A Historian Goes to the Movies: Ancient Rome

The glory of ancient Rome meets the grandeur of modern Hollywood in these 12 lectures that examine the historical accuracy of Ben-Hur, Gladiator, and other classic sword-and-sandal epics.
A Historian Goes to the Movies: Ancient Rome is rated 3.6 out of 5 by 57.
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Rated 5 out of 5 by from Very enjoyable and informative This is an excellent course. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and found it both entertaining and informative.
Date published: 2021-06-09
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Made me a Great Courses Fan Prior to the pandemic I had never taken advantage of any of the Great Courses. Then, faced with extended home time, we decided to purchase "A Historian Goes to the Movies: Ancient Rome," as it seemed like a nice light escape. Well that it was, and more! Professor Aldrete informed, entertained and took us on a journey through all of the "Sword and Sandal " movies of my youth and beyond. His excitement and exuberance about the movies was contagious and made me watch movies I had never heard of like "the Centurian." I thoroughly enjoyed his behind the scenes stories such as the political/social motives of the producers which I totally missed. He had a wry sense of humor and it was shown by his review of "the Life of Brian" as well as sci fi movies. Most importantly though, I came away really understanding more about Ancient Rome and how we got our impression of it. The only reason it wasn't five stars was there were no movie clips, which I guess are copyrighted. Not a big thing thing... just made me want to watch the movies. Based on this delightful and informative course I have purchased and watched eight other Great Courses Offerings. Thank you Professor Aldrete for opening the door for me!
Date published: 2021-05-27
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Unique A fun and interesting course. Although I disagree with some movies, I like the dissertation.
Date published: 2021-05-10
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Avoid the video version I made the mistake of getting the video version, thinking there would be movie clips necessary to the presentation. No clips and very annoying and distracting constant hand gestures by Prof. Aldrete--a gesture for every phrase, almost every word, with no particular relationship between the phrase/word and the gesture. But the content is interesting and I think the professor probably knows what he is talking about, so I'm going to return the video and get the audio version off of Audible.
Date published: 2021-05-01
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Wonderful insights! This terrific course combines ancient history and the movies perceptively. Dr. Andrete aptly points out ways that some movies have taken liberties with historical realities. Yet, he also explains when those movies are historically accurate. I liked his balanced viewpoints. Consequently, I will look at the movies he discussed differently, more intelligently. The course is entirely worthwhile, helpful and engaging.
Date published: 2021-04-15
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Extremely disappointing, want my money back. Incredibly, there are no movie clips in this course on Roman history IN THE MOVIES! I couldn't watch the speaker; wooden delivery, hand motions were forced and annoying. Maybe this might be okay in audio but just awful in DVD.
Date published: 2021-03-02
Rated 1 out of 5 by from too much Holywood movies and little ancient Rome I don't want to hear about Holywood in a course about Ancient Rome. He could have just read Plutarch instead. He is just reciting the script of Holywood movies. Waste of time!
Date published: 2021-02-06
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Disappointing It is disappointing, and bad judgment on the part of Great Courses, that a lecture series about movies doesn’t have any. Nor does it have much visual material. Makes for an overall boring, if competent, presentation.
Date published: 2021-02-05
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Overview

When most of us think of the ancient Roman world, we don’t think about the scholarship of hard-working historians or the discoveries of patient archaeologists. We think, first and foremost, of what we’ve seen at the movies.

From the sword-and-sandal epics of the 1950s to the resurgence of grittier stories in the 21st century, cinema has exerted an undeniable power over our cultural understanding of ancient Rome. The iconography is always fresh in our minds: gladiatorial battles and chariot races, defiant slaves and nefarious emperors, magnificent public structures and white toga costumes. But just because these and other sights are popular in movies doesn’t mean they should always be taken as historical fact.

What would an award-winning historian think of films like Ben-Hur, Spartacus, Gladiator, or even a satire like Monty Python’s Life of Brian? How have these and other movies created our popular perceptions of ancient Roman history—and in what ways have they led us astray? And why, despite the occasional box-office flop, do movies set in ancient Rome still have the power to captivate us, and to turn each of us into theater-going history buffs?

In A Historian Goes to the Movies: Ancient Rome, Professor Gregory S. Aldrete uses his prolific scholarship to give you a front-row look at the great movies that have shaped ancient Rome’s role in popular culture and memory. Packed with insights into both history and filmmaking, these 12 lectures immerse you in the glory and grandeur (and, sometimes, the folly) of classic and contemporary films featuring over 50 years of cinematic talent, including directors like Stanley Kubrick, Federico Fellini, and Ridley Scott, and actors such as Charlton Heston, Rex Harrison, Elizabeth Taylor, Patrick Stewart, and Russell Crowe. You’ll investigate portrayals of ancient Roman life on the big screen and small screen; learn how to tease out fact from fiction in some of Hollywood’s most stunning spectacles; and deepen your appreciation for films that, when made right, are thrilling time machines into the past.

Survey Landmark Film and TV

For A Historian Goes to the Movies: Ancient Rome, Professor Aldrete has assembled 13 of what he and many other film buffs consider to be the most important films set in ancient Rome. These are movies we remember for their performances, their costumes and set designs, and the ways they influenced the movies made in their wake. A few of the features you will explore include:

  • Quo Vadis: This high-profile 1951 film, starring Peter Ustinov as the tyrannical emperor Nero and Deborah Kerr as a virtuous young Christian girl, established a successful (and lucrative) template for movies about classical antiquity and the early Christian world, and sparked a cultural fire for sword-and-sandal flicks.
  • I, Claudius: Based on two novels by Robert Graves, this BBC miniseries tracks the intimate lives of the Julio-Claudian dynasty, which includes the emperors Claudius, Caligula, and Tiberius. The show also captured the attention of a second group of viewers: those obsessed with England’s royal family.
  • Fellini Satyricon: Italian director Federico Fellini’s experimental film, based on the ancient novel Satyricon by Petronius, was very much a product of the cinematic and social revolutions of the 1960s—both of which left an indelible mark on this picaresque story of a pleasure-seeking young Roman man.
  • Gladiator: Essentially a remake of the 1964 film, The Fall of the Roman Empire, Ridley Scott’s blockbuster film from 2000 was a commercial and cultural triumph that snagged Academy Awards, spawned memorable catchphrases, and inspired a host of new sword-and-sandal epics in the subsequent decade, including Troy and 300.

Some films you may already be a fan of; other films you might have only heard of in passing. But all of them are essential to a well-rounded understanding of the intricate relationship between the world of ancient Rome and the world of the movies.

Walk the Line between Truth and Fiction

A scholar who’s spent his entire career immersed in the history of the ancient Roman world (from ancient body armor to everyday life), Professor Aldrete reveals the historical accuracies and inaccuracies of the ancient Roman world depicted in these films. When filmmakers seemingly got certain aspects of history wrong, Professor Aldrete provides a window into how and why the creators made certain decisions and navigated the tenuous line between truth and entertainment. For example, you’ll discover that:

  • Ben-Hur‘s naval battle, while a reasonable depiction of naval warfare in the ancient Roman world, nevertheless, depicts the oarsmen of the warships as slaves (they weren’t) and being sent to the galleys as punishment (it wasn’t);
  • Spartacus misrepresents the title character’s historical legacy by depicting his revolt as a growing movement challenging slavery, when in reality, it marked the end of popular opposition to the institution;
  • I, Claudius portrays the character of Livia as a mass murderer who kills multiple members of her own family to clear the way for her son, Tiberius—a notion that has been proven to likely be false, and can be traced to a specific ancient historian, Cassius Dio.
  • Gladiator uses the familiar “thumbs down” gesture to indicate a defeated gladiator should be killed, whereas, recent scholarship has revealed this gesture was most likely a way of calling for the victor to drop his weapon and spare his enemy;
  • HBO’s Rome gets many things right about everyday life in ancient Rome, including two characteristics of Roman religion—that it’s a component of nearly all facets of life and that individuals differ in their degrees of belief; and
  • Fellini Satyricon, despite its surreal components, depicts a marriage ceremony accurately by dressing the bride with an orange veil and having the guests throw nuts at the couple and shout “feliciter” in congratulations.

Go behind the Scenes of Cinematic Classics

Along with a revealing look at ancient history, these lectures also examine the art and craft of big-budget filmmaking. A Historian Goes to the Movies: Ancient Rome takes you behind the scenes to reveal how iconic films can be made—or unmade—by everything from clashes between directors and actors to out-of-control budgets.

For example, you’ll learn how:

  • Early epics like Ben-Hur couldn’t rely on the luxury of computer-generated effects and, therefore, had to construct impressive, full-sized replicas of ancient Roman sites like the Forum or the Circus Maximus;
  • Fall of the Roman Empire was the true box-office bomb that tanked the sword-and-sandals genre for decades (not Cleopatra, as popularly believed); and
  • Creative differences between a historical consultant and the producers of Gladiator reflect the way filmmakers ditch historical accuracy for the sake of drama.

Professor Aldrete also highlights profound connections between these films and the wider historical culture in which they first appeared. Quo Vadis, for example, made only a few years after the end of World War II, noticeably portrays the Romans as mirror images of the Nazis. And Spartacus, despite its message of freedom, became the target of McCarthy-era conservative and religious groups who condemned it for being anti-American.

A Guide for Tomorrow’s Great Films

Of course, the end of this exciting lecture series doesn’t mean there isn’t more to come. Roman history continues to inspire new cinematic depictions, and A Historian Goes to the Movies: Ancient Rome is a welcome guide to settings, themes, and “bread-and-circus” plots that popular culture just can’t let go of.

Professor Aldrete’s lectures leave you excited about how tomorrow’s movies will depict the ancient world—and eager to discover what those creative works will reveal about both the past and the times in which they’re made.

About

Gregory S. Aldrete
Gregory S. Aldrete

As an ancient historian, my goals are to share the enthusiasm for and fascination with antiquity that I feel, and to show some of the connections between that world and our own.

INSTITUTION

University of Wisconsin, Green Bay

Dr. Gregory S. Aldrete is Professor of Humanistic Studies and History at the University of Wisconsin, Green Bay, where he has taught since 1995. He earned his B.A. from Princeton University and his master's degree and Ph.D. in Ancient History from the University of Michigan. Honored many times over for his research and his teaching, Professor Aldrete was named by his university as the winner of its highest awards in each category, receiving both its Founders Association Award for Excellence in Scholarship and its Founders Association Award for Excellence in Teaching. That recognition of his teaching skills was echoed on a national level in 2009, when he received the American Philological Association Award for Excellence in the Teaching of Classics at the College Level-the national teaching award given annually by the professional association of classics professors. The recipient of many prestigious research fellowships including five from the National Endowment for the Humanities, Professor Aldrete has published several important books in his field, including Gestures and Acclamations in Ancient Rome; Floods of the Tiber in Ancient Rome; Daily Life in the Roman City: Rome, Pompeii, and Ostia; The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Daily Life I: The Ancient World (as editor); Unraveling the Linothorax Mystery: Reconstructing and Testing Ancient Linen Body Armor (with S. Bartell and A. Aldrete) and The Long Shadow of Antiquity: What Have the Greeks and Romans Done for Us (with A. Aldrete).

By This Professor

A Historian Goes to the Movies: Ancient Rome

Trailer

Quo Vadis Kick-Starts the Sword-and-Sandal Genre

01: Quo Vadis Kick-Starts the Sword-and-Sandal Genre

Few films did as much to shape the modern movie-going public’s notions of ancient Rome as Quo Vadis. Discover how this film, released in 1951 by MGM Studios, ushered in the golden age of the so-called “sword-and-sandal” picture, with its irresistible formula of evil, arrogant Romans versus virtuous, devout Christians.

32 min
Ben-Hur: The Greatest Chariot Race

02: Ben-Hur: The Greatest Chariot Race

Ben-Hur, from 1959, was an enormous financial risk that nevertheless became a cash machine for MGM Studios. In this lecture, unpack the intricate tensions between the Jewish prince Judah Ben-Hur and the Roman aristocrat Messala, then analyze the historical accuracies (and inaccuracies) of the film’s iconic naval battle and chariot race sequences.

32 min
Spartacus: Kubrick’s Controversial Epic

03: Spartacus: Kubrick’s Controversial Epic

Discover what makes Spartacus—despite being one of the best-known cinema epics of ancient Rome—something of an oddity. It’s a gladiator film with only one scene of combat. Its production was rife with conflict. Its narrative misrepresents the real-life Spartacus’s goals. And it played an important role in Joseph McCarthy’s anti-communist movement.

34 min
Cleopatra: Spectacle Gone Wild

04: Cleopatra: Spectacle Gone Wild

How did the 1963 film, Cleopatra, bring about the destruction of the golden age of epic films set in ancient Rome—and destroy the old Hollywood studio system? How does this film treat the historical accounts of figures like Julius Caesar, Mark Antony, and Octavian? Why do its grand costumes and sets still deserve admiration?

33 min
The Fall of the Roman Empire and Ancient Epics

05: The Fall of the Roman Empire and Ancient Epics

With its $19 million price tag and its $4.75 million in returns, The Fall of the Roman Empire was an unmitigated financial disaster. From its connections to 1960s global politics to its elaborate reconstruction of the Roman Forum to its bleak ending, explore why some critics and scholars regard this as a sophisticated take on ancient Rome.

33 min
I, Claudius: The BBC Makes an Anti-Epic

06: I, Claudius: The BBC Makes an Anti-Epic

Consider the 1976 BBC production of I, Claudius, which has been credited as one of the most influential and memorable portraits of the ancient world ever to appear on the screen—big or small. Set between 24 B.C. and A.D. 54, the miniseries created an intimate look at the reigns of emperors Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, and Claudius.

32 min
Life of Brian: The Roman World’s a Funny Place

07: Life of Brian: The Roman World’s a Funny Place

What would a parody of sword-and-sandal films, with all their genre conventions and clichés, look like? Discover how Monthy Python’s Life of Brian, a witty parody of both biblical and Roman epic films, took on gladiatorial games, ancient Roman society and religion, and the human tendency toward factionalism and tribalism.

33 min
Gladiator: The Historical Epic Revived

08: Gladiator: The Historical Epic Revived

Why did big-budget epics of the ancient world fall out of fashion? How did the 2000 film, Gladiator, single-handedly resuscitate a genre that had been dormant for nearly 40 years? What has recent scholarship revealed about the film’s portrayals of gladiator battles and the lives of ancient Roman emperors—their truths, falsehoods, and embellishments?

34 min
Rome: HBO’s Gritty Take on Ancient History

09: Rome: HBO’s Gritty Take on Ancient History

To get a sense of what living in ancient Rome was really like for the average person, the best place to look is the HBO miniseries, Rome. Learn how, despite its flaws, this short-lived series offers accurate (if gritty) views of different religious beliefs, the role of slavery in ancient Roman society, and more.

33 min
Centurion and The Eagle: The Legions in Britain

10: Centurion and The Eagle: The Legions in Britain

Explore two films that take on the legendary story of an ancient Roman legion lost in the mists of Britain. Both Centurion and The Eagle, while not as well-known as some of the other films featured in this course, nevertheless, offer solid insights into Roman military tactics and raise central issues about Roman imperialism.

31 min
Scipione l’africano and Fellini Satyricon

11: Scipione l’africano and Fellini Satyricon

While both were Italian productions, Scipione l’africano and Fellini Satyricon couldn’t be more dissimilar in style. Examine how these two films—one a pompous work of propaganda from 1937, the other a subversive piece of overindulgence from 1969—are best seen as products of the eras in which they were made.

33 min
Bread and Circuses in Sci-Fi Films

12: Bread and Circuses in Sci-Fi Films

The Hunger Games, The Matrix, The Running Man, Rollerball, Ready Player One—each of these wildly different sci-fi films derive their premise from a line of poetry by the ancient Roman satirist Juvenal. How has a simple motif about “bread and circuses” powered some of the most memorable sci-fi plots in cinema?

33 min