘Illuminati conspiracy’ for evidence of some of the wackier claims.   

So, what about Galileo? The film says he was part of the Illuminati.
Dan Brown likes imagining that great intellectuals like Galileo and Da Vinci spent lots of time hanging out in secret societies. I personally think they had better things to do. But regardless, it would have been rather difficult for Galileo to be a part of the Illuminati, since he died in 1642, one hundred and thirty-four years before the Bavarian Illuminati even formed.

How about “La Purga,” the branding and murder of Illuminati scientists by the Vatican. Did that happen?
In the film, Langdon recites this as historical fact to skeptical Vatican officials. “In 1668,” he  asserts, “the church kidnapped four Illuminati scientists and branded each one of them on the chest with the symbol of the cross, to purge them of their sins.” The scientists were then executed, which radicalized the Illuminati and led to an elaborate revenge plot. “Geez,” Langdon scoffs at his audience, “don’t you guys read your own history books?”

Why yes, Robert Langdon, we do. But we wouldn’t find “La Purga” in any of them because it’s a completely fictional event. The Illuminati didn’t even exist in 1668.   

Does antimatter exist? And is it as explosive as shown?
Antimatter does exist, and scientists at the CERN particle physics laboratory in Switzerland were the first to create and trap it, just like the film shows. But CERN’s own website debunks the notion that it’s dangerous. They produce it in such miniscule amounts, they say, that it “would take billions of years to produce enough antimatter for a bomb” akin to the one shown in the film.  

Robert Langdon is a professor of symbology at Harvard. Has that department grown more popular since the success of Brown’s novels?
No. That’s because not only is Langdon a fictional character, but so is his department. There is no academic discipline called “symbology.”

But perhaps I’m being too hard on Dan Brown, and his “Angels and Demons.” It’s a piece of fiction after all, and a fun film to boot. So, see it if you enjoy fast-paced thrillers. See it for the great scenery of Rome. Just please, don’t see it for the “history.”

Cathy Schultz, Ph.D., is a history professor at the University of St. Francis in Illinois and writes a syndicated column on historical films. You can reach her at

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