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.