Hollywood Marches on Rome

I love a good epic ­– and some epics aren’t that good but I’ll watch them anyway. Ancient Rome has long been the inspiration for big-budget movies and television series. I say ‘inspiration’ because scriptwriters have no qualms over dodging hard historical fact to scurry down alleyways of their own. The costume department is often limited to what is available, and the effects people are either hamstrung by the limitations of the era or budget or urged to go over the top because they can. That said, I’ll appreciate the best bits of the dodgy ones whilst trying not to wince too hard at the inaccuracies and the necessary telescoping of characters and timelines to fit the run time. So if you fancy watching the movie history of Rome in historical order, here is a beginner’s guide. I’ve largely omitted foreign language films and the more obscure works I haven’t seen, which accounts for the Republic getting short shrift in the following list.

73–71 BC Spartacus (1960) carries a good feel of the Republic, and the casting of English thespians adds gravitas to the dastardly Romans pitched against American-led rebels. It sets a trend where the Romans, or at least their leaders, tend to be the baddies.

49–30 BC Rome (2005-7) is a lavish HBO TV series spanning the civil wars that brought about an end to the Republic. With plenty of blood and sex and swearing it is also makes the rare effort to convey an authentic feel of Roman civil life in its subplots. Cleopatra’s (1963) massive budgets make it a watchable movie for its excess. Both Rome and Cleopatra portray a scheming Julius Caesar, a brattish Octavian and Mark Antony with the ego of a premier league footballer. Many other Cleopatras and Julius Caesars have loved and died on-screen over the years, including in the TV mini series The Cleopatras (1983) and Cleopatra (1999). Carry on Cleo (1964) is one of the sharpest spoofs of the whole canon.

40 BC – AD 29 Domina (2021) follows the life of Livia Drusilla, probably the most powerful woman in the history of Ancient Rome. Only Series One has been made so far, and the main plot picks up where Rome left off with Octavian, now Augustus, tightening his grip on Rome. It features an overdose of rather Anglo-Saxon swearing, but not quite as much sex and gore as Rome.

3 BC – AD 30 Innumerable epics, dramas and musicals have been filmed about the life of Christ. Judea was annexed by Rome in AD 6, so go for the TV miniseries Jesus of Nazareth (1977) for a glimpse of provincial life and politics under the heel of the Roman sandal.  Anti-Roman zeal is carried well in Judas Iscariot’s role in Jesus Christ Superstar (1973 et al.). The fall and rise of Jewish nobleman Ben Hur who falls foul of the Romans culminates with the crucifixion; the Charlton Heston version of 1959 is still the most memorable. Risen (2016) told from the viewpoint of a centurion is a recent addition to the canon. If you need a satirical look at ‘what the Romans did for us’, there’s nothing better than Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979).

24 BC – AD  54 I Claudius (1976) is a brilliant adaption of Robert Graves’ novels with a top-notch cast, let down only by its low-budget BBC sets. It tells of the reigns of Augustus as Emperor, followed by Tiberius, Caligula and ultimately Claudius. The bizarre fantasy TV series Britannia is notionally set around the invasion of Britain in AD 43 and despite big name English leads the Italian Caligula (1979) was essentially a mix of gore, excess and soft porn.

AD 30–38 The struggles of Christians after the crucifixion of Jesus rebounds into the Roman world in films such as The Robe (1953), principally set in the reign of the villainous Caligula, and its sequel Demetrius and the Gladiators (1954). Numerous other Roman era movies feature gladiators in lead roles, commonly with slave girl love interest.

AD 60­–61 Several Boudicas have brazenly ridden Romans down on our screens, including in the British TV movie Boudica (2003, Warrior Queen in the US).

AD 64–68 The persecution of Christians continues in Quo Vadis (1951), this time with Nero as villain. General Galba rides in at the end to save the day, but his brief reign as Emperor and those of Otto and Vitellius don’t merit their own films.

AD 73 Back in Judea, the Jews revolt against Roman rule in the miniseries Masada (1981) notable for showing off Roman siege engineering. The ‘Good Emperor’ Vespasian has a small role, as does his son and Emperor-in-waiting Titus, though the Romans are still the enemies of freedom.

AD 79 Pompeii (2014) briefly depicts the life of a provincial Italian coastal resort before it is destroyed by a CGI disaster. It’s largely a collection of Roman gladiator clichés we’ve seen before. Three films (1913, 1935, 1959) and a 1984 TV series called The Last Days of Pompeii cover similar ground. Can we also mention Up Pompeii (1969-70) without tittering? It was the offspring of comic musical A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966) vaguely set later in the Empire.

AD 96–175 There is a lull of movie interest during the reigns of Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian and Antoninus Pius, possibly as they were ‘Good Emperors’ not noted for bonkers excess. One of my college lecturers once observed that the best Emperors were gay, with no choice but to appoint able successors, and only when one came along that had a son did trouble start again.

c.AD 110–120 The supposed loss of the Ninth Legion in Britain is the background to Centurion (2009).

AD 175–192 The otherwise sage Antoninus Pius is an old man at the start of both The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964) and Gladiator (2000) which dispense with a good deal of historic accuracy as events spiral out of control under his ‘Bad Emperor’ son Commodus. Though Rome did not actually fall for another 200 years, the rot has set in and the question is raised over whether it is worth saving.

AD 212 We skip a few short-lived emperors until Severus (2006) about the final campaign of Septimius Severus in Britain and his son Caracalla’s schemes to murder his brother and take the throne. Okay, the existence of this film is fiction. The filming of the epic was the backdrop to my fifth novel Blood and Sandals. Hollywood, I’m easy to reach if you’re interested…  

Third century Roman Emperors had a life expectancy of under three years. In quick succession they were killed in battle, murdered by their own troops, died of plague or were struck by lightning. Thirty or more are all but forgotten by scriptwriters, despite this being a period of constant court skulduggery, revolts, civil wars and barbarian incursions. It was Game of Thrones without dragons.

Edging into the fourth century the comic book adaption Constantine was sadly not about the first Emperor to adopt Christianity and we have to hunt for the Italian Constantine and the Cross (1961) to come close. The later Emperors are largely ignored.

AD 391 In Agora (2009) we see the first intelligent female lead for a couple of centuries, a philosopher working in the fabled Library of Alexandria. It is the most notable film to centre on ancient concepts of science rather than big battles and games in the arena. By now the tables are turned on the pagans and the Christians become the oppressors.

AD 434–453 By the fifth century we can hear the fall of Rome coming down the corridor, or more accurately thundering across the plains. Attila and Sign of the Pagan both came out in 1954, with the Huns as the villains and Rome now the last defender of civilisation.

AD 467–475 The final hurrah for the Romans as the good guys in sub-Roman Britain comes in The Last Legion (2007) and is merged into myth in King Arthur (2004).

So, if you have a hundred hours to spare, that in a nutshell is the not-too-accurate glossy screen version of Rome.

Lead image: Severn House cover for Blood and Sandals (2006)

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