Professors Francese and Mastrangelo have been named honorary fellows at the Guangqi Center for International Scholars at Shanghai Normal University in recognition for an ongoing collaboration that has resulted in several global conferences and publications.
The relationship between Dickinson and the Guangqi Center began in 2015 with a conference at Shanghai Normal University organized by DePauw University classics Professor Jinyu Liu. This meeting resulted in the founding of Dickinson Classics Online (DCO) to provide resources for Chinese students of the Greco-Roman classics, including texts and commentaries, essays, and dictionaries. It is the sister project to Dickinson College Commentaries (DCC). At the initial meeting the editorial board created of the Chinese version of the DCC Core Greek and Latin Vocabulary lists. Subsequent publications have included editions of several Latin texts with Chinese notes and translations.
On the Dickinson side these initiatives are funded by the Dean’s Office (which supported the initial 2015 conference) and the Roberts Fund for Classical Studies. The 2017 global conference in Shanghai celebrating the bi-millennium of Ovid’s death was supported by the Chinese National Social Science Foundation’s Major Grant (2015-2020), “Translating the Complete Corpus of Ovid’s poetry into Chinese with Commentaries,” led by Prof. Liu and other members of the DCO board. First results from this major translation project have also been published on DCO.
The 2019 colloquium, just completed, took place at the Columbia University Global Center Beijing, and was co-sponsored by Columbia, Dickinson, and the Chinese Ovid Project. It brought together a group of Chinese classicists working on the Ovid project, distinguished western Latinists including Gareth Williams of Columbia and Stephen Heyworth of Oxford University, and noted East Asian Studies scholar Wiebke Denecke of Boston University. The group discussed the problems of making Ovid speak Chinese, the potential of a truly global approach to pre-modern literatures, and the role of Digital Humanities in the future of global classicism.
Ongoing projects of the Dickinson-Guangqi collaboration include the digitization, led by Prof. Francese, of Affonso Gonçalves’ Lexicon Magnum Latino-Sinicum (1841) the largest Latin-Chinese dictionary in existence (sample here), and a long-term project to digitize the massive synoptic guide to pre-modern Chinese literature, the Cursus Litteraturae Sinicae (1879) of the Italian Jesuit Angelo Zottoli. A team led by Prof. Mastrangelo is working on a Hellenica, a series of ancient Greek texts that tell the history of the 5th century BC and the Peloponnesian War.
Professor Mastrangelo and I are profoundly grateful to the Guangqi Center for this honor and recognition, and look forward to many years of fruitful collaboration to come.
Dickinson’s first female African-American student Esther Popel Shaw (1896-1958) was a devoted Latin student, and thirty years after graduation she named classicist Mervin G. Filler as a favorite professor. In the spring of 2017 Michelle E. Hoffer (’17) wrote about the academic experiences of Popel Shaw, with a focus on how she would have encountered the Aeneid. This research was carried out in the archives at Dickinson College with assistance from archivist James Gerencser, and the essay was written as part of the Vergil seminar taught by Prof. Francese.
My research focuses on Esther Popel Shaw, the first African American woman to graduate from Dickinson College, and her journey with the Classics, particularly Vergil’s Aeneid. By examining Aeneid commentaries of the time, as well as archived academic documents such as course catalogs and entrance requirements, I will attempt to reconstruct Esther Popel Shaw’s experience with Vergil at the turn of the twentieth century. I will attempt to paint a picture of her journey through the Latin Scientific Curriculum from 1915-1919, specifically insofar as she was taught to read and interpret the Aeneid and other ancient Latin texts. Ultimately, I aim to answer the question,
“Why were people at this time reading the Aeneid?”
Esther Popel Shaw was born in Harrisburg on July 16th, 1896 and was the first African American woman to both enroll in and graduate from Dickinson College. She graduated from Central High School in 1915 and enrolled at Dickinson the following fall.1 Because Dickinson banned African Americans from living on campus at the time, Esther commuted from Harrisburg each day, electing to pursue the Latin Scientific Course (LSC) of study, which was the same as the Classical Course, but instead of taking Ancient Greek, students in the LSC replaced the Greek with additional studies in modern languages and sciences.2
Esther herself chose to study French, German, Latin, and Spanish.3 An incredibly diligent student, Shaw received both the John Patton Memorial Prize, “an academic award granted annually to one student from each class”.4 and, upon her graduation from Dickinson in 1919, was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa, one of America’s most prestigious undergraduate honors societies. While Shaw held a few jobs following graduation, she spent the majority of her career as a teacher in the Washington DC area, where she taught classes ranging from French, Spanish, and English to algebra and penmanship.5 In addition to teaching, Shaw was also a very well-known poet of the Harlem Renaissance, as well as an active community member for both African American and women’s issues.
In the fall of 1915, Esther began her journey at Dickinson. And, while she only mentions Latin twice in her diary from her senior year of high school,6 we can surmise from those entries that she had a solid foundation in Latin by the time she enrolled at Dickinson. This foundation may have been a contributing factor in her decision to pursue the Latin Scientific Curriculum, which was taught in large part by Professor Mervin Grant Filler, a man whose reputation still rings through the lobby of the current Classical Studies Department, as it is named in his honor. To say he was a legend both in the Classics and at Dickinson, would be an understatement. Not only was he an brilliant scholar, but was also beloved by his students and his community, as in Shaw’s alumni survey which she completed over 30 years after graduation, she mentions him by name, saying that he gave her both “inspiration and mental stimulation” and considers herself “fortunate” to have been one of his students.7
Grant himself was a true Dickinsonian, as he attended both the Dickinson Preparatory School and then in 1889, enrolled at Dickinson College, graduating both as valedictorian and as a member of Phi Beta Kappa.8 After graduation, he went on to teach Latin and Greek at the Preparatory School and then in 1899 became the professor of Latin at Dickinson College for an impressive 29 years, in which time he was also Dickinson’s 18th president. It was in 1915 that he would have met Shaw, and was very likely the only Latin professor she had in her time at Dickinson. Based on her course of study, records show that Shaw would have taken Vergil her junior year of college with Professor Grant. In his course, Grant stressed Vergil’s “works, life, and literary influence, and readings from the Eclogues and Aeneid VII-XII.”.9 The course was three hours per week for the first half of the year. The second half was devoted to Horace, Satires and Epistles. Through an archived bookstore request from Professor Filler, it is mostly like that in her study of the Aeneid, Shaw would have studied from The Greater Poems of Virgil: Vol. 1, Aeneid I-VI by Greenough and Kittredge, published in 1895.
However, just as today, the Aeneid is open to incredible amounts of interpretation. Thus, in order to reconstruct how Shaw may have been taught to view this great work, it is necessary to examine both the Greenough text, other commentaries of the time, and the competing cultural climates at Dickinson itself. In the early 1900s, Latin was still an entrance requirement for Dickinson, including “six books of the Aeneid” and “reading at sight of easy passages from Caesar, Cicero, and Vergil” for those wanting to pursue either the Classical or Latin Scientific Courses of study. This makes sense then why Professor Filler’s course specifically focuses on books VII-XII, as students were expected to be extremely well versed with the first six upon completing high school. Both of these facts show how valued the Classics still were in academia, both high school and undergraduate. Even in a public high school, students were being drilled and versed in the Latin so that they might be prepared for college, a far cry from the public school curriculum of today, in which students are lucky if they even get a single year of Latin. However, in Shaw’s time, Latin was still considered an important part of learning any language, and at least at Dickinson, was required to some extent for every major. Another now antiquated requirement was that of religion classes. From its roots, Dickinson was a religiously affiliated institution, in which students were required to not only take Bible classes, but were also “required to attend Church twice on the Sabbath. The place of worship, however, [was] left to their own discretion, or that of their parents or guardians.”10 And, while these two lost elements of Dickinson life and study may seem unrelated, they share many surprising ties.
At the turn of the twentieth century, Christianity was still very prevalent even in secular life, and people sought biblical meaning even in pagan things, the Aeneid as only one example. While it is impossible that Vergil intended Aeneas to be a Christ-figure, many commentaries in the late 1800s and early 1900s attempt to some level to make this connection. As John Campbell Shairp, Professor of Poetry at Oxford, says in his 1881 book Aspects of Poetry,
There is in Virgil a vein of thought and sentiment more devout, more humane, more akin to the Christian, than is to be found in any other ancient poet, whether Greek or Roman. The religious feeling which Virgil preserved in his own heart is made the more conspicuous, when we remember amidst what almost overpowering difficulties it was that he preserved it.11
Henry Frieze echoes a similar sentiment in his 1902 commentary, saying in part that
[Aeneas] is intended to be the embodiment of the courage of an ancient hero, the justice of a paternal ruler, the mild humanity of a cultivated man living in an age of advanced civilization, the saintiness of the founder of a new religion of peace and pure observance, the affection of parent and child which was one of the strongest instincts in the Italian race. The strength required in such an instrument is the strength of faith, submission, patience, and endurance.12
While no one can be sure whether Frieze intended for his words to have a religious flavor, he describes Aeneas in a way that sounds eerily parallel to that of Jesus Christ, even mentioning a “new religion of peace” and that Aeneas was an “instrument of strength and faith.” Even if this was not his intention, it certainly highlights the extent to which academic thought of that period was steeped in Christianity. In fact, this view of the Classics continued up even into post- revolutionary America, in which Caroline Winterer claims that,
The Aeneid also offered boys lessons about heroism, imperial expansion, quasi-Christian virtue, and the stoic acceptance of fate. Although the lessons in the Aeneid were not inherently more applicable to republicanism than to monarchism, Americans during and after the revolutionary era applied its themes to their project of creating a republican, Christian nation.13
Thus, throughout early American history, ancient texts were read with an eye for modern religious and sometimes political parallels, as people were desperately attempting to make these epics fit the mold of their current lives, perhaps hoping to give their own experiences deeper meaning.
With this perspective of both Dickinson and early American religious climate, it becomes much easier to reconstruct what Esther Popel Shaw might have been taught in her classes with Professor Filler on the Aeneid and how she might have been pressed to interpret them. In the Greenough-Kittredge version that she likely used, while there is no specific Christ/Christian connection made, there is both a political and religious motive attributed to Vergil’s work. The introduction declares that the Aeneid “was not written merely as a work of art, nor from a casual poetic inspiration. It is the product of a patriotic national sentiment and a belief in the divine origin and destiny of the Roman State religion.”14 Once again, political and religious motive are associated with the text and, based off of the other commentaries of the time, it is likely that Shaw would have been pressed not only to see the work through a Christian worldview, but also to apply the Aeneid to her own political and religious surroundings and search for modern-day parallels.
Today, the dialogue has shifted away from religion and onto many different branches of academic thought. Some scholars are fascinated by the underlying political message of the work, attempting to examine the ways in which socialist and democratic nations interpret the Aeneid to fit their own political structures.15 Other scholars shift the focus onto Aeneas as a hero, attempting to justify his portrayal within the larger context of epic heroes.16 And still others, like Peter Jones, take a much more multifaceted approach, examining not only Aeneas as a hero, but also Vergil and his style and his possible motivations. Perhaps Jones’ most brilliant observation in his introduction is his comparison of Aeneas to a modern hero. He says that, “Aeneas is a man who must learn to submit to the will of the gods, a response wholly at odds with much of today’s ‘culture’ which insists that following the devices and desires of one’s own heart represents the very zenith of human achievement.”17 Not only is he perfectly witty, but he also makes an astute point about the dangers of trying to force Aeneas to fit any modern conception of what it means to be a hero. Aeneas is not from our time, and he is not meant to be. Instead of desperately trying to thrust him into a mold in which he simply does not belong, we must try to use him as a model of ancient values, always keeping him within the context he was meant. There are many qualities of Aeneas’, such as determination, passion, and patience, that are still very applicable to modern life; however, if we attempt to base his worth as a hero off of some sort of one-to-one comparison with the superheroes of today, he will fade into the background, utterly misunderstood.
So, to finally answer the question, “Why were people at this time reading the Aeneid?” I must turn to Professor Robert S. Conway’s lecture, which he delivered in 1931, on the bi-millennium of Vergil’s birth. His lecture, which was titled “Poetry and Government: A Study of the Power of Vergil” ends with a call to keep the Classics strong and alive for future generations. He says, “Let us see to it that our successors may have the privilege that has been given to us of hearing the great voices that older times speak in their own accents across the silent years, of being quickened by them to know the gold from the dross, of learning from them what is simple, what is high, what is human, what is true.”18 This answer not only answers why people in Shaw’s day read Vergil, but is also just as applicable to Latinists and Classicists today. Conway understands that if we lose the ability to understand the Classics, we also lose the ability to understand the past, to understand people who somehow saw the world through a clearer lens. To Conway, these are not merely stories but windows into truth and beauty and goodness. They teach us virtues even without our knowing, like that of hard work as we struggle through the Latin, and persistence as we try to peel back the layers of meaning in each word. Conway does not see Vergil as antiquated, but as timeless. Vergil’s words stand as pillars of truth as much today as they ever did, for he showed us through his bright words and gentle verse how to be brave, how to be patient, how to be weak, and most of all how to be truly, painfully human.
1. Doran, Malinda Triller. “Esther Popel Shaw (1896-1958).” Esther Popel Shaw (1896-1958) Dickinson College. 2013. Accessed April 05, 2017. http://archives.dickinson.edu/people/esther-popel-shaw-1896-1958.↩ 2. “Courses of Study,” Catalogue of Dickinson College (1916-1917): 15. The Classical Course of study consisted of four hours of both Latin and Greek per week freshman year, and then an elective three hours per week for the rest of the course.↩ 3. Doran, Malinda Triller. “Esther Popel Shaw (1896-1958).” Esther Popel Shaw (1896-
1958) Dickinson College. 2013. Accessed April 05, 2017. http://archives.dickinson.edu/people/esther-popel-shaw-1896-1958.↩ 4. Ibid.↩ 5. Ibid.↩ 6. In a diary entry from Friday, June 19, 1914 she tells how her junior year report card had just come in the mail, specifically stating that she received a B in Virgil. Then again on Monday, September 28, 1914 she says that she “had a test in Greek History & rec’d a test paper in Latin in which I got a B.”↩ 7. Esther Popel Shaw’s Alumni Questionnaire which she filled out in January of 1955.↩ 8. Dickinson College Archives. “Mervin Grant Filler (1873-1931).” Mervin Grant Filler (1873-1931) Dickinson College. 2005. Accessed April 05, 2017. http://archives.dickinson.edu/people/mervin-grant-filler-1873-1931.↩ 9. “Latin Language and Literature,” Catalogue of Dickinson College (1916-1917): 31.↩ 10. “Public Worship,” Catalogue of Dickinson College (1834-1835): 14.↩ 11. John Campbell Shairp, Aspects of poetry; being lectures delivered at Oxford (New
York, Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1894), 140.↩ 12. Virgil, Walter Dennison, and Henry Frieze, Virgil’s Aeneid. Books. I.-XII. (New York,
American Book Company, 1902), 21.↩ 13.Caroline Winterer, “Why Did American Women Read the Aeneid,” in Blackwell
Companions to the Ancient World Series: A Companion to Vergil’s Aeneid and its Tradition 2010, ed. Joseph Farrell and Michael C. J. Putnam (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-
Blackwell, 2010), 368.↩ 14. Virgil, Walter Dennison, and Henry Frieze, Virgil’s Aeneid. Books. I.-XII. (New York,
American Book Company, 1902), 21. J.B. Greenough, and G.L. Kittredge, The Greater Poems of Virgil: Vol. 1, Aeneid I-VI.
(Boston, Ginn & Company, 1895), 34-35.↩ 15. Ernst A. Schmidt, “The Meaning of Vergil’s “Aeneid:” American and German
Approaches,” Classical World 94 (2001), pp. 145-171.↩ 16. Adam Parry, “The Two Voices of Virgil’s Aeneid,” Arion 2 (1963), pp. 66-80.↩ 17. Peter Jones, Reading Virgil: Aeneid I and II. (Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press, 2011), 27.↩ 18. Robert Seymour Conway, Makers of Europe (Cambridge, Harvard University Press,
Luke Nicosia (’21) discusses the surprisingly sympathetic portrait of the Roman emperor Nero that emerges from a 2004 film by British Director Paul Cohen released on television in the Imperium series.
Nero is the second installation in the Imperium series; originally planned as a six-film series based on the history of the Roman empire, only five were produced (Winkler, 2017). According to Rave (2003), Nero began as a French enterprise, but due to a lack of interest and funding, Italian and German partners became involved in the project. The German company EOS Entertainment, as well as the Italian company Lux Vide, eventually took over the project (Crew United, “Imperium – Nero (2003)”). By Nero‘s release, eighty percent of the movie was funded, the additional twenty percent to be made up by sales (Rave, 2003). Nero featured actor participation from several countries, namely Britain, Italy, and Germany (Rodriguez, 2003). The production crew, likewise, also represented various European countries. The producer, for example, Jan Mojto was from Slovakia, the director Paul Marcus from Britain, and the assistant director, Fabrizio Castellani, Italian (Rave, 2003).
The five films had a budget of 125 million euros–roughly $190,000,000, adjusted for inflation (Rodriguez, 2003). For filming, a remote coastal town by the name of Hemmamet was chosen as a location; starting in 2002, all five movies were filmed there (Winkler, 2017; Rodriguez, 2003). For the interest of saving money, the five films used the same set. Constructed of polystyrene material, it cost 15 million euros alone, and spanned 22,500 square meters– or around 240,000 square feet (Rave, 2003). The buildings were based off ancient Roman structures, but scaled down 33 percent in size (Rave, 2003). I would think that while the set’s consistency shows continuity across the films, the set material design serves to save on construction costs. Filming for Nero began on December 20th, 2003, and ran for eight weeks (Crew United, “Imperium – Nero (2003)”). The film was then produced back to Italy (Winkler 2017). It was subsequently released later in 2004 as a television film (Winkler, 2017). Judging by the lack of scholarly information on the film, it likely did not have a large release.
Nero (2004) begins with a young Nero (James Bentley), his father Domitius (uncredited) and mother Agrippina (Laura Morante) at their estate, located outside of Rome to avoid the wrath of the city’s “cruel master” Caligula (John Simm) (1:36). That night, Tigellinus (Mario Opinato), Caligula’s righthand man, breaks into their house with Praetorians, butchers Domitius in front of Agrippina and Nero (as he hides under his bed). Tigellinus spots the hiding Nero and takes him and Agrippina to Rome. At court, Caligula sadistically offers her a food platter with Domitius’ head on it. Distraught, Agrippina is pressured by Caligula, who holds a knife to Nero’s throat, to confess to taking part in a conspiracy against the emperor. Caligula then asks Porridus (Simón Andreu) and Septimus (Ian Richardson) for recommendations on how to punish her. When the answers they give are insufficient, he banishes Agrippina, and has Burrus (Maurizia Donadoni) escort Nero to his aunt Domitia’s (Ángela Molina) homestead.
At the estate, Nero quickly befriends the slave Apollonius (Philippe Caroit), a former actor, and his young daughter Acte (uncredited). Nero is unable to speak, traumatized by his father’s death. Yet, Apollonius coaxes him to talk by reciting Homer to him. Ten years later, Nero (Hans Matheson), going by “Lucius,” has grown fond of both the slave lifestyle as well as Acte (Rike Schmid). He professes his love to her, and they vow to get engaged. Apollonius forbids it, however, as it would break her heart to love someone of Patrician blood, who is forbidden to marry a freedwoman. In exile, meanwhile, Agrippina visits a soothsayer (Liz Smith), who reveals that Nero will become emperor, but at the price of Agrippina’s murder. Agrippina is left wondering who will kill her as the specter disappears.
In Rome, Caligula is assassinated by his guards at a brothel, and Claudius (Massimo Dapporto) is proclaimed as emperor. He is reluctant to take the throne, but on the urging of his wife Messalina (Sonia Aquino) he obliges. Nero and Acte are plotting to run away to Greece and become musicians, when Tigellinus arrives to bring Nero back to Rome. Wanting to make up for the injustices Nero and his mother–who was also recalled–suffered, Claudius offers anything Nero desires. On Nero’s behalf, Agrippina demands that Seneca (Matthias Habich) be brought back from exile and become his tutor. When Seneca arrives, Agrippina informs him that his duty is to make her son into the ideal emperor. Nero sneaks out that night, and takes Acte to the hills overlooking the city. There, he tells her that they will have to delay their departure plans, as his mother has told him she is in danger and requires Nero to be vigilant on her behalf. He tells her, however, that he plans to ask Claudius if he may be consul of Greece and take her with him.
Nero admits his love for Acte to Seneca, and when Agrippina overhears, she goes to Domitia’s residence and tells the slave she will be one of Nero’s concubines. Agrippina, however, tells Domitia that she must send her to Sardinia immediately. Acte, Apollonius, and Rufus (Marco Bonini), another slave, are on their way to Rome when Domitia’s overseer (uncredited) averts their carriage towards Sardinia. Acte protests this, and a fight between Apollonius and the slave-driver ensues. Apollonius is injured, but Rufus incapacitates the slave-driver. They go to the house of Etius (Jochen Horst), a family friend, where Apollonius later dies of his injuries. At Rome, Messalina sneaks out one night to marry another man. Agrippina, who had heard of Messalina’s odd night behavior, informs Claudius and his Praetorians, who put a stop the ceremony. On Claudius’ orders, Tigellinus kills both Messalina and her new husband. Claudius then marries Agrippina and adopts Nero as his son. To tie the family bond stronger, Claudius demands that Nero marry his daughter Octavia (Vittoria Puccini). Nero rejects the proposal, as he still loves Acte. Agrippina and Seneca, nevertheless force him to do it. After the ceremony, Nero abandons Octavia and runs off to Acte for the night. Octavia later commits suicide on hearing of their engagement.
When Claudius leaves for a military campaign in Brittania, Agrippina takes control of the empire. He returns a year later and sees that Agrippina has been printing her image on the coinage. He confronts her about this and tells her that he has changed his will to designate his epileptic son Britannicus (Francesco Venditti) as his heir. Nero, meanwhile, asks Claudius for the consulship of Greece, part of his plan to run away with Acte. Claudius grants it, but quickly thereafter dies from his poisoned food, perpetrated by Agrippina, who also takes his will. Nero tries to run away, but is caught by Seneca, Tigellinus, and Burrus, who declare him emperor. At first, Nero routinely visits Acte, who lives with Etius. When Octavia becomes upset with this and confronts him, Nero replies that he does not love her and demands that Octavia divorce him. She agrees, faking that she is impotent to get the marriage annulled; Nero subsequently gets engaged to Acte.
At a gladiatorial exhibition, Nero becomes upset with the bloodlust of the audience; responding to the audience’s cries for death, Nero proclaims the installation of the Nuronia, poetic competitions free from blood. At the Senate, Nero proposes that the empire cut taxes, which the Senate almost votes entirely against, which enrages Nero. Enraged, Nero kicks over the voting pots and says that he will implement the changes anyways. much to the dismay of his mother. His mother, dismayed by his actions, begin to plot against him. Tigellinus catches word of their plot and reports this to Nero, who banishes his mother from the palace. This angers his mom, who resorts to using Claudius’ will as leverage. Nero learns of his mother’s new plot and has Britannicus poisoned. Acte finds out his actions and leaves him, running away to her slave friend Claudia (Emanuela Garuccio), who lives with the Christian Paul of Tarsus (Pierre Vaneck).
Without Acte, Nero spirals. He first has his mother killed, feeling that she has made his life hell. Then, he falls in love with and marries the seductive Poppea (Elisa Tovati), who introduces him to hallucinogens and wild partying. When the Senate learns that, they will engage in mock gladiatorial combat at the wedding, Porridus and Septimus bring Burrus, Seneca, and Tigellinus into their conspiracy. After Tigellinus betrays them again and informs Nero, however, the Senators are murdered, and Seneca is forced to commit suicide. Acte, meanwhile, becomes baptized and becomes a Christian. After asking Domitia for forgiveness, she returns to see Rome burning. After the fire, Nero unveils his plans to rebuild Rome, including the Domus Aurea at its center. Some worry that it makes Nero look responsible for the fire, which leads Poppea and Tigellinus to suggest that they blame the Christians.
At a lyre performance of his, Nero accidentally falls on and kills the pregnant Poppea. He turns to Paul, captured by the Romans and known to perform healing miracles, to save her. Under the threat of death, Paul says he is unable to help her, and it is implied that Paul is later executed. Acte confronts Nero, begging to return to him and for him to spare the Christians. Nero refuses and sends her away, calling her a traitor. Then, when Galba usurps him, Nero barely escapes a traitorous Tigellinus, as well as a mob of Romans who throw rubbish at him. He goes to a river, tosses his diadem in, and slits his wrists. As he dies, Acte finds him, and he asks for her forgiveness, which she grants. Acte cremates his body, and as she lights the pyre, she tells the attendees to “forgive [Nero]” for his crimes (3:09:10).
Background Information According to Ancient Sources
The film Nero is based off the works of Cassius Dio, Suetonius, and Tacitus. The works which give the best account of Nero do not shy away from his faults, of course. Cassius Dio, a historian writing roughly 130 years after Nero’s lifetime, recounts the emperor in his larger anthology, Roman History. As a historian recounting Rome’s entire history, Dio is less specifically targeting Nero in his work, as is suspect with writers who lived contemporarily with the emperor. Dio’s primary intent is to systematically explain Nero’s rule and descent into madness as he does with others. His methodology has its basis on cause-and-effect, how each bad action is the result a prior event. Following the murder of Britannicus, for example, Dio states that “Seneca and Burrus no longer gave any careful attention to the public business [so that they may] preserve their lives. Consequently Nero now openly… proceeded to gratify all his desires” (LXI.7.5 Trans. Cary, 1961). To Dio, Nero’s reputation can be explained through the identification and analysis of such critical moments; it does not suffice him to say just simply if a ruler is bad or not, and an explanation as to why and how is necessary.
Suetonius’ account also comes from a larger work, The Lives of the Caesars. He takes great pleasure in recounting the vices of the emperors ranging from Julius Caesar to Domitian. Suetonius’ discussion on Nero is 57 chapters, one of his more extensive accounts. He attempts to sway the reader one way or the other, giving both the good and the bad. His account, however, is not balanced by any means. While the first nineteen sections deal primarily with Nero’s successes, the remainder discusses his vices and demise, as told through gossip-like anecdotes that pertain to Nero. He recounts, for example, how Nero “castrated the boy Sporus and actually tried to make a woman of him” (28 Trans. Rolfe, 1997). This story is referenced in Dio’s work as well, but it is not a significant point. Suetonius presents such stories not as historical facts, but as gossip that he makes use of to evaluate Nero.
Tacitus’ Annals is more focused on the military and legal matters affecting the empire. While he recounts military campaigns in Britannia and Armenia, Tacitus also spends time discussing accusations made in the Senate and the outcome of their trials. Tacitus is slightly less biased and opinionated than Suetonius; he will include rather damning stories of Nero and his mother, Agrippina, but attributes it to other writers. He has this to say, for example about Agrippina’s desire for the throne: “According to Cluvius’ account, Agrippina was so far driven by her desire to hold on to power that…she quite often appeared before her inebriated son all dressed up and ready for incestuous relations” (13.2, Trans. Barrett &Yardley, 2008). The story is surely revealing about Agrippina and Nero, yet because Tacitus cites it from the work of another, he does not appear to be a spreader of rumors as Suetonius does. Tacitus does not dwell on negative stories as much, only using such for historical purposes. In comparison to Dio’s work, the Annals function more as a collection of current events than a historiographical account; it is surely far, however, from being a collection of anecdotes, as is Suetonius’ style.
Dio’s narrative portrays Nero as interested in power from the beginning, suppressing his siblings and destroying Claudius’ will (61.2.3). When he acquired his power, it gave Nero the access he needed to make his fantasies a reality. Tacitus, however, blames Agrippina more sternly than the other texts. He says that Agrippina “had long been set on committing the crime, was quick to grasp the opportunity she was offered, and was not short of agents for it” (12.66 Trans. Barrett & Yardley, 2008). Tacitus then admits that in the earlier years of Nero’s reign, she executed dissidents on Nero’s behalf (13.1). Agrippina, therefore, is at fault for the misdeeds which occurred in the early years of Nero’s reign. Nero becomes more responsible for his crimes, however, when his mother, Seneca and Burrus lose influence over his behavior. Nero most closely resembles Tacitus’ rendition more than the other remaining two texts. The film, from the beginning of Nero’s ascension to the throne, Agrippina motivates and manipulates an unwilling Nero into becoming emperor. As Nero becomes more comfortable as a ruler, however, he relies less on his mother, and soon turns on her thereafter.
The film, however, heavily deviates from the ancient source material. Nero’s father, Domitius, is shown as a loving and caring father, but according to Suetonius, Domitius was “a man hateful in every walk of life” (6 Trans. Rolfe, 1997). Domitius did not seem to love his son either, saying that he and Agrippina were too evil to give birth to a noble child (6). He had died of dropsy, furthermore, instead of being murdered by Caligula, when Nero was three (6). According to the film, Nero is seven when he witnesses his father’s murder, subsequently spends ten years on Domitia’s farm, and finally takes the throne at seventeen. Much attention is also given as to how the family is depicted as close-knitted. Nero’s death, furthermore, did not occur at the side of a river, by slitting his wrists, or with Acte present. After being declared an enemy by the Senate, Nero committed suicide in the home of one of his freemen; when he failed die, his freedman helped finish the job (Suetonius, 49). The timing of events is altered to make Nero more pitiable, once an innocent boy who witnessed the brutal murder of his father, who later fell into darkness
The depiction of Nero’s beginning and end also helps to focus on Acte and Nero’s lifelong relationship. Acte was not as significant to the emperor’s life as Nero suggests. While Acte is seldom mentioned in the ancient sources, it is known that Nero did have a strong infatuation with her (Dio, 61.7.1). Yet, she is recurrent throughout Nero’s life, from his traumatized childhood to his death. Nero‘s romantic facet, in short, avoids commenting on the sexual controversies surrounding Nero. While the film portrays his libidinous relationship with Poppea, critics did not appreciate how Nero’s sexual proclivities were excluded (Gradyharp. “Another in the Series of Imperium – Nero’s Life Tidied Up A Lot). The emperor was accustomed to having more than one bedfellow as once, including Sporus, who he utilized for his own personal fantasies (Dio, 63.13.2). Stories such as these are excluded for two reasons: it blemishes Nero’s character, as well as that of the movie, beyond repair. The presence of Christian teachings and characters throughout the film suggest that Acte and Nero’s romance is portraying the ideal Christian relationship. While ancient sources do not comment on Acte’s faith, the movie chronicles her transformation into one. A film that has its basis in spreading Christian teachings, therefore, ought to avoid such sacrilegious topics.
Recurrent Themes and Analysis
Nero is striking in its portrayal of the emperor, as it breaks from all older conventions. Famous movies such as Quo Vadis? (1951) portray Nero as a pagan tyrant that trounces the morally superior Christianity (Blanshard & Shahabudin, 2011, p. 41). A film also worthy of note is the 1981 comedy History of the World, Part I, where Nero is described as a piggish glutton interested in dining and bathing in treasure (Cyrino, 2009, p. 204). These films draw more heavily on Nero’s vices, as described by ancient sources, and put it at the forefront of his character. Nero, however, humanizes him to an extent that other films do not. Nero first comes across as a misunderstood musician, who has the simple interests of running away to Greece with Acte (Dahm, 2009, p. 5). He has no interest in taking power at first and is forced onto the throne instead. He later succumbs to corruption, however, losing the innocence he was previously presented with having.
The contrast between Nero’s early and later years is but a struggle between good and evil, corruption and innocence, moral and immoral. Nero’s childhood, his “good” is made evident by his sympathetic portrayal. When Nero is sent to Domitia’s residence, he is not referred to as Nero, but as Lucius, “the bringer of light,” by Apollonius (15:26-15:36). The film takes Nero’s praenomen literally in this case, as throughout the film he is depicted as void of all vices. This depiction heavily contrasts with that of Tigellinus. As an assassin, he is always dressed in a dark black uniform throughout the film, giving the audience the impression that he is a sinister character and surely clashes against the “bringer of light.” Tigellinus, however, embodies evil in its purest form. His purpose, as exhibited throughout the film, is to murder on the orders of the emperor. His loyalty too is questionable, as he clearly has his own self-interests. While he is loyal to the emperor he serves, his loyalty only lasts until his own interests no longer ally with the interests of the emperor. He is complicit in the deaths of Caligula, Claudius, and eventually attempts to kill Nero himself, and in this way embodies the evilest nature of the empire.
With this good and evil contrast evident in the film, certain characters undergo a change from light to dark, or from “dark” to light. Agrippina, at first, is a simple loving mother, yet she ends up manipulating others into get her son to rule. Domitius’ murder serves as a critical changing point, as it spurs Agrippina’s need for security. She convinces Nero to forego his plans to run away to protect her from the “vipers” in Rome that threaten her life (42:59-43:30). Security, however, becomes skewed with the vision she receives while in exile. She first spies on and has Messalina killed for her infidelity, subsequently marrying Claudius; then, while Claudius is in Britain, she mints money of her own likeness; later, she instructs Seneca to shape her son Nero into the model emperor; and when Claudius changes his will to have Britannicus succeed him, she has him poisoned. Everything she does in this case is solely to get Nero onto the throne, yet her actions are immoral. The film attempts to portray Agrippina as having been corrupted through her good intentions. By wanting security, each action serves as a slippery slope to the next. Even when Nero is atop the throne, she continues to scheme.
Agrippina’s demise seems to reflect onto Nero as well. At first, Nero is against the bloodthirsty nature of Rome. At the gladiator games, for example, Nero is appalled by the audience’s call for the death of a gladiator (1:46:40-1:49:52). On his announcement of the Nuronia, which he wishes to be free of any bloodshed, Porridus comments that with the bloodless games, “he’s lost [the audience],” as they wish for blood. The contrast between Nero’s ideal empire and the state of the actual one is further contrasted when Nero proposes his first reform: tax cuts. When he proposes this idea to the Senate, however, a senator hysterically questions “you want to lower taxes?” (1:02:59-1:03:14). The line speaks for the nature of the Senators, therefore; by opposing what many audience members would view positively, the Senate becomes synonymous with selfish elites that care nothing for other people. It may also serve to comment on the ancient sources and explain their inherent bias against Nero. When the Senate votes almost unanimously against him, Nero oversteps then and institutes these changes anyways. This is the beginning of Nero’s fall from grace, as while he has good intentions, it does not reflect well on his character, just as his mother early on had good intentions which later became not so. Nero’s character shift is best summarized with his line to Acte: “Lucius to you, Nero to the world” (1:39:39). The child that was Lucius now grows thin, while the bureaucratic Nero grows stronger.
Acte serves as Nero’s moral compass throughout the movie, keeping “Lucius” around while “Nero” in check. He is increasingly pressured by others, however, to do immoral deeds. At Agrippina’s urging does Nero take the throne, yet when she begins to lose control of him, she turns on him. His taking of the throne is with good intentions, as he hopes to make a better world by ruling. His dream fails to become a reality, however, when he realizes that people plot against him. At Seneca’s urging, however, Nero has Britannicus killed to take away her leverage against him (2:04:40). Acte’s subsequent departure following learning of Nero’s crime only adds to his descent into madness. Without Acte, his moral compass, Nero’s character devolves into unbridled madness. He is seduced by the titillating seductress Poppea, who introduces him to powerful narcotics and unrestrained debauchery (2:30:30-2:31:09). The scene of Nero and Poppea’s marriage to her serves as a comparison to this shift, as while the scene is slow and festive, it is blurry, off-kilter, and bizarre, mimicking his drug-fueled escapade with Poppea in the prior scene (2:38:35-2:40:36). It flashes back and forth with the jovial wedding procession to the brutal murders of Septimus and Porridus. The contrast seems to indicate that Nero takes delight in the thought of death, best summarized by how he sadistically smiles when he tells Seneca to commit suicide (2:41:11). Nero, who had previously proclaimed to never shed blood for his namesake, has stooped to a point where he will kill as he pleases.
After departing from Nero, Acte too undergoes a character change, only this time her demeanor improves. When she learns of Nero’s murder of Britannicus, she runs away from the keep, leaving Nero and their engagement (2:15:00). Here, Acte is unable to forgive Nero for his misdeeds. He teaches her about the Christian teachings of forgiveness and piety, and ultimately motivates her to save a Nero “falling into darkness” (2:27:36). Having learned to accept the Christian ethic, Acte, dressed in humble rags just as she was with Nero when she was a working slave, approaches an ornately dressed Nero and asks to return to his life and that he spare the Christians. She is nonetheless unfazed when Nero simply admits to her that “I am lost” and sends her away (3:01:14). Acte’s transformation is more indicative on the moral of the film as a whole. Nero and Agrippina both find themselves in a pagan Rome that idolizes greed, bloodshed, and disloyalty. Being invested in this realm too long causes a character’s downfall. Yet Acte, who goes to Christianity, finds herself improved instead of corrupted. Even though she is wronged by Nero at the end, Acte reminds the audience in her final line about the Christian ethic: “let us forgive him, as we hope to be forgiven” (3:08:44-3:09:20). The moral superiority of the Christian faith, paired with the tale of Nero’s corruption, illustrates that Nero was not always terrible and deserves pity for his fate.
The film does not execute this moral well, however. While the set’s absence of technology and style–an obvious nod to earlier sword and sandal films–is praise-worthy, dialogue delivery in many instances ruined the immersion of the film. Agrippina’s first line to Domitius is worthy of note, as her dialogue seems flat and ingenuine (1:19). Such scenes took away from the overall effectiveness of the film. While some actors proved to be rather powerful in their portrayals– such as John Simm’s portrayal of the insane Caligula– the lackluster acting of others ruin some pivotal moments of the film. Britannicus (2:11:45) and Claudius’ (1:30:22) death scenes are accompanied by one member of the cast uttering “he is dead” in an emotionless tone, which I found to be detracting to the gravity of the situation. Emotional scenes such as these were poorly executed in the film.
With a run-time of nearly three hours, Nero is far too long; the length is avoidable, however, as certain scenes are purposelessly elongated. Scenes such as Nero and Agrippina’s reunion last too long and are absent of any meaningful or inventive dialogue (37:30-20:22). The scene is hallmarked by somber violin music while one or two characters shed tears. The effectiveness of this trope, however, is lessened by its frequency (Gotan girl, “Recommended for Madness and Intrigue but there’s a Sap Alert”). At least a dozen similar scenes occur in different parts of the film, and while the purpose is to obviously coax an emotional response from the audience, the repetition of the trope ultimately lessens its effectiveness. The overdramatization of a challenging film idea proved incredibly obnoxious. The film’s deviation from the standard treatment of Nero truly makes the film stand out. Yet, due to underperformance, repetitive dramatic clichés and drawn out romantic scenes, the movie is not effective in conveying Nero’s downfall.
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Cyrino, M. S. (2009). Big Screen Rome. John Wiley & Sons.
Dahm, M. K. (2009). Performing Nero. Didaskalia, 7(2). 1-12.
Dio, Cassius; C., Cary, E., & Foster, H. B. (1914). Dio’s Roman History, with an English Translation. (Vol. 8) Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press; London: W. Heinemann, 1961.
Gradyharp. “Another in the Series of Imperium – Nero’s Life Tidied Up A Lot.” Review of Imperium: Nero. IMDb, September 11, 2005.
Moldyoldie. “As the Empire Turns” Review of Nero (2005). Amazon.com, February 21, 2006.
Pauly, A. F., Evers, K., Eck, W., & Walter, E. (2006). Nero. In H. Cancik, H. Schneider, & M. Landfester (Eds.) & F. G. Gentry & C. Salazar (Trans.), Brills New Pauly: Encyclopaedia of the Ancient World. Retrieved April 12, 2018.
The sexualization of Cleopatra in Joseph Mankiewicz’s 1963 screen epic does scant justice to Cleopatra’s political stature and acumen, argues Isabella Jurcisin (’20)
The film opens with Julius Caesar, played by the esteemed Rex Harrison, looking down upon the lifeless bodies of soldiers after the bloody Battle of Pharsalus. This battle had been an excellent victory as Caesar had just defeated Pompey the Great. Pompey escapes to Egypt where he will try to find new resources in the hands of Cleopatra VII and her brother Pharaoh Ptolemy XIII. Therefore, Caesar decides to make his way to Alexandria leaving Marc Antony, his closest friend, in charge of Rome as he travels to protect Rome’s wheat. As Caesar reaches the port of Alexandria the audience is given a birds eye view of the majestic blue of the ocean and the busy markets down below. As Caesar arrives, young Ptolemy his waiting for him along with his advisors hoping that Caesar and his men will make fools of themselves by being brutal towards the Egyptians within the marketplace. Caesar, being a savvy leader, realizes this and tells his right-hand man Rufio, played by Martin Landau, that he will make his way through the market to the Egyptian Pharaoh by buying things. As Caesar arrives to meet young Ptolemy, played by Richard O’Sullivan, we see he is being managed by his regent, Pothinus, and other members of the Egyptian Court. The Egyptian Court consists of Theodotus, his tutor, and Achillas, the head of his armies. The members of the court glisten in gold clothing, exuding wealth. When Caesar asks of Cleopatra’s whereabouts, Ptolemy responds that she is dead as a consequence of trying to murder him. Pothinus clarifies the situation by stating that though Cleopatra had tried to kill Ptolemy she was not dead and had fled the city. Caesar responds that he has come to Egypt to resolve the civil war that has been created due to animosity between the siblings, as Rome was named their guardian after their father had died. Ptolemy, hoping to gain Caesar’s favor, presents him with the ring and head of Pompey. Caesar is visibly disturbed but hides it as he knows the Egyptian court is watching. Caesar states he will stay in the palace and asks Rufio to give Pompey proper burial rites.
Caesar makes himself at home in the palace and as he is preparing Rome’s military in case they are attacked, Flavius (George Cole) also Caesar’s dedicated servant, notifies Caesar that a rug merchant has arrived with a gift from Cleopatra. Caesar tells his fellow officers to leave him and Apollodorus, played by Cesare Danova and Cleopatra’s devoted servant, strides in with a large rolled carpet. As Apollodorus gently puts down the carpet on the floor out rolls Cleopatra. Cleopatra, played by the beautiful Elizabeth Taylor, immediately discusses with Caesar of how he must make her sole ruler. Caesar and Cleopatra begin loudly arguing over Cleopatra’s position and through this scene we see sparks flying as mutual attraction grows between them. Cleopatra acknowledges with severity in her voice that she knows that Caesar was disturbed by the decapitation of Pompey. Caesar recollects with sadness in his voice that Pompey’s ring was a gift from his wife, Caesar’s daughter Julia. Cleopatra leaves with more knowledge of the infamous Caesar. Suspiciously, Cleopatra spies on Caesar through a work of art and hears him describing infamous stories of Cleopatra’s personality and sexual endeavors. After Caesar’s advisors leave, she sees Caesar have a seizure and is visibly shaken. Cleopatra later asks her tutor, Sosigenes, about the seizures and what the illness entails. Cleopatra begins to have romantic feelings for the esteemed leader and knowing he is coming to see her, ensures he sees her bathing completely naked with only a thin blanket covering her. During this meeting Cleopatra notifies Caesar that her brother’s army will outnumber him soon and surround the palace. Visibly flustered by Cleopatra’s beauty and strong personality, Caesar heeds her advice and begins to burn the Egyptian fleet. Unfortunately, the fire spreads to nearby buildings including the historical Library of Alexandria. Cleopatra, a known intellect, is furious by this and confronts Caesar. They begin a ferocious battle with words, with Cleopatra calling Caesar a barbarian, and Caesar silencing her with a passionate kiss. Caesar leaves and defeats the Egyptians fleet.
The next day, Cleopatra is almost poisoned by a servant and in retaliation, forces the servant to drink the poison. Later, Caesar hosts a trial and Pothinus is sentenced to death and Ptolemy and Theodotus are sent to join the army, a path that will most likely end in death. After this, Cleopatra tries to speak to Caesar but he is visibly ill and asks her to leave. Cleopatra, having spied on him before knows he is about to have a seizure. She saves him and they share a moment of intimacy with Caesar expressing his fears and Cleopatra comforting him. Later, Cleopatra is crowned sole ruler of Egypt and even Caesar bows before her which brings discomfort to his fellow Romans. Cleopatra then shows Caesar Egypt and all its glories. In the next scene, Cleopatra discusses with Caesar her desire for them to work together in order to fulfill the goals of Alexander the Great. After this, they are seen in bed where Cleopatra talks of how she is a real woman who can give Caesar a son, unlike his current wife who is barren, and they make love. When Caesar learns that Cleopatra is pregnant he is overjoyed; this contrasts the response of the Roman Senate who are weary when hearing that Cleopatra and Caesar are having a child and have married. Mark Antony, played by Richard Burton, is seen trying to quench the fears of Caesar’s wife Calpurnia as she hears of the romance between Caesar and Cleopatra. As Cleopatra is about to give birth she commands her servant to lay her son at Caesar’s feet in front of his advisors after he is born hoping that Caesar will acknowledge him publicly. Caesar does just this and the Romans see the vision Caesar has for the future of Rome through his son Caesarion. After this, we see the Roman senate discussing the birth of the child with Brutus announcing he is happy for Caesar and Octavian, played by Roddy McDowall, purposefully keeping his thoughts quiet. Caesar leaves Egypt and three years pass until Caesar is finally named “dictator for life” and asks Cleopatra to join him in Rome.
Cleopatra arrives in Rome with a show of dancers, gold, and soldiers in front of her. She and her son Caesarion are on a throne atop a massive sphinx emulating wealth and royalty. Cleopatra is seen wearing gold from her headpiece to her shoes, showing Rome just how powerful she is. The crowds welcome this wealth with screams and shouts of appreciation. Caesar comments on the stature of his son while Marc Antony has his eyes glued to the beautiful queen. The Roman Senate begrudgingly rise for her arrival and Cleopatra and her son bow before Caesar. As Cleopatra resides in Rome, Caesar spends time with his son and also hopes to be made emperor. The senate disapproves of this, begins to see Caesar as a radical tyrant, and comes to the conclusion that they must kill him. As Caesar is notified they have made a decision on his title he leaves Cleopatra who is left with the notion she might never see him again. Caesar arrives at the meeting and is brutally stabbed. After this, Cleopatra and Caesarion escape Rome with the help of Marc Antony who states that this will not be the last time they will see each other.
In the second part of the film Marc Antony is seen leading a successful war against those who killed Julius Caesar. As Antony is cheered by his fellow Romans, a sickly Octavian, hears the news of his rival’s victory. Antony comes to Octavian and they decide to divide conquered lands amongst prominent Roman leaders. This agreement leads to Octavian having control of Italy and Antony control of the East. Atony then comes up with a plan to move against Parthia; unfortunately, Rufio reminds him they are running low on supplies and money. Rufio hints at Antony at who could be the solution to their problem: Cleopatra. Antony is angered by this but begrudgingly agrees to meet her, so he has Rufio summon her. Yet, Cleopatra states she will only meet him on Egyptian soil. Later, Antony meets her on the most decadent of ships and they discuss finances while it is extremely obvious Antony yearns for Cleopatra romantically. Antony is constantly seen looking at the golden necklace of coins with Caesar’s face on them that Cleopatra adorns around her neck. This makes Atony extremely jealous, however through a passionate conversation they later have sex. As these two lovers fall more deeply in love, Octavian has taken up the legacy of Caesar and is threatening companions of Antony. Therefore, Antony is forced to leave Egypt and Cleopatra and return to Rome. In order to divide Cleopatra and Antony, Octavian offers his sister as wife to Antony. In order to portray the image of a “true Roman” Antony is forced to accept, however, when Cleopatra hears of this she is infuriated. Later, Antony arrives in Egypt and is forced to kneel before her in public. Cleopatra demands that with a new treaty Rome must give Egypt a third of their conquered lands. After this, they speak privately and Cleopatra demands that Antony marry her and abandon his wife. Antony agrees to this union and Octavian uses this and Antony’s will which states he be buried in Alexandria to turn the Roman Senate against Antony. To the Roman senate this is a clear rejection of his Roman roots and with Octavian as their leader they go to war. Antony’s rejection of his Roman roots is again seen when he dismisses his officers and takes his soldiers to fight over sea instead of land which they are used to fighting on. As Antony sails farther away from Cleopatra we can see him make his way to the ship with Octavian’s insignia on it. Unfortunately, he is trapped between enemy ships and due to the fire that blazes the ships Cleopatra is told he is dead. All Antony sees is Cleopatra sailing away from him and he is visibly hurt fortunately, by jumping onto a nearby boat he is able to make his way back to Cleopatra’s ship.
After Cleopatra abandons Antony nothing is quite the same between them as Antony harbors animosity towards Cleopatra for forcing him to abandon his men. Octavian sends a delegation to Egypt asking Cleopatra to send the head of Marc Antony in return for peace between Rome and Egypt. Yet, Cleopatra states she will not give Marc Antony over to Octavian. Marc Antony overhears this, yet, still states that he is dead inside to which Cleopatra slaps him repeatedly across the face. Marc Antony enraged slaps her back with such force she falls to the ground. Cleopatra is able to reach him when she states how much she loves him. The next scene, is Antony and Rufio getting ready for battle. We see Octavian tell his advisor that he will take Antony and Cleopatra alive. Unfortunately, due to lack of resources Antony’s men abandon him and he rides back to Cleopatra. Sadly, he believes that Cleopatra has abandoned him again and he falls on his sword believing he has no other choice. Antony is taken to where Cleopatra is hiding and dies in the arms of the love of his life. Octavian is made aware that Antony is dead and is ecstatic. He then searches for Cleopatra, curious to see this enigma of a woman, and tells her she can rule Egypt as a province of Rome as long as she accompanies him to Rome first. She sees Octavian wearing the ring of Pompey and immediately knows her son Caesarion is dead. She makes a series of empty promises to Octavian and later makes the arrangements to kill herself. She puts her hand in a basket and a poisonous snake bites her; Cleopatra dies and her final word is, “Antony”.
Cleopatra has been recreated in many forms through a list of influential films in the last few decades. In the film Cleopatra (1963) Elizabeth Taylor portrays Cleopatra as sexy, strong, and enamored by powerful men. Historically, Cleopatra was many of those things but as she was a queen she was born with great power. Many historical sources state she was not particularly beautiful, which does not align with Elizabeth Taylor’s portrayal as she is stereotypically gorgeous. Taylor as well does nothing to downplay her stereotypical beauty but instead wears eye makeup that accentuates her eyes and dresses that outline her curves. Historically, as Cleopatra was not particularly beautiful she relied on her skills of persuasion. Historian, Plutarch, alludes to this and states, “Her beauty, so we are told, was not itself outstanding; it did not immediately strike those who saw her; yet being with her had an inescapable hold; when talking with her, she was persuasive, and the character which surrounded her whole manner in company had a force to it.” This proves that there was much more to Cleopatra than just “physical appearances”. She was also a known intellect who was the first member of her family to speak the local language in order to better communicate with her citizens. (Kleiner 2009:27)
In the film, Cleopatra’s characteristics are shown through her interactions with her male counterparts. The film is divided into two parts: her relationship with Julius Caesar and later Marc Antony. Yet, in the film they forget that Cleopatra married her younger brother Ptolemy XIV, whom she brought to Rome when she stayed in Caesar’s house. In the film, this was not shown in order to fully concentrate on her relationship with Caesar. The reason Cleopatra felt the need to ally herself to these powerful men was because she felt her brothers did not have the qualities to assert themselves as rulers. The key word being “ally” she did not need them to overshadow her. One of the most prominent moments in the film, was when Caesar declared Cleopatra sole ruler of Egypt. This is historically inaccurate as Cleopatra was co-ruler with her younger brother Ptolemy XIV. In the film, this moment represents Cleopatra seeing the world and future that Caesar can help give her. Historically, however, Cleopatra was said to have poisoned her younger brother in order to become sole ruler. This proves that Cleopatra did not need a man to assist her in gaining power within her own country. (Kleiner 2009: 85)
When creating Cleopatra’s relationship with Mark Atony it seems Mankiewicz was trying to portray Cleopatra as manipulative and in multiple scenes had her constantly comparing Antony to Caesar. This is not historically accurate, as Cleopatra did not continually compare the two, yes, they were both prominent Roman men (Kleiner 2009: 104-106); but, Caesar was older and extremely dedicated to his aspirations, while, Antony was younger, enjoyed partying, and was often compared with the Greek god Dionysus: god of wine. This tension between Cleopatra was further highlighted as the film aptly left out the births of Antony and Cleopatra’s three children: Alexander Helios, Cleopatra Selene, and Ptolemy Philadelphus (Kleiner 2009: 25). Without mentioning these three children the film was able to focus more on the dramatic relationship between Antony and Cleopatra. This was a consequence of Cleopatra constantly reminding Antony of Caesarian. If the film had brought in these three children Cleopatra’s main romantic relationships would have been more comparable and on equal footing. Therefore, Cleopatra wouldn’t have had to spend the last scenes of the film trying to convince Antony to love her but to remind him that her empire was in danger (3:90). By leaving out these three children the film focalized more on Antony and his fear of being overshadowed by Caesar. Therefore, taking away from the main character: Cleopatra.
Techniques, Production, Reception
The beginning of the long convoluted story that is the production of Cleopatra began when Walter Wanger started as a producer in October 1958 at Twentieth Century Fox (Klawans 1998). When Wanger gave his idea of “Cleopatra” to the studio, they gave him a budget of between $1 million and $3 million. As they searched for a director they looked towards “big names” such as Alfred Hitchcock, who rejected the offer, and finally settled on Rouben Mamoulian. The actors hired for leading characters such as Marc Antony and Caesar were Peter Finch and Stephen Boyd. Wanger desired to have Elizabeth Taylor and refused any other actresses yet her proposed salary was much too high for the film’s budget. The studio’s executives agreed to pay Taylor $1 million. In the middle of the year 1959, the studio agreed they would save money in building the set in London instead of the Fox lot. In September 28, 1960 shooting of the film started in chilly London and still “Cleopatra” had no script. Various drafts for the script had been rejected and Wanger asked for a fourth writer. To add to the turmoil, Elizabeth had caught pneumonia and was said to have been near death, therefore, production was forced to leave London and move to Rome (Cyrino 2005: 139). These constant location changes forced the budget to rise. Taylor also pleaded with Wanger to hire Joseph Mankiewicz, as director, whom she had worked with in a previous film and who she said had earned her an Oscar nomination (KLawans 1998). Mankiewicz was an independent filmmaker and took full control of the film–script and all. He chose the book “The Life and Times of Cleopatra” by C.M. Franzero as the basis of his script (Cyrino 2005: 140). Finally, on September, 1961 the film again began shooting, to the studio’s misfortune, only 10 and ½ minutes had been filmed and $7 million had been spent (Klawans 1998). Mankiewicz hired new actors to play Caesar and Antony, these actors being, Rex Harrison and Richard Burton. Mankiewicz strayed from Wanger’s original idea and wrote Cleopatra as more of a “freudian drama”. As if this production could not have had much worse luck, during the filming of the iconic scene where Cleopatra enters Rome, the animals Mankiewicz had hired proved to be unruly and the weather was treacherous. Therefore, production had to be pushed to the spring. Yet, Mankiewicz did not cut down his sets and in the Cinecittá Studios in Rome he had the Forum reconstructed. This scene construction alone cost $1 million. Along with the extra costs of these complex sets Cleopatra’s “costumes and wigs (thirty) and jewelry (125) pieces cost more than $130,000” (Solomon 1995: 70). Another calamity to add to the list was when Taylor and Burton’s affair had been leaked. After the affair had been publicized Burton and Taylor made no effort to hide it as they were often seen in public together. As both of these actors had their own respective marriages, television host Ed Sullivan “denounced them on his show for their ‘appalling impropriety’” (Cyrino 2005: 140). On top of this, it was said that Burton tried to restore his marriage; unfortunately, this hit Taylor very hard and she was admitted into a hospital. Burton stated to publicists, “I’ve had affairs before… How was I supposed to know she was so f–king famous?” (Klawans 1998). This only led the fire to grow and in June of 1962 Wanger was fired and Fox president Spyros Skouras resigned. Fortunately, this was great publicity for the film as the public wanted to see the real-life couple on screen. The production added up to be a colossal $33 million.
The reception of the film was mixed for many applauded the acting of Rex Harrison who many felt did justice to the revered Julius Caesar. Solomon discusses the faults in the editing of the film such as the “thinness” of Elizabeth Taylor’s voice (Solomon 1995: 30). Taylor herself noticed this and asked if she could redub some scenes but because of the already costly film the studio declined. Since the film had been lengthy the studio felt forced to cut it down, therefore, removing critical scenes which Mankiewicz argued made Richard look like a bad actor for his Antony was shown as “weak.” The Hollywood Reporter applauded Elizabeth acting stating the actor’s beauty had never shined that brightly before. They also stated that Rex Harrison’s Caesar was, “crisp, humorous, and authoritative.” This position was agreed by many as Harrison won the best actor award from the National Board of Review and also received nominations from the Academy and the New York Film Critics (Solomon 1995: 71). The magazine Variety was not as kind to Taylor criticizing her for not pulling off the character of “child-queen.” They also criticized Burton for not fully delving into Antony’s “hero” persona calling Burton overweight and further stating the weakest scenes were between him and Elizabeth.
In the end, the film Cleopatra, many would say, was not worth the cost or the trouble. Twentieth Century Fox sued Taylor and Burton for all the trouble they had caused through publicity (Klawans 1998). Due to the length of the film and the terrible editing most critics ripped it apart leading to it suffering at the box office (Solomon 1995: 75). Positively, it did win four Academy Awards and the television station, ABC, showed the film twice on TV (Klawans 1998). Therefore, all the capital the studio spent did not go to waste.
Themes and Interpretation
The film Cleopatra has a list of extremely complex characters, therefore, there are a variety of themes within it. The theme of love and what it manipulate a person to do is prevalent throughout the film as both Marc Antony and Caesar leave their wives for Cleopatra. This manipulation can prove to have drastic impacts. This can be seen as Marc Antony even dissociates himself from the Romans to align with Cleopatra and goes to war against them. Another theme is jealousy and what it can make great men do, this specifically seen in relation to Marc Antony who constantly lives in the shadow of Caesar and constantly second guesses himself in relation to Cleopatra’s love for him.
The most important theme, I believe, is the idea of the “female leader” and what that entails. In this film Cleopatra is overly sexualized, constantly overshadowed by her male counterparts, and treated like a child. Cleopatra, historically, was an intelligent young woman who studied architecture and helped construct buildings in order for ordinary life to be easier for citizens (Kleiner 2009: 68). She was very strong and had gained the following of thousands. This film was weak in the way it portrayed Cleopatra. This is first seen when she starts falling in love with Caesar. In the film, when Cleopatra is aware Caesar is coming to see her she makes sure she is seen “bathing” which equates to her being naked with only a thin sheet to cover her (:34). Caesar is obviously taken aback as she is beautiful but as they fight over Ptolemy’s army the camera seems to focus on Taylor holding the sheet over her body revealing a huge proportion of her breasts. This over sexualization and the focus of the camera takes away from the importance of this scene which is how Cleopatra may lose her stability as ruler (:34). Instead, the audience is focusing on the romance that is building between Caesar and Cleopatra. In a later scene, when Cleopatra has just been notified that the Library of Alexandria is burning she runs to confront Caesar who had set the fire (:41). This action on Cleopatra’s part is noble for she is fighting for something she has invested in: literary works. Historically, she was known to speak various languages and was extremely well read. Yet, before we see her enter Caesar’s room she is seen shouting, “Take your hands off me!” (:41). She is then carried in by a guard like a scorned child. This is no way for a queen to act or be treated, specifically, one as strong and intelligent as her. They are using her to juxtapose Caesar who is revered and strong. This is disheartening for she is one of the strongest female leaders in history. Later, as they are disputing the qualities of Romans, Caesar silences Cleopatra with a kiss (:43). This kiss for Caesar and Cleopatra is sealing their partnership to work together. It is hard for me to believe that such an astute and perceptive woman such as Cleopatra couldn’t have calmly discussed her reservations with Caesar. This would have given much more to Cleopatra’s character further proving that she is not just a beautiful heated queen but a pragmatic ruler.
Female leaders, Cleopatra and Hypatia, are portrayed drastically different but still have some similarities. Cleopatra is constantly seen in tight dresses, revealing her breasts and her hourglass figure (2:33) This contrasts how mathematician and philosopher, Hypatia, is represented in the film Agora. Hypatia is seen with little to no makeup on and in loose white dresses (:26). In moments of tension she is calm and practical often with tranquil expressions when others are yelling (:27). She is quite emotional but in a deeper and less superficial way than Cleopatra who when angered cannot seem to control herself. Therefore, if one was to choose between these two as a leader, a rational person would choose Hypatia who is less driven by her emotions and more by pragmatism. It also further proves that for a “female leader” to be seen as strong and beautiful she does not have to be sexualized constantly. In comparison, however, in both films these powerful female leaders are silenced by some sort of sexual act. As mentioned before, Cleopatra was arguing with Caesar over the Library of Alexandria which later leads to Caesar alluding that Cleopatra must obey his will (:43). Caesar then silences Cleopatra with a passionate kiss. This aligns with a scene in Agora where after the Christians had laid ruin to Hypatia’s library, Hypatia is seen gathering scrolls she had saved. Out of the corridor comes her slave, Davus, who had always been in love with her and silences her by kissing her body (:56). While, in Hypatia’s case this is clear sexual assault. It further enforces the idea that “female leaders” can only be silenced by sexual acts and need to be tamed by men. Instead of having a battle of wits and intellect it instead must be something physical. Therefore, I believe the weakest part of the film Cleopatra is the constant sexualization of Cleopatra and the concentration of the strength of her male counterparts instead of focalizing on her strength and intellect.
This film as Mankiewitz wanted to make it a “Freudian drama” fits well with genre of dramatic love stories (Klawans 1998). The constant back and forth between Caesar and Cleopatra in the beginning of the film leads the audience wanting more. The film has passionate love, death, and betrayal. These qualities are imperative to dramas. As I focused on the themes of “female leaders” it is important to understand that during this time women were constantly sexualized in film, as Cleopatra was in this film. Contrasting the film to Agora, I believe, helps us see how far we have come in film and how filmmakers feel compelled to represent women.
Amenábar Alejandro, et al. Agora. Newmarket Films, 2009.
Cyrino, Monica Silveira. Big Screen Rome. Malden, MA : Blackwell Pub., 2005., 2005.
Jon Solomon, author. 1995. “In the Wake of “Cleopatra”: The Ancient World in the Cinema since 1963.” The Classical Journal no. 2: 113. JSTOR Journals, EBSCOhost.
Claire Jeantheau (’21) argues that Quo Vadis is part well-intentioned message on religious devotion, part reflection of an era of global conflict, and part entirely empty spectacle.
It is 64 AD, and Rome’s 14th Legion is returning home on the Appian Way after fighting against an uprising in Britain, led by commander Marcus Vinicius (Robert Taylor). They are stopped from entering the city by a member of the emperor Nero’s praetorian guard, who has orders to make them remain outside. Marcus, irritated, decides to confront Nero himself at his palace. The emperor (Peter Ustinov) is in the middle of composing a song, seeking advice from, among others, his closest friend Petronius (Leo Genn). Fearing his criticism, they praise him as a god and offer deliberately vague suggestions. When Marcus enters, he learns that Nero wants to wait for the 14th Legion unite with other returning groups for a triumph; in the meantime, he’ll be staying in the home of retired general Aulus Plautius. As they exit, Petronius complains to Marcus about Nero and the declining state of Rome. When Marcus asks if it’s true that Nero has killed his mother and wife and married a “harlot,” Petronius quiets him, saying that in “the language of privileged government”, they “were removed for the good of the empire.”
At Plautius’s house, Marcus and his soldiers catch sight of muscleman Ursus (Buddy Baer) while bathing. Marcus inquires whether he’s a gladiator, and Ursus responds that “It is a sin to kill,” much to the amusement of the soldiers. While walking in the garden, Marcus sees Lygia (Deborah Kerr) for the first time. He is instantly taken with her beauty and tries to attract her by quoting poetry at her, but she rebukes him. Marcus assumes that she is a slave, but learns from Plautius (Felix Aylmer) and his wife Pomponia (Nora Swinburne) at dinner that night that she is their adopted daughter. She was saved as a child from the Roman-conquered territory of Lygia, and Ursus acts as her protector. The meal is interrupted by the arrival of Paul of Tarsus (Abraham Sofaer), which Lygia’s family has been eagerly awaiting. He introduces himself to Marcus as first a rabbi, and then, seeing his confusion, as one who “teaches philosophy”. When Marcus leaves to check his men, Paul is safe to reveal his identity as a Christian, and bring the news that Peter, one of Jesus’s original disciples, will soon be coming to Rome. Marcus finds Lygia again in the garden, drawing the Christian icthys in the sand; he tries to appeal to her with talk of the upcoming triumph, but she is disgusted by his remarks. That night, she prays that he will come to Christ and set an example for others.
On the day of the triumphal procession, Marcus leads the armies as conquering commander after rites conducted by the Vestal Virgins praising the Roman gods and Nero. The watching emperor is upset at the crowd’s constant demand for his entertainments, but Poppea (Patricia Laffan) reminds him that as an artist, he requires an audience. Afterwards, Marcus visits Petronius’s house, where he meets Eunice (Marina Berte), a Spanish slave woman he had been previously interested in. When Petronius sees that Marcus is no longer attracted to her, he learns of Lygia, and the two devise a plan to have Lygia abducted. Taken from her parents, Lygia is forced into “Nero’s house of women” and, with the help of manager Acte (Rosalie Crutchley), dresses for the night’s banquet. There, she sees Marcus and, understanding the purpose of her captivity, is angered. As part of the evening’s entertainment, Nero performs the composition about fire which he had been practicing earlier; he decides that it was inferior, as “one must suffer an experience to recreate it”, and from there is struck with the idea to burn Rome.
Marcus orders Lygia to be taken to the house of Petronius. As Acte helps Lygia leave, she reveals that, while not Christian, she is a sympathizer, and wishes her luck. On the way to Petronius’s home, Ursus, who had been lying in wait, attacks the guards carrying Lygia, allowing her to escape. Marcus inquires Plautius where Lygia’s whereabouts might be, and through him finds a guide, Chilo (John Ruddock) to lead him to a secret gathering of the Christians. In their meeting cave, Peter (Finlay Currey) delivers a retelling of the life of Jesus. Marcus attempts to trail Lygia home, but is attacked by Ursus, who is unaware of his intentions; he is taken to Lygia, who treats his wounds and gives him a place to rest. Seizing his opportunity, Marcus asks to marry her, promising to adopt the Christian iconography and “put up a big cross, higher than the roof”, but she rejects this knowing that he has not truly accepted the faith himself. Shortly after, Nero announces that he has burned all the sections of Rome apart from his palace to form a new city, Neropolis, and to reach new artistic heights. Marcus, shocked, rides into the crowded areas of the city to find that they’ve gone up in flames, and helps citizens evacuate. As citizens riot outside of Nero’s palace, accusing him of being “the incendiary”, Poppea suggests he lay blame to the Christians so that the mob has a scapegoat.
The Christians of Rome are rounded up and imprisoned, and Marcus finds Lygia there among them and joins her. As this occurs, Peter, who is traveling to Greece on the Appian Way, receives a heavenly sign in the forest to turn back to Rome after asking the film’s eponymous question “Quo vadis?”: “Wither thou goest, Lord?”. Petronius, suspicious that Nero is going to kill him, holds a dinner where, after freeing Eunice (whom he has fallen in love with), they both commit suicide. He also dictates a scathing note which expresses his true feelings about Nero and his works, devastating the emperor when he receives it. Nero arranges a spectacle in the Colosseum where the Christians are to be ripped apart by lions, and is disgusted by the way they sing and smile while condemned to death. When Peter returns, sensing trouble, he’s sentenced to be strung up on a pole over the sea. At night, dozens more Christians, including Plautius, are burned alive. Marcus and Lygia, realizing in full that they will most likely never see each other again, ask Peter to bless their partnership as a marriage so that they may be together in death.
Poppea devises a final punishment—she has Lygia tied to a stake, Ursus by her side, facing down a charging bull. At the same time, Marcus is handcuffed to a pole in the emperor’s booth and forced to watch. Marcus prays for strength, and breaks free from his restraints as Ursus strangles the animal. When Nero signals (against popular vote) that Lygia and Ursus should still die, Marcus and his soldiers storm the center of the arena. He announces that Nero’s reign as emperor is over and that Galba, who is returning from a military campaign, is the next successor. As the crowd storms Nero’s palace that night, the emperor realizes that Poppea was the mastermind of the plot to blame the Christians and chokes her to death. Acte offers him the blade to commit suicide, which he does with her help. The end of the film finds Marcus and Lygia raising a family together as Galba triumphantly rises to power in Rome.
The story of Marcus and Lygia’s romance, at the heart of Quo Vadis, is wholly fictional. However, the context it takes place in—the reign of the emperor Nero, from 37 to 68 AD—recalls a real historical period. Roman historians Tacitus and Suetonius address this reign in their works, focusing, respectively, on Nero’s place within Roman history and his personal character.
Tacitus, who aimed to provide a detailed account of the emperors following Augustus in his Annals, provides the full historical background for events which linger at the periphery of Quo Vadis. The battles of Britain and Gaul which Marcus fights in most likely references, in part, the British revolt led by Boudicca, which occurs in Book XIV. A more frequently referenced event would be Nero’s arranged murders of his mother Agrippina and wife Octavia. These take place before the events of Quo Vadis, but are frequently mentioned by everyone from shouting spectators to Petronius in his suicide note as a kind of shorthand for Nero’s moral failings. According to Tacitus, Nero’s adulterous love for Poppea led him to depose of Octavia. When his mother Agrippina learned of his lust, her shame intensified their already contentious relationship (14.1). Tacitus is unfettered by the restraint of the already action-packed runtime of a film. He thus also has time to lay out the details of Agrippina’s death by beating after a failed drowning (8.1), as well as Octavia’s suffocation in a bathtub (64.1). In Quo Vadis, his crimes are instead committed out of the desire to “lay at the gates of an unknown world”—most likely to intensify his unhinged quality (and to tone down the severity of the acts for film).
The most significant historical event under Nero’s reign directly referenced in Quo Vadis is the great fire at Rome, which the film accurately dates at 64 AD. Though the Nero of film plots this destruction, like his familial murders, as part of his artistic mania, the real fire’s initial source was uncertain. Tacitus acknowledges in writing his account that “whether [the fire began] due to chance or to the malice of the sovereign is uncertain—for each version has its sponsors” (15.38). Nero’s actions as recorded by Tacitus were much more helpful than those of his film portrayal. He allowed those displaced by the blaze to live in structures on the Campus Martius, his private gardens, and other open spaces (15.39). Rumors still spread that he was performing poetry as the fire raged, creating the apocryphal story of “fiddling while Rome burns” (15.39). Adding whatever aid Nero may have provided to Quo Vadis would have clearly undermined both his plot and his villainous status.
Where Tacitus’s Annals are grounded in historical chronology, Suetonius’s Lives of the Twelve Caesars aims to form portraits of the personality and character of the first emperors. As a result, his record is known for being sensationalized; comparing it against the events of Tacitus or other historians is useful in determining what is real. From Suetonius, we learn the details of Nero’s obsession with the lyre, which Quo Vadis capitalizes on heavily to show his narcissism. Of Nero’s concerts, he writes that “It is said that some women gave birth to children there, while many who were worn out…secretly leaped from the wall…or feigned death” (Suetonius, Nero23.2). But as a counterpart, Suetonius also takes time to list some of Nero’s beneficial actions, including devising a protection against forgery (17.1) and limiting expenditures (16.2). As with Nero’s historical aid after the fire, including these in Quo Vadis would lessen his portrayal of complete madness.
An important point of comparison between film and historical sources is how each one handles the empire’s treatment of Christians under Nero. Both Tacitus and Suetonius take a negative, if not perplexed, view of the faith. Tacitus writes that the Christians were “loathed for their vices” and refers to their beliefs as a “pernicious superstition” (44.1); Suetonius uses near-identical wording when he writes of the “new and mysterious superstition” (16.2). There is no historical evidence that Poppea drove Nero to blame the Christians for the fire; in the film, this helps cement her as a sinister foil to the virtuous Lygia. Quo Vadis comes close to displaying the extent of the torture Christians faced after being assigned blame for the fire, complete with scenes of attacks by beasts and crucifixion. In real life, the details, though briefer, are even more grotesque: “When daylight failed [they] were burned to serve as lamps by night” (44.1), Tacitus writes. It is uncertain whether the Christians receive such a short mention because of a lack of concern from the historians, or if the worst of their persecution was short. However, that single, stark line from Tacitus conveys more about than the brutality of the torture than the adapted scenes of Quo Vadis.
TECHNIQUES, PRODUCTION, AND RECEPTION
Quo Vadis was based on a 1895 novel by Polish author Henryk Sienkiewicz which had been adapted to film in Italy a number of times before director Mervyn Leroy’s 1951 project (Solomon 2001: 219). He was given a $12 million dollar budget with the hopes he would produce a quality ancient epic at a time when Metro-Goldyn-Mayer’s (MGM) production studios were on the verge of bankruptcy. He spent it fully, and the results are evident in the visual spectacles which are essential to Quo Vadis’s production. The film was shot on site in Rome, adding to the realism of natural scenes like the opening shot of Marcus and the 14th Legion crossing the Appian Way. There is an impressive menagerie of live animals throughout the film, from the cheetahs who lounge at Poppea’s side to the lions sent to attack the Christians in the arena. (Leroy had to secure fifty lions from circuses across Europe for use in the film, and it was a struggle to train them to charge at the actors who played the Christians [Solomon 2001: 219]). The extravagant tone is present not only in these showier scenes, though, but in smaller pieces of detail work. One camera shot focuses over an intricate model of Rome, which Nero uses for his redesign of the city. Quick aerial shots of the city of Rome, like those of the triumph, feature impressively painted backdrops with a variety of architecture that project an air of grandeur. Quo Vadis’s score has also been noted for how it conveys a similar, spectacular feeling. To achieve some degree of authenticity, composer Miklos Rozsa found surviving pieces of Greco-Roman music and adapted them into longer orchestration (Solomon 2001: 220).
The use of spectacle in Quo Vadis was as much a point of focus for reviewers as it was for Leroy when he directed it. Critic Bosley Crowther, in his writeup for the New York Times, called it “the last of a cinematic species, the super super-colossal film” (Crowther 1951). The staff of Variety opined that “there are no ups and downs on the spectacular values that comprise the Circus of Nero, the profligate court scenes, the marching armies…” and so on, naming nearly a dozen scenes and set pieces (Variety 1951). Not all of these hold up for the modern viewer—in the scene where Marcus speeds towards the fire at Rome, pursued by Nero’s praetorian guard, the faint outline of the background video is noticeable. The overall appeal and cohesion of the visuals, though, is still well done. What remains consistent in reviews over the years is the film’s weaker characterization. Ben Pappas, revisiting Quo Vadis for Forbes magazine in advance of the release of Gladiator in 2000, snarked that by the end of the film, he had hoped the “superb pride of lions…[would] get their teeth into [Robert] Taylor”, a “wooden legionnaire” (Pappas 1951). This is a fair criticism—Taylor and Deborah Kerr’s performances as Marcus and Lygia, respectively, both pale in intensity to Peter Ustinov’s Nero, whose exaggerations and off-key prose fit well into the drama. Even Ustinov’s role could grow tiring, though, with Crowther complaining that the “notion that Nero was a monster and a numbskull is pounded at such length” (Pappas 1999). The moral absolutes of Quo Vadis’s plot hurt its characterization, creating roles more based on competing ideals than other traits.
Quo Vadis was a commercial success which pulled MGM out of bankruptcy, and was nominated for eight Academy Awards. One of these nominations Best Supporting Actor, went to Peter Ustinov, who was prompted to say that “ ‘No nation can make Roman pictures as well as Americans’ ”. This quote sums up how “American”-style spectacle was a double-edged sword for Quo Vadis, leading to big and memorable visuals, but acting that could have been more nuanced.
THEMES AND INTERPRETATIONS
The fundamental ideological conflict in Quo Vadis takes place between the Christians and the Roman empire, wherein the Christians are a stand-in for virtue and the Romans are aggressive and debased. The understood moral differences of each side are conveyed with several visual signifiers, beginning with costuming. Compare the foils of Lygia and Poppea, for example—the viewer first sees Poppea in a multicolored, revealing garment with numerous articles of gold jewelry, while Lygia is modestly clothed. As a people, the Romans take up symbols for oppression and conquest which would have been instantly recognizable in the film’s postwar release. In scenes where the Romans greet each other or hail Nero, they use a motion identical to the Nazi salute. The cinematography of the triumph scene utilizes symmetry and pans over a dense crowd, recalling propaganda films like Leni Riefenstahl’s “Triumph of the Will” (Joshel 2006). Quo Vadis’s score reinforces Roman militarization through the persistent drums of the opening sequence and triumph; the Christian gathering in the catacombs, by contrast, is marked with the soft tones of choral singing. Additionally, the emphasis on Roman slavery clashes with the Christians’ value for human dignity. The memorable opening narration intones that “there is no escape from the whip” as a soldier, having fallen out of step, is trampled by his peers. Lygia, on the other hand, acts as a counterpoint in her sense of respect for others. When she interacts with Marcus for the first time and he demeans those outside of Rome for their ragged appearance and calloused hands, Lygia caringly suggests that this “proves they are diligent”. The Christians’ position extends from moral to political defiance with the emperor’s contempt for the religion, which reaches beyond Tacitus and Suetonius’s bemusement at the “superstition” to downright hatred. In almost contemporary terminology, the Christians are deemed “the enemies of…the state”, effectively transforming them to political dissidents. In one of my favorite lines for its cleverness, Christian sympathizer Acte encourages Lygia in the faith, even in the presence of a praetorian guard. “Bear in mind, your fate is determined by the greatest power in this world,” she says—a double entendre which could refer to both Jesus or Nero. But the Biblical allusion in her parting words seals her intent: “His will be done.”
In the presence of the Romans’ oppressive power, martyrdom is elevated as a theme. Peter instructs the Christians that they must “obey those who govern you…even though, under them, you suffer cruelties”. Consequently, in the face of their punishment by the Romans, they find that ironically it is only through the act of dying that they can live out their faith. As Marcus ominously phrases it, “They know how to die”—the sacrifice becomes intertwined as an essential component of faith. The referential nature of how Quo Vadis’s script treats the course of history implies that there is a moral arc to such sacrifices. When Petronius attempts to dissuade Nero from assigning blame to the Christians, he argues that “You have often reminded us, Nero, of the judgment of history. What will its verdict be if you punish the innocent and betray your own greatness?”. Despite the brutal nature of the Christians’ deaths, it seems that they are avenged by history, a sentiment meant for the Christian viewer in particular to absorb.
The calm humility of the Christians is contrasted with the irrational, pleasure-driven mob of Roman citizens. This is shown to moving effect in the scene where the camera cuts rapidly between horrifying footage of lions attacking the Christians and the delighted, jeering crowd. The nature of the settings which each group appears in helps to reinforce this binary. The one significant voluntary gathering of the Christians is their hidden service in the cave, which is structured around an orderly teaching of Jesus’s life. The story told by Peter is intercut with staged reenactments of significant moments, such as the Last Supper, which resemble Renaissance paintings. The figures who act as community leaders are portrayed as knowledgeable men. Paul’s identity is saved through his cover as a philosophy teacher, and Peter, bearded like a traditional wise man, speaks with a measured, thoughtful tone. The Roman populace, conversely, appears most often as a swarm, flocking to places of disorder like the arena and the streets of the triumph. Christianity and its associated values are not only shown as moral, but more rational than those promoted by the Romans.
There is one interesting similarity between Quo Vadis’s diametrically opposed groups—both carry out their ideals on a global scale, though for entirely different purposes. The Christians want to reach others through good works—“to conquer…with love”, as Paul phrases it. The Romans, in turn, are baffled by this concept. “Conquest…is the only method of uniting and civilizing the world…have to spill a little blood to do it,” proclaims Marcus, the epitome of warlike ideal before his transformation. The global scope mirrors the context of the film’s release, in the years of World War II’s end and the Cold War’s beginning. An American viewer might be more inclined to sympathize with the approach of “love”—in political terms, the cooperation promised by alliances or groups like the United Nations—as opposed to another bellicose power. The Romans find themselves aligned with not only the oppressive powers of the previous war, but, by virtue of their avowed anti-Christianity, the new power of the secular Soviet Union. When Marcus accepts Christianity at the film’s end, he muses about “A more permanent world…or a more permanent faith. One is not possible without the other”. It’s a clear call for a mode of governance influenced by a set of values that would have resonated with viewers at the time.
Quo Vadis straddles the line between sword-and-sandal film and Bible epic—though it takes place during an era of Roman history, it inflates the religious concerns of that period and pairs them with Biblical story. It succeeds when it matches the conventions of each genre, tying together spectacular visuals and religious story. But its attempts to strike a balance between the two lead to an erratic last act, as events follow one after the other in an increasingly operatic mood. In the span of approximately thirty minutes, dozens of Christians become martyrs for the faith; Nero murders his wife before committing suicide himself; the emperor is deposed in riots and replaced by Galba—and yet Marcus and Lygia are still able to escape and prosper. The rapid occurrence of each of these moments reduces them to scenes of quick action rather than depth, especially when they involve hammy acting (Peter Ustinov’s wails during Nero’s suicide, for example). Yet perhaps this is in keeping with Quo Vadis’s many dualities—the Christians against the Romans; love against war; the troubled relationship of Nero and Poppea in contrast with the eventual marriage of Marcus and Lygia. Is it a well-intentioned message on religious devotion, a reflection of an era of global conflict, or entirely empty spectacle? Regardless of what conclusion the viewer comes to, its imagining of Rome is big enough to include them all as possibilities.
Castelli, Elizabeth A. “The Ambivalent Legacy of Violence and Victimhood: Using Early Christian Martyrs to Think With.” Spiritus: A Journal of Christian Spirituality, vol 6, no. 1, 2006, pp. 1-24, doi:10.1353/scs.2006.0028
Crowther, Bosley. “’Quo Vadis’, Based on Sienkiewicz Novel and Made in Rome, Opens at Two Theaters.” Review of Quo Vadis. The New York Times, 9 Nov. 1951.
“Imperial Rome: Christian Conflicts.” The Epic Film, by Derek Elley, London: Routledge, 1984, pp. 124-126.
Joshel, Sandra R., et. al. “Oppositions, Anxieties, and Ambiguities in the Toga Movie.” Chap 1 in Imperial Projections: Ancient Rome in Modern Popular Culture, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006, pp. 23-49.
Joshel, Sandra R. et. al. “The Roman Empire in American Cinema after 1945.” Chap 2 in Imperial Projections: Ancient Rome in Modern Popular Culture, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006, pp. 50-76.
Meyer, Stephen C. “Spectacle and Authenticity in Miklos Rozsa’s Quo Vadis Score.” in Epic Sound: Music in Postwar Hollywood Biblical Films, Indiana University Press, 2015.
Pappas, Ben. “Hail, Caesar!” Review of Quo Vadis. Forbes, vol. 163, no. 8, 19 Apr. 1999.
Quo Vadis. Directed by Mervyn Leroy. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1951.
Cameron Cunningham (’20) argues that Anthony Mann’s Fall of the Roman Empire (1964) served as a warning to the United States to resist corruption and discriminatory attitudes, and a reminder that great power should be used for good.
The film I decided to watch was, The Fall of the Roman Empire, directed by Anthony Mann. I enjoyed the more recent film Gladiator (directed by Ridley Scott), and was interested to see if there were some similarities. Indeed, there were many similarities as well as differences but perhaps the most obvious was, Scott’s film is about a betrayed Roman General seeking revenge against the emperor while Mann’s film was more of a portrayal of Commodus’ rule as the downfall of the Roman empire. A voice-over epilogue at the end of the film even states that this political infighting continued for the rest of Roman history, leading to the government’s eventual collapse. I think the underlying messages of the film were implemented beautifully and it was much more than just a generic sword-and-sandal film. It was interesting to see the connection between the fall of this empire and what contributed to it, and the political events occurring at the release of the film. In this paper I will attempt to provide a better understanding of the film through an analysis of the ancient background on which it is based, as well as the themes of the film itself and the techniques and production styles used.
The film begins in 180 A.D. with the Roman emperor, Marcus Aurelius (Alec Guinness), on the Northern frontier trying to keep the Germanic barbarians from invading his territories. It seems that this war has been draining on the old emperor because he wishes to end it by making a peace treaty with the leader of the barbarians, Ballomar (John Ireland), and wants them to be a part of the empire. It is also made clear that Marcus Aurelius has become ill, which he openly admits to his loyal servant Timonides (James Mason), his beautiful daughter Lucilla (Sophia Loren) and his stern and honest general Gaius Livius (Stephen Boyd). Marcus Aurelius’ illness forces him to think about what will happen to the empire after he passes away. He knows he can’t leave it in the hands of his charismatic but brutal son, Commodus (Christopher Plummer), so he turns to Livius, a more honorable man who follows similar stoic principles as that of Aurelius himself. Marcus Aurelius tells Livius secretly that he will be the heir however, Commodus eventually finds out and is in shock that he will not be the next Caesar. Commodus attempts to prove himself in battle with his army of gladiators and his trusting advisor, Verulus (Anthony Quayle), but he ultimately fails. Later, Aurelius summons all the governors of the Roman empire to his headquarters, intending to announce Livius’ future appointment. Before he can do so he is poisoned by Commodus’ followers, who hope to secure their own political future by putting their friend on the throne. Their plot works and Livius stands down knowing that he would never be accepted as emperor without Aurelius’ explicit backing; he lets his old friend take the position instead.
In the next scene of the film, Commodus is shown parading into Rome as the new Caesar. He dedicates himself to undoing all Aurelius’ policies and announces that games will be held in Rome’s honor. This means blatant favoritism towards Rome, which is enriched by taxation of the provinces that were supposed to be equals. Even though some of these provinces are in famine, Commodus threatens war if the taxes aren’t paid. This is when Lucilla realizes Rome is in danger, she decides to bring her father’s Meditations to her friends in the Senate as a last effort to maintain what good is still left within Rome.
Meanwhile, Livius’ army gains an important victory on the frontier, capturing the German leader Ballomar and his men. Livius tries to convince the Germans that they will not live as slaves under Roman rule but they are against it. However, Timonides is able to win their trust by successfully withstanding the torture of having his hand burned in a fire. Livius and Timonides return to Rome with the Germans to put Aurelius’ policy into effect despite disapproval from Commodus. The Senate initially refuses their wishes because they believe they are preserving the integrity of Roman citizenship, however, a speech by Timonides persuades the Senate to let the German captives become implemented in the Roman society, thereby stimulating growth within the empire. Commodus is made furious by this and banishes Livius to the northern frontier. He also sends Lucilla to Armenia and forces her to marry the king. Eventually, Commodus is forced to call upon Livius to extinguish a rebellion occurring in the eastern provinces. When Livius arrives, he is shocked to find that Lucilla is behind the rebellion. She tries to get him to join her in separating from the empire but he refuses. After Livius wins the battle, he changes his mind and decides to join Lucilla in her mission. They plan to march on Rome and stop Commodus from tearing down the empire by convincing the Senate to overthrow him. The corruption has spread too much at this point and the Senate does nothing. Commodus responds by bribing soldiers to abandon Livius and then slaughters Timonides and the rest of the German colony. At this point, Lucilla learns that Verulus is Commodus’ real father. This means that Commodus was not the rightful heir to the throne. Once Commodus hears of this he murders Verulus so the news would remain a secret. He also orders a pyre to be built for a human sacrifice of Livius and Lucilla. Interestingly, instead of having him be put to death, Commodus challenges Livius to a gladiatorial fight. Livius ultimately kills Commodus in the duel and the Senate offers to make Livius emperor, but he refuses. Being the moral man he is, he realizes that the Roman government is now too corrupt for him to fix. He leaves with Lucilla, leaving Commodus’ old advisers to dispute about who will take the emperor’s place.
There were many historical documents and references used to shape this film and present a story the viewer would enjoy. When we look into these texts that the creators chose to draw from, we can better understand what the filmmakers wanted to show and also see the perspectives of those involved during this time. In the Meditations, we learn more aboutMarcus Aurelius’ perspective through the stoic philosophy that guided him throughout his life. The goals of Roman Stoicism were to attain tranquility, fearlessness, and freedom through proper perception, action, and will. He speaks of ways to attain these goals in the Meditations through examples of various paths and mindsets one should take. For example, on the topic of reaching tranquility Aurelius states that the best way to get away from it all is, “By going within. Nowhere you can go is more peaceful—more free of interruptions—than your own soul” (Meditations 4.35). This also goes along with determining what is in our control and how we let it affects us. “The world is nothing but change. Our life is only perception” (Mediations 4.38). He reminds himself that nothing is permanent and not everything is in his control. It is also interesting to read in the Meditations how he is constantly reviewing and challenging himself and then be able to see it play out in the film. The filmmakers did a great job showing his devotion to stoicism, more specifically his willingness to accept death as part of life. An example of this is the scene where Aurelius is questioning his mortality before he is poisoned by Commodus’ followers (00:58:00). The filmmakers also included another event in the film that inferred the coming downfall of Rome and the importance of the Meditations. Although it is not historically proven, at one point in the film Lucilla takes her father’s Meditations to her friends in the Senate (01:23:00). She hopes that the words of her father will be preserved and that Rome will not be completely lost but this implies a turning point in the film with the rise of Commodus.
The Historia Augusta “Life of Commodus” describes Commodus as being deranged and murderous (H.A). After becoming emperor, he abandoned his father’s war on the northern frontier and conceded to the barbarians’ demands in order to go back and have fun in Rome as Caesar (H.A). It also provides a list of murders and depraved acts that Commodus supposedly carried out. He is said to have murdered at least 20 of his friends while trying to replace his former co-commander and intended to kill 14 more (H.A). The Historia Augusta also mentions his love for gladiator combat, “He regularly took part in the spectacles, and as often as he did so, ordered the fact to be inscribed in the public records. It is said that he engaged in gladiator bouts 735 times.” (H.A). The film’s portrayal of Commodus’ life is slightly different than the one provided by this ancient source. While still acknowledging his gladiatorial lifestyle, Commodus did not abandon the frontier and submit to the Germans in the film after becoming Caesar. He is instead shown going against his father’s wishes for peace and annihilates barbarians at the end of the film (02:18:00). Also, he did banish Lucilla after Livius stood against him in the Senate, but he did not put her to death, as was mentioned by the source. Additionally, he only began murdering people towards the end of the film. After the senate proclaimed him a god and renamed Rome after him (02:25:00), he almost immediately began to demand sacrifices which outlined Rome’s descent into savagery. The senate is presented as usually enabling Commodus in the film, and then competing for the throne after Commodus is killed to illustrate the corruption of power in an advanced civilization. The ancient source mentions Commodus being named a god by the Senate however, their views of him according to the sources were mainly negative.
Another source that can be used to interpret the motives in this film and perhaps give us a personal account of what it was really like during Commodus’ reign is Cassius Dio’s writings. Dio did not hold back in his criticisms of Commodus as emperor, Dio claims that his political enemies were put to death, as well as some of his associates whom he suspected to be plotting against him (Dio). Dio also notes the gladiatorial interests of Commodus. He mentions how Commodus loved the spectacles, but did not follow the rules of the sport. He would demand large sums of money for performing and often gave himself advantages against other gladiators. Also, while battling beasts he made sure to keep himself away from any harm (Dio). He was not liked among the common people, he was feared. There was no respect for him especially from his political adversaries who despised him, there were even a few attempted assassinations on his life. In the film, Commodus is not presented like this. It is clear he enjoys gladiators; his father even says Commodus is, “only interested in games and gladiators.” We also see him training with gladiators in Rome once he becomes emperor (01:33:00). Still, the film doesn’t show many instances of him acting the way he did according to Cassius Dio. As mentioned before, he only seems to turns murderous toward the end of the movie when he demands sacrifices and kills Verulus (02:33:00). The filmmakers reasoning for not including some of Dio’s accounts are pretty obvious. The gruesome events performed by Commodus could not have been shown in a film during 1964 because it was not considered appropriate during this time. That being said, the filmmakers were still able to give the audience negative feelings toward Commodus by easing them into it. They didn’t jump right into his murders or gladiatorial events but instead started off by showing him as irrational and without morals. By the end of the film, when he starts proclaiming himself as a god and performing sacrifices, the audience is able to see how he has spiraled out of control. The filmmakers also implement the classic good vs evil approach by having Livius beat Commodus in a gladiatorial match, this was a common tactic used by filmmakers during this time and was a more accepted way to display violence and death on film.
The main creative forces behind the making of The Fall of the Roman Empire were producer Samuel Bronston and director Anthony Mann. Samuel Bronston planned this multi-million-dollar movie to be shot in Spain and spared no cost in the creation of it because of the recent success of the big-budget adventure genre. In keeping with the flair of big-budget productions, Bronston and Mann also agreed to pursue big-budget names for their cast (Weiler). Charlton Heston previously worked with Mann and Bronston on El Cid, and they wished for him to join the cast again with Sophia Loren. Heston ultimately refused the role, and after Kirk Douglas turned it down too, it went to Stephen Boyd (IMDb). Although the filmmakers were expecting a great success, the market was oversaturated with big-budget, sword-and-sandal movies by this point in Hollywood history. In a review for the New York Times, Bosley Crowther loathed its larger-than-life characters, and described one chariot scene as a lackluster imitation of Ben-Hur. With successful movies such as Spartacus and El Cid immediately before it, audiences and critics seemed not to care much for the genre anymore. Had the film come out earlier or perhaps later, maybe it would have been more appealing for audiences. The film also has a few weaknesses, especially in comparison to its contemporaries. The romance between Livius and Lucilla falls short in most of their scenes; I feel the movie would have been just the same without this attempt at a romantic appeal. Battle scenes also were not as expressive or well-executed as in its contemporaries such as Spartacus. That being said, modern critics today recognize the beauty of the work, and many believe that it should be considered a Hollywood classic and held as one of the best in the sword-and-sandal genre. In fact, it currently has a rating of 100% on the review website Rotten Tomatoes.
The main themes that I think the filmmakers were trying to deliver had to do with the political environment of the U.S. during the 1960’s and the topic of sophisticated civilizations vs lesser civilizations. The film could serve as a warning to the United States to resist corruption and discriminatory attitudes, and a reminder that great power should be used for good. The film explicitly criticizes slavery and how the Romans treated those under them. When Livius surrounds the Germans in the second act (01:29:00), they refuse to stand down and continue attacking until Timonides is able to gain their trust through his strength after being tortured. After the Germans join Livius and his comrades, Livius escorts them back to Rome and tries to appeal to the Senate to allow the Germans into the Roman Empire as citizens (01:45:00). However, many of the senators oppose his requests which seems eerily similar to those who were in rejection to the ideas during the civil rights movement. The film then relates back to the theme of resisting discriminatory attitudes by having a member of the senate speak in favor of allowing these people to have the same rights Romans have. He specifically says, “that by denying these people equal rights, it is not preserving the integrity of the empire, but setting it up for failure.” It was also interesting to me to look at how brutality was justified in the film on the basis that superior civilizations (like Rome) were never in the wrong. Because they were being cruel to the so called “Barbarians” it wasn’t looked upon as evil in the eyes of the senate or Rome’s other leaders. However, this contributed to Rome’s downfall for it weakened their societies standards and instead of maintaining status as a more sophisticated civilization, they instead fell to the level of the barbarians. This is another tactic by the filmmakers to bring the issue of corruption and discrimination to light for the viewers.
Overall, I think it was a good film and the issues presented were executed well, not only in a filmmaking sense but also in the sense of making it culturally relevant (especially during the time it was released). However, there were other aspects of the film that took away from the underlying messages. I was not very impressed with the performance of Stephen Boyd as Livius, I think there could have been other actors that would have done a better job. The ideals and stoic philosophy that he is supposed to carry with him are not portrayed very well and it limits the connection that viewers can have with him. Also, the entire romance between Livius and Lucilla could have been done better or been completely taken out. It wasn’t very compelling or believable and did nothing to contribute to the underlying messages of the film. If this aspect of the movie was altered I think the audience during this time would have appreciated the film much more.
Crowther, Bosley. “Screen: Romans Versus Barbarians: Spectacles and Melees in ‘Fall of Empire’” New York Times27 Mar. 1964: n. pag. New York Times. The New York Times Company. Web. 4 May 2016.
Dio, Cassius. “Epitome of Book LXXIII.” Roman History. Vol. 9. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1927. N. pag. Roman History by Cassius Dio. University of Chicago. Web. 08 May 2018.
The Fall of the Roman Empire. Anthony Mann, director. Samuel Bronston, producer. Starring Stephen Boyd and Sophia Loren. Paramount Pictures, 1964. DVD.
Re-posted from the main Dickinson College website here, April 11, 2018
Dickinson College’s Department of Classical Studies recently explored everything from the Hercules cycle to Caesar and the Battle of Alesia during the national conference of the Eta Sigma Phi classics honor society. Hosted on campus—and attended by nearly 100 undergraduates and 15 faculty members from across the country—the three-day annual conference featured competitions, presentations and an exploration of the Trout Gallery‘s classical collections.
In her opening remarks, President Margee Ensign posited that the vast growth in classical scholarship over the past half century is a sign of the strength of the liberal arts as well as the foundation upon which Dickinson was built.
“Enlightenment intellectuals [like Benjamin Rush] who led our revolution and the creation of our new nation knew that the writers of Greece and Rome had thought and written so deeply and carefully about the polis(city-state) and about civitas (citizenship), had examined and explored those issues of morality, of psychology and of community, of civic responsibility and governance, which continue to engage and perplex us to this day,” she said. “It is no accident that the study of classical languages and literatures have been continuously taught at Dickinson over its entire history.”
The conference, organized by Assistant Professor of Classical Studies Scott Farrington, opened with a quiz-bowl style contest through which teams from various colleges put their knowledge of classical studies to the test in Allison Hall’s Great Room. Next, research took center stage, with student presentations:
John James, Hillsdale College: “Emotional Evocation and the Psychology of Sign: Gorgias’ Response to Questions of Communication in Helen”
Sophia Decker, University of Kentucky: “Dorians Are Allowed to Speak Doric: Theocritus’ Idyll XV in the Context of Panhellenization”
Aaron Romanowski, Beta Psi at Rhodes College: “The Use of the Cult of the Saints in the Milan Basilica Crisis of 385 CE”
Katie Hillery, Hillsdale College: “Developing an Eschatological Narrative: An Interpretation of Via Latina’s ‘Hercules Cycle’ Through the Eyes of the Late Antique Roman Viewer.”
Rounding out the activities were a Latin declamation contest, a vase-painting workshop led by Assistant Professor of Art and Art HistoryRachel Eng, lectures on Caesar and the Battle of Alesia as well as mythology’s connections to astronomy and a presentation of some of the “classical treasures” in the Trout Gallery’s collections—including a chunk of the Parthenon and a denarius of Septimius Severus.
To Marc Mastrangelo, professor of classical studies, the event does more than illustrate that the classics are thriving and growing; it places Dickinson at the heart of the movement. “Dickinson’s ability to attract such a conference,” he said, “reflects the fact that we have one of the leading undergraduate departments in the country.”
The following is a slightly edited version of Dickinson President Margee Ensign’s opening remarks at the Eta Sigma Phi National Convention, delivered in Allison Hall, Dickinson College, March 24, 2018.
Dickinson College was established in 1783, the first college founded at the close of the American Revolution. That was a revolution led by learned men, including our founder, Dr. Benjamin Rush, men who brought a classical education to their understanding of politics, of history, of philosophy, to the issues of their day. And Dickinson, like all colleges of its time, was careful to ensure that a study of classical civilization was at the core of its new liberal arts curriculum.
This was done because the enlightenment intellectuals who led our revolution and the creation of our new nation knew that the writers of Greece and Rome had thought and written so deeply and carefully about the polis and about the res publica, had examined and explored those issues of morality, of psychology and of community, of civic responsibility and governance which continue to engage and perplex us to this day. It is no accident that the study of classical languages and literatures have been continuously taught at Dickinson over its entire history.
Dr. Rush, a physician and university professor himself, was a signer of the Declaration of Independence. He was steeped in ancient history and the classics, and indeed even went so far as to suggest that Spartan broth be included in the diet of all Dickinson students. I am glad this suggestion was never acted upon!
Our college’s very first faculty member, James Ross, was a classicist. He published a Latin grammar text in 1794 which remained a standard text for more than half a century. Further, at the time of our founding, our namesake John Dickinson and his wife, Mary, launched our college library by contributing nearly 2,000 books to the college. Among them were editions of Aristotle, Cicero, Euclid and many other classical works. These books from the dawn of our Western European civilization are still found in our library’s special collections today. This spirit of critical inquiry and remarkable insight into the human condition continue to be at the core of our mission as a liberal-arts institution, a mission which is to educate thoughtful, questioning and responsible citizens of our still new and evolving republic.
At the time of the formation of our chapter of Eta Sigma Phi in April 1964 there were 68 chapters nationwide. Today there are 219. Like you, I find this growth in classical scholarship heartening, as an affirmation of the very values of classical Western European Civilization, values of free inquiry, of debate, of democracy and representative government, of a vigorous humanism. We take pride in our own role in preserving that classical heritage, including our annual summer program of spoken Latin immersion.
I also draw your attention to our digital resources for Latin and Greek, including Dickinson College Commentaries, which serves thousands of users throughout the world. And now we have a website of resources for Latin and Greek scholars in Chinese, called Dickinson Classics Online.
As President of Dickinson College, I am very proud of the work of our classics faculty and students, grateful for all of their hard work in helping to bring you here, and so very pleased that you are all here on our beautiful campus to celebrate Eta Sigma Phi’s 90th convention.
May your time here be fruitful, and may it advance your education. As Plutarch reminds us (On the Education of Children7): “The very spring and root of honesty and virtue lie in good education.”
The Spartan ideals of duty and physical stamina are appealing, argues Claire Jeantheau (’21), but the society which the Spartans defended is one marked by the elimination of independent thought and the physically vulnerable.
Before the final, climactic battle of Zack Snyder’s 300 (2006), the Spartan king Leonidas (Gerard Butler) sees Sparta-born Ephialtes (Andrew Tiernan), who had been cast out of Sparta because of his physical deformities, and who betrayed to the Persians the pass over the mountains that sealed the doom of Leonidas and his men. As Leonidas, about to die, faces Ephialtes one more time, he offers parting words: “May you live forever” (1:38:27-1:38:30). This scene is wholly fabricated from Herodotus’s original telling of the battle of Thermopylae. There, Ephialtes is simply “a man from Malis” who shows Persian king Xerxes a way to reach the Spartans through the mountains, and never once converses with Leonidas (7.213-17). But for me, the alteration of his role to directly contrast with Leonidas creates an effective illustration of the values the Spartan system cherished.
While Ephialtes enters the tent of Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) and finds temporary wealth and physical pleasure (1:15:51), Leonidas’s last appearance finds him mortally wounded, but with a lasting legacy (1:46:19). When the two cross paths on the battlefield, the scene evolves from a clash between men to their opposing ideals they represent: duty on one side, the excess of life “forever” on the other. The Spartans’ emphasis on physical sacrifice, and its admirable result, is evident from Snyder’s depiction. Additional historical background from authors like Plutarch, however, brings to light another kind of sacrifice prevalent in Sparta, one where individuals could be eliminated as easily as the enemy for perceived divergence from physical perfection. Do acts of glory like Thermopylae justify this culling of difference?
The film, as well as Herodotus’s account, would say yes. Both place emphasis on the Spartans’ strict brand of battle valor. Herodotus takes care to list exact numbers of fighters and contributions from other Greek city-states at Thermopylae (7.202-3), but seems to distinguish the three hundred Spartans from the rest of these “Dorian Greeks.” He quotes the inscription placed after the battle that singles out the Spartans: “Go tell the Spartans, thou that passeth by, That here obedient to their words, we lie” (7.228). (300’s Spartan narrator Dilios, played by David Wenham, utters a similar phrase at the film’s end [1:46:42–01:46:45]). Herodotus also tells anecdotes about individual Spartans that drive home this point. One soldier, Pantites, finds himself at such “dishonor” at surviving that he “[hangs] himself” (7.232). Snyder takes a different approach, choosing to magnify Leonidas’s actions above those of the other Spartans and Greeks—perhaps to appeal to the individualist tastes of an American audience. Other Greeks are included in the script, but only representing Arcadia (0:28:12-0:28:16) and these are dismissed from the action with a simple “Hundreds leave” (1:28:40-1:28:43). Leonidas, on the other hand, receives an extended focus of attention. His final fight is backed with the dramatic weight of a score of battle drums (1:40:33); an aerial shot moves slowly over the resulting carnage (1:46:19 – 1:46:55). The closing shot of the last stand features him in sacrificial posture with arms outstretched, the lighting creating a halo-like aura behind his silhouette (1:43:18). The stream of Persian arrows that transition the frame into darkness lend a sense of finality, as though Leonidas has singularly ensured glory (1:43:22). Though different contributions are prioritized in each telling of the battle, each one on their own shows, to me, a powerful display of tenacity on behalf of the Spartans.
What is notable to me about the battle’s end in 300, beyond the sacrifice itself, is the depth added to it by Snyder’s depiction of the Spartan upbringing. The film begins with Leonidas, as Plutarch writes, taken from his family and “enrolled” with other Spartans “in various ‘herds,’ so that they became used to playing together and learning together under the same rules and regime” (16). This place of intense training, the agoge, “…forces the boy to fight. Starves them. Forces them to steal. And, if necessary, to kill” (0:02:52-0:03:02) in Dillios’s brief, lurid description. While the culmination of this training in 300—in which Leonidas fends off a wolf in a mountainous wilderness (00:03:55)—doesn’t seem to be historically consistent, it acts as important foreshadowing for when he faces a situation of equal intensity at Thermopylae. There is even a flashback to the moment in which he faces down the wolf as he stands before the full Persian army, reinforcing the outcome of the grueling physical regimen (1:36:25). Snyder differs from Plutarch’s account, however, in excluding from his depiction out a component of Spartan education I appreciate—their efforts to strengthen the intellect in tandem with physicality. Perhaps statements that the Spartans “were … interested in studying poetry and song” (21), or about their belief that “Good playing of the lyre counterbalances iron weaponry” (21), would be out of step with the aggressive tone Snyder adopts. I think, though, that they round out the real Spartans and show that their pursuit of combat was not a mindless one.
Another, more disquieting, aspect of Spartan education that Snyder doesn’t dwell on is the drastic influence the state had in controlling the individual’s path through life. The enforced removal of a child from his family and the prescribed brutal training runs counter, in my view, to declarations of “A new age…an age of freedom” (1:25:03-1:25:10) in 300. This has its advantages militarily—as Leonidas explains to Ephialtes in 300, “We fight as a single, impenetrable unit. That is the source of our strength” (0:43:03–0:43:08). But the regimented process doesn’t allow for any critical reflection on Spartan society, or individual pursuits deemed out-of-step. The Spartans’ charge at Thermopylae may show an admirable outcome of this kind of education, but I am equally interested in its other side, and the sort of individuals it excludes. Leonidas’s foil of Ephialtes in 300 provides an example which, while mostly fictional, is rooted in Spartan ideas.
By altering Ephialtes’s historical character so that his assistance of the Persians was a betrayal rather than only collaboration, Snyder depicts him as departing from the Spartan values Leonidas embodies. In emphasizing what the Spartans so greatly hate, what they truly value becomes more evident. In Ephialtes, it’s his hunchbacked appearance, a deformity not present on the historical man (7.213–17). The limitations of his body prevent him from holding a shield (00:43:25), causing Leonidas to turn him away from the force and motivating his betrayal. The scene builds on the standards established by other real Spartan rituals. Plutarch details how “a session of the eldest men of [a father’s] tribe” determined whether an infant was “sturdy and strong”; if not, they were to be abandoned on “ a rugged spot near Mount Taygetus” (16). This is dramatized in the opening scene of 300, with a chilling cut from the first shot of a blackened mountain of skulls to the vulnerable infant Leonidas (0:0:59-0:01:05).
Conversely, when 300’s plot finds Xerxes luring Ephialtes to the Persian side, the king emphasizes that he would find company; he persuades him that “The Spartans, too, were cruel to reject you. But I am kind” (1:16:38–1:16:48). Indeed, in Xerxes’s tent Ephialtes passes through others alike him in their physical deformities, including women with no arms (1:16:04) and facial burns (1:16:14). These figures contrast with the sparse costuming on the bare-chested, muscular Spartans fighting a few moments before (1:15:33). Elsewhere in the battle, Snyder veers into horror convention with the design of monstrous Persians, whether a giant-like soldier (1:04:57) or a man with claws resembling a crab’s (1:11:43). Physical oddity is associated with the enemy Persians, while the heroic Spartans are physically ideal, sending a clear visual message: physical weakness, even if unpreventable, is equivalent to moral decay. The monstrosities of the Persians may be historical distortion, but the same attitudes about physical weakness, as Plutarch shows, were foundational in Spartan society. This historical context lends a new tension to the earlier dramatization of Leonidas’s upbringing, making the consequences of any failure more obvious. In my view, the Spartans’ system operates on a cruel contradiction, one where death is preferable to dishonor and yet the abandonment of an infant deemed physically weak is still considered just.
I suppose, then, that my greatest issue with the Spartans’ values lies not in the values themselves, but in what they are used to fight for. The ideals of duty and physical stamina are appealing, especially when they allow for the kind of defense mounted at the battle of Thermopylae. But the society which the Spartans defend is one marked by the elimination of independent thought and the physically vulnerable. What is even more troubling is the Spartan view that these two concepts are inseparable—that such a level of courage can only be developed in a system to brutal to others. Leonidas and Ephialtes’s last confrontation in 300 represents this on a visual level as they stare from their respective sides, with no safe ground to cross between them. Maybe to occupy that middle space would represent a different kind of sacrifice—one that might lessen unifying strength, but would increase individual value.