Film and the Roman Empire: How to do it well

Richard Blake

Film and the Roman Empire: How to do it well
Richard Blake (2015)

Note: Steven Saylor has produced a rather different list of his favourite Roman films. You can see this here.

My purpose in this essay is to describe and compare and judge ten films set in the Roman Empire. I will apply two criteria. The first, and most obvious, is how these films stand as works of art in their own right – narrative structure, acting, general production values and so forth. The second, and for me almost equally important, is how well they show that the Ancients lived in a moral universe fundamentally different from our own.

Now, for the avoidance of doubt, I will say at once that I have no time for any of the neo-Marxist claims about Antiquity. Karl Polanyi and Moses Finlay were wrong in their belief that the laws of supply and demand have only operated since the eighteenth century. Michel Foucault was more than usually wrong when he denied that the Ancients had any notion of the individual. In all times and places, human nature is the same. All people are motivated by some combination of sex, money, status, power and the fear of death. The laws of Economics apply just as well in Ancient Rome as they do in Modern England.

What I do mean, however, is that these basic motivations showed themselves in often radically different ways. The Ancients were not Christians. They were not universalists. They had no concept of human equality. The establishment of chattel slavery among them normalised attitudes and behaviour that would have been thought outrageous in Ancien Régime Europe, and that every religious denomination would have been mobilised to denounce in the ante bellum American South.

The Ancients lacked technologies and scientific and moral concepts that we have taken for granted for five or six or even eight centuries. A modern secularist has more in common with a twelfth century theologian than with a Greek rationalist. He probably has more in common with a sixth century Bishop than with a pagan philosopher.

One of the main, though seldom noticed, differences between virtually everyone in the past and us is that they lived under the continual shadow of death. I have reached the age of fifty five. I might fall dead tomorrow, but the insurance tables tell me I have a long way yet to go before I need to start thinking hard about the inevitable end of things. I put off begetting children until I was in my forties. I only took up a serious study of the piano last year. Catullus was dead at thirty, Horace and Vergil in their fifties. Constantine the Great was an old and dying man when he was younger than I am now. Shorter time horizons must have an effect on almost every approach to life.

Any fictional recreation must show these differences, and show them without vexing readers or viewers with endless asides. I try to show them in my series of thrillers set in seventh century Byzantium. Without more elaboration, let me see how well they are shown in the ten films I have selected.

1. Julius Caesar (1953) – dir. Joseph L. Mankiewicz; Marlon Brando, James Mason, John Geilgud.

I mention this film largely to make up the ten. Shakespeare had his own view of the Ancients, and this may be as alien to us as it misrepresents the Ancients. But I have always thought Julius Caesar his best play. He keeps his tendency to rhetorical excess under control, and his platting lacks the chaos of loose ends that you see in Romeo and Juliet and Macbeth. The film version is about as good as anyone could make it. Marlon Brando astonishes as Mark Antony. James Mason is on top form as Brutus. If all else were to vanish in a puff of burning celluloid, the debate in the Forum alone would show the greatness of Hollywood at its best.

2. Quo Vadis (1951) – dir, Mervyn LeRoy; Robert Taylor, Deborah Kerr, Peter Ustinov.

This is a dreadful film, made watchable only by Peter Ustinov’s performance as Nero. Anyone who says the Hollywood studios have no regard for the Christian Faith should be chained in front of a video player for three hours with his eyes propped open. The film does everything short of giving a list of nearby churches in its closing credits. Its main problem, though, is that it shows the Ancients as Moderns in fancy dress. Peter Ustinov is a fine pantomime villain. But there is no sense that the Roman Empire was a very alien place.

3. Ben Hur (1959) – dir. William Wyler; Charlton Heston, Stephen Boyd, Jack Hawkins et al.

I have never watched this all the way through. But I must have seen it all many times in overlapping half hour tastings. I could write an essay on its historical inaccuracies – the raising of a freed galley slave to the nobility, for example, or his then being permitted to take part in a chariot race, and so on and so forth. But it is a good drama. Charlton Heston’s performance is one of his best. John Le Mesurier acts well in a bit part wildly out of character. Gore Vidal worked on the script. The chariot race is undoubtedly spectacular. The film seems to work in its own terms, though, as with Quo Vadis and most other sword and sandal films, it eliminates most sense of the Roman Empire as foreign in more than the sense you get of other countries from a holiday documentary.

4. Cleopatra (1963) – dir. Joseph L. Mankiewicz; Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Rex Harrison, Roddy McDowall, and Martin Landau

Another one I have never seen all the way through – though I believe it was so cut about before release that hardly anyone else has either. What I most dislike about any film involving Cleopatra is that she is always shown as an Egyptian. But Alexandria was founded as a Greek city by Alexander the Great, and was the seat of a Macedonian-Greek dynasty that never went native. Cleopatra and her brother spoke Egyptian, and found it useful to show themselves outside the capital as traditional Pharaohs. Even so, she was an Oriental Greek in her language and assumptions.

Aside from this, Elisabeth Taylor puts in a weak performance, as does Richard Burton. They never stop winking at the audience and telling us about their private lives. Even radically cut, the film is vastly overlong. Also, it never breaks free of Shakespeare, without incorporating his undoubted excellence as a writer.

All the same, I liked Roddy McDowell as Octavian. The main focus should have been on his rise to power. Otherwise, Carry on Cleo is a better artistic effort, and says no less about the period.

5. Spartacus (1960) – dir. Stanley Kubrick; Kirk Douglas, Jean Simmons, Laurence Olivier, Tony Curtis, Peter Ustinov

If you want an overview of the Third Servile War and the decay of the Republic, this film is almost as bad a place to start as the Khachaturian ballet. Take, for example, the scene, restored in 1991, where Crassus is trying to seduce his slave Antoninus with a lecture about how fine it is to like eating both oysters and snails. The gay lobby was strong enough to bring on a storm of applause. But the scene is absurd. Slaves were as much the property of their masters as horses and tunics. If a nobleman fancied one of his boy slaves, it was a matter of telling him to strip naked and waiting for someone to loosen his own clothing.

This is what I mean by the different moral universe of the Ancients. Not only had they no prejudice against all-male sex, they had no special word for it. They had words for buggery, fellatio, cunnilingus, and every conceivable act. But they had no concept of The Homosexual as a different kind of person. Let this do for the film’s unspoken assumption that Ancient Rome was much the same as Modern America, but with funny clothes and a somewhat bloodier taste in entertainments.

This being said, the film is based on a solid, if politically eccentric, novel by Howard Fast, and the acting is good. Tony Curtis turns in a surprisingly heavyweight performance. Peter Ustinov shines again – though his Batiatus is much more nuanced than his Nero. Charles Laughton almost steals the film as Gracchus – and he manages to look very like Cicero in old age. If you can accept it as a leftist commentary on America in the early days of the Civil Rights Movement, this is a film eminently worth watching and rewatching.

6. Gladiator (2000) – dir. Ridley Scott; Russell Crowe, Joaquin Phoenix, Oliver Reed

This film has its good points. The sets are impressively realistic. One of the leading roles is taken by Derek Jacobi, who had the kindness to review my Conspiracies of Rome. But it is, on the whole, another failure of the usual kind. Commodus is shown as a rather a nasty piece of work, but nothing like the beast in human form who slept with his own sister and routinely fought in the arena with gladiators who had been given weapons made of lead. Rather than a pack of terrified sycophants, the Senate is shown as something like the unreformed House of Lords. The film even ends with a restoration of the Republic. Boring!

7. The Passion of the Christ (2004) – dir. Mel Gibson; Jim Caviezel, Hristo Shopov

Here, we reach an entirely superior film. The plot is familiar. The Gospels are closely followed. But there is a deliberate attempt to set the action at a distance from its viewers. Instead of having Christ played with a broad American accent and casting a British actor as Pilate, the entire script is in Latin and Hebrew and Aramaic. First century Judaea is reconstructed with a fair attempt at authenticity.

My main objection is slightly pedantic. Pilate speaks Latin and Aramaic. The Sanhedrin shows a knowledge of Latin. In fact, the working language of Roman rule in the East was Greek. Both Pilate and Caiphas would have been fluent in the language, and no one but the Roman troops and administrators would have known Latin. Also, Pilate would never have bothered to learn any of the vernacular languages. If required, he would have addressed the local vulgus in Greek through an interpreter. On the other hand, I believe Latin was chosen because it sounded so obviously different from the Semitic languages used, and the Latin used by the Sanhedrin officials is often defective, to show their unfamiliarity with it.

My only other objection is that the scale and nature of the violence becomes wearisome long before Christ is nailed to the cross. This may sound an odd objection from me – one of the reviewers said he felt ill for days after reading the torture passages in Blood of Alexandria. But, if theologically necessary, the brutality is an artistic mistake. A better Mel Gibson film is Apocalypto, where the violence, though perhaps more extreme, is not so relentless, and where the sacrificial scenes work to greater effect to show the different moral universe of pre-Columbian South America.

8. Sebastiane (1976) – dir. Derek Jarman

I first watched this in 1983 at an all-night showing of gay films in London. I went along to give moral support to a slightly closeted friend. It was third in a bill that started with the German comedy Taxi zum Klo, and a tedious documentary called Army of Lovers. I fell asleep during the last film, Querelle, and do not think, from the few extracts I have watched since, that I missed anything.

In its conception, Sebastiane is an ambitious film. Its script is entirely in Latin, and it shows a homoerotic version of the martyrdom of Saint Sebastian. Also in its favour, its showing on Channel Four nearly gave Mary Whitehouse a stroke. I am told she spent hours skimming back and forth through the video recording she made of it, looking for the parts that most offended her.

I cannot say anything else in its favour. I grant there is no accounting for taste, but the actors really should have kept their clothes on. The Latin is grotesque. Worse, there is nothing Ancient about its moral universe. The characters are all rather camp 1970s gays. Roman men preferred boys to having sex with each other – or did so unless there was a clear difference of social status, when the social superior would take the active role. They certainly did not mince about on a beach. In its plotting, the film shows hardly more invention than something from the Bel Ami studio in Bratislava, and anyone of the relevant preference will miss the charm and the athletics of Dolph and Roger Lambert.

9. Caligula (1979) – dir. Tinto Brass; Malcolm McDowell, Helen Mirren, Peter O’Toole, John Gielgud

Here, at last, is a film that meets both of my stated criteria. Its making was one long scandal. Gore Vidal disowned his script. The Director walked away before it was finished. Its release was attended by legal and commercial difficulties. I think the version I have on DVD contains unsimulated sex. The shorter version I saw in the cinema was disrupted by a continuous drift of the audience for the exit.

But this is undeniably a film that shows the Ancient World as it was. It begins with a brother and sister from the higher classes who have just had sex with each other, and who are quite indifferent to the slaves who can see them. The slaves themselves are indifferent to how their betters behave. This is as it ought to be: slaves in the Ancient World had as much right to judge or be considered as we give to our household pets.

Peter O’Toole as Tiberius is masterly. That is the cultured menace you find in Tacitus. It is the sordid desperation you find in Suetonius. Caligula’s descent into madness is horribly convincing. So too the scared sycophancy of everyone about him. You see absolute and unaccountable power throughout – absolute and unaccountable power with a starkness you never saw in Stalin’s Russia, and that has never been known in Europe since the establishment of the Christian Faith. There is, in the world of Caligula, nowhere to run, and no one with sufficient moral and popular authority to stand up and demand at least a public regard for the civilised decencies.

Caligula may not be a film you will ever see uncut on television. But it is certainly worth hunting out on DVD.

10 Satyricon (1969) – dir. Federico Fellini; Martin Potter, Hiram Keller, Max Born

A masterpiece – an unapproachably perfect masterpiece, the continual inspiration of all my historical fiction, probably too on Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto. I first saw the film at another all-night showing in 1983, this time with a different friend. I thought little enough of the other Fellini films on the bill. But I watched Satyricon with total astonishment. I reeled from the cinema at about 4:00am, and may never have been quite the same since.

The film is based on the surviving fragments of the novel said to have been written by Petronius, a friend of Nero. The novel is very fragmentary, and any reader has at best a limited idea of its narrative structure. What we have deals with the wandering through Southern Italy of two young scholars, Encolpius and Ascyltus, and the people they know or meet. Because what we have is too short for a film, Fellini adds material, either from other ancient novels or from his own imagination. The effect is to make the narrative even more opaque and discontinuous. We jump from an earthquake, to an art gallery, to the Feast of Trimalchio, to a slave ship, to a revolution, and so on, without warning or explanation.

There is a purpose in the lack of coherence. There is a similar purpose in the out-of-sync dubbing of English-speaking actors into Italian, and in the untranslated snatches of Latin, Greek, German, Turkish and other languages. In every frame, we are told: “You have been set down in a radically foreign country – perhaps on an alien planet. Nothing here makes complete sense to you, nor is anyone interested in helping you to make sense of it. You may even be invisible to the inhabitants. They go about their business indifferent to whether you are watching or to what you may think.” Why is there a revolution half way through the film? Why is an army marching along a road lines with rotting crucified bodies? Why has the general had the word vocula (little voice) inscribed on one of his banners? You decide.

Some things make sense – though you need a deep knowledge of the Ancient World to uncover them. Take the theatrical play near the beginning of the film. The plot requires someone to have his right hand cut off and then rejoined in some miracle worked by the Divine Emperor. So a slave is dragged in and mutilated before a bored audience. There are descriptions of worse than this in the Epigrams of Martial. As said, slaves were property. They could usually be treated worse than we are allowed to treat wild animals. But the manager has committed no crime. He only gets into trouble when Encolpius turns up and accuses him of having bought the free catamite Giton as a slave. That is a crime – false enslavement was a serious offence. However, the official present in the audience does not threaten an investigation or any process of law. He insists that they boy should be released at once, or he will burn the theatre down. Roman civil law was an impressive construct. The criminal law was at best a matter of local crime control.

Or there are endless touches of authenticity throughout. There is a lack of the white porticos or the lavish sets you see in other films. What you have instead is a more fundamental authenticity. Trimalchio, for example, boasts that one of his slave boys can read a book on sight and multiply by ten. These are minimal achievements for a modern schoolboy. But, in a world without punctuation or word-spacing, and without positional notation, they were notable achievements. All the wealthy men are loaded with elaborate jewellery and face paint. There is the unexplained scene where a wealthy couple commit suicide to avoid condemnation by the new Emperor. The man frees his slaves, assuring them he is at liberty to do so until the condemnation decree arrives the following day.

Or there is the reconstructed authenticity based on Fellini’s own imagination. What we know of the Ancient World is rather like the text of Satyricon. We know a lot about some aspects of Ancient life. But what we have is fragmentary, based on texts that have survived largely at random. Understanding that vanished world is like facing a brick wall that has had holes punched here and there. We can see clearly enough what lies immediately beyond any of the holes. With much squinting, we can see a little to the sides. To see what is wholly out of sight, and to join up the fragments of what we can see, has so far taken centuries of informed guesswork, and we still know hardly anything.

And so Fellini adds. But he adds in way that are still incomprehensible. Why the bald women? Who is the Hermaphrodite? Why the al fresco bathing surrounded by huge candles? What is the meaning of the gestures that Giton uses to offer himself for sex? Why does everyone look so miserable? But this question may answer itself. Fellini’s Ancient World is an awful place. No wonder there are so many blank, despairing faces staring into the camera.

It may be that a Roman brought forward and shown Satyricon would be as puzzled as we often are. I suspect, though, that he would be more at home with Fellini’s vision than with anything you see in Quo Vadis or Gladiator.

Have I any complaints? I have. I think there is too much all-male sex. This is not because I find any consensual sexual act disgusting, but on the grounds of authenticity. I have said the Ancients lacked our sexual categories, and it was seen as normal that a man would enjoy sex with a variety of partners. On the other hand, it strikes me as common sense that men would more often prefer to have sex with women than with boys or other men. Let me give this analogy. There is nothing wrong with very dark chocolate. Anyone who claims to be disgusted by its lack of sugar, or who wants laws against its sale and consumption, probably has something wrong with him. At the same time, the average human taste buds are more likely most of the time to be pleased by Cadbury’s Dairy Milk. I think Fellini overdoes the all-male sex.

But this is a minor objection. If you have never seen this film, take it from me that you have so far led an artistically impoverished life, and that you must go out and find the best digital transfer available. I recommend the Criterion transfer.

Here, then, is my listing of ten roman films, and my opinion of which ones are the best.

Richard Blake is the author of: Conspiracies of Rome, Terror of Constantinople, Blood of Alexandria, Sword of Damascus, Ghosts of Athens, Curse of Babylon, Game of Empires, How I Write Historical Fiction

7 thoughts on “Film and the Roman Empire: How to do it well

  1. I’ve never seen Satyricon, I’ll have to give it a viewing based on Sean’s approval.

    I also admit to liking Caligula a lot. I think it’s one of the best attempts to combine explicit sex with the mainstream, most of which are abject failures. I’ve seen two versions; one was a special Channel 4 cut which they claimed they believed most approximated Tinto Brass’s original vision by (a) removing all the extra sex scenes put in by Bob Guccione and (b) conforming to the BBFC cuts which among mother things meant frequently boxing the picture to get rid of explicit nudity. Hmm. The other one I’ve got on my hard drive somewhere is a DVD rip and has all that naughty stuff that offends puritans still in it, and I think is the more watchable.

    As to dark chocolate, I always prefer it to milk, which generally to me tastes a bit sickly. But then I take my coffee and tea black as well. But I am inclined to agree that it is wrong to impose the modern idea of homosexuality on the ancient world, who had no concept of it, and that most men, most of the time, would prefer women. The TV series Spartacus, though deliberately stylised and even cartoonish, got that right, and is well worth watching if you enjoy sex’n’violence type stuff.

  2. Also, while I thought Gladiator was alright as a film, the ludicrous ending with the supposed restoration of the Republic really annoyed me. If you’re going to do history, do history.

    • Agreed. Within a few months after Commodus was cleared aside, the Praetorian Guard put the Empire up for auction, and sold it to someone called Didius Julianus. After he got the chop, it became a military dictatorship run by a family from North Africa.

    • Everyone agrees it’s a masterpiece. I, however, prefer the Beeb’s later effort “The Cleopatras.” The critics panned this. I loved every minute. Its black comedy and nudey dancing were a delight.

      • Being at a certain age at the time I remember being particularly entranced by one of the slave girls’ ample woo-woos. I can’t remember much else about it to be honest.

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